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Archive for August, 2011

On the Ground, Boots and All

The rebarbative and utterly supererogatory phrase, on the ground, bleated by all and sundry in current media speech, preceded or not by the word boots in military contexts, may owe its popularity to metrical structure, namely its anapestic stress (with boots serving as an anacrusis when prefixed). (Cf. at the end of the day, interpreted similarly in an earlier post.)

This shows yet again the persistent recurrence in English to poetic devices willy-nilly, heedless of the doggerelesque imprint features like alliteration, so prominent in advertising lingo, invariably leave on phraseology, thereby tending to push its units even further into the category of verbal pollutants.


Der Untergang des Abendlandes

Having heard my father, a student of Husserl, frequently referring to ideas imbibed during his residence between the wars in Freiburg and Leipzig, I used to tell my students that the truth could only be expressed in German. Naturally, they took this to be just another of my unfunny jokes and smiled Cheshire-ly. But I meant what I said, hence the title of this post.

When a journalist (Robin Wright) who is the author of many books on Arab politics and the recipient of numerous awards (including a MacArthur Foundation Grant, popularly known as the “Genius Award”) is heard in a television interview (MSNBC, August 22, 2011) ignorantly and solecistically mispronouncing the verb mete in the phrase mete out justice to rhyme with met instead of meet, can one simply chalk this up to imperfect learning? No, one cannot and should not. Over and above the fact that this mistake is yet another example of bookish words no longer being the coin of the formal spoken realm, extemporaneous public discourse in America being only the palest simulacrum of anything approaching eloquence, the decline in speech culture among educated persons is the surest sign of a fundamental failure of thought, the kind that prefigures cultural collapse. Spengler would no doubt have agreed.


Rethinking Phonetic Variation (str→∫tr)

A phonetic trait of some contemporary speakers of American English is the pronunciation of initial [s] in the triconsonantal cluster –str- as a palatal [∫], so that in this change-in-progress words like strength and street sound like [∫tréŋθ] and [∫tríyt]. One correspondent has noticed it in the pronunciation of some North Carolinians and therefore tends to think of it as a dialectal feature of South/South Midland speech. Another is cautious about giving it a regional label and has taken it to be an individualism, more likely to be Southern than Northern. This trait occurs commonly in Jamaica, West Indies, when speakers of the creole patois are going up the social scale, and has also been reported in New Zealand English.

What is interesting about this phonetic development is its particularity as regards the presence of /tr/ in the cluster. Other consonantal clusters involving initial /s/ do not undergo the change, so that, for instance, words like spleen, spring, etc., are unaffected. Since /r/ and /l/ are both liquids, it would seem to be some property of /r/ and /t/ as compared to /l/ and /p/ that would likely account for the change.

In order to solve this problem, one needs to stop thinking of sound changes as narrowly grounded in the physical substance of (articulatory) phonetics, particularly when it comes to assimilation. There is no straightforward physical similarity between [∫] and [r] in American English, so even if the change of [s] to [∫] “across” [t] before [r] were reckoned to be a kind of assimilation “at a distance,” that would still leave unexplained the absence of a change in the context of [l] and [p].

A semiotic view of phonetic variation, by contrast, does provide an explanatory framework, and does so in a unitary way that fits the epistemological requirement of always seeking to reveal the isomorphism of structure between phonology and grammar. The sounds /∫/, /t/, and/r/, in English as in other languages, are marked for certain phonological features, meaning a superordinate semiotic value––relative restrictedness in conceptual scope––which is absent in /s/, /p/, and /l/, making the latter unmarked for the same features.

What the change at issue demonstrates, therefore, is the interpretative mapping of semiotic value into physical substance at the core of language. The phonetic sequence /str/ changes in the pronunciation of some speakers to /∫tr/ as a process by which the identity of /r/ and /t/ as marked sounds is instantiated. The effects of linguistic rules are, here as elsewhere, invariably the way in which language manifests––to speakers, learners, and analysts alike––the system of values that informs linguistic structure. Phonetic effects, in other words, are a diagram of phonological values. Nothing could more succinctly encapsulate the idea of phonology as semiotic.


Three, Not Two

Among the most prevalent modern-day cases of linguistic hypertrophy in American English is that of excessive repetition, in which traditionally fixed phrases comprising two identical items are pervasively being replaced by phrases with three, said without emphasis, as in over and over and over, day after day after day, side by side by sidestep by step by step. Cf. the following excrescent example, produced spontaneously in a radio interview by an otherwise fairly articulate speaker: “ran down and ran down and ran down . . . ran up and ran up and ran up . . .” (Allan Sloan, commentator, NPR, “Marketplace,” 6/5/06).

When no emphasis is intended or perceived, the trinomial as a substitute for a traditionally binomial construction can conceivably be reckoned as simply another instance of the contemporary penchant for pleonasm tout court. Note, however, that the new version always involves THREE items rather than TWO, and not more than three. This fact calls attention to itself, given the unimpeded possibility of four items rather than three––though hardly more––given the limits of normative sentence length working sub rosa in the communicative context. There is, in other words, something about the number three––vis-à-vis the number two––that works as an inducement to linguistic hypertrophy.

One could speculate that au fond this drift toward Thirdness is something inherent in the very nature of semiosis itself, defined (with C. S. Peirce) by the tri-relative bond between sign, object, and interpretant; and (nota bene) not being reducible to multiples of two.



The compound willy-nilly, corresponding to Latin nolens volens, has acquired a meaning in American English that is absent in British English, namely the second of the senses in each of the following parts of the entry in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.):


1. Whether desired or not: After her boss fell sick, she willy-nilly found herself directing the project.
2. Without order or plan; haphazardly.
1. Being or occurring whether desired or not: willy-nilly cooperation.
2. Disordered; haphazard: willy-nilly zoning laws.
[Alteration of will ye (or he), nill ye (or he), be you (or he) willing, be you (or he) unwilling.]

Compare the above with the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

A. adv.
Whether it be with or against the will of the person or persons concerned; whether one likes it or not; willingly or unwillingly, nolens volens.

1608    T. Middleton Trick to catch Old-one i. sig. B,   Thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille nille.
1797    E. Berkeley in G. M. Berkeley Poems Pref. p. ccxxix,   But her Ladyship would, willi nilhi, constantly join the one who drank the waters every morning, and converse with her.
1807    Salmagundi 25 Apr. 166   He was sure, willy nilly, to be drenched with a deluge of decoctions.
1818    J. Brown Psyche 121   From whence it follows, will y’ nill y’, The thought of your’s is mighty silly.
1884    A. Griffiths Chron. Newgate II. vii. 306   He?conceived an idea of carrying her off and marrying her willy nilly at Gretna Green.
1898    L. Stephen Stud. of Biographer II. vii. 272   You are engaged in the game willy-nilly, and cannot be a mere looker-on.
1. That is such, or that takes place, whether one will or no.

1877    Tennyson Harold v. i,   And someone saw thy willy-nilly nun Vying a tress against our golden fern.
1880    Cornhill Mag. Feb. 182   All willy-nilly spinsters went to the canine race to be consoled.
1882    Tennyson Promise of May ii. 119   If man be only A willy-nilly current of sensations.
2. erron. Undecided, shilly-shally.

1883    F. Galton Inquiries into Human Faculty 57   The willy-nilly disposition of the female in matters of love is as apparent in the butterfly as in the man.
1898    W. Besant Orange Girl ii. vi,   Let us have no more shilly shally, willy nilly talk.

When confronted with the semantic Americanism ‘haphazard (ly)’ from the AHD, the person who prompted this post, Jacobus (alias Pops), wrote to your humble blogger: “Could the dictionary be wrong? I was unaware of ‘willy nilly’ being used to mean ‘haphazard’ or ‘disoriented’.”

His query, it should be noted, is pure Goliadkin, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s masterful fiction, The Double [Двойник]. To be convinced of the aptness of the identification, read this early novella and then see the nec plus ultra exegesis by Marianne Shapiro in Russian Literature, 56 (2004), 441-482 (revised version as ch. 2 in her book, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language, 2nd, exp. ed. [2009]).


Basically – But Not Fully

An earlier post noted the frequency of the word “basically” as a discourse marker in contemporary American speech and attributed its rise to an apotropaic avoidance of assertory force. Eschewing the fallacy of the single cause forces one to look for multiple causes whenever possible, and an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today provided just the occasion.

Over the span of a brief conversation with the female host, the interviewee, Matthew Miller of Bloomberg Markets, studded his responses with “basically” at practically every turn, so that every sentence contained at least one such instance. A frequency approaching that of a verbal tic in the use of this word should probably be explained as a sign that the speaker wishes (subconsciously) to indicate that (much) more knowledge of the subject being spoken of lies submerged in his brain than is actually being expressed. Perhaps this reticence is simply a byproduct of the interview situation as it pertains to linguistic means, time constraints acting to limit the fullness of one’s responses.


Norms and Correctness

Regular readers of  this blog will have realized, at least subcutaneously, that the author has a prescriptivist bias and does not shrink from proscribing certain contemporary usage as incorrect when it violates the traditional norm. This bias still rubs almost all professional linguists the wrong way, owing to the fact that in their hearts there lurks the old behaviorist antipathy to prescribing––as against faithfully describing––whatever usage is extant. In post-war American behaviorist linguistic circles, the idea that language usage should be viewed through the prism of correctness was rejected as unscientific, an attitude epitomized by the Romanist Robert A. Hall Jr.’s 1950 book, Leave Your Language Alone!

But the social science approach to language norms, no matter how it is couched or what terminology it recognizes, ultimately comes a cropper when confronted with the undeniable presence of the criterion of correctness in every language user’s Sprachgefühl, or what a prominent contemporary theoretician of historical linguistics (nomina sunt odiosa) calls “metagrammar.” This includes the knowledge every speaker possesses of what constitutes infractions of the linguistic norm, whether or not a given language has a codified standard. This metagrammatical superstructure, as it concerns correctness, is necessarily present in every act of language use––most often in the null mode–-irrespective of school learning or modern-day usage manuals.

A useful illustrative comparison is with music. When my father taught me as a child the rudiments of chorale writing, he instructed me inter alia to “avoid parallel fifths.” Writing such sequences was simply an error. It violated the norms of chorale writing as codified in books on harmony and composition. This was not a matter of scalar values, deontic logic, or “norms of appropriateness.” Even less so was it dependent on taste or preferential behavior.

To continue in the same vein, a cellist who plays a wrong note in a Bach suite cannot justify it by appealing to creative freedom: the note is either right or wrong, either what Bach wrote or not what Bach wrote. No interpretation of Bach licenses wrong notes. Any minimally musically-literate listener would know when the cellist played a B flat instead of a B natural.

Returning to language, naturally, attitudes toward norms and correctness vary in strength across the speech community depending on speakers’ education and personal preferences. Contemporary dictionaries like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) routinely reflect this spectrum explicitly by citing the results of polling data from “Usage Panels.” For example, the verb err has a traditional pronunciation which is rapidly disappearing in American speech, as registered in AHD‘s report immediately following the entry:

Usage Note: The pronunciation (ûr) for the word err is traditional, but the pronunciation (er) has gained ground in recent years, perhaps owing to influence from errant and error, and must now be regarded as an acceptable variant. The Usage Panel was split on the matter: 56 percent preferred (ûr), 34 percent preferred (er), and 10 percent accepted both pronunciations.”

When my gym trainer (a native speaker of American English in his thirties) pronounces err in the common phrase “to err on the side of caution” to rhyme with air, I immediately register it as incorrect, a violation of the (traditional) norm, even though I know full well that the pronunciation is not idiosyncratic. His phonetic trait does not lower him in my estimation of him as a trainer, but for better or worse it does automatically align him with those who are ignorant of (or knowingly ignore) the norm that characterizes my own speech.


No(t a) Problem

The contemporary response to a request, not a problem or no problem, has spread from American English to all of the European languages, e. g., German kein Problem, French pas de problème(s), (Serbo-)Croatian nema problema, Bulgarian няма проблем, Russian нет проблем, etc. Note, however, that the word “problem” is calqued in the plural rather than the source language’s singular.

As they say in Russian, Спрашивается ‘[literally] one asks’, or Why? More to the point, why do people habitually resort to  this mindless formula? Apropos, here’s a bit of text from an exchange between a customer and a waitress (native speaker of American English, ca. 25 years old):

Waitress: “Would you like to see a dessert list?”
Customer: “Actually, I’d just like a double decaf espresso.”
Waitress: “Not a problem.”

Now, such a quotidian exchange might need no interpretation, being utterly straightforward. But the question arises nonetheless, why the waitress didn’t just say “Certainly, sir,” or “Of course,” or “Right away.” Why just “Not a problem?”

A literalist approach might make one surmise that the waitress actually wanted to convey the idea that, whereas some restaurants had no espresso machine, hers did, hence making a demitasse of double decaf espresso would not constitute a problem. But this would be tantamount to clobbering linguistic gnats with a psychological trebuchet. Her réplique was, after all, just a mindlessly spontaneous resort to a token of language use tout court, a cliché and nothing more. But this description is too facile, for the following reason.

Every utterance involves a choice by the speaking self from among a repertoire of contextually equipossible variant words or expressions signifying the same general meaning, and the range of possibility includes inventories of clichés as well. The waitress made a choice, which means that she privileged an expression token involving the word problem rather than the alternatives. The upshot is the involvement of an IMPLICIT HIERARCHY, where rank relations among possible variants always imply the presence of VALUE STYLE as a necessary frame for all uses of language, no matter how humble or mundane.


[Addendum: Patrick Honan points out (viva voce) that “no problem” is commonly used nowadays instead of “you’re welcome” as a retort to “Thanks.” One could, of course, construe this usage as a shorthand for “Whatever you’re thanking me for was not a problem (for me).”]

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