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Archive for December, 2009

Infantilization of Lexis

Up until a certain age American children, like children in other countries, articulate the vocables of their native language in a childish way because their linguistic abilities are commensurate with their physical development in other respects. Whereas until about forty years ago these childish speech patterns were outgrown from pre-adolescence on, it is now typical of the speech of young American women in particular to retain what used to be purely puerile traits into adulthood. This recessive infantilization of language broadly affects the vocal timbre as well as the intonation of female adult speakers, to the point where a young American woman who doesn’t sound like a superannuated child is exceptional. (Those who are familiar with female speech patterns in Japanese will immediately recognize the cross-cultural similarity to the contemporary American situation.) Whether speaking like a child into adulthood is to be reckoned an apotropaic linguistic adaptation, of a piece with other behavioral strategies calculated to forestall conflict, is an open question.

Infantilization can also affect lexis as well as phonetics. The current preference for the Lallwörter (nursery words)  “mom,” “dad,” and “kid” instead of their grownup counterparts “mother,” “father,” and “child” is clearly an example of this phenomenon. With increasing frequency, public speech (both oral and written) refers to “single mom” and “stay-at-home mom” regardless of the stylistic register of the context in which these phrases are embedded. In fact, the media routinely eschew designating parents by their stylistically neutral names. Particularly jarring is the neologism “grandkid,” connoting as it does (regardless of the age of the child) yet another instance of an American cultural tropism toward a state of permanent infantilism––here, tellingly, of both the grandchild AND the grandparent.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Linguistic Solipsism

While every language is rife with variation, some variants can only be adjudged to be the wayward product of a kind of tone deafness or linguistic solipsism, conditioned more often than not by an unconscious adherence to the orthographic representation of a word. To cite an example from my own linguistic milieu, I have a friend who consistently mispronounced the first name of another friend even though he heard me pronounce it correctly on numerous occasions. This was a case where the spelling -ai- of the Finnish name Raimo gave rise to the vowel in English rain instead of the vowel of line. Eventually, the insistence of the letter yielded to the aural dominance of the sound, and the name is now pronounced correctly.

But this sort of linguistic solipsism can also persist uncorrected regardless of numerous audible examples to the contrary and in the absence of spelling influence. A prominent case is the speech of President Barack Obama, who consistently pronounces Taliban with a flat first vowel, a palatalized liquid, and a broad final vowel, in what seems like an attempt to imitate a fancied foreign model taken to be “authentic.” Perversely, Afghanistan in his speech is rendered with uniformly flat A‘s, but Pakistan with uniformly broad A‘s.  (The latter pronunciation is doubtless an imitation of Pakistani English.) He also vacillates between pronouncing Copenhagen correctly and incorrectly, i. e., with a broad A instead of the traditional –ay– diphthong of rain––yet another instance of faux authenticity (not unknown in the speech of miscellaneous other Americans as well).

At bottom, this kind of idiosyncratic variation is a sign of linguistic insecurity. And no wonder: confronted with having publicly to render the Babel of foreign names and their variant phonetic forms in English, anyone––but especially a monolingual speaker––can easily come a cropper.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Girlized Intonation

While the near-ubiquity of interrogative intonation instead of traditional declarative intonation in subordinate clauses in the speech of young females has often been remarked, it now needs to be observed that this feature has begun spreading to the speech of young males, and not just adolescents. (It is also occasionally appropriated by not-so-young females in a pathetic effort to sound girlishly modern, as in the off-putting patois of the NPR interviewer Terry Gross.)

Although it is clear that the substitution of interrogative for declarative intonation can have the function of communicating the indecisiveness or unsureness of the speaker in making an assertion (“do  you follow me?,” “do you know what I’m saying?” also being implied), there is also a more general meaning attaching to this kind of change in intonation pattern. The deployment of the interrogative where no explicit question is being asked is tantamount to conceding in advance the rightness or force of an assertion, analogous in its purport to the typically feminine apotropaic smile that is so common in American culture. In this respect, younger males are only belatedly mimicking the self-protective tactics known to women from the beginning of time, and of increasing utility to both sexes in a milieu where predisposing or maintaining anodyne interpersonal relations is of superordinate value.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Truncated Postpositions

Contemporary American English, particularly its colloquial variant, has a tendency to delete postpositions from verbs that have traditionally required them, e.g. cave for cave in, or bail for bail out. An example of this phenomenon that is constantly heard on the radio in the responses of interviewees is thanks for having me instead of the normative thanks for having me on, doubtless influenced by the confusion attendant upon the varied meanings (with and without postpositions) of the verb to have.

It is tempting to identify all such instances of truncated postpositions with a SEMANTIC ATTENUATION of the compound verb (in comparison with the untruncated standard variant), by which is meant a meaning that falls short of the full force of the untruncated verb form by remaining noncommittal as to the completion of the action. According to this analysis, for instance, thanks for having me is aspectually incomplete or noncommittal in comparison to thanks for having me on because the omission of the postposition comports a vagueness as to what specific semantic connotation of the verb have is at stake when it is conjoined with a postposition. This analysis is akin to the one I offered of the dropping of the reflexive after the verb commit as an attenuation of the complete degree of binding or pledging designated by commit myself/oneself/themselves, etc.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Last Straw

The growing power of linguistic hypertrophy in present-day American English (in particular) can be measured inter alia by the incorrect rendering of fixed phrases, wherein the traditional form is replaced by a longer one. This is happening to the normative version of the expression the last straw, which is increasingly heard as the final straw (for instance, in a report by my namesake Ari Shapiro on today’s installment of the NPR program “All Things Considered”).

Recently I was waiting to pick up some laundry early in the morning at a cleaning establishment in Westwood, Calif. when an elderly gentleman came in and said to me “the early bird gathers the worm.” I couldn’t restrain myself and corrected him: “You mean ‘gets’ the worm.” He said nothing and looked at me with incredulity.

Note the greater length of gathers vis-à-vis gets.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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