Language as an Aesthetic Object

September 13, 2019

Language is primarily conceived of as a vehicle of thought and a tool for human communication. Secondarily, however, language is also an aesthetic object, admired for its use in poetry and in accompaniment of song. Poetic devices like alliteration and rhyme are to be found as well in ordinary speech as an enhancement of communicative role. These are all instances of language use involving aesthetics as well as the referential function.

One further aesthetic aspect of language use is authenticity. This was illustrated to Y-H-B yesterday on a flight between NY/JFK and LAX, when I heard the pilot making an announcement to the passengers aboard. He spoke in a perfect Boston accent, of the sort I used to hear all around me when I lived in Cambridge, Mass. As a graduate student and research fellow. The aesthetic appeal of hearing an authentic Boston accent, with all its deviations from Standard American English, was what captured my attention, not the content of the announcement. I silently congratulated the pilot for adhering to the variety of speech that he had grown up with.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Trans-Language Distortions in Pronunciation

August 13, 2019

When items from foreign languages are pronounced by native speakers in normal speech, there is almost always an adaptation such that the foreign word is rendered using native phonetics. For instance, the other day Y-H-B was speaking to the redoubtable P. Honan and recalling the players of the Boston Red Sox who were known to me from my childhood in Japan. This conjured up the Japanese pronunciation of the name of my matchless hero Ted Williams (“The Splendid Splinter”), whose forename in that language is [detto], with the initial voiceless [t] distorted as its voiced counterpart [d], the final voiced consonant doubled by its voiceless counterpart, a vowel [o] in final position (to conform to the open-syllable structure of Japanese), and the surname rendered with a medial [r] instead of the authentic [l].

Although Japanese is a language whose speakers rarely if ever make an effort to pronounce foreign words authentically, all languages make such distortions to one or another extent, including English. These adapted renderings become standard, and no one is expected to pronounce such items “authentically,” although some speakers with a knowledge of the foreign original choose to do so in some instances. Thus no speaker of English is going to say the name of the capital of France Paris a là française, with stress on the second syllable and a silent final consonant, except as a joke, etc. This is simply a cultural and historical fact that English speakers replicate when using their native language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Stylistic Integrity and Grammatical Variation (“It is I” vs. “It’s me.”)

July 21, 2019

Much ink has been spilled over the difference between sentences like “It is I” versus “It’s me.” What this matter comes down to, of course, is the coherence between stylistics and grammar, in case there is a choice. That is why in contemporary English, whenever a speaker chooses to utter the answer to the question, “Who is it?,” will use the objective form of the pronoun with a contracted copula (i. e., “It’s me”) and the subjective (nominative) form of the pronoun with the full (uncontracted) form of the copula (i. e., “It is I”, as stilted as this may sound in contemporary speech).

The underlying reason for this particular outcome has to do with the stylistic value of contraction. As between contracted and uncontracted forms, contraction always involves the colloquial (informal) stratum of the linguistic means at one’s disposal, while the uncontracted form is coherent with the formal stratum. Hence the variation of the form of the copula in the construction at issue.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Addendum re mantra

July 13, 2019

My redoubtable fitness trainer, Daniel J. Mulroy, Jr., whom I see regularly for workouts at the Prospect Rehabilitation Center in Manchester Center, VT., informed me yesterday that he had done a bit of field work in connection with my preceding blog post, to wit: Dan queried each of the seven participants in a stretching class he teaches as to how they pronounced the word mantra. Without exception they all responded by saying that their pronunciation accorded with the currently ubiquitous [mántrə]. Sic transit gloria mundi!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Mispronunciation of the Buzzword mantra

July 9, 2019

The word mantra is an early borrowing from Sanskrit via Hinduism into English, the donor language’s meaning being (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) ”A sacred text or passage, esp. one from the Vedas used as a prayer or incantation; a word or phrase from a sacred text repeated in this way. Also: a holy name, for inward meditation.” Its present-day occurrence, especially in the media, comes with the meaning (as defined in the OED): “A constantly or monotonously repeated phrase or sentence; a characteristic formula or refrain; a byword, slogan, or catchphrase.”
The traditional pronunciation renders the initial vowel as that of the garden-variety English word man, i.e. the flat vowel [a]. The ubiquitously erroneous pronunciation, heard constantly in the media, however, takes the word mantra as esoteric, hence marked (cf. my article in American Speech 72 (1997), 437-439), and identifies it with that of song, i.e. the broad vowel. This mispronunciation is clearly and directly the outcome of ignorance of the word’s traditional normative rendition in English, again due to imperfect learning.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Mindless Speech

June 4, 2019

Increasingly since the advent of the internet and of social media, one hears phrases like “big tech giants”––a “giant” is by definition “big”––spewing forth from native speakers of contemporary American English, witness the mindless divagations including this pleonasm of a miscellaneous voice on today’s broadcast on NPR of the program “Here and Now.” Redundancies of this sort are too numerous to catalogue. Suffice it to say [NB: “suffice it to say” and not the ubiquitous mistake “suffice to say”], mindlessness is now the quotidian currency of the blather that has come to infect social media. No amount of so-called education in what currently passes for American colleges and universities can stanch the flow of this galimatias.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Addendum re Mispronunciation

May 28, 2019

One subscriber has unsubscribed from this blog in high dudgeon, as the following comment gives witness:”Unsubscribing! You can’t expect that everyone understands Russian phonetics just because you do. I did not subscribe for old-guy-knowitall-syndrome posts!”

As I said in my response to this individual, he evidently misunderstood the thrust of my post, to wit: someone who purports to be a classical music announcer/host on the radio should at least make an effort to discover how names and compositions of foreign composers are pronounced in American English. This applies in spades to those hosts who are monolingual. Accepted pronunciations of names and compositions––whether from Russian or any other foreign language––are readily available in any number of reference books and pronouncing dictionaries. That is the least one can expect as a listener to the radio, whether or not one knows the authentic pronunciation in the source language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Mispronunciation and the Limits of Linguistic Tolerance

May 27, 2019

As regular readers of this blog know, one of Y-H-B’s salient bêtes noires is the mispronunciation of the names of classical music composers and of the titles of their compositions. This morning, on VPR Classical, the entirely incompetent announcer (nomen ist odiosus) mispronounced not only Mikhail Glinka’s forename but the second item in the piece’s title, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. He pronounced Mikhail as [mikáyl], to rhyme with derail––a not unheard of distortion in American English of the Russian Mixail—but (more direly) Ljudmila as [ludmíja], as if it were a Mexican version of Spanish double ll! No latitude of aesthethic tolerance will allow for such a colossal error. An ignoramus of this monumental diapason has no business being a classical music announcer/host.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Synonymy, Semantic Distinctions, and the Uniqueness of Russian

May 19, 2019

As many linguists have noted, there is no such thing as perfect synonymy. Any words deemed synonymous will always be distinguished by some subtlety of meaning, including stylistic differences.

An interesting case––though considered beyond the pale in polite speech––is the unique distinction in Russian between the two verbs meaning, on one hand, farting noiselessly (бздеть [bzdet’]) and making a sound during this action (пердеть [perdét’]). Y-H-B cannot think off any other language in which this distinction is extant.

Perhaps this is not so surprising, if one knows that Russian has among the world’s languages perhaps the richest profane vocabulary, for which there are two designations, both featuring the word/base for ‘mother’, viz. мат [mat] and матерщина [matershschína]. In fact, this sector is so rich in Russian that utterances utilizing profanity have come to be differentiated by so-called “stories/floors (R этáж),” so that, for instance, speech studded with numerous and elaborate swear words is called семиэтажная брань ‘seven-story swearing’.

There is an anecdote (related to me by my oldest brother Joseph [1926-2004], who lived for many years in post-war Russia [mostly the USSR] and was employed in different species of work, incl. a railroad-car factory in Nizhny Tagil) that Stalin once tried to ban all profanity from the workplace, but this edict had the unintended consequence of slowing down production and had ultimately to be rescinded. The reason was that workers who were used to calling out objects in the production line by their profane names––the word for penis, R хуй, being the most frequent––had to stop to search for a non-profane term before proceeding. Incidentally, this one item of the Russian profane vocabulary even has the distinction of having an entire dictionary devoted to its array of uses.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Repetition Compulsion and Anosognosia in Language Use

May 16, 2019

The term “repetition compulsion” is associated with Freud and his theory of psychopathic behavior and is defined in Wikipedia as “a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again.” When applied to language use, the term includes verbal tics (phenomena detailed several times before herein). For example, Jacobus Primus invariably begins every conversation over Skype with Y-H-B by saying “What’s cooking?” Such quasi-meaningless repetition is, of course, typical of the beginning of a conversation, when one of the interlocutors simply wishes to essay a variation on openings such as “How are you?”

In large part, the compulsion to repeat oneself linguistically can be classed with anosognosia, defined as a “deficit of self-awareness, a condition in which a person with a disability seems unaware of its existence.” This is a stylistic deficit, resulting not only from a lack of self-awareness but a quasi-pathological reliance on habit where a whole panoply of variants exist in the language and could easily be implemented. To a certain extent, this deficit is concomitant with the advent of the digital revolution and the sway of social media. Clichés of all kinds are definitely in the ascendant in contemporary American English speech, much to the detriment of intelligent conversation.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO