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Archive for September, 2011

Geekish so Aggrandized

The  emergence of discourse-introductory so in the speech of computer geeks was noted in an earlier post, but closer attention to the language of adolescents and college students has prompted a further exploration of the topic in a wider context.

The emotive connotation of an utterance can be signaled by a number of means, most prominent among which are intonation and affective (particularly, hypocoristic) vocabulary. Discourse strategies can also subserve what is at bottom an emotive aim, viz. predisposing one’s interlocutor to regard favorably––or, at least, to postpone judgment on––whatever is being asserted. In this respect the opening gambit can set the tone, including establishing a channel of communication (i. e., the so-called PHATIC function of speech). This is where discourse-introductory so comes in.

The widespread, practically obligatory use of the word so to open a discourse or join one in the language of the younger generation of present-day American English speakers goes beyond the phatic function, however. In a culture which prizes the establishment and maintenance of anodyne relations in order to promote stylistic solidarity between its members at all costs, an annex has been built in to adjoin the phatic, which can only be regarded as APOTROPAIC.


Estrangement by Colloquialism

The range of stylistic inappropriateness in language use is immeasurably wide, but one subspecies is deserving of note in the current climate of the spread of English as the world’s lingua franca, namely the insertion of a colloquialism by non-native speakers in an otherwise formal context. This act invariably makes for an estrangement from the speaker by listeners when the former has a marked foreign accent, no matter how grammatically fluent the person’s command of the language.

This stylistically jarring phenomenon was exemplified by the radio clip (on NPR) of a recorded pronouncement by the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Olivier Blanchard, a Frenchman with a marked accent who has apparently spent his professional life in the USA. Mr. Blanchard, who was heard today using the colloquialism “getting their act together” in referring to the European nations’ sovereign debt crisis, exemplified the alienating effect of such an irruption, which moreover has the conceivable subsidiary (and clearly unintended) consequence of diminishing the listener’s credence in the utterance’s validity.


Androgyny and the Feminization of Male Speech

That young people in America in the early twenty-first century are tending toward an androgynous self-fashioning is beyond doubt, but a sub-category of this trend should also be noted as it pertains to speech patterns. Young males (adolescents and those in their twenties, in particular) are steadily adopting the language of the female members of their cohort, in two salient and conjugate respects: (1) interrogative intonation on subordinate clauses in declarative sentences; and (2) the (non-quotative) use of the word like to the point of verbal tichood as a way of defanging every assertory element in the sentence, from single words to whole phrases. Both of these discourse strategies originate in strictly female speech and have now invaded that of young males. As remarked upon in earlier posts, this detail of language use in contemporary American English is further evidence of the fact that a person’s sex is less and less determinative of their role and their behavior in the culture than is class.


Running the Show

No other language than English has expressions with equivalents for the word show to mean being in charge (“running the show”). In fact, the modern European languages (cf. R shou) have borrowed E show for varieties of theatrical presentation because they lack equivalents that would straddle the whole semantic range of this useful little word. But what the expression betrays is something much deeper, going to the most fundamental characterization of the English nation, to wit, that the whole world is a stage. Shakespeare was only putting into words what has been known about his nation from the beginning of time. (That outlook accounts also for the fact that English philosophers have no metaphysics.)

Apropos, note the spread of words like actor and player in contemporary Anglophone discourse as substitutes for participant and other words meaning ‘person in charge, important personage’. What’s uppermost for the English forma mentis as expressed in language use is “putting on a good show” and “making a good show of it,” hence the typical British expression “good show!” to signify approval.



There is perhaps no more important island in the world. Those who live there or are familiar with the correct pronunciation of its name say M[ə]nháttan, with a schwa in the first syllable, unlike those who either know the correct pronunciation and choose to ignore it or are simply ignorant of it. (As a former resident of Manhattan [1980-2003], who has recently come back to the borough to live once again, I can report that it grates on my ear every time I hear the word mispronounced.)

In the case of Manhattan, Kansas, or Manhattan Beach, California, naturally, the relevant vowel is not a schwa but the expected [æ].

This case illustrates the possibility that local pronunciations of toponyms may differ from generally more familiar ones. In the USA, think of towns that carry the name Vienna, Cairo, and Berlin but diverge phonetically from their form as designations of foreign cities.


Reading Pronunciations

What is traditionally called spelling pronunciation is actually a misnomer: it should be called reading pronunciation because all such incorrect pronunciations actually arise in the process of reading unfamiliar words rather than spelling them. Modern dictionaries such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2006) typically dignify these errors by listing them alongside the traditionally correct form. For example, the reading pronunciation of equinox, with the same first vowel as echo, is given (second) after the form with the same first vowel as equal.

For the most part, reading pronunciations arise in words of Latinate (Anglo-Norman) origin, specifically and primarily as concerns the vowels of a given word. Here, British English has a long and venerable tradition of Anglicizing the pronunciation by rendering the vowels as diphthongs. Hence, for instance, instead of pronouncing pace ‘with the permission of; with deference to’ (< Latin pāce, ablative of pāx ‘peace’) as [pɛ́isi:] to rhyme with racy, speakers who have never actually heard this word uttered by a knowledgeable person will pronounce it [pɑ́čɛi], i.e. the stressed first vowel to rhyme with pocket, the unstressed second with hay, in accordance with the misguided American practice that makes Latin into a kind of Italian, and in fact it is this pronunciation of pace that is registered in The American Heritage Dictionary, which lists it first.

It is ignorance of the traditional anglicized pronunciation––nothing more, nothing less––that accounts not only for the erroneous pronunciation of Latinate vocabulary but of foreign nomina propria like Ossetia/Ossetian and Iran/Iranian. In each such instance, the traditional diphthong of the stressed vowel is replaced by a monophthong that is the result of a reading pronunciation.


Homage to Ignorance

In the last few years one hears increasingly the mispronunciation of the word homage, whose pedigree in English as an Old French loan word goes back to at least the 13th century (1290 being the date of the earliest OED attestation). Anyone who has it as a secure item of vocabulary and has actually heard it pronounced by knowledgeable speakers on both sides of the Atlantic knows that (1) the stress falls on the first syllable; (2) the initial vowel is the same as in the word palm, whether pronounced “aichlessly” (with H-dropping) or not, both being correct; (3) the second vowel is unstressed and, therefore, the same as in the word garbage; ditto (4) the final consonant. The phonetic transcription is, consequently, [(h)ɑ́mɨǯ].

Younger speakers in America who utter this word can be heard pronouncing it à la française, i.e. with the stress on the last syllable, no [h], and a final fricative [ž]; thus [omáž].

One Englishman wrote to the NPR Ombudsman in 2004 to alert the network to this mistake, and his warning is reproduced as follows (Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, “The Joy of Text,” NPR.org, November 23, 2004):

‘Hom-age… not O-mahj’
Jonathan Leonhart is a listener in London who writes to say that NPR should pronounce the word “homage” with a soft “H,” as an English and not as a French word:

Could you please circulate a memo to all your NPR correspondents and show hosts… informing them of the PROPER pronunciation of the word “homage?” The people you hear most frequently mispronouncing it as a French word are the Hollywood airheads in their commentary accompaniments on DVDs. “O-mahj…  o-mahj… o-mahj” Give me a break. It’s as pathetic as the classic over-correction “between he and I”–a semi-literate attempt to sound “smart,” made so much sadder by how wrong it is.

Leonhart helpfully includes a link to pronunciation from Merriam-Webster (“an AMERICAN dictionary,” he hastens to add).

The key word in Mr. Leonhart’s letter is “airheads.” It is ignorance pure and simple that accounts for this erroneous pronunciation. And it is far from the only instance of insecure knowledge of one’s own language being at the root of linguistic change.

[Update, October 2010: Cf. now the repeated mispronunciation of homage by a not-so-young Englishman, the presenter Mark Coles (BBC, “The Strand,” October 15, 2010)]


The Evisceration of Meaning

When the first Gulf War broke out (“Desert Storm”), I invented a joke, which goes as follows:

Question: “Where’s Kuwait?”
Answer: “Between a rock and a hard place.”

Now, whatever humor this inanity may exhibit depends on the new pronunciation of Iraq as [ɨrɑ́k] instead of the traditional [ɨrǽk].

But what I want to concentrate on is the non-jocular sense of the answer, which everybody knows is a fixed expression meaning “confronted with equally unpleasant alternatives and few or no opportunities to evade or circumvent them.”

Why do Americans use this utterly flat locution? No self-respecting originator of English proverbs would ever have coined such a phrase. The English nation gave us “a stitch in time saves nine.” It gave us “In for a penny, in for a pound.” But “a hárd place?” How bathetic can you get?

“Hard place,” with its obligatory primary stress on hard to signify a derived compound, carries absolutely no punch at all. It’s the veriest limp dishrag semantically, with a meaning so eviscerated as to be almost void of meaning.

Yet people launch this lead balloon of a phrase all the time, just as they do the compound noun “wake up call.” Think of it! Something whose origins are mere telephone calls from the front desk of a hotel to a guest who asks to be woken at a certain hour is now used ubiquitously to mean any kind of unexpected alert or alarm (even though “wake up call” in its original use was anything but unexpected). “9/11 was a wake up call for the nation.” The atrocity of the century a WAKE UP CALL? Bathos on a stick!

Now, compare this metaphorical nothingness with “Between the Devil and the deep blue sea;” or––even better––”Between Scylla and Charybdis,” which means “In a position where avoidance of one danger exposes one to another danger.” It exists as an expression in every European language.

Scylla and Charybdis are two sea monsters of Greek mythology who inhabited opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy.

Charybdis takes the form of a monstrous mouth that swallows huge amounts of water three times a day before spewing them back out again, creating whirlpools. She was originally a naiad, a sea-nymph who stole Heracles’ cattle until Zeus became angry, threw her into the sea, and, as punishment, turned her into a sea monster.

Scylla was a grotesque creature with six long necks surmounted by grisly heads, each with a triple row of teeth, that devoured six men at a time. She wore a girdle of dogs’ heads about her loins.

The myth has Charybdis lying on one side of a narrow channel of water. On the other side was Scylla. The two sides are a stone’s throw from each other, so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass too close to Scylla and vice versa.

Next time you’re tempted to utter the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place” think of Scylla and Charybdis. It’ll be a wake up call.



Tuning in to a classical music station, I heard the announcer introduce a chaconne from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s music for Molière’s comédie-ballet, “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” During his otherwise erudite preamble, uttered in admirably impeccable “radio-announcer” American English, the speaker repeatedly mispronounced the title of Molière’s work, specifically the third word. Although it was evident that he was making an effort to get the French right, the word gentilhomme [ʒãtii̯ɔ́m] kept coming out [jɛ̀ntɨlxóu̯m]––a blatant Anglicization that made no concession to the phonetics of the original language. Phonetically and stylistically, the pronunciation was what is called a barbarism.

The Fourth Edition (2006) of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a barbarism as “1. An act, trait, or custom characterized by ignorance or crudity;” also “2.a The use of words, forms, or expressions considered incorrect or unacceptable;” and “2b. A specific word, form, or expression so used.” The etymology given is:

[Latin barbarismus, use of a foreign tongue or of one’s own tongue amiss, barbarism, from Greek barbarismos, from barbarizein, to behave or speak like a barbarian, from barbaros, non-Greek, foreign (imitative of the sound of unintelligible speech).]

In an appended “Usage Note” one is told, moreover, that “The English word barbarism originally referred to incorrect use of language, but it is now used more generally to refer to ignorance or crudity in matters of taste, including verbal expression.”

There is no reason to expect radio announcers in America, no matter how cultivated-sounding, to be able to come out with authentic renderings of foreign words, including names and titles. But when French gentilhomme is mangled to the degree that it was by our morning announcer, to the ear of someone who knows how French ought to sound this mispronunciation is evaluated as a barbarism because it signifies a lack of effort on the announcer’s part to acquaint himself with so much as the minimum knowledge of French phonetics needed to make gentilhomme sound respectable.

Beyond that, it raises the more general question of the standards of speech that have been applied by the station employing the announcer who makes such an egregious mess of the foreign word. Whatever else his qualifications, why has no one in charge insured that all announcers have under their belt at least the rudiments of the several European languages––chiefly French, German, and Italian––that occur in the names of composers and the titles of their works? After all, a native speaker of English doesn’t have to sport a perfect Parisian accent in order to make a good stab at mimicking French speech. But [jɛ̀ntɨlxóu̯m] just won’t cut the mustard.

It would be just as much a barbarism to render Richard Wagner as [rɨ́çərd wǽgnər] instead of the appropriate Anglicization [rɨ́xart vágnər] that seeks to approximate German [rɨ́x̹art vá:knə]. Of course, with somewhat more exotic languages like Russian or Czech or Polish, announcers can be excused for anglicizing composers’ names and the original titles of their works. No one could be accused of crudity or lack of good taste for pronouncing Shostakovich [ʃɔ̀stəkóu̯vɨç] with a full initial vowel and penultimate secondary stress instead of the authentic [ʃəstʌkóviç], which in Russian has only one stress and appears with pretonic vowels that are of lesser duration and quality (called “reduced” in Russian phonetics) than the values of their stressed counterparts. [Note: Russian is a language whose orthography does not reflect the change of vowel values in unstressed positions.] Such pronunciations––even those where the stress has been shifted to conform to English patterns, as in Glázunov [glázunɔ̀v] vs. the authentic Glazunóv [gləzunóf] (with one stressed syllable and a devoiced final consonant)––have always been accepted as belonging to the repertory of cultivated Anglicizations. The game way in which announcers are now trying to cope with the new Russian President’s name, Dmitri Medvedev, by eschewing the traditional Anglicization in such surnames whereby the primary stress is shifted to the initial syllable from its proper (Russian) place on the second syllable—thus [mɛ́dvɛdɛ̀v]—and opting for a simulacrum of the original [m’idv’éd’if], is not to be taken as a barbarism.

Speaking of barbarisms and the rendering of foreign words or names, the inverse of pronouncing gentilhomme as [jɛ̀ntɨlxóu̯m] is also worthy of note in the speech of radio announcers. Here I have in mind the rebarbative irruption (especially) of authentic Spanish pronunciations in what is otherwise native English speech. Thus, there are announcers who habitually pronounce every Spanish word of their utterances in English as if they were speaking Spanish––particularly their own name, when they identify themselves––i.e. without conceding one iota to the customary Anglicization of such items. Now, while one can understand such speakers’ desire to display their knowledge of Spanish as a sign of abiding fealty to the Latino community despite their accentless English, one cannot help evaluating it as a barbarism when one hears Adolfo Lopez pronounce his name [adólfo lópɛs], with the stressed closed vowel [o] of Mexican Spanish in the forename and the final voiceless consonant [s] in the surname––instead, respectively, of the stressed open vowel of English Dalton and the voiced final consonant of blazes.

Both kinds of pronunciations––that of the mangled gentilhomme and of the hypercorrect Adolfo Lopez­­­­––are of a piece. In the apt imagery of the Russian idiom, rézat’úxo, they are barbarisms because they ‘cut [one’s] ear’.


The Physiognomy of Speech

No two people speak exactly alike. Differences in age, sex (women have smaller larynxes than men), family background, education, class, and geographical provenience all leave their imprint on individual language use. The ensemble of features making up a person’s speech are signified by the term IDIOLECT. Each member of a speech community, moreover, typically belongs to a social group whose speech is uniform enough to be characterized in its ensemble by the term SOCIOLECT. There is also a stratification of sociolects, encompassing particularities of speech that owe their origins to social and regional dialects even as speakers in a particular sociolect still adhere to the linguistic norm set down in industrialized societies by the spread of standard languages through increasing literacy and the uniformity promoted by media language.

If one takes the viewpoint of an attentive listener or interlocutor, who is alternately silent while fulfilling the role of a conversation partner, then the linguistic behavior of the speaking participants can be observed in all their semiotic plenitude. This includes not only pronunciation of speech sounds (phonetics proper) and choice of vocabulary (including verbal tics) but variable suprasegmental features (such as intonation) as well as peculiarities of speech production (mush-mouthedness, lisps, vocal timbre and register, etc.).

Beyond language sensu stricto are the gestural features––those termed PARALINGUISTIC––that invariably accompany speech: (1) acoustic manifestations like sips (intakes of breath), sighs, grunts, and various other sounds; (2) bodily movements, including shrugs, arm and hand gestures, head bobs and inclines; lip, mouth, eye, and forehead movements, etc. In some languages these paralinguistic features are completely codified and have practically univocal interpretations, e. g., the sharp intake of breath in Japanese through the lips and teeth that signifies doubt or hesitation; or the typically less abrupt intake through the mouth in the Scandinavian languages accompanying some statements, especially those with concessive meaning.

The upshot of each person’s having an idiolect goes far beyond its practical utility (as in speech recognition protocols) and plays a salient role in interpersonal relations. Consciously or not, our EVALUATION of persons with whom we interact is differentially contingent on their speech traits in the round. Depending on the importance we attach to how our interlocutors speak the language we share, their prestige in our eyes generally rises and falls in the degree to which THEY SPEAK LIKE US.


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