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Discontinuous Lexica

It is a truism of linguistics that the grammars of native speakers are discontinuous, by which is meant the principle of language competence which encompasses the idea that no two speakers have exactly the same grammar of the language they share as native speakers. To a very large extent, precisely what is discontinuous is their vocabularies, their command of the lexical stock of the language. They may also have a differential knowledge of syntax, but since syntax is the technique (rules) by which words are combined into phrases, sentences, and discourses, the focus is properly on the lexicon, hence the discontinuities between speakers’ grammars come down to the knowledge of words.

This whole topic constitutes a missing chapter from standard accounts of linguistic competence. Here is some material that might go into filling the lacuna.

Within one adult speaker’s grammar or knowledge of their native language, a profile of competence can be characterized variously by reference to such parameters as active vs. passive knowledge, knowledge of specialized (technical) vocabulary, acquaintance with foreign languages, etymological knowledge (i.e., knowledge of word origins, including historically earlier stages of the native language), dialectal material, and literary texts in the round, including but not limited to poetry and folkloric data (nursery rhymes, riddles, etc.). This may be taken as an exhaustive inventory of the diverse sources that constitute the lexical stock of a given individual’s idiolect.

To perhaps a greater extent than other idiolectal features, a speaker’s vocabulary is never completely fixed or static. Even beyond childhood and adolescence, when the greatest accretions to one’s lexical knowledge occur, there is always the possibility of adding to one’s vocabulary. This comes about naturally through contact with different linguistic milieux, geographical as well as social, and with written texts whose complete comprehension may demand looking in dictionaries and thereby acquiring new vocabulary items––a process that goes on ceaselessly as long as one remains open to new texts, fresh milieux, and heretofore unassimilated knowledge.

No matter how similar phonetically or grammatically the speech is of members of a relatively homogeneous speech community, there are always differences in style and discourse between individuals. These may be a function of education and family history as well as of idiosyncrasy (personality). One particularly interesting differentia specifica is the use of foreign words and phrases in one’s native speech (including writing). In contemporary English, the traditionally most likely items of this sort  are from Latin and French, followed in no particular order of frequency by Greek, German, and Italian. This  intrusion of foreign locutions may be conditioned by the speaker’s profession. Thus college professors of French quite often pepper their native English with French words, even where perfectly good English equivalents would do. Perhaps this is a kind of linguistic badge that is flashed to parade not only their special knowledge but their solidarity with their profession and the country whose language and literature they profess. In some cases, of course, the foreign locution may in fact supply a particular stylistic flavor that the native equivalent may lack.

A good illustration of the employment of foreign words and phrases, including literary citations, inserted in an otherwise perfectly English oral discourse can be found in that masterpiece of narrative, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four. Here are three such cases that issue from the mouth of Sherlock Holmes, in the latter two of which Holmes’s is actually a slightly inaccurate version:

[Latin] “Quite so. They are in a state of extreme contraction, far exceeding the usual rigor mortis. Coupled with this distortion of the face, this Hippocratic smile, or ‘risus sardonicus,’ as the old writers called it, what conclusion would it suggest to your mind?”

[French] “He can find something,” remarked Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “He has occasional glimmerings of reason. Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!”

[correct version: Il n’y a point de sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit.  — François de la Rochefoucauld, Maximes, no. 451. English translation: ‘There are no fools so troublesome as those who have some wit’.]

[German] “And I,” said Holmes, “shall see what I can learn from Mrs. Bernstone, and from the Indian servant, who, Mr. Thaddeus tells me, sleeps in the next garret. Then I shall study the great Jones’s methods and listen to his not too delicate sarcasms. ‘Wir sind gewohnt das die Menschen verhöhnen was sie nicht verstehen.’ Goethe is always pithy.”

[correct version: Wir sind gewohnt, daß die Menschen verhöhnen / Was sie nicht verstehn, (which continues) Daß sie vor dem Guten und Schönen, / Das ihnen oft beschwerlich ist, murren; / Will es der Hund, wie sie, beknurren? — Goethe, Faust, Part 1, ll. 1205-09. Munich: Beck, 2007, p. 43. Bayard Taylor’s English translation (New York: Collier Books, 1963, p. 113): ‘Of course we know that men despise / what they don’t comprehend; / the Good and Beautiful they vilipend, / finding it oft a burdensome measure. / Is the dog, like men, snarling displeasure?’]

(“Sherlock Holmes Gives a Demonstration,” The Sign of Four, ch. 6, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, I: The Novels, ed. Leslie S. Klinger. New York: Norton, 2006, pp. 278, 280, 282.)

The question of “flavor” is conjugate with another essentially emotive value of language, viz. what may be called the “semantic aureole” of a word (to borrow a phrase coined by Russian metricists for the study of verse forms). Each individual’s life experience includes certain language items that have a particular, singular, emotional resonance that is of idiosyncratic derivation. Here is an anecdote to illustrate this phenomenon.

While boarding an airplane for a recent flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, painted on the fuselage I noticed the words “Continental Airlines. The airline that flies to more international destinations than any other U. S. airline.” That made me think of the drink called the continental, which I had ordered at a restaurant in Vermont just days before, which segued into Fred Astaire and the song he sings called “The Continental” in the movie “Flying Down to Rio,” which I saw on television long ago. For some reason, this then triggered a chain of memories associated with the international word continental that occurs in all European languages, including Russian, particularly as a designation of certain buildings, like hotels.

More precisely, a true story came bobbing up from the backwater of my memory, which had been recounted to me many years before by my father about his cousin, a certain “Diadia Misha” (Russian for ‘Uncle Misha’), who ended up in Paris after the Russian Revolution, became an arms dealer there between the World Wars, and lived to be a centenarian. Uncle Misha was living in Kiev when the Revolution broke out and was arrested as a bourgeois––therefore, considered an enemy of the people––by the Communists when they seized control of the city, and was brought before a people’s tribunal to be tried. The penalty of death by firing squad in such cases was not out of the question, and it hovered over our poor Uncle Misha. However, after questioning him, the president of the tribunal suddenly announced that he was free to go. Uncle Misha’s relief and incredulity knew no bounds, of course. Then the president came over to him and, extending his hand, said (in Russian), “Ia iz Kontinentalia” (‘I’m from the Continental’). At first Uncle Misha was completely flummoxed. But then he recognized the president as a waiter from the restaurant at the Hotel Continental in Kiev, where he had eaten many times, and whom he had been in the habit of tipping generously. These munificent gratuities now turned out to be Uncle Misha’s salvation.

Such are the peripeteia that define the course of one’s life. One can understand why the word continental should have a special associative aura in my lexicon––and that of no other person outside my family.


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