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Of Grexit, Brexit, and Other Portmanteau Words

The current vogue––especially in American media language––for blends or portmanteau words has reached what can only be called ham-mouthed (to coin a word). In today’s spam messages to my blog I even found the grotesque item consultdustry (although this one came from Thailand). To try to counteract the impression left by such ugly neologisms, I want to reprise an earlier post below (which I’ve never done before):

Moldiferate, v., intr. (Portmanteau Words)

March 9th, 2012 | Author: Michael Shapiro

A ‘portmanteau word’ (alias ‘blend’) is a word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings, e. g., smog from smoke + fog. Apparently, the word portmanteau was first used in this meaning by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’.‥ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” The etymology (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) is from Middle French: French portemanteau ‘officer who carries the mantle of a person in a high position’ (1507 in Middle French), ‘case or bag for carrying clothing’ (1547), ‘clothes rack’ (1640) < porte- porte- comb. form + manteau manteau n. In the British English of Carroll’s time, a portmanteau was a suitcase. In modern French, a porte-manteau is a clothes valet, a coat-tree or similar article of furniture for hanging up jackets, hats, umbrellas, and the like.

As I sat contemplating my navel this morning, I suddenly remembered a portmanteau word created (with her nonpareil linguistic sprezzatura) by my late wife Marianne Shapiro to describe just my situation, namely moldiferate (mo[u]lder + proliferate), which is an intransitive verb meaning ‘to waste one’s time doing nothing while decomposing spiritually’. Another one of her creations in that vein is pestiferate (pestiferous + –ate), which she coined to mean ‘to cause to be pestiferous’. Neither word is in the OED, but they should be.



Paralinguistic Differences between the Sexes (“Vive la différence!”)

All languages exhibit differences between the speech of males and females, extending in differing degree across grammar, including phonetics and stylistics. In Japanese, for instance, women’s speech is markedly different from that of men, to the point that women resort to a special subset of grammatical categories when speaking (for example, the consistent use of the passive mood instead of the active that is characteristic of honorific language for both sexes).

When speaking, both men and women do other things with their bodies beside utter words: they gesticulate with their hands, raise their eyebrows, open their eye sockets beyond normal size, take sharp intakes of breath, hunch their shoulders, nod their heads up and down or side to side, etc. Among speakers of contemporary American English, the paralinguistic gap between males and females has been widening for some time: women’s speech today is accompanied by much more paralinguistic behavior than is that of men. All one need do to be convinced of this is to spend some time observing women talking––particularly to each other and without the participation of male interlocutors––preferably without their being aware of being observed.

What these various paralinguistic features mean is a difficult question to answer, although there have been numerous attempts to catalogue and analyze them in the sociolinguistic and semiotic literature (incl. whole monographs devoted to these phenomena). From the point of view of semiosis, the paralinguistic signs are iconic indexes, but it is not at all clear if there is a pattern informing the gestures that accompany speech. Some speakers clearly evince paralinguistic idiosyncrasies, i. e., movements that are peculiar either to them alone or to them as members of certain groups (like families). But overall, when it comes to American females of all ages, these movements are much more frequent, specialized, and overt in their behavior than they are in the paralinguistics of males. This is the sort of behavior that tends to confirm the cliché about women being generally more “expressive”––or even “emotional”––than men. Vive la différence!


Semantic Linearization and Linguistic Hypertrophy

As has been instanced more than once among the posts on this blog, American English in particular has a decided faiblesse for hypertrophies of all kinds, including pleonasms and their ilk. One fresh example, observed today in a café where Y-H-B stopped to have a hot chocolate and a canelle, will serve to remind the fastidious reader of this trend.

On a box containing some packets of coconut oil in said cafe there was a some words of advertising, viz. “Need an Extra Boost?,” in which the meaning of boost was doubled by the word extra. Now, probably the author of this ad had the meaning of ‘an uplift or encouragement’ in mind, but the notion conveyed by the word extra is already contained in the meaning of boost, since the latter connotes something produced in addition to, or over and above, some basic action. The extrusion or linearization of the notion associated with extra already encompassed by the semantic syntagm of boost thus qualifies as a pleonasm when overtly preposed before boost, instantiating yet again how American English allows itself to countenance the failures of thought associated with linguistic hypertrophy.


Ticastic so

In an earlier post (“Discourse-Introductory so in Geek,” January 16, 2011), the increasing presence of the particle so at the beginning of discourses was analyzed and its presence ascribed to the jargon of geeks and to Yiddish. Since then, however, it has become evident––at least in contemporary American English––that so is not limited to the beginning of discourses but actually has spread to a much more frequent status as the initiator of utterances regardless of their position in discourse. Moreover, when so occurs at the beginning of discourses it serves as a linking particle not only to preceding utterances but even to linguistically yet unexpressed material that has formed in the speaker’s mind as content that is relevant to the conversational context.

Beyond this linking function, for some speakers so has evidently become a verbal tic, to the point where such speakers cannot initiate almost any utterance––particularly at the beginning of a discourse, but not only––without prefixing so. This ticastic so is especially prevalent among young female speakers but is becoming increasingly characteristic of their male counterparts as well––and not just of geeks. Without rising (yet?) to the frequency of ticastic like, this trait has even become a habitual feature of the speech of some pre-teenagers and is growing apace.


Habit, Consciousness, and the Rule of Grammar

Charles Sanders Peirce’s seminal paper, “The Law of Mind” (1892), from which much of his philosophy can be derived, has a passage that is particularly pertinent to the concept of a rule of grammar, viz.: “To say that mental phenomena are governed by law does not mean merely that they are describable by a general formula; but that there is a living idea, a conscious continuum of feeling, which pervades them, and to which they are docile.” When it comes to language, of course, one can fairly advert to an attenuation of the “continuum of feeling” because when we speak we are typically not conscious of the habits that constitute grammatical rules even as we follow the laws that govern the mental phenomena underlying speech.

Although contemporary standard languages all have written codes that one can turn to when in doubt, no speaker in ordinary discourse needs to consult the canon of rules that exist in written sources in order to be able to use a language, which is to say that the rules are already immanent in one’s consciousness––just as they are in speech. The set of habits that transpire through speech has its counterpart in consciousness. That is what assures regularity, hence ease of linguistic communication, between speakers.

Variation between individual sets of speech habits can generally not exceed the bounds of the rules of a particular grammar. In a homogeneous speech community, all members who have mastered the language adhere to the rules as a matter of course. Where violations of the contemporary standard occur, they are generally due to imperfect learning rather than to dialectal deviation.

Apropos, in contemporary media language one often hears such spontaneous violations, even when their utterers are otherwise speakers of the standard. The extent to which errors matter to interlocutors or hearers depends on a variable sensitivity to what Peirce expressed (above) when he cited “a conscious continuum of feeling” as the “living idea” that pervades the law of mind.


Word Length and Emphasis (incredibly)

In the last decade or more speakers of American English have almost dropped using the word very as a modifier for emphasis or intensification and have resorted to the near-ubiquitous use of incredible/incredibly, in the face of the literal meaning of this adjective/adverb (‘that which cannot be believed’). The only explanation that suggests itself for this strange phenomenon is that of greater length of the word at stake by comparison with very. Quantitative increase is one way of iconically signifying semantic force, just as elongating the stressed syllable of any word (as of very itself) necessarily adds emphasis to it over and above the normal length of the vowel.


[ADDENDUM: As a couple of readers have pointed out, the use of incredibly can also be classed as HYPERBOLE. This fits one of the overarching themes of contemporary American usage, namely HYPERTROPHY, which has been instanced many times in earlier posts.]

Non-Pathological Agrammatism

Agrammatism––treated as a medical disorder––is defined as ‘a type of aphasia, usually caused by cerebral disease, characterized by an inability to construct a grammatical or intelligible sentence while retaining the ability to speak single words’. But there should be a different––wider––understanding of agrammatism as the regular incidence of ungrammatical forms in the speech of native speakers arising from imperfect learning.

Such incorrect forms may, of course, enter the canon willy-nilly by being sufficiently well-attested to warrant recognition as alternatives to the standard. Here, for instance, is the case of the past passive form of the verb enamor, used as an adjective (as cited in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online), where the complement of is the traditional form and with the (formerly) erroneous one:

1:  to inflame with love :  charm, captivate — usually used in the passive with  of <tourists were enamored of the town> and sometimes with with <a beautiful Indian girl with whom he was enamored — Walter Havighurst>

2:  to cause (someone) to feel a strong or excessive interest or fascination — usually used in the passive with of or with < … kids who grew up enamored of both Black Sabbath and Black Flag … — Gillian Garr, Rolling Stone, 19 May 1994> <In 1999 Wall Street was enamored with anything dot-com … — Donna Seaman, Booklist, July 2003>

This particular example is relatively benign. But the wholly erroneous use of the Italian borrowing graffiti as a singular instead of graffito(an error compounded by the use of graffitis as a plural [sic!]), heard emanating this morning from the mouth of a published author on the American Public Media radio program “Marketplace Morning Report” (and noticed publicly in an ameliorative tag by the show’s literate host), can only be adjudged agrammatistically wholly beyond the linguistic pale.


Speaking like a Native (When the Spirit Moves One)

It takes unusual circumstances for someone not to be a native speaker of a language. Normally, one has a mother tongue, the language of one or both of one’s parents. Unusual circumstances of another sort can produce the situation of a person speaking more than one language like a native. That is the situation in which Y-H-B has found himself in all his life due to circumstances of birth and life history.

I was reminded of this conjuncture when eating lunch in a Japanese restaurant today in Beverly Hills. My habit is not to speak Japanese to waiters and waitresses in such restaurants so as not to shock them. Members of the Nipponese nation are still not entirely habituated to hearing native Japanese emanating from Caucasians, and in my case the temptation to épater le bourgeois is routinely resisted.

Speaking like a native also involves cultural paralinguistic patterns that one falls into effortlessly and almost obligatorily. It’s as if one took off one mask and put on another when speaking a language. The Japanese cultural situation is full of behavioral peculiarities that are incumbent on one who speaks the language natively, including nods of the head, intakes of breath, ejaculations, etc. that are wholly absent from the speech situation attending American English. Withal, these features are ineluctable for someone who is a native speaker, and a trilingual one (like your Y-H-B) cannot escape them any more than a monolingual one.

Switching to Russian, as Y-H-B had to for long stretches during a recent week-long stint at Eastern Washington University while conversing with one’s host––a man born and bred in Russia––entailed quite other sequelae. One’s mentality shifted from the habitual Anglo-American context to the poetically-inflected world of Pushkin and the Golden Age, including Krylov’s fables, which bodied forth a quite different personality.

Language is the instrument of thought, to be sure. It is also the determinant of one’s personality in many respects. A trilingual speaker must maneuver effortlessly between the worlds that a native knowledge of three languages adumbrates, and it is not always a task that a normal psyche can accommodate.


Prestige and Language Change

Languages change for extrinsic (heteronomous) reasons as well as intrinsic (autonomous) ones. A typical extrinsic cause of linguistic change is prestige. While all speakers generally are impelled to speak like their fellows, the spur to imitate the speech of others is particularly potent when prestige is involved.

This situation is true of institutionally regulated speech as well. Thus, in the recent past, speakers of British English (as heard, for instance on the BBC World Service) have largely converted to using the word sports in the plural rather than the traditional British English singular sport. This change can only be reckoned as resulting from the influence of American English (where sports is de rigueur), whose prestige has grown to such an extent that even speakers from the mother country must now bow to its status as the world language and change their idiolect accordingly. Autres temps, autres mœurs.


The Pathos of Everyday Life 6 (Language as a Badge of Authenticity)

This morning I had to telephone the call center of a bank in order to transact some business. The voice that eventually got on the line sounded like a middle-aged woman who announced that she was speaking from South Dakota, so I said to her: “You sound like a native South Dakotan.” Her happiness was clearly audible: “Born and bred,” she answered, with a lilt in her voice, and repeated the phrase to punctuate her pride. “I’ve lived in South Dakota all my life! I’ve lived in the eastern part, and I’ve lived in the western part.” For my part, I said nothing about my being a linguist and being able to discern a South Dakota accent. (Listening to “Prairie Home Companion” for many years helped, of course, since Minnesotan and South Dakotan American English are similar.)

In an era when regional dialects are fading under the onslaught of media language, it is clear that natives of rural areas still cling tenaciously to their traditional linguistic forms of expression, and for them the fact that a stranger on the other end of the telephone line has acknowledged the authenticity of their speech is of considerable personal and social import.


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