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Archive for June, 2011

Heterolingual Interpolations (Latin Phrases)

In the course of a conversation in Russian a father says to his adolescent son, “Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes,” meaning ‘I have done what I could; let those who can do better’ and deriving from a formula uttered by retiring Roman consuls as they transferred the powers of office to their successors. Now, the son has only a smattering of Latin but, having heard this phrase from his father many times before, comprehends the sense. Knowing the father’s biography, which included many years of compulsory Latin instruction in high school and three years’ study of jurisprudence at Moscow University before the Revolution, one might suspect a kind of déformation professionnelle. This would be wrong, however. In the pre-Revolutionary Russian milieu serving as the backdrop for this conversation, it was not unusual for educated persons to sprinkle their native speech with Latin phrases. Here, for instance, is part of a réplique by the schoolmaster Kulygin in Act I of Chekhov’s Three Sisters:

Kulygin: [To IRINA] In this book you will find a list of all those who have taken the full course at our High School during these fifty years. Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes. [Кулыгин: (Ирине) В этой книжке ты найдешь список всех кончивших курс в нашей гимназии за эти пятьдесят лет. Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes.]

The presumption here is that Irina understands Kulygin’s recourse to Latin. This is not an isolated occurrence. For instance, Konstantin Stanislavskii, the famous actor and stage director, uses exactly this phrase in a neutral context in his widely-read memoirs, My Life in Art [Моя жизнь в искусстве] (1st ed., 1926).

This interpolation of Latin material in an otherwise straightforward Russian discourse is clearly a cultural feature of Russian speech. It mimics and continues the pan-European practice of quoting Latin locutions in order to give one’s utterances a special punch, not necessarily connected with the aim of parading one’s erudition. In this respect, modern Russian resembles older forms of English learned discourse that have largely become extinct. There can even be an interesting interplay in Russian between Latin and Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy), for example with reference to the Latin phrase vox clamantis in deserto ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, which derives from Isaiah 40.3 (“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'”) via John 1:23 (“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”). The Church Slavonic version is glas vopiiuscshego v pustyne (глас вопиющего в пустыне). The latter is much more frequent today, but someone speaking Russian can also recur to the Latin for extra paroemic force.


Lambasting the Oblivion of Constituent Structure

It is a well-known fact that speakers are often oblivious of the constituent structure of historically compound words when the constituents lose currency with the passage of time, and that this process may give rise to a (mistaken) new pronunciation alongside the traditional one. This is in fact what has happened to the verb lambaste, which is now often pronounced  /læmˈbæst/ instead of /læmˈbeɪst/. Moreover, the new pronunciation has been codified by all contemporary dictionaries in the form of an orthographic doublet, lambast.

The meaning given by the Oxford English Dictionary Online is “To beat soundly; to thrash; to ‘whack’. Now colloq. or vulgar.” As to the etymology, it is cited with a question mark: “? < lam v.+ baste v.3.” Both lam and baste, for that matter, share a meaning, viz. ‘whip, beat, flog,’ and the only pronunciation of baste is, of course, /beɪst/.

Neither of the two historical constituents of lambaste with the meaning of beating or flogging is in current use, hence their fading and oblivion in the compound, which then can be taken to license the mispronunciation. The latter is currently the more frequently one, at least in American English.

As is so often the case with all the traditional linguistic patrimony, ‘bad money drives out good’; or as they say in Japanese, akka wa ryooka o kuchiku suru (悪貨は良貨を駆逐する).


O tempora, o mores! (Isoglosses)

The constant recurrence in current news accounts to the Souris River and the havoc wreaked by it cannot help but bring to mind in anyone with even a smattering of Yiddish the word tsuris ‘trouble, distress, woe, misery’ (pl., < Hebrew ṣārāh), which has also found its way into dictionaries of contemporary English. Given the phonic closeness of the word to the riverine name, its aptness as a descriptor for the calamity in North Dakota needs no demonstration.

The form of the word actually has a doublet, namely tsores, and the alternation u/o of the root vowel corresponds to what is more or less a north-south isogloss in Yiddish dialectology, an isogloss being a geographic boundary line delimiting the area in which a given linguistic feature occurs. Apropos, before I came to America and heard the Yiddish word from a variety of speakers of American English, I only knew it as tsores, particularly in my father’s frequent citation of his staircase wit Uncle Misha’s Russo-Jewish variation on Cicero’s winged phrase, “O tempora, o mores! O vremena [R ‘times’], o tsores!”


Friends in France (A Vowel Merger)

In the last twenty years or so, much attention has been paid to something like a new Great Vowel Shift in North American English, which in some respects resembles the original Great Vowel Shift, a major change in the pronunciation of English that took place in England between 1350 and 1500. Part of this development in contemporary American English is the merger between stressed [ɛ] and [æ] such that the traditional pronunciation of the former merges with that of the latter, which results, for instance, in the word friends sounding like France, or best sounding like bast, etc. This new pronunciation can be heard from mostly youngish female speakers in particular, although occasionally younger males also exemplify it.

Which brings me to the origin of this post, since it may be of more than passing interest to regular readers. While listening to a classical music station this morning (WMHT-FM), I perked up my ears when the female announcer introduced the next piece, Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano in E-flat major, also known as the Kegelstatt Trio (K. 498). But where she intended to be understood as saying “friends” in describing the companions with whom Mozart customarily played skittles––the German word for ‘skittles’ being Kegel, hence Kegelstatt ‘bowling alley’, where musical myth has Mozart composing this trio––what I heard her say was “France,” then quickly realized my misperception and identified its cause. After all, nothing could mar the pleasure of hearing it again: I had played the clarinet part many times in my youth, with my mother Lydia Shapiro at the piano; then later in life with my wife Marianne Shapiro. As Mozart said to Salieri in Pushkin’s “little tragedy”: “Когда бы все так чувствовали силу/ Гармонии!”


Diachrony in Synchrony: Archaisms

All living languages have elements at every level that are regarded by their users as obsolescent, obsolete, or archaic. (“Old-fashioned,” while descriptive enough, is not, strictly speaking, a linguistic term.) Dictionaries register this fact when they label certain words or meanings archaic, historically older elements perduring alongside normatively contemporary ones. For instance, the first definition of knave in Webster’s Unabridged prefaces the designation “archaic” to three meanings, namely a. ‘a serving boy’, b. ‘a male servant or menial’, c. ‘a man of humble birth or position’ before proceeding to give its modern definition as ‘a tricky deceitful fellow: rogue: rascal: jack’. (Note that for most American card players at least, the last definition is obsolete.)

Even though the designation ‘archaic’ largely affects the lexicon, it may also extend to phonology and morphology. For instance,  older speakers may adhere to pronunciations that were dominant when they first learned them as children but have gone out of general use over the speakers’ lifetimes. Thus the increasingly common American English leveling of the paradigm for the word house, which makes the plural into [háusiz] instead of the traditional [háuziz], is an innovation that bids fair to eventually render the latter an archaism. And speakers who follow the norm in forming the plural of wife and knife may still incorporate the newer form for house, where the stem-final /s/ of the singular does not change to /z/. No speaker of English, however, would use an archaism like kine as the plural of cow except for purposes of stylization.

Some archaisms are fossilized in fixed expressions. For instance, in the injunction attributed to Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (“Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ,” Matthew 22:21), the contextually archaic preposition unto is sustained into modern English from its origin in the King James Bible. Interestingly, the same situation obtains in the Russian equivalent, “Воздай кесарю кесарево, a Богу Богово,” wherein the form of the possessive adjectives for the substantives in question (‘Caesar’s’, resp. ‘God’s’) is archaic.


The Pentagon in Maryland (Sandhi and Prosody)

As has been adverted to in earlier posts, unstressed vowels are often rendered differently in British and American English. The word pentagon in British English is thus heard with two reduced vowels, namely schwas, in its unstressed syllables––[pɛ́ntəgən]—whereas in American only the medial vowel is reduced, hence [pɛ́ntəgòn]. Conversely, British speakers regularly keep the vowel of the constituent {-land} unreduced in pronouncing the American state Maryland, which no American would do. The same distribution applies to most other words containing this constituent, e. g., inland, although free variation is possible in some, like mainland.

Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is one species of phonological alternation that goes by the name of SANDHI, a Sanskrit term that has been used in linguistic analysis for more than a century. (It is usually pronounced [sǽndi], like the first name “Sandy,” or [sɑ́ːndi], identical with “Sunday” for some British English speakers.) Variations and alternations at the boundaries of constituents is one of the core instantiations of sandhi. Phenomena associated with phonological sandhi rules of this sort have two basic functions in language, one systemic, the other textual. Their systemic function is ICONIC in that they produce distributions of phonetic values in utterances which reflect the distinctive or allophonic value of the features in question and the markedness relations that hold between values of the same feature opposition. Their textual function, on the other hand, works to signal cohesion between elements and is thereby integrative, which is to say that this function is INDEXICAL: it signals, for instance, that constituents of the word in question are connected to each other in patterns of internal cohesion.

The upshot of this semiotic account is to enable the understanding of variation in language as something coherent, not arbitrary. When the constituent {-land} in mainland is treated  (= “understood”) as a bound element subordinate to the meaning of the whole, its vowel loses its stress in the compound, resulting in vowel reduction, hence [mɛ́inlənd]. Conversely, lack of secondary stress and concomitant vowel reduction is a sign that a semantic hierarchy has determined the particular phonetic form of the word, resulting in the full vowel [a] instead of a schwa. This is an immanent structural fact of the variety of English of those speakers who implement this pronunciation. When the constituent in question retains a secondary stress, and the word is consequently pronounced [mɛ́inlànd], the semantic hierarchy accords (nearly) equal rank to both constituents. Its status as a compound is less distinct than in the form with no secondary stress and a schwa. Speakers whose idiolect manifests the unreduced form of the vowel, therefore, have a different understanding of the hierarchical status of the two constituents in question from those whose speech here manifests vowel reduction.


The Fading of Oral Tradition

The advent of the digital revolution is only the latest phase in the eclipse of the oral tradition in language use by practices derived from the sphere of the written word. Thus when a radio announcer mispronounces chicanery by rendering the stressed vowel so as to rhyme with can rather than cane, he is clearly relying on a habit of reading, not speaking, which produces American English [æ] instead of (British English) Anglicized [ā]. One can safely guess that he has never actually heard the word pronounced by a speaker who knows the correct form.

Never hearing some words of English lexis is clearly becoming the common experience of a growing number of speakers of American English. This is evidently what accounts for the establishment of incorrect stresses like cónsummate (the adjective, not the verb) among even educated speakers for what in the English oral tradition is consúmmate [kənˈsʌmət] (cf. the differential designations for the corresponding entry in the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, 16th ed.).

On an autobiographical note, it was in fact only when I first heard the word pronounced correctly from a paragon of English diction, my late wife Marianne (of blessed memory) that I changed my own prosodic habits to comport with those of someone who had evidently imbibed it herself from her early orthoepic models and, more importantly, embodied its meaning in her own person. Мир праху ее.


[Addendum, 2/27/12: On the BBC World Service today, one could hear a clip from an interview with Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, who mispronounced the word patently ‘obviously’ in the phrase “patently ridiculous,” which even in standard American English has a traditional stressed vowel in this meaning that conforms to the British (rhymes with latent) rather than the American norm for the word patent.]

Error, A Natural History

Only humans err (cf. St. Augustine: Errare humanum est > Alexander Pope: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”). If we attribute error to animals, it is because we are grounded by our habits of thought, our native penchant for the anthropomorphization and metaphorization of everything. When it comes to language, the least interesting domain within this sub-category of human behavior is what linguists call speech errors and are typically on about, namely slips of the tongue (lapsus linguae), Spoonerisms, and the whole panoply of performance errors that are easily correctible and, indeed, usually corrected on the spot (including so-called Freudian slips).

A mistake is an error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness. It is also a misconception or misunderstanding. The etymology is from Middle English mistaken ‘misunderstand’ < Old Norse mistaka ‘take in error’ < mis– ‘wrongly’ + taka ‘take’. Error is from Middle English errour < Old French < Latin error < errre ‘wander’. From the perspective of Latin, then, the ultimate meaning involves ‘wandering’, alias straying, deviating from the right path. Compare this ur-meaning to that found in the root of the Russian word for error, viz. oshibka, a deverbal noun: –shib– means ‘throw, hurl, sling’, and o– is a prefix with ‘mis-‘ as one of its senses, e. g., ogovorit’sia ‘make a speech error’ < o- + govori- ‘speak, say’. The modern verb for ‘err’ is oshibit’sia, which originarily must have been derived from something like ‘mis-‘ + ‘throwing’, i. e. ‘missing the mark’. In Japanese, to extend the comparative scope, the quotidian word for error is machigai, where the element ma means ‘space’ or ‘time’, and chigai is the deverbal nominal stem  (< chigau ‘differ’) meaning ‘difference, divergence’; hence error in Japanese is ultimately, as in Russian, something like ‘divergence from the right point/mark in space (or time)’.

The upshot––linguistic, moral, and pragmatistic––of this natural history of (the words for) error is support for Charles Sanders Peirce’s IDEA––also to be disinterred from the etymologies of the words right and wrong––that “men and words reciprocally educate each other; each increase of a man’s information involves and is involved by, a corresponding increase of a word’s information . . . My language is the sum total of myself.”


Professional Argots

Every language has social as well as regional dialects, and the social variety includes professional argots whose special features may resort to vocabulary that is different from or not to be found in standard lexis. A well-known example from the languages of Europe and Asia is thieves’ argot, i. e., the special jargon developed by criminals in order to conceal the meaning of their utterances or written messages from the public and, more particularly, the police.

This kind of linguistic specialization can affect any level of a language, including the phonological and the syntactic. For instance, in Russian the language of mariners places the stress in the word kompas ‘compass’ on the second syllable, whereas the normative stress is on the initial. American weather forecasters on the radio habitually violate the cooccurrence rules of English grammar when they couch their predictions in terms of “a chance for showers/rain/snow, etc.” (instead of the normative postposition of after chance). In a similar vein, radio interviewers have developed fatuous formulas when transacting business with their interviewees like “help me/us understand” and “thanks for joining us,” some of which are locutions not to be heard in ordinary speech. Whatever the practical considerations that conspire to condition such innovations, stylistically they are to be judged as rebarbative and totally avoidable.


Paroemics: The Linguistic Ecology of the Proverb

Every language has proverbs. English, Russian, and Japanese have not only the largest lexica but also the greatest number of proverbs, with the most comprehensive Japanese proverb dictionaries approaching a six-figure total. English in all its varieties differs from Russian and Japanese in the ecological prominence of proverbs in actual use, which is to say that speakers and writers of English no longer habitually recur to proverbs. When was the last time you uttered the words––or heard anyone else say–– A stitch in time saves nine?

By contrast, Russians and Japanese sprinkle their speech with proverbs at every turn. This paroemic predilection has nothing to do with the speaker’s class or education, nor with urban vs. agrarian social context. When a Russian resorts to the proverb na net i suda net––literally, ‘to a NO there’s no justice/court’––to express resignation before an insuperable impasse, they are employing a piece of paronomasia that conveys its meaning with a poetic punch not available to a purely discursive statement.

Beyond paronomasia, there is also the frequent special force of figuration conjured up in proverbs that is colligated  with their analogical imagery. When a Japanese says setchin-mushi mo tokorobiiki (雪隠虫も所贔屓) ‘even the dung beetle loves its own bailiwick’, a whole world far removed from contemporary mores comes to life that endows the utterance’s context with a particular purport. The linguistic ecology of modern-day English is all the poorer for having foregone the paroemic riches at its disposal.


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