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Archive for April, 2011

Addiction to “Air Quotes”

When a youngish female speaker of American English uses air quotes––i.e., a gesture produced with hands held shoulder-width apart and at the eye level of the speaker, the index and middle fingers on each hand flexing at the beginning and end of the item being quoted–– so frequently as to constitute a verbal TIC, what does that signify?

One could easily interpret this paralinguistic behavior as a species of STAMMERING and thereby subsume it under the general cultural avoidance, especially among the younger generation, of any utterance constituting a straightforward assertion.


Stammering as a Cultural Datum

The success of the recent movie “The King’s Speech” has brought public awareness to what the British call stammering and Americans call stuttering. In the movie stuttering is a speech disorder in need of therapy, but stammering is actually part of a whole range of non-pathological phenomena now called disfluencies, including all sorts of interruptions of speech flow. These are typically inserted vocables like “you know,” “I mean,” and various combinations of vowels and consonants (“eh,” ”uh,” “uhm,” etc.), not to mention the currently near-ubiquitous (in North American English, at least) filler “like,” to be heard emanating from the mouths of female speakers below a certain age (45?) in particular.

This last-mentioned word is sometimes dignified by being labeled a “discourse marker” with an approximative or quotative function (among others). A more encompassing characterization would accurately ascribe its pervasive use to a discourse strategy resting on a cultural set toward the message by speakers who use it, viz. that no content is in need of direct ASSERTION: in fact every message, in this strategy, needs to be hedged. The word like is a compact means of implementing such a cultural set because it immediately weakens the assertory value of anything to which it pertains in the utterance.

Nothing could be a surer symptom of a shift in cultural values than the ubiquitous insertion of a word that immediately undercuts the directness of what is being stated. In the last analysis, it is a sign (an index, to be precise) of the speaker’s inability to be responsible for the VALIDITY of ANYTHING that can be asserted.


Good Work ≠ Good Job

What used to be the standard way in American English of complimenting someone on a job well done, viz. “good work!” has largely been replaced by the phrase “good job.” This change in usage is underlain by a shift in the value system, as an analysis of the two variable words reveals.

The difference comes down to the fact that work applies as a noun to the AESTHETIC value of the object resulting from an action. We habitually designate, for instance, art objects as works, not jobs. One can be “good at one’s job” but not “good at one’s work.” One’s work can be one’s job, and in the latter sense job can connote one’s duty, whereas work does not. And so on.

This kind of trip through the connotations of the words at issue will always abut in the conclusion that the accomplished result of what we do when we designate the series of actions as job or work makes the first word concentrate on the acts and not on the product in the traditional usage that rewards the aesthetic value of the product with the designation work.

This value did not accrue in the past to job. Now it does, meaning a hierarchical superordination of the ACTION over the RESULT. In this way, American culture reinforces the axiological dominance of process over result that can be encapsulated in the motto “you are what you do.”


Ignorance and the Insistence of the Letter

There is no doubt that reading pronunciations reign supreme when speakers are ignorant of the traditional pronunciation of a word. This state of affairs is particularly relevant when the word belongs to the class of nomina propria.

The Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary (17th ed., 2006) lists only one pronunciation for the name of the country of Bahrain, viz. without the h, and this is the traditional English version regardless of the authentic Arabic original. Yet Peter Kenyon, the NPR correspondent reporting from Dubai this morning (“Morning Edition”), repeatedly pronounced the word with an h, joining the majority of media representatives in their studied ignorance of the established phonetic form.

Ultimately, this kind of mistake is to be adjudged as yet another instance of the drive toward faux authenticity that besets American speakers of English in particular, abetted by an attitude that flouts linguistic precedent.


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