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Archive for June, 2009

Rhymes with Pomeranian

Since Iran is so much in the news these days, it is no wonder that one constantly hears, not only this proper noun, but its derived adjective (mis)pronounced by people in the media and those whose speech is influenced by such opinion makers, etc.

As in the case of Iraq, the pronunciation of Iran with a broad stressed vowel (as in the name Ron) is decidedly not in conformity with traditional English phonetics––British or American. It stems ultimately from the foreigner’s misplaced reproduction in English of the Persian vowel, which is then mimicked by native speakers who (unconsciously?) choose what they must imagine to be “authentic” over what would otherwise be dictated by native phonetics.

More to the point, the derived adjective Iranian, whose stressed vowel has always been [éi] (i. e., a diphthong) and not the monophthongal replica of the Farsi speaker’s un-English stressed vowel, is repeatedly heard from English speakers who have no knowledge of any foreign language, let alone Persian. This kind of phonetic solecism appears to be licensed by the very same desire for “authenticity” that manifests itself when speakers wish their interlocutors to evaluate them as being “in the know.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

At the End of the Day

In an interview aired on the BBC World Service (June 24, 2009), the English wife of the pastor of a church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was heard to utter the fatuously silly phrase “at the end of the day” no fewer than four times in the span of under forty seconds. She could easily have substituted synonymous phrases like “in the end,” “in the final analysis,” or “ultimately” and avoided needless repetition.

Aside from its presumed formulaic usefulness, there must be some reason why speakers cling so tenaciously to “at the end of the day” despite its rebarbativeness. (It has even been lampooned in cartoons.) If one resorts to the tried-and-true explanation that sound often trumps sense in such formulas of English, then there are two features that call for attention. First, there is the anapestic prosody of the bipartite structure: “at the énd” plus “of the dáy.” Second, there is the quasi-paronomastic recurrence of the lax obstruent [d] in the words (end, day) that bear the main stress. For all that, one can only wish that it would go away like all doggerel.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Syntactic Idioms and Imperfect Learning

Idioms have an interesting status. Every language is replete with them, and they are among the first items that the learner confronts, be it native speakers acquiring their own language or foreigners learning a new one. Proverbs constitute the longest idioms, and in some languages (like Russian), despite industrialization (most proverbs sprang historically from an agricultural setting), they are as prevalent as ever in speech and writing.

A subspecies of idioms is the syntactic kind. Typically, this sort of idiom involves the choice of a verb and its complement, i. e., the noun the verb governs. A measure of imperfect learning is the failure to learn what verb goes with what noun, and in this age of the internet and video games, such instances of misuse turn up constantly in the media and in ordinary speech.

Here is a fresh example from writers whose education would seem to protect them from such elementary mistakes. On The New York Times Op-Ed page for Tuesday, June 23, 2009, two doctoral candidates in economics at Harvard have the following first sentence in the second paragraph of their contribution, “A Fairer Credit Card? Priceless” (National Edition, p. A23): “But the example of cards issued by credit unions puts the lie to these claims.”

Now, it is part of the idiomatic syntax of English that one “gives the lie” not “puts the lie” to something. Neither the writers nor the editors evidently have a command of English syntax that extends to idiomatic structure.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Superfluous Syndeton

Some speakers, when pronouncing the numerals in the designation of years of the current first decade of the 21st century, place the conjunction and between the words thousand and nine (for instance). No such conjunction appears when speaking the dates of the 20th century (or earlier). One can hear this trait consistently on the radio in the speech of Garrison Keillor (The Writer’s Almanac), among his other verbal idiosyncrasies (which include––despite his excellent diction and dulcet voice––mispronunciations of common words and entirely contraindicated declamatory habits that do violence to the syntax of the “poems”). British speakers with this trait can also be heard on the BBC World Service.

Why? Is it some sort of superannuated folkway? Could it be the influence of the word thousand (two thousand and nine) instead of twenty (twenty-o-nine)? In any event, there is no need whatsoever for this superfluous syndeton.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Failures of Thought

When speakers make grammatical errors, linguists typically label them “slips” or “speech errors” and qualify them as episodic phenomena. However, repeated deviations from the linguistic norm, for example the dropping of postpositions, as in “Thanks for having me” instead of “Thanks for having me on”––the near-ubiquitous response of radio call-in guests––or “caving” instead of “caving in” and “bailing” instead of “bailing out” should not so insouciantly be ignored as merely aleatory.

Grammar is not just a set of rules characterizing linguistic behavior. It is the reflection of patterns of thought that have been codified as the received form of expression of grammatical relations. The coherence of these patterns is, naturally, not etched in stone, but innovations in grammar that are patently incoherent––such as the dropping of postpositions, or the mindlessly redundant generation of pleonasms––should be recognized for what they are, namely failures of thought, and rooted out as inimical to one’s mental health, as an instance of linguistic pathology.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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