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Archive for March, 2010

Adjectival Stress on the Wrong Sylláble

Word stress in English can fall on any syllable but is typically circumscribed when the word is derived, as in the case of adjectives derived from substantives (nouns). As in all derived entities throughout grammar and culture, derived adjectives are subordinate in rank (hierarchical value) relative to the substantives from which they are derived. Moreover, where adjectives are formed by the addition of a suffix to the nominal base, their subordinate status can be expressed by a different place of stress in comparison with the deriving noun. Adjectival suffixes that displace the stress in this way are called “auto-” and “pre-stressed,” the first type pulling the stress onto itself (Japán > Japanése, grótto> grotésque), the second onto the penult or antepenult (ádjective > adjectíval, geriátric > geriatrícian, évidence > evidéntiary, Eúrope > Européan, Terpsíchore > Terpsichoréan, Hércules > Hercúléan [stress doublet = both stresses are extant]). Some suffixes occasion such stress shifts obligatorily; others do so facultatively, depending on the nature of the vowel (conventionally termed “strong” vs. “weak”), for instance súicide > suicídal, mícroscope > microscópic, but máyor > máyoral, eléctor > eléctoral, dóctor > dóctoral, pástor > pástoral, Chíle > Chílean, Ghána > Ghánaian.

The last set of examples is significant in that one often hears these words mispronounced in contemporary American (and, to a certain extent, British) speech, specifically with stress on the penult, thus non-standard mayóral, etc.; and Ghanáian, Chiléian (the spelling is irrelevant). For all three of these particular items, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary cite both pronunciations as equivalent while listing the traditional one first. It is clear historically that the newer stress is the one on the penult, which raises (NOT “begs” !) the question, why the shift?

The answer has nothing to do with the phonetic characteristics and everything to do with the semiotic characteristics of these words. In order to make sense of the shift, one must recognize the fact that prosody in languages like English––the (suprasegmental) placement of stress––has a SIGN FUNCTION, and that this function is coordinated with the function of suffixation. Specifically, where derivational morphology is concerned, as the derivative comes into more widespread use it tends to assert its independence formally and semantically from the deriving base. This process gathers strength if and when the derivative all but loses a synchronic connection with the deriving base, as is the case of pastor > pastoral, where the meaning of the latter refers to a literary genre and not an agricultural or ecclesiastical context (although the latter contexts may ultimately come under the sway of the more frequent reference, thereby shifting the stress to the penult for all meanings). Cf. áncestor > ancéstral, sépulchre > sepúlchral. Semiotically, what obtains in the interplay between prosody (stress) and segmental structure (derivation via suffixation) is a teleological tendency to align the prosodic markedness value of the deriving base with that of the derived form. Any derived form whose constituent structure is transparent, i. e. where the semantic link between base and derivative has been preserved, is evaluated semiotically as marked by definition. Thus in the case of the adjectives at issue, their derived status and hence their marked value tends to occasion the emergence of a form of the deriving base (here: a noun) that is likewise marked vis-à-vis the unmarked value of the noun. A shift of stress away from the syllable stressed in the noun onto another of its syllables closer to the end in the derived adjective produces a prosodic form of the deriving base that is marked vis-à-vis its unmarked underived counterpart. The markedness value of the adjective is, in other words, mirrored by the markedness value of its base, thereby promoting the structural coherence of the form.

Note that this analysis is confirmed by the fate of the adjective banal, where the traditional penultimate stress has been all but superseded by stress on the ultima in contemporary English, a reflection of the fact that the word has lost all semantic links to its etymologically recoverable deriving base, ban. The word illustrates what happens when the deriving base is monosyllabic: in the absence of an alternate syllable to which stress could shift in the derived adjective, it falls on the lone other available syllable, viz. that of the suffix.

A more straightforwardly simple way of expressing the process, of course, might be to say that derivation always tends to promote a contrast between deriving base and derivative. But this is a specious simplicity: contrast––not just between word classes––is so often violated as to be practically useless in explaining language change, whereas the coherence of markedness values is a telos that obtains universally in change. The contemporary shift of máyoral to mayóral and Chílean to Chiléian, etc., is thus to be understood not merely as a violation of the traditional norm but as a realization of an IMMANENT STRUCTURAL COHERENCE in the derivational morphology of English.


Horror Silentii

In the substantial literature on speech disfluencies in normal spoken language ([pause] fillers, false starts, repairs, etc.), there is no mention as their cause of what can be called horror silentii ‘the horror of silence’––on the model of the well-known phrase from art and design, horror vacui ‘fear of empty spaces’. The exceedingly common incidence of STAMMERING (as distinct from pathological stuttering) in contemporary American English, particularly in public discourse, is of a piece with the insertion of fillers such as you know and like and is to be explained not only by speakers’ varying skill in thinking through the grammar of an intended utterance in advance of its articulation but by a near-compulsive need to maintain the intactness of the PHATIC FUNCTION, alias the channel of communication.

This horror of empty discourse spaces is responsible for stammering and other non-pathological disfluencies and is, moreover, a peculiar feature of American English in its present-day form, markedly distinct from ordinary educated speech in (for instance) French, German, Russian, or Japanese––all of which, to be sure, have their own fillers. Keeping the channel open by filling it with otiose vocables is, at bottom, a (largely unconscious) way of asserting one’s ego at the expense of the interlocutor’s right to interrupt. This is a characteristically American phenomenon that is part of the general tendency in American culture to prize individualism over communitarianism, akin to slamming instead of simply closing the door upon stopping of a car one was riding in or driving––a totally gratuitous percussive punctuation of one’s presence.


Just Plain Folks

The word folks in American usage has an established stylistic value, namely that of informality or endearment vis-à-vis its neutral synonym people. Speakers in certain regions may prefer to use folks rather than people to such an extent that the former word becomes neutral in their variety of American English and the latter formal. But for most speakers of standard American English folks remains an informal counterpart to people. Whatever the regional backdrop of an individual’s idiolect, however, it is a miscarriage of the stylistic force of folks to use it with reference to malefactors, terrorists, and generally to evildoers of all stripes. Such usage, when it occurs––and is not ironic––can only be evaluated as perverse. But this perversion is also perforce a sign of the mind set of a speaker who utters the word with such a referent. To denote evildoers as folks is to extend a term of endearment to those who, far from being endearing, are incontrovertibly repellent morally.

But that is precisely what President Barack Obama does, as recorded in the following interview:

“KATIE COURIC: Have you ruled out trying confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in New York City?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have not ruled it out, but I think it’s important for us to take into account the practical, logistical issues involved. I mean, if you’ve got a city that is saying no, and a police department that’s saying no, and a mayor that’s saying no, that makes it difficult. But I think that the most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush Administration handled them all through 9/11.

They prosecuted the 190 folks in these Article III courts. Got convictions. And those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes. And it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of. Now, what I’ve also said is that, you know, it’s important for us to recognize that when we’re dealing with Al Qaeda operatives, that they may have national security intelligence that we need.

And it’s important to make sure that the processes and procedures we approach with respect to these folks are not identical to the ones that we would use if we’re apprehending the local drug dealer. And that’s why we’ve put in place some very particular ways of dealing with these issues that ensure our security, but also still uphold our due process.

KATIE COURIC: Are you talking about reading them the Miranda rights? Their Miranda rights? In other words, like Abdul Matallab, who was read his Miranda rights? A lot of people are very upset about that. Because he was giving information to the F.B.I. Then his rights were read to him, and he clammed up.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that’s actually not what happened. What happened was he clammed up, and after we had obtained actionable intelligence from him, that’s when the F.B.I. folks on the ground then read him his Miranda rights. But keep in mind, Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights five minutes after he was arrested, under the previous Administration. Some of the same critics of our approach have been employing this policy for years.”

KATIE COURIC: Chris from Falls Church, Virginia writes, “Mr. President, I lost my house two years ago and I’ve been out of work for a year. Can the Federal Government really stimulate the economy enough to start creating new jobs any time soon?” Without getting into too much policy speak, what would you say to Chris?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’d say to Chris — I know how tough it’s been. I’d say that we are seeing the corner turn on the economy growing again. Last year, at this time, the economy had contracted, had shrunk by six percent. We know now that last quarter it had grown by six percent. That’s a good sign that companies are starting to pick up hiring again, because they see the opportunities to go out there and make money.

It’s not happening as fast as we’d like. And that’s why there’s still some things we can do in terms of tax credits for small businesses. Taking some of that TARP money that’s been repaid and giving it to community banks, so that they can lend it to small businesses. Giving job credits to small businesses for hiring. Potentially, a million small businesses out there could get $5,000 for each employee they hire this year. All those things, I think, are moving us in the right direction. And my hope is, is that [note the reduplicative copula!] for folks who are unemployed, they’re gonna start seeing concrete improvement in their own lives in the next few months.” (Lynn Sweet, “Katie Couric Super Bowl Obama Interview,” Chicago Sun Times, February 7, 2010)

Given the instances highlighted above (in boldface italics), one can only adjudge President Obama’s use of the word, when referring to terrorists  and drug dealers, to be at complete variance with its ordinary stylistic value. Like all linguistic aberrations, his idiosyncratic usage must be seen as mirroring an aberrant forma mentis. This is the only interpretation one can come to in the presence of the blithe equalization of malefactors with morally neutral referents (F.B.I agents and the unemployed).


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