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Archive for November, 2010

Backformation of Compound Verbs

Back-formation (ept < inept, enthuse < enthusiasm, etc.) is a frequent process in the history of English and the source of interesting neologisms. One  subset of the process that is particularly typical of trade jargons (but not only) is a kind of univerbation, whereby a phrase consisting of verb + direct object is transformed into a compound verb containing the object as the first constituent, viz. fundraise (< raise funds), schoolteach (< teach school), bartend (< tend bar), bikeride (< ride a bike), etc.

It may seem as if there is no semantic difference between the verb phrase and its univerbative back-formation, but there is, namely the meaning of habitual action, as in a trade. Thus someone who bikerides does so habitually, and explicitly so, whereas someone who rides a bike is non-committal as to habitual action. Similarly, someone who bartends does so for a livelihood, and so on.

This situation is akin to the verbal category of aspect, perfective and imperfective, in languages like the Slavic family––or English, for that matter––where habituality is associated exclusively with (one of the meanings of) the imperfective.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Basically the Attenuation of Assertory Force

There are several ways speakers have of blunting the assertory force of an utterance, including fillers (like, you know, know what I’m saying, etc.). When they edge over the line and start polluting speech, these linguistic elements are called disfluencies. One such filler that has been growing in frequency in American English is the adverb basically. More than ample recorded evidence of this word’s prominence is available in an interview with the American-Indian (Sikh) internet executive Gurbaksh Chahal (conducted on the BBC World Service by Mike Williams, November 19, 2010). Mr. Chahal, who is now 28 and speaks standard American without an accent, came to the USA at the age of four from Punjab and grew up in Northern California. Though lacking a precise count of the number of times that basically cropped up in his responses (the interview lasted 28 minutes), suffice it to say that it could not have been less that 20-30.

The frequent insertion of this word in one’s speech serves an EMOTIVE, not a referential function. The speaker is moved to attenuate the assertory force of his utterances, and in this respect the word’s appearance serves exactly the same function as one of those fulfilled by that other frequent speech pollutant, like. Whatever their primary semantic load, these words now function to qualify or deflect the force of anything being (nominally) asserted. They are thus analogous in effect segmentally to the near-ubiquitous suprasegmental feature of contemporary female speech, viz. an interrogative intonational contour on clauses that are not questions.

Like the apotropaic smile (of females in particular), any gratuitous attenuation or deflection of assertory force can be seen as an APOTROPAISM, an atavistic survival mechanism that likely has deep evolutionary roots. The emergence of a linguistic apotropaism in present-day circumstances means only that the evil being warded off need not be confined to mastodons or saber-toothed tigers: evil lurks as well in the jungles of modern life, albeit not in the form of wild beasts but in the form of fellow humans.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Fear of the Objective Case

A well-documented hyperurbanism is the substitution of the subjective for the objective case of pronouns in syndetic compounds (with and, or). Here are two examples from media language (emphasis added):

(1) “I’m picking you and I.” (John Feinstein, NPR, “Morning Edition,” May 24, 1993);

(2)  “Mozart wrote the Concerto for he and his sister.” (Bill Winans, WMHT-FM, November 19, 2010)

This grammatical solecism is often heard in British speech as well as American. Even as superlative a writer as P. D. James allows it:

(3) “And those two deaths bound you and she together indissolubly for life.” (P. D. James, Shroud for a    Nightingale [New York: Popular Library, 1971], p. 278)

While this mistake can easily be reckoned to result from a fear of the objective case in compounds involving one or more pronouns, a deeper analysis would take into account the creation of a spurious boundary separating the compound from the preposition. The speaker/writer who countenances this hyperurbanism implicitly erects a boundary on both sides of the compound, as if the latter were a binomial––a single unit––rather than two units joined by a conjunction, hence immune to case government and therefore in the uninflected (direct, non-oblique) subjective case.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Semiosis of Grammatical Error

When a person speaking his native language makes a grammatical error, it can be chalked up to a number of reasons, including imperfect learning. But the commission of such an error––as long as it is no mere slip of the tongue––also has semiotic significance, as it connotes the utterer’s less-than-sure command of his language, which inclines his listener(s), in turn, to make negative assessments of that person’s credibility and social status. This situation is aggravated when the error is made in the public domain.

Here is a contemporaneous example from the context of American media speech.

On the November 17, 2010 broadcast of the WAMC-FM talk show, “The Roundtable,” Alan Chartock, a professor emeritus of political science and communications at the State University of New York at Albany, garbled the quasi-proverbial phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” by substituting the mistaken third-person singular form goes for the correct first-person singular verb form go. Nota bene: Mr. Chartock pronounced the phrase with complete aplomb, without the slightest hesitation or consciousness of its erroneousness. That a completely familiar saying should have been uttered containing such a hair-raisingly egregious grammatical error can only be interpreted as a sign that casts doubt on the speaker’s entire persona, including his education, his knowledge, and his gravitas. As the modern founder of sign theory, Charles Sanders Peirce, wrote in that landmark of American philosophy, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities”: “My language is the sum total of myself.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Leveling Out the Ablaut Pattern in Strong Verbs

In the recent history of English, there is a tendency to simplify the three-vowel alternation pattern in strong verbs with post-vocalic root nasals like begin, drink, ring, run, shrink, sing, sink, spring, stink, swim, such that the u-vowel of the past passive participle replaces the a-vowel of the preterit, especially in non-standard or colloquial speech. Here, for instance, is a contemporary example from the online edition of The New York Times:

“And although Mr. Rangel was not present, his booming voice still rung [instead of rang; emphasis added] through the hearing room as the committee lawyers played videos of him admitting to several of the charges during an impromptu speech he made on the House floor this summer, pleading for mercy from his colleagues.” (David Kocieniewski, “House Panel Says Facts in Rangel Case Are Undisputed,” November 15, 2010).

This process has already become normative in cling, fling, sling, slink, spin, sting, string, swing, and wring.

The directionality of the change should be noted: it is invariably the u-vowel of the past passive participle that replaces the a-vowel of the preterit, and never the other way around. Why? Because the /æ/ of rang, shrank, etc. is a marked vowel (marked for  the feature of compactness), whereas the /ʌ/of rung, shrunk (cf. the 1989 movie title “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”), etc. is an unmarked vowel (unmarked for the feature of compactness). The overarching tendency in language, whether in phonology or any other component of grammar, is for the marked unit to be replaced by its unmarked counterpart in a paradigm. The leveling of the ablaut pattern in English strong verbs conforms to just this tendency.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[Postscriptum, June 14, 2011: The degree to which the process of ablaut leveling has advanced in American English can be gauged by an example appearing on today’s Op-Ed page of The New York Times and written (nota bene) by someone identified as a professor of American studies and English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York: “Unfortunately, these themes were lost in many of the stage versions . . . that sprung from its immense popularity.” (David S. Reynolds, “Rescuing The Real Uncle Tom,” New England Edition, p. A21)

Yiddishized Enumerative Intonation

American English intonation (unlike British English) is not characterized by steep rises and falls. However, there is one case where a rise is followed by a significant fall, and that is in enumerations, e.g., “Moishe wants the jump suit, the aviator glasses, the parachute all to be the best.” The intonation curve of all three enumerated objects first rises and then markedly falls. This is an entirely un-Anglo-Saxon pattern, but it can be heard increasingly often emanating from the mouths of decidedly gentile speakers utterly oblivious of the intonation’s origin. It owes its existence to Yiddish (ultimately from Slavic, namely Russian) and can be added to lexical importations (meshugge, shlep, mamzer, etc.) that have been registered by normative dictionaries as borrowed from Yiddish and now belonging to the stock of English vocabulary. This we needed like a lokh n kop!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Ingratiation by Englessness

English has three nasal consonants, /n/, /m/, and /ŋ/. The last is a velar nasal and is called “eng” by phoneticians, pronounced just the way it’s written, i. e., [ɛŋ], as in the first syllable of Engels. This is the sound that appears in participles/gerunds written with the suffix {-ing}, as in going, happening, etc.

In many English dialects on both sides of the Atlantic, the eng is replaced by the dental nasal {-n], which is typically rendered orthographically with an apostrophe after the n, signifying the missing velarity of the norm. This phenomenon is referred to as “dropping one’s g‘s.” Historically, this pronunciation is of some antiquity and was the older norm in England for all stylistic registers. After around the turn of the twentieth century, doubtless under the influence of the spread of literacy, standard English began to adhere to the form with eng where dialects maintained the simple nasal. In American English there are many regions (like the American South) where speakers who adhere to the norm in every other respect have a dental rather than a velar nasal in participles and gerunds.

Many speakers  can switch between the norm and a regional version when they wish to maintain a colloquial stylistic register, as in informal speech. For purposes of public speaking, as by politicians and others who need to ingratiate themselves with their audiences, the eng is typically simplified to an n. This gives utterances a colloquial flavor.

One speaker who regularly does this kind of intra-code switching is Barack Obama. In his public appearances he can be heard laying on the englessness as a means of staying in a colloquial mode, the better to ingratiate himself with audiences he must reckon to be composed largely of speakers who need to be catered to linguistically as well as in other respects. Tant pis!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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