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Archive for October, 2008

Pleonastically Extruded Adjectives

Adjectival phrases like small handful and young kid keep being uttered and written in contemporary American English, evidently without their producers being aware of the fact that they are pleonastic, i.e. the adjective is redundant: the meaning of the adjective is already contained in the semantic makeup of the noun it modifies. Handful, meaning ‘the amount that can fit in one’s hand’, is ‘small’ by definition. Likewise, kid, whether the referent is the young of a goat (its original sense) or of a human being, is just that: ‘young’.
Why “extruded?” Because the meaning of the adjective is already included in that of the noun it modifies but is linearized as a word that is an excrescence.
These constructions are further evidence––if one needed any––of the fact that American speech is teeming with pleonasms (redundancies, tautologies) of all sorts (fresh example: “Through the debate, he [Obama] was reassuring and self-composed.” David Brooks, “Thinking About Obama,” The New York Times, October 17, 2008, A27). Some have become so firmly ensconced in the language––like safe haven, prior experience, and advance planning––that we use them without giving them a second thought. But they are pleonastic nonetheless.
This sort of grammatical and lexical hypertrophy (a word used here advisedly, with allusion to its medical sense) is to be rooted out not just because of its stylistic demerits but because it is a manifestation of something ultimately much more important: it is a FAILURE OF THOUGHT. (More about this in future posts.)


P. S., January 2010: This particular failure of thought is proliferating exponentially; cf. an example heard from an otherwise good writer, Sidney Blumenthal: “external trappings” (interviewed by Guy Raz, “All Things Considered,” NPR, Jan. 24, 2010, KPCC-FM).

It’s Chinese to Me

Many languages have a phrase corresponding to It’s Greek to me to signify that something is incomprehensible or makes no sense to the utterer/writer. The English version may have started in the Middle Ages as a translation of the Latin phrase, Graecum est, non legitur ‘It’s Greek, [hence] not readable’, at a time when knowledge of Greek among scribes was on the wane.
When it comes to other languages (Arabic, French, Hebrew, Russian, among others) however, it is Chinese that is most commonly  referred to, and what is meant specifically is the writing system rather than the spoken language. This is confirmed by the Japanese version, sanbun kanbun ‘gibberish’,” where the literal meaning of the two components is ‘prose’ (sanbun) + ‘Chinese script’ (kanbun). Russian kitajskaja gramota (китайская грамота) ‘Chinese charter/alphabet’ also makes explicit reference to the script.
All the Slavic languages have in fact incorporated what can be interpreted as the ultimate degree of unintelligibility of speech by likening the speakers of one foreign language in particular––German––to those who cannot speak at all, namely mutes: R nemeckij [jazyk] (немецкий язык) ‘German [language]’, etc., takes its formal and semantic designation from the Common Slavic adjectival base nem– ‘mute’.
In English, when we want to single out speech or writing as crabbed, miscegenated, or full of incomprehensible words––and, therefore, evaluated as a degraded form of language–– we typically resort to words like jargon, lingo, pidgin, patois, and argot; or to compounds utilizing the suffix –ese, as in bureaucratese, legalese, etc.––doubtless derived from an extension of the suffix in Chinese.
Speaking of jargon (which is probably of French––at any rate, of Romance––provenience), it is interesting to note that in pre-revolutionary Russian (the language of my parents), the word жаргóн also was in common use to mean Yiddish, specifically by Jews themselves. Speakers of Yiddish evidently felt no pejorative taint in resorting to a label in Russian that reflects their rich mother tongue’s hybrid (German, Hebrew, Slavic) grammatico-lexical makeup.


The “Pin/Pen Merger”: An Example of Neutralization

One of the most recognizable traits of American speech in the South and Southwest is the so-called “pin/pen merger,” a shorthand phrase meant to designate the non-distinction of the front vowels /i/ and /e/ before the nasal consonants /m, n, ŋ/. The vowel that appears in this position is identified with the realization of the high front vowel in pin, whim, and sing. Speakers who have this trait do not distinguish between the pronunciation not only of minimal pairs like pin and pen or fin and fen but of any word that has a front vowel before a nasal consonant (whatever the spelling), so that one hears m[ɪ]mber for Standard American English m[ɛ]mber, m[ɪ]ntality for SAE m[ɛ]ntality, etc.
People who have this trait need not be speaking in an identifiable dialect. In fact, it may be the only remnant of a regionalism in what is otherwise SAE speech. For instance, just this morning I heard three announcers/reporters on NPR (Renée Montagne, Deborah Byrd, Richard Harris) who display this trait but are otherwise speakers of the standard.
Thus, despite the constant migration of people from place to place over their lifetimes, the impact of education and the media typically results in an American standard that is largely free of dialectal or regional traits––with the prominent exception of this one, which is properly to be labeled a NEUTRALIZATION. A neutralization is the reduction (G Aufhebung) of an opposition to one of its two terms. Technically, one speaks here of the realization of an opposition in a position of neutralization (= context). Typically, an opposition that is neutralized in a certain context is realized as (identified with) one of its two terms––to the exclusion of the other, but also of any third term: tertium non datur (there is no third term).
Despite the familiarity of the “pin/pen merger” to linguists as a fact of dialect geography, its status and attendant meaning specifically as a neutralization have not become part of language lore. Neutralizations throughout grammar (i.e. not only in phonology) have an interesting sign function. In positions of neutralization it is normal for the realization of the opposition to be identified with the unmarked (generic) term. Thus, for instance, when the sex of the referent is immaterial one finds words of the unmarked masculine gender referring to both sexes (“Man is an animal.”). In the case of the two front vowels in question, /ɪ/ as a high vowel is unmarked vis-à-vis the marked non-high /ɛ/ in the opposition high/non-high. Hence this phonological case conforms in sign function to the general principle that it is the unmarked member of the opposition that appears as the representative of the opposition in a position of neutralization.
In language, the sign function of neutralization is unitary––whatever the concrete realization depending on context, to which it is uniformly sensitive. Neutralization is a fundamental means by which both users (initially, qua learners) and analysts––unconsciously in the first case, consciously in the second––are provided with the material evidence that linguistic variation is not haphazard but structurally coherent, where coherence is measured by the systematic, patterned cooccurrence of units and contexts in tandem.


Of Proofs in Puddings and Roosters in Cabbage Soup

English––as everybody knows––has a faiblesse for alliterative phrasing, but this otherwise appealing poetic ornament can also turn itself into a false friend by inducing a loss of sense. Such is the case of the degradation of the proverb, The proof of the pudding is in the eating, which is at least as old as the seventeenth century in England, perhaps older.

As was demonstrated yet again on the NPR program, “Morning Edition” (KPCC, Pasadena, 10/2/08), in a response to the co-host’s question about the impending Vice Presidential debate, the correspondent Mara Liasson (otherwise a model of good diction and of uncatachrestic speech) reduced this proverb to The proof is in the pudding, as is now commonly done (cf. my Letter to the Editor, “Sour Pudding,” Barron’s,  August 17, 1998, p. 46). The reason for this degraded version, which apparently has been around since the 1950s if not earlier, is nowhere mentioned by the several bloggers who have treated of it but is clear nonetheless: we are dealing here with the proverbial sacrifice of meaning to sound as a terminus ad quem of linguistic change.

Notice: “proof in the pudding” is utterly meaningless, even if one understands proof to have the older meaning “test,” as in The exception proves the rule. It IS perfectly understandable, of course, in the authentic version, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

This sort of counter-sensical development can be seen in other languages as well. The Russian locution popast’ kak kur vó shchi (попасть как кур во щи) ‘land in the (cabbage) soup, get into a mess’ is known to every Russian speaker in just that form but is actually a historically degenerate version of the phrase popast’ kak kur v óshchip, meaning ‘end up being plucked like a rooster’, where kur ‘cock, rooster’ is the archaic or dialectal word for Modern Russian petux, and óshchip is the suffixless deverbal noun ‘plucking [clean]’ < oshchipat’ ‘pluck [clean]’.

Notice: the meaninglessness of the contemporary form, where the final consonant [p] of óshchip has been apocopated, occasioning a metanalysis (boundary shift) and a concomitant reinterpretation (v óshchip > vó shchi) , and the preposition in vó shchi appears irregularly with the stressed full vowel [ó], is exactly parallel to the English example. Just as proofs are not to be found as ingredients of puddings, no recipe––Russian or otherwise––calls for a rooster to end up in cabbage soup, although such a bird can sensibly end up getting plucked.


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