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Archive for June, 2010

Continuity, Markedness, and the Jakobsonian Mode

The idea of continuity, or unbrokenness, which is the leading idea of the differential calculus and of all the useful branches of mathematics, plays a very great––if covert––part in all scientific thought, not least in linguistic theorizing. Mathematics, despite its fundamental allegiance to purity and the ideal, is also an observational, experimental science of diagrammatic thought. When language is viewed as a patterned system of cognized relations, the method of investigating the pattern comes close in spirit to mathematical reasoning. This is particularly true when the relations are understood to be points on a continuum, similar to the “cuts” a topological analysis would identify in the mathematics of spatial relations. Linguistic oppositions are analogous to such “cuts” because they are simultaneously discrete and mutually contingent points along the form/content continuum that informs all language structure. Such points, when cumulated, are equivalent to the inventory of linguistic categories in any natural language. While oppositions are based on the idea of mutual exclusivity, in language (as distinct from logic) they are to be understood fundamentally as reintegrated in language use and language history by their inherence in a continuum where gradience or contrast subsists alongside polarity.

Markedness is a formal universal, a property of all oppositions in language, which superimposes a value system on the network of oppositions in language. Markedness theory investigates the interaction between the form and the substance of linguistic oppositions, and it is this dual focus that binds the theory to the idea of continuity in the mathematical sense.

A “topological” approach to language structure inspired by Jakobson’s articulation of the affinities between mathematical reasoning and the conceptualization of grammatical relations––by the language user as well as the language analyst––is embedded in the framework of a linguistic theory that takes the form of meaning, i.e., markedness, to be the key to the understanding of language structure.

All contemporary linguistic theorizing is structural in the sense of this conception of language as a system of patterned relations. This means that whether they acknowledge their debt to Jakobson explicitly––as Chomsky and Halle did by dedicating their Sound Pattern of English to their teacher––or work unwittingly in the paradigm established for all subsequent investigations of language structure by Jakobson’s seminal “Russian Conjugation” essay (1948), all contemporary practitioners of mainstream linguistics are essentially working in the Jakobsonian mode.


Obama and Bush: A Shared Departure from the Linguistic Norm

As different as their linguistic backgrounds are, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush share one phonetic trait (at least) that is a non-standard (dialectal) feature of American English, namely the “de-voicing” of obstruents after sonorants in final position. This happens most frequently in the case of the desinence {-s} of the possessive and the plural; hence in their speech what in standard English is [–z] comes out as [-s]. The final sound in doors, bills, moons, rooms, where a liquid or a nasal consonant is followed by what would be pronounced [-z], is rendered by them both as [-s]. If the more expansive definition of sonorant is used to include vowels as well, then for Messrs. Obama and Bush one can observe the same “devoicing” after stem-final vowels, except that it is not as sustained as in position after consonants.

How to explain this phonetic departure from the norm in speakers who in (most) other respects, albeit in varying degree, speak Standard American English? Is it a willful distortion? an instance of imperfect learning? a spelling pronunciation? No, it is none of these.

In order to understand this trait, we must first disabuse ourselves of the conventional definition of the sound at issue as “devoiced,” i. e., the “voiceless” counterpart of “voiced” /z/. From the strictly phonetic point of view, English [s] is indeed voiceless, and [z] voiced, hence the seeming aptness of the designation of the process observed in the two presidents’ speech as a “devoicing.” Traditionally, these obstruents are classified as, respectively, tenuis and media (pl. tenues/mediae). In the languages of Europe, this phonetic distinction translates into the phonological opposition between either the protensity feature (tense vs. lax) or the sonority feature (voiceless vs. voiced). In a language like French, for instance, the paired series of obstruents s/z. p/b, t/d, k/g, etc. are all opposed by the feature tense vs. lax, whereas in Russian they are opposed by the feature  voiceless vs. voiced. These features are phonologically distinctive in these two languages. However, from the phonetic point of view, they typically go together in the physical realization of the sounds at issue, such that while the French /s/, for instance, is phonologically tense, it is also phonetically (non-distinctively, redundantly) voiceless (the vocal bands do not vibrate in its production); conversely, its counterpart /z/ differs from it phonologically by being lax but is phonetically (non-distinctively, redundantly) voiced (the vocal bands do vibrate in its production). In Russian, the same phonetic parallelism holds despite the difference in phonological values: Russian distinctively voiceless obstruents are redundantly tense, their voiced counterparts redundantly lax.

Unfortunately, descriptions of English have persisted in misidentifying which of these conjugate designations are distinctive, which redundant. All those phonetic traits that typically obtain in the realization of the media (“voiced”) members of the obstruent series in a language like French (or German or Serbo-Croatian, for that matter)––delayed onset of voicing, incomplete voicing, etc.––also pertain to English. But hierarchically these phonetic data are ancillary to the understanding of which feature is distinctive, which non-distinctive. The surest diagnostic in all such cases is not the phonetic realization per se but the manifestation of the two values of the phonological opposition in mutually exclusive contexts––otherwise known as positions of neutralization. Typically, in positions of neutralization, it is the so-called unmarked member that appears to the exclusion of its marked counterpart. Thus, in Russian, in final position before a pause the distinction obtaining elsewhere between voiced and voiceless obstruents is suspended, and it is the unmarked voiceless member that appears; hence rod [rot], xleb [xl’ep], voz [vos], etc.

The phonetic implementation of the opposition is not just a physical event: it is a sign of the relational values that define the opposition. That is the function of neutralization: it implements in sign-theoretic terms the values that define the phonological structure as a system. Without this sign function of the phonetic implementation, the phonology of a language would be neither a structure nor systematic––and would be neither learnable nor perptetuable. The sign function is the raison d’être of the phonetic implementation. Pace all the standard handbooks, it has nothing to do with such purely physical (phonetic) considerations as “economy of effort” or “assimilation.”

The interesting thing about neutralization is that while it is typically manifested without exception, this is the case only when the conditions of its manifestation are either positional or make reference to distinctive rather than redundant features. In the case at hand, Messrs. Obama and Bush’s trait of “devoicing” final desinences after liquids and nasals, what we have is a kind of neutralization that also has a sign function, but a slightly different one from straightforward neutralizations in which the unmarked term appears to the exclusion of the marked term of the opposition. The fact that voicing is non-distinctive in English liquids and nasals––while being normally voiced but positionally also voiceless, these sonorants cannot be opposed by the feature voiced vs. voiceless (unlike, say, Burmese)––is something that the phonology of English manifests sequentially as a sign-theoretic fact by allowing, as a matter of idiolectal variation, for either the “voiced” (i. e.,  lax/media) value [z] of the norm to appear after them; or, as in the speech of Messrs. Obama and Bush, the non-normative [s]. Here the typical result of neutralization––the appearance of the unmarked member, which would be the phonetic realization of /z/, alias [z] in English––does not obtain in non-normative speech precisely because the neutralization makes reference to a phonetic position (initial, medial, final), not to a sequential phonetic context.

Messrs. Obama and Bush’s departure from the norm follows as a matter of course, once we understand that the very indifference to a tense or lax realization of {s] as the possessive/plural desinence in English is wholly coherent with the semiotic nature of the phonetic realization, which is to signify the non-distinctiveness of protensity in sonorants.


Sprig of Palestine

I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and happened to look up to see a very tall palm tree. For some reason, just at that moment, I was reminded of Lermontov’s 1837 poem “Sprig of Palestine” (R Ветка Палестины), which I had once memorized but now only remembered fragments of. This triggered the memory of why my family had chosen Los Angeles to move to from Japan when we immigrated in 1952. My father had seen a photo of a palm tree on a postcard from L. A. and decided while we were still living in Tokyo that our new home in America would be the City of the Angels.

Here is Lermontov’s poem:

Скажи мне, ветка Палестины:
Где ты росла, где ты цвела,
Каких холмов, какой долины
Ты украшением была?

У вод ли чистых Иордана
Востока луч тебя ласкал,
Ночной ли ветр в горах Ливана
Тебя сердито колыхал?

Молитву ль тихую читали,
Иль пели песни старины,
Когда листы твои сплетали
Солима бедные сыны?

И пальма та жива ль поныне?
Все так же ль манит в летний зной
Она прохожего в пустыне
Широколиственной главой?

Или в разлуке безотрадной
Она увяла, как и ты,
И дольний прах ложится жадно
На пожелтевшие листы?..

Поведай: набожной рукою
Кто в этот край тебя занес?
Грустил он часто над тобою?
Хранишь ты след горючих слез?

Иль, божьей рати лучший воин,
Он был с безоблачным челом,
Как ты, всегда небес достоин
Перед людьми и божеством?..

Заботой тайною хранима
Перед иконой золотой,
Стоишь ты, ветвь Ерусалима,
Святыни верный часовой!

Прозрачный сумрак, луч лампады,
Кивот и крест, символ святой…
Все полно мира и отрады
Вокруг тебя и над тобой.

Those who have no Russian will, unfortunately, not be able to appreciate the beauty and consummate skill of this poem. (Alas, there exists no decent translation into English.) Suffice it to say that this chef d’oevre was composed at one sitting on 20 February 1837 (O. S.) when Lermontov came to visit his friend the writer A. N. Murav’ev at the latter’s apartment but found him absent. Murav’ev (to whom the poem is dedicated in the original manuscript copy) relates in his memoirs that Lermontov had “long been waiting for my return and wrote his wonderful verses, which at a sudden inspiration burst out of him (R у него исторглись) in my icon room (R в моей образной) at the sight of the Palestinian palms which I had brought from the East” (A. N. Murav’ev, Znakomstvo s russkimi poètami [Kiev, 1871], p. 24).

I remembered the last stanza in particular, with its archaic stress on the word for symbol in the second line (R симвóл святой ‘sacred symbol’). The linguist and poetic analyst will immediately understand when I say that it is precisely this archaic stress (where modern Russian has initial stress) which gives the entire poem a special flavor by punctuating its religiosity.


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