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Archive for December, 2010

The Genius of the Mot Juste

While the first two members of the holy trinity of post-classical Western  literature, Shakespeare and Dante, either need no translation or are well-served by several, its third member, Pushkin, alas, can only be honored in the breach by those who have no Russian.

One does not have to be Nabokov to discountenance all attempts to translate into English the most famous love poem in the Russian language, Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven’e” (“I remember the miraculous moment”), published in 1827 and learned by heart––to this day!––by every Russian schoolchild. Here it is untranslated (the truncated title, with asterisks standing for the remainder of her surname, hides its dedicatee, Pushkin’s “whore of Babylon,” Anna Kern):

Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безмятежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный,
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.

What is never mentioned in any of the learned commentaries on this poem is the marked status of the word гений (genij ‘genius’), which occurs in the last line of the opening stanza and recurs in the last line of the penultimate. This word, in every European language, has as one of its sub-meanings the definition found in Webster’s Third, viz. “a personification or embodiment esp. of a quality or condition: INCARNATION.” As a borrowing into Russian from Latin via French, the lexeme by the first quarter of the nineteenth century has admittedly achieved the status of a cliché of the diction of romantic poetry. Nonetheless, to a twenty-first century reader this word––in the context of Pushkin’s love lyric––has a special resonance undiminished by its other senses. This is indirectly substantiated by the citation, as the sole example under the fourth and final meaning of the word in the authoritative four-volume Academy dictionary (Словарь русского языка в четырех томах [Moscow, 1981], I: 305: “олицетворение, высшее проявление чего-л.” ‘personification, highest manifestation of something’), of Pushkin’s line from the opening stanza.

Any lover of Russian poetry who does not savor this word in Pushkin’s poem at its first occurrence will automatically run the risk of succumbing to the vulgar judgment that routinely consigns the familiar to the dust bin of the banal. To be convinced of this one need only listen to the music of the verse as SPOKEN––not as sung in the many romansy ‘art songs’ composed to the poem’s words (from Glinka on). Perhaps this is too much to ask of us moderns, saturated as we are by the beat of the humdrum. As Pushkin has Mozart say to Salieri in his nonpareil masterpiece, the closet drama Mozart and Salieri:

Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному исскуству.
Нас мало избранных, счастливцев праздных,
Пренебрегающих презренной пользой,
Единого прекрасного жрецов.
Не правда ль?


Tinkering with Idioms through Contamination

One characteristic of idioms is their fixity, which is to say that they are not subject to alteration at the whim of the speaker/writer. When a radio announcer with good diction who is otherwise articulate says “cut him a break” (as did Steve Inskeep, “Morning Edition,” NPR, December 20, 2010) instead of the idiomatic “give him a break,” one can easily trace the source of the mistake (“cut him some slack”) and recognize it as an instance of contamination. All the same, it is a catachresis nonetheless, stylistically offensive and bordering on the ungrammatical.


If You Like

In British English­­––but never in American––one constantly hears the phrase if you like, equivalent in American English to if you will (or, less typically, so to speak and as it were). British speakers resort to this phrase to qualify the word or clause that is immediately contiguous to it, specifically to blunt their assertory or metaphorical force. As with American if you will, the literal meaning of the phrase is not what is meant; rather, the meaning is “if I may say so,” “if I may be allowed to put it this way.” (A particularly extreme use of if you like, rising to the status of a verbal tic, can be heard, for example, in the speech of the BBC reporter, Nick Childs.) Alongside other apotropaic expressions heard more and more frequently on both sides of the Atlantic, this exclusively British one is PLACATORY BEFORE THE FACT, uttered not only to defang the purport of whatever is being asserted but to forestall any possible objection. This has the collateral effect of keeping the channel of communication open, specifically by allowing the speaker to control the general tenor of the discourse.

As a contemporary discourse strategy, British if you like is much more frequent than its American equivalent if you will, which has waned markedly since its heyday in the latter part of the preceding century. One can infer that the cultural and social exigencies under which speakers of British English operate still require anodizing their assertory or metaphorical discourse to a higher degree than do their American counterparts.


Sosal Sicurity (alias Social Security)

Many speakers of American English have long mispronounced the phrase social security by assimilating the medial hushing sound /ʃ/of the first word to the initial hissing sound /s/of both. This change––for it is a change––can straightforwardly be reckoned a case of (so-called) assimilation at a distance, but this would be a unique instance of /ʃ/ > /s/ in any context, let alone a non-contiguous one, in English, hence suspect as an assimilation. Typologically, as is true of /s/ before /i/ in the phrase at issue, the directionality is rather from /s/ to /ʃ/ and not the reverse, i. e., a garden-variety case of palatalization, observable in the histories of many languages, where a dental (here the hiss-sibilant) becomes a palatal (here the hush-sibilant) before a front vowel (here /i/).

The replacement of /ʃ/ by /s/ in non-normative speech is to be explained otherwise, specifically as an UNMARKING. The palatal /ʃ/ is marked for compactness, whereas the dental /s/ is unmarked for this feature. Additionally, it is important to keep firmly in mind that the unique change at issue occurs only in this fixed phrase, where the context is a compound (consisting of an adjective plus a substantive). Now, it is a fact that the process of composition (as, for that matter, derivational morphology generally) is often accompanied by an unmarking of the individual constituents that go to make up the compositum. What this means is that some marked aspect of an individual constituent is replaced by its unmarked counterpart when that constituent enters into a compound.

Taking the same process in a non-Indo-European language like Japanese for comparison, one sees that compounding regularly involves the replacement of a phonetically voiceless (actually, a phonemically tense) obstruent at the beginning of the second constituent of the compound by its phonetically voiced (resp. phonemically lax) counterpart, e.g., fuufu ‘husband and wife’ + kenka ‘quarrel’ > fuufugenka ‘marital strife’—and never the other way around. Tenseness being marked and laxness unmarked for obstruents in languages with phonemic protensity (like English or Japanese or Serbo-Croatian or French), the replacement of the initial /k/ of the second constituent kenka by /g/ is clearly an unmarking, completely parallel to the replacement in the phrase social security of the medial /ʃ/ by /s/. This phrase, moreover, has a superordinate meaning that is not the simple product of social + security. Thus the replacement of the hushing by the hissing sibilant is completely consistent with the nature of composition, namely the subordination of individual constituents to the resultant compound both formally and semantically. The normative pronunciation of the first constituent does not, of course, undermine the status of the phrase as a compound. But compared to the non-normative pronunciation, it has simply not exploited the semiotic potential attendant on compounding that the latter has.


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