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Archive for October, 2009

Triumph of the Ungrammatical

The rise of mass communications and the concomitant spread of literacy to previously marginalized users of a national language present a problem to language historians who have heretofore had the luxury of dismissing variation attributable to imperfect learning and outright grammatical error. That is to say, what would have been ignored as a nondatum in the past must now be taken into account, especially if it becomes a constant presence in the written language. A prominent contemporary example in American English is the reinterpretation of the plurale tantum troops––strictly a collective or mass noun in traditional usage––as a count noun permitting the back-formation of a singular, troop.

Before the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the troops referred to a mass of soldiers, and the singular troop was blocked in this meaning. But with the prominent participation of the Marines along with the Army in these wars, the media followed the participants in discriminating between soldiers and marines, necessitating the use of a word that made no reference to whether the combatants belonged to a specific branch of the armed services. Herein lies the origin of the back-formed singular troop, with its status as a countable noun allowing locutions with numerals like “The insurgents killed 5 troops,” which remain ungrammatical for those speakers who adhere to the traditional norm.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Absolutely the All-Purpose Emphatic

In contemporary spoken Englishes all over the world––i. e., not just the British and American variety of English, but the Canadian, Australian, Pakistani, South African, etc.––the word absolutely, typically prefixed, occurs as an emphatic or intensifier of the word it precedes, so that “He’ll absolutely do it” is uttered when the speaker wishes to communicate a high level of assertory force. This absolutely is also often heard as a retort instead of the simple affirmative “Yes,” even when the most mundane request (e.g., “Please pull up Claudia’s voucher” directed at the staff of a gym where a client is requesting that his trainer Claudia’s voucher be presented for his signature so that she can be paid) should have elicited only something as denatured as “Yes, certainly,” “Yes, of course,” etc. In fact, for younger adult speakers one can even go so far as to say that “Yes” has practically been replaced by “Absolutely” as the automatic affirmative response when nothing more emphatic is meant than simple acquiescence.

The kind of aggrandizement of the force of an utterance conveyed by absolutely used to connote intensification can be seen as a proxy for intonational emphasis, although the word clearly does not exclude being uttered with emphatic intonation when the situation calls for extra assertory force.

But the evaluation of the process described extends beyond the matter of the emasculation of this particular word, beyond its contemporary slippage into the inventory of simple affirmatives lacking emphatic force. It is to be seen as yet another instance of a type of linguistic pathology––namely grammatical hypertrophy––which is a failure of thought. This type of failure is normally coextensive with the pleonasms, redundancies, and tautologies of all sorts that are rapidly pervading the language without being recognized as such by their users––in other words, varieties of overdetermination by repetition. However, absolutely uttered without emphatic intonation as a lexical item of maximal assertory force utilized to signify mere agreement should also be understood as an overdetermination. Here this category is exemplified by a word voided of its lexical meaning and relegated to a mere token of discourse accompanying a recurring speech act.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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