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Archive for November, 2011

Loya Jirga, If You Will

It is a curiosity of present-day media discourse that the Pashto phrase loya jirga ‘grand council’ is constantly being cited (generally, without translation) in its autochthonous form instead of being translated into English, as would a comparable phrase in any other foreign language.

Here is (an admittedly speculative) explanation. The two words in Pashto (the national language of Afghanistan) fit nicely into what is the standard––and likely most frequent––phrase pattern of English, viz. two dissyllabic words with stress on the initial syllable in both; cf. fatty acid, funny money, loyal member, etc., etc. In addition, use of the Pashto phrase obviates the need for a slightly more cumbersome English equivalent like grand assembly or grand council, where one might be unsure as to which noun would fit better, assembly or council.

Finally, to clinch the case, for a media outlet the use of an easily pronounceable foreign phrase is advantageous because it is (1) unambiguous; and (2) connotes a possible (though almost certainly spurious) purport, namely, knowledge of an exotic foreign language. The latter is important because it imparts a kind of subcutaneous authenticity to the media report and its source that cannot be signified in any other way.


The Linguistic Acknowledgment of Human Identity

When a large sign directing patients and ambulances to the entrance of a hospital’s emergency room has the words EMERGENCY and EMERGENCIA emblazoned on it in neon-lit majuscules, the first (in English) above the second (in Spanish), one might justifiably question why any literate Spanish speaker would require the second for guidance at all, the meaning being completely transparent from the English version alone despite the minor orthographic discrepancy.

There are two reasons for the seeming redundancy that suggest themselves, one practical, the other ontological and axiological. First, the occurrence of the Spanish version below the English signifies that, though subordinate in status, Spanish is spoken by at least some members of the hospital staff. Second, and more importantly, it is a sign––in the Peircean as well as the quotidian sense––that acknowledges soundlessly to Latino patients that their cultural status as speakers of a minority language in contemporary America does not ipso facto render them a quantité négligeable at precisely the vulnerable moment when they appear as suffering human beings most in need of succor.


The Onomastic Infantilization of Females

During the last half-century there has been a noticeable increase in a particular kind of first names for girls, specifically non-traditional forenames that derive from largely Anglo-Saxon surnames and end orthographically in –(e)y or –i(e) (pronounced identically, i. e., [-iy]). Whereas in earlier times this (quasi-)suffix––which also occurs in boys’ nicknames that are abbreviations (Bobby < Robert, Mickey < Michael, etc.)––modified (mainly WASP) girls’ nicknames like Missy, Sissy, or Trixie, it is now the unifying mark of popular Christian names like Tiffany, Kimberly, Hailey, Ashley, Avery, Kaylee, Riley, Bailey, Aubrey, Kiley, Sidney, Mackenzie, and even Serenity, Trinity, and Destiny, not to speak of older staples like Emily, Lily, Lucy, Molly, Naomi, etc. (NB: all these names––except for Missy, Sissy, and Trixie–– are drawn from the list of 100 most popular girls’ names compiled by the Social Security Administration for May 2011.)

Forenames like Ashley and Kimberly have the advantage of sounding like surnames while maintaining a tie with hypocoristic (here: affective) vocabulary, which means that they can do double duty for children and for adults, and not be mistaken for nicknames despite their phonetic resemblance to the latter.

It is clear that the attractiveness of names ending in [-iy] stems to a considerable extent from the (subconscious?) desire of parents to infantilize their female offspring in perpetuity, a motive that does not apply to males for obvious reasons. This onomastic trend is evidently of a piece with another linguistic feature, viz. the infantilization of female vocal timbre (“little girl voice”) beyond childhood into adolescence and adulthood, a trend that has been increasing in North American English for several decades, and that can only have the lamentable effect of subtly undermining some of the social gains of the feminist revolution.


Please in the Passive Voice

The word please is so ubiquitous that one hardly gives a second thought to how it is used––and whether there may have been a change in how it is construed in its status as a verb. Here is how the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2006) defines it:

v. tr.
1. To give enjoyment, pleasure, or satisfaction to; make glad or contented.
2. To be the will or desire of: May it please the court to admit this firearm as evidence.

v. intr.
1. To give satisfaction or pleasure; be agreeable: waiters who try hard to please.
2. To have the will or desire; wish: Do as you please. Sit down, if you please.

When it comes to the use of the passive voice, there is a generational difference applying to the acceptance or rejection of pleased (past passive participle) as uttered by a speaker of inferior status/rank toward an interlocutor of superior status/rank. A member of the older generation will, for instance, tend to reject as impolite (if not impertinent) a greeting by a waiter toward a diner couched in the form “We’re pleased to have you,” since the expression of pleasure by a person rendering service can hardly be relevant to the context of such an interaction, the rank of the waiter being necessarily construed as inferior to that of the customer. But for speakers of the younger generation––as well as generations of older speakers with less finely-tuned sensitivities to matters of rank––such uses of the passive voice of the verb to please routinely pass muster without raising a stylistic eyebrow.

It should be noted that the asymmetric rank relations obtaining between participants in the speech act of significantly different ages can be neutralized and inverted when special circumstances intervene, as in the student-teacher relation. Accordingly, a seventy-one-year-old man being instructed by a twenty-six-year-old fitness trainer could hardly take umbrage at being told that the instructor “is pleased” with his progress.



Different(ly) From/Than

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2006) supplies a “Usage Note” after its entry for the adjective different, in which it is claimed that “Different from and different than are both common in British and American English.” An attempt is then made to fashion (out of whole cloth) a series of rationales to counter unnamed “language critics” who “since the 18th century . . . have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers.”

What is beyond dispute is that increasingly in contemporary speech and writing one finds the adjective different (and the adverb differently) taking the complement than instead of the normative from, e. g., Peirce is different than Wittgenstein, etc. In colloquial American English the construction with from appears to be diminishing in frequency, although there are certainly still many speakers who never use than instead of from after different(ly).

An explanation of this change in syntax can begin with a consideration of the two semantic relations involved in the concept of difference––distinction and comparison––together with the condition of their being ranked hierarchically vis-à-vis each other within the semantic syntagm (complex unit) that comprises this concept and its realizations. (Note, incidentally, that the semantic asymmetry that emanates from the ranking of the relations in a linguistic syntagm is not the same thing as asymmetric relations in logic.)

What we have here is an alternative ranking of the two relations embodied in the concepts of distinction and comparison. These two hierarchies reflect two possible emphases, which can be called hypotaxis and parataxis. The normative construction different from can be analyzed as a syntactic diagram (in the Peircean sense) of a hypotactic emphasis in the ranking of the two relevant components: distinction is ranked higher than comparison (i. e., the latter is dampened or bracketed in the syntagm). This ranking emphasizes the asymmetrical aspect of the terms juxtaposed or combined in the syntagm. The non-normative construction different than, on the other hand, can be analyzed as a syntactic diagram of a paratactic emphasis in the hierarchy: comparison is ranked higher than distinction (it is distinction that is now dampened or bracketed rather than comparison). This second ranking emphasizes the symmetrical aspect, that the terms are juxtaposed in the syntagm. Cf. the use of different predicatively (A is so different!) or appositively (A is a different product!––i. e., ‘distinctive’) in advertising lingo (but not only).

From the point of view of linguistic structure, then, one could conclude from this analysis that the ranking difference (alternative hierarchies) in the semantic syntagm associated with the concept and word different is manifested syntactically as a difference in complements: from means difference or non-equivalence, and than means comparison or equivalence of the terms on either side of the construction. Notionally, one could interpret this change as a shift away from the understanding (inherently, in the grammar) of different as embodying contradictory relations, to that of its embodying contrary relations (gradience).

An analysis that trades in competing semantic hierarchies may not seem to constitute an explanation of the change from one syntactic pattern to another, but this is not strictly so. The nature of grammar is such that what appears in speech or is expressed can always be traced to underlying grammatical relations ––which are semantic in their essence ––as its cause. But in the syntactic change discussed above, one unsatisfied with this type of intrinsic explanation might which to speculate about causes inherent in the larger communicative situation. Although hard evidence is unavailable, perhaps the change has its transcendent explanation in the larger tendency within contemporary American culture to neutralize social hierarchies, i. e., to scant hypotaxis in favor of parataxis. With the encompassing social structure and its flux as a reference point, the change in grammar would find its place as a piece of worldmaking.



Norm, System, Usage, and the Metalinguistic Function

The seven (eight?) year old boy was talking to his mother on a Manhattan bus, which was slowly making its way down Columbus Avenue through thick traffic occasioned by the New York City Marathon. “It’s really trafficky,” said the mother. “‘Trafficky’ is not a word,” retorted the boy. “It’s a word if people understand it,” was the mother’s response, putting paid to the exchange and a quietus on her son.

In a sense, the little boy and his mother were both right. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2006) agrees with the boy (trafficky is unattested therein), but any non-juvenile native speaker of contemporary American English would agree with the mother.

Every linguistic utterance takes place in a communicative context defined by the speaker’s orientation and the latter’s associated function. When the orientation is toward establishing contact, the function is called phatic; when toward the content, referential; when toward the code, metalinguistic; when toward the addressee, conative; when toward the addresser, emotive; when toward the message, poetic.

For the boy, whose utterance was an exercise of the metalinguistic function, the judgment expressed thereby reflected a good command of the norm, i.e., of historically sanctioned usage, but only an incomplete, juvenile knowledge of the grammatical system that also countenances usage in statu nascendi. For the mother, by contrast, the internalized  system (of derivational morphology) was mature and, therefore, elastic enough to encompass everything functional that is productive in the language, including usage that exists in potentia.


Sound and Sense in a Language’s Bauplan

The levels of patterning in language consist of (1) system, i. e., everything functional that is productive in a language, including usage that exists in potentia; (2) norms, i. e., usage that is historically realized and codified in a given speech community; and (3) type, i. e., the specific Bauplan or underlying design of a language.

Within the compass of the third level, namely Bauplan, falls a language’s predilection for collocational structure, as in proverbs and paronomasia generally. One language’s meat can be another’s poison. Thus, a typical alliterative sequence of English like neither kith nor kin is utterly alien to Japanese, where in a proverb like Horeta me ni wa abata mo ekubo れたには痘痕 ‘to a lover’s eyes even a pockmark is a dimple’ (= “Love is blind.”), sound offers no support to sense.


Pluriverbation (Skill Set, Data Point)

The past two decades have seen the general hypertrophic trend in American English extended to what could be called (for lack of an accepted term) pluriverbation, i. e., the converse of univerbation, the latter being a designation of the process by which two or more words are turned into one. In the case of skill set and data point, two phrases that constantly crop up in contemporary speech and writing, the plural substantives skills and data are both decomposed into the phrases at issue, but in divergent ways. In the first example, where a simple plural skills would have sufficed, the deriving base skill (sg.) is transformed into an unsuffixed adjective. In the second example, the deriving base data, construed as a collective singular (through suppression of the singular form datum), assumes the form of the adjective.

Why? In the case of skill set, beside the impulse toward hypertrophy, one could speculate that the collective meaning conveyed by set imparts a semantic nuance lacking in the simple plural. And in the case of data point, the desire to focus on a specific datum is not well served because of the growing obsolescence of the singular.

But over and above these details, there is overall a strong tendency in American culture toward the engorgement of diction through redundancies, tautologies, and pleonasms of all stripes (as in “advance planning,” etc.). One could easily surmise that some of these hypertrophies arise from a need to be explicit, to repeat for emphasis, but a close analysis reveals that this is not so. Pleonasms, etc. always exhibit a widening of boundaries, and it is undoubtedly true that boundaries are among the most unstable of linguistic entities, more liable to shift (metanalysis) over time than other such units.

A stereoscopic view of the entire variety of cases where an enlargement has occurred reveals what is at bottom a FAILURE OF THOUGHT, of a piece with a “culture of excess.” Linguistic hypertrophy may, in the final analysis, be particularly true of the grammars of historically marginalized groups in society, for whom literacy and education have only recently become as common as among the traditional elites. It would be tempting to speculate that tautological constructions in speech and writing are—in their aspect of characteristically displaced boundaries—a linguistic manifestation of an unstable social identity.


Profanity in the Age of Depravity

Linguistic profanity (“foul language”) is not as widespread in the languages of the world as one might infer from its prevalence in English (or Russian, for that matter, with its elaborate system of swear words and sayings known as mat [< mat’ ‘mother’]). Japanese, for example, has only a handful of the mildest profanities, and Hebrew (unlike Yiddish) has had to borrow wholesale from the rich lode of Arabic to stock this sector of its lexicon.

Coarseness of speech in American English has increased in the public domain during the last thirty years, along with a general coarsening of manners and morals, witness the routine occurrence of formerly banned colloquial designations of genitalia and associated bodily functions in the speech of females. When a young female trainer unblushingly uses the word butt (as in butt cheeks, instead of buttocks or rear-end) in referring to the anatomical part of a geriatric client, one can only conclude that the age of depravity is indisputably upon us.


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