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Archive for March, 2011

Aphaeresis Engulfs Tsunami

Every language has what are called morpheme structure rules. These are generalizations about what combinations of sounds are permitted in certain positions––initial, medial, and final. Some clusters of sounds that are permitted across morpheme and word boundaries are not permitted in word-initial or word-final position. Exceptions may be restricted to foreign borrowings. In English, accordingly, the combination ts- only occurs word-initially in borrowings such as tsetse fly. But because this cluster does not conform to native morpheme structure in word-initial position, it tends to get simplified in the speech of persons who cannot or choose not to make the phonetic effort to pronounce an unusual cluster, and the first consonant is elided in a process that is called by the technical term APHAERESIS. Thus ts > s.

A contemporary illustration of aphaeresis in English is provided by the word tsunami ‘tidal wave’, which has been borrowed from Japanese. While the initial cluster ts- is completely regular in the donor language, it contravenes the rules of English, thereby lending itself to simplification as [sunámi], a pronunciation commonly heard  these days––alongside the non-aphaeretic [tsunámi]––with reference to the recent catastrophe in Japan. Why the second member of the cluster and not the first is elided can be accounted for by the general rule pertaining to initial clusters in English whereby it is always the first and not the second member in this position, as in the pronunciation of words like knight, gnat, psychology, phthisis, etc., whose Old English pronunciation, resp. that in the donor language, involves an initial (unsimplified) cluster.


Paralinguistic (Mis)behavior

The body language accompanying speech is the object of study of paralinguistics. This includes gestures, facial expressions, hand movements, even laughter. Apropos of the latter, Americans––like all nationalities––have a culture-specific range of laughter types, with high-pitched, aesthetically unpleasing laughter being especially common among American females (but not only). This acoustic peculiarity is currently coming into alignment with the infantilized intonation and vocal timbre remarked here before. The ensemble of these paralinguistic traits is distinctively and unflatteringly American.

Another distinctively American species of paralinguistic behavior is the habit of not looking at one’s interlocutor when handing the latter an object. This act violates a fundamental (European and Asian) staple of paralinguistic norms, resulting in behavior that risks being interpreted by a non-American (or culturally multidimensional American) conversation partner as decidedly rude.


Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion in English

Unlike English, which is a stress language, Japanese is a pitch language, which means that it has low or high pitch on the morae of vowels, not stress. An English speaker typically mistakes Japanese high pitch for stress. In some cases, this results in the relatively undamaged representation of a Japanese word in English, e.g., the toponym Kyushu has high pitch on the first mora of the long vowel ō of the first syllable, and when this word is pronounced with initial stress in English, it sounds more or less authentic. But this doesn’t hold in cases like Tokyo, where both vowels are long and, moreover, high pitch falls on the first mora of the following word, hence, for instance, Tokyo desu ‘it’s Tokyo’ has high pitch on the first syllable of desu ‘is’.

What English speakers tend to do (besides mishearing high pitches as stresses) is to place a stress where it doesn’t correspond to a Japanese high pitch, as in Hiróshima/Hiroshíma. This toponym (like Tokyo) has a high pitch that falls on the first mora of the following word, all three preceding short vowels having low pitch, but the English rules of stress placement in quadrisyllabic words do not allow for ultimate stress in what looks like an English compound.

Occasionally, as in the case currently made notorious because of its damaged nuclear reactor, viz. Fukushima, English speakers happen to place a stress on the vowel corresponding to a vowel with high pitch in the Japanese original, which makes it (fortuitously) sound authentic to the ear of a Japanese speaker. Note even here, however, the alternate placement of stress on the element meaning ‘island’ (shima) following English prosody, which renders the original incorrectly.


Let Me Be Clear

The utterly fatuous phrase “let me be clear,” favored especially by speciously articulate politicians like Barack Obama, is bleated constantly these days. Naturally, nothing that follows this phrase is necessarily clearer than what came before, so its complete otiosity is like a linguistic poke in the eye of those who are forced to hear it. Hopefully, it will soon have run its course as another token of insincerity and be dumped on the scrap heap of history.


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