• Monthly Archives: June 2011


June 8, 2011

Variety may be the spice of life, but repetition is its foundation. Bilateral symmetry, biorhythms, cyclical bodily functions, night and day––everything involves repetition. When it comes to language, repetition may be stylistically benign or malign, with instances of the former lending themselves to rhetorical utility. Thus Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” (Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2, line 192) is a device that classical rhetoric classifies as epizeuxis or palilogia, defined as the repetition of a single word, with no other words in between, for emphasis or to convey vehemence.

There is also the kind of repetition in speech, such as stammering or the insertion of “you know” or “like” at every turn, that belongs to a generally harmless class of disfluencies, i. e., those that are, or border on, VERBAL TICS. When a person habitually and profusely interlards his utterances with phrases like “in other words,” “incidentally,” or “by the way,” a benign interpretation would grant speakers prone to them the use of these aimless interruptions of the speech flow as slot fillers or place markers they evidently need to fill out the diapason of discourse time while sorting out in their mind exactly what to say and in what order.

But the question nevertheless hangs in the air as to why such fillers are needed at all; why, indeed, a simple pause wouldn’t do. The easy answer is that many speakers value the phatic function over the referential: they wish, in other words, to keep their listeners/interlocutors rhetorically at bay, so to speak, by elongating their utterances and thereby gaining discourse time at the expense of their partners’. (In the last sentence I have used fillers of the sort being discussed advisedly.) In the final analysis, even this speech strategy can be seen as nothing more than a (puerile?) aggrandizement––possibly an unconscious one––of the utterer’s ego.


Epiphenomena of Language Use (Nonce Forms)

Language is like a sparkle machine, producing epiphenomena in use that are unattested in dictionaries or otherwise ungrounded in the norms of speech. One such case is the nonce locution in front of used instead of “before” or “to” in designating the number of minutes preceding the hour, which can be heard emanating from the mouth of the local host of the NPR program “Morning Edition” on WAMC-FM (Northeast Public Radio). There is, of course, no need for such an innovation, whatever its origin, and it can only arouse the ire and annoyance of a language purist, but it nevertheless indirectly reminds one of the issue of innovations in language change.

Language is full of examples of items that are unsanctioned by the speech community. Some of these are purely personal linguistic idiosyncrasies, including unusual pronunciations, morphological deviations, and syntactically ill-formed constructions. But some can also be innovations that have the capacity to be copied and to spread throughout the speech community. One of the tasks of historical linguists interested in the theory of change is explaining just this capacity.


The Connotative Content of Regional Accents

June 5, 2011

With the onslaught of mass media and the entrenchment of standard languages, regional accents are becoming an endangered species throughout the industrialized world. To be sure, these varieties continue to play a role in cementing solidarity among members of a (relatively) homogeneous speech community without necessarily excluding newcomers whose speech adheres without exception to the standard. From the perspective of an outsider looking in, moreover, regional accents can be seen to have a certain connotative content, one that arouses a kind of exogenous aesthetic admiration for the colorful, unadulterated, and authentic features of language in use. What is routinely taken unreflexively by the speaker of a regional dialect as nothing more than linguistic habit, in the service of purely utilitarian communicative goals, can alternately be perceived by the speaker of the standard as an aesthetic object.

Thus, episodic exposure to an authentic native pronunciation in a region (like rural Vermont) where the colorless standard otherwise reigns supreme can have the effect of causing a positive reevaluation of dialects for their (unintended) symbolic byproduct, viz. a heightened awareness of the historical persistence of linguistic mores that connote a subtle form of human solidarity.


What’s in a Name?

June 2, 2011

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet [II, ii, 1-2]). When Juliet utters these words, little does she know how wrong she is, both in the play and generally. Every name has a particular semantic load, and its meaningfulness can be enhanced by its relative transparency, both as to constituent structure (if any) and its iconic potential. In the event, the beauty––here, the goodness of fit––is definitely in the ear of the beholder.

Languages and cultures differ quite widely in the latitude they countenance as to onomastic structure and use. With reference to fore- and surnames, there are cultures (like Indonesian) in which persons typically go by only one name (cf. some performers in Western cultures). If they regularly allot more than one name to their members, there may be a range of variability, such as middle names beside first and last names in Anglo-Saxon and Romance countries. Russian occupies a unique place with its de rigueur triplet of forename, patronymic (father’s name modified by a suffix), and surname, the latter two differing––within morphological limitations–– according to the sex of the bearer (e. g., the daughter of Mikhail Konstantinovich [Michael, son of Constantine] is always known as Avigeia Mikhajlovna [Abigail, daughter of Michael], regardless of a change in surname through marriage, etc.). Some cultures (like Hungarian and Japanese) impose a reverse order of given and family names compared to that of Western European ones, viz. last name preceding first name.

What is interesting in the American context is the huge variety of naming practices, owing to the fact of the multicultural population and the historical persistence of certain patterns inherited from bygone eras, such as giving the offspring the mother’s maiden name as a forename. The upshot is an impression that any combination is possible, but this is not strictly so. Jews, for instance, adhere traditionally to Biblical forenames preceding obviously Jewish surnames, although this custom is undergoing fragmentation so that one now encounters formerly unthinkable combinations like “Kevin Shapiro” or “Scott Goldberg.” And the Anglophone Chinese, particularly in Hong Kong, have, of course, long masked their proper given names with Christian ones.

Depending on knowledge and sensitivity to language, each speaker of American English will have a reaction to or evaluation of the particular combination of names borne by someone else in the culture, ranging from neutral to marked. The unusualness or rarity of a surname, for instance, may elicit questions as to its provenience.

Returning to the Shakespeare lines with which this post began, one should note that “Rose” is nowhere to be found among the hundred currently most popular girls’ given names, having been elbowed out by argosies of Tiffanys, Courtneys, Kimberlys et al. Tant pis!


Stylistics of the Alveolar Flap

The voiced consonant one hears in American English (among other varieties of English) between vowels post-tonically (= after the stress) in words like bitter and bidder is called an alveolar flap, a sound articulated with the tip of the tongue placed against the alveolar ridge and the vocal bands vibrating. This allophone (phonetic variant) of the phonemes /t/ and /d/, symbolized [ᴅ], is also heard after the post-vocalic nasal /n/, so that international is typically pronounced [-nᴅ-].

The identical intervocalic pronunciation of orthographic t and d can create an unintended comic effect when the words in question belong to two stylistically quite incompatible sectors of the lexicon. Thus, the recent frequency in the news of the Swiss name Blatter (the surname of the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter), which Americans understandably pronounce with an alveolar flap, makes the man sound like a component of human anatomy.

What has not been remarked elsewhere, however, is the stylistic restriction on such a neutralization of the difference between /t/ and /d/, namely in formal speech. But less-than-careful speakers, even radio announcers, do allow themselves to carry over their informal phonetic habits into formal diction, with noticeable effect. Thus the male radio voice one hears announcing the name of the organization, Public Radio International, after its programs habitually fails to articulate the appropriate formal variant [t]––i.e., the dental stop––in the third word, substituting the alveolar flap instead, which makes him sound less than sober.