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Archive for December, 2011

Conflation via Opacity of Constituent Structure

When the constituent structure of a word or phrase fades over time, i. e., when the meaning and resultant separability of the constituents cease to be transparent to the speakers of a language, the word or phrase may be conflated with another one, whose meaning is similar, leading to variants that are not on a par orthoepically. This is what has happened with the phrase on behalf of in the recent history of (American) English.

More and more in public discourse, instead of on the part of in its strictly instrumental (agentive) meaning speakers substitute on behalf of, whose traditional meaning is ‘for the benefit of; in the interest of’ rather than ‘as the agent of; on the part of’. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2006) records this substitution and (typically) makes no distinction in its Usage Note:

Usage Note: A traditional rule holds that in behalf of and on behalf of have distinct meanings. In behalf of means “for the benefit of,” as in We raised money in behalf of the earthquake victims. On behalf of means “as the agent of, on the part of,” as in The guardian signed the contract on behalf of the minor child. The two meanings are quite close, however, and the phrases are often used interchangeably, even by reputable writers.

But as the etymological data in the Oxford English Dictionary Online entry give one to understand, the present-day ascription of purely instrumental meaning to on behalf of, by which this phrase is equated with on the part of, is a misconstrual of its structure. Here are the two relevant etymologies, for half and behalf:

Etymology: A Common Germanic n.: Old English healf (feminine) = Old Saxon halƀa (Middle Dutch, Middle Low German halve ), Old High German halba (Middle High German halbe ), Old Norse halfa (hálfa), Gothic halba side, half . . .The oldest sense in all the languages is ‘side’.

Etymology: Used only in the phrases on, in behalf (of), in, on (his, etc.) behalf , which arose about 1300, by the blending of the two earlier constructions on his halve and bihalve him, both meaning ‘by or on his side’ . . . By the mixture of these in the construction on his bihalve, . . . previously a preposition, and originally a phrase, be healfe ‘by (the) side,’ became treated, so far as construction goes, as a n., and had even a plural behalfes , behalfs in 16–17th cent. The final -e of Middle English was the dative ending. In modern use, construed either with a possessive pronoun (in my behalf), a possessive case (in the king’s behalf), or with of (in behalf of the starving population); the choice being determined by considerations of euphony and perspicuity. Formerly of was sometimes omitted.

The explanation for the misconstrual and resulting conflation of the two phrases is to be sought in the opacity of the word behalf, which has no currency outside of the two idiomatic phrases noted.


Voiceless Vowels and Vowel Loss

Many languages exhibit voiceless vowels, by which is meant the pronunciation of a vowel sound in certain contexts without the vibration of the vocal bands. Voicelessness typically precedes vowel loss, as in English lone from alone or round from around. This sort of phenomenon can be observed in the speech of Barack Obama, who routinely either unvoices or drops the initial vowel in America(n), as does the (cloying) radio host Ira Glass (“This American Life”), illustrating what is called APHESIS, defined as the loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word.

The loss of a vowel and/or an adjacent consonant can also occur in the middle or end of a word, in which case it is called syncope (medial syllables, as in bos’n for boatswain) or apocope (final syllables, as in sing < Old English singan). Such phonetic processes are first observed historically in colloquial or allegro tempo varieties of speech (for instance, the so-called loss of the “jers” [= supershort vowels] in medieval Slavic) and are then generalized to all styles regardless of tempo. In Japanese the high vowels i and u are regularly syncopated between voiceless consonants in all styles unless emphasis is called for, in which case they can be reinstated in lento tempo. French routinely syncopates medial vowels in neutral (elliptical) speech (cf. maintenant, etc.), reinstating them when called for in explicit style.

What vowel loss illustrates is the INDEXICAL FUNCTION of contextual variation in language. Aphesis and syncope are always tied to specific phonetic contexts, and they are thus SIGNS––INDEXES, to be precise––of both the value of the vowel involved, on one hand, and the value of the consonants in the segmental context, on the other. This semiotic grounding of the phenomena at issue insures the solidarity between rules and contexts, absent which the phonology of a language––like all the components of grammar––would not be the coherent system that it is.


Associative Meaning Fields: Interlingual Gaps and Overlaps

All languages have meaning fields, which is to say that words enter into associative networks formed by connotative variants that extend basic dictionary meanings into semantic nooks and crannies that accommodate subsidiary concepts. In the European languages that share Latin and Greek etyma as historical points of departure, post-medieval and modern developments do not necessarily dovetail, producing interesting differences in semantic utilization of recognizably similar or identical roots. An interesting case in point are the Latin and Greek antecedents of two common words, grammar and letter, in English and Russian.

In English the word grammar is given the following etymology in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2006):

Middle English gramere, from Old French gramaire, alteration of Latin grammatica, from Greek grammatikē, from feminine of grammatikos, of letters, from gramma, grammat-, letter

In Russian the word is grammatika (грамматика), which adheres more closely to the Greek etymon. The latter, as it is captured in the above etymology, derives from the word for ‘letter’, which shows us how rules of language structure (alias grammar) and the symbols of written language were directly associated in Greek derivational morphology.

Our English word letter, by contrast, has the following Latin etymology (also from the AHD): “Middle English, from Old French lettre, from Latin littera.” The adjective literal and the substantive literature no longer maintain the double t of the original and have departed from the Latin sense to configure the modern meanings we have today that are still rooted in the concept of being “lettered.”

In Russian, the word litera, also from the same Latin patrimony, now has only a somewhat recondite meaning, viz. ‘letter’ (archaic) and ‘type’ (the typographical entity), although the word for ‘literature’ is practically the same as in English, namely literatura. Whereas English uses literal to mean ‘adhering strictly to the letter’, by contrast Russian resorts for this meaning to the adjective bukval’nyj, derived from the word bukva ‘letter’, which is of proto-Germanic provenience (whence E book; cf. G Buch ‘book’) and shows up as a borrowing from the same source and with the same meaning in all of the Slavic languages.

Russian deviates from Germanic and Romance, however, in how it treats the word borrowed from another version of Greek gramma, namely grammata (pl.) ‘letters’. This comes into Russian as a singular noun gramota (грамота), with the primary meaning ‘letters, the alphabet’, as in (учиться грамоте) ‘learn one’s letters’, i. e., ‘learn how to read and write’, whence the adjective gramotnyj ‘literate’.

It is at this point that English and Russian part company when it comes to associative meaning fields, and just here we can discern how words determine not just thought but one’s forma mentis, depending on the semantic peculiarities of one’s native language.

Where English uses the word competent to denote either the person or the product that shows a certain level of skill or accomplishment, the older and (practically) demotic word for this concept in Russian is gramotnyj (грамотный), although kompetentnyj also exists as a newer vocabulary item. There is thus a strong association in Russian between being ‘lettered’ and being ‘competent’ that is scanted in English, despite the extended meaning of literate. This gives rise in Russian to phrases like gramotnyj kompozitor ‘competent composer’ and gramotno napisano ‘competently composed’ [of music] which define a whole conceptual field that is denied to its English counterparts.

One would be hard put to find a more perspicuous proof of pragmatism (in the Peircean sense) than this differential mapping of associative fields in the two languages.


Espying the Spondaic Anapest, Absolutely

The contemporary ubiquity of absolutely as the expression of a high degree of affirmative emphasis (instead of yes, oh yes, very much, etc.) is often accompanied by a hypermetrical stress on the initial syllable, which means that the stress of this anapestic adverb becomes spondaic, i. e., with a ternary foot bearing two stressed syllables instead of one. Incidentally, this case of spondee resembles the more general expression of emphasis in French, where the obligatory stress on the ultima is augmented by a second stress on the initial syllable, as in fOrmidAble or mErveillEUx (capitals signifying stressedness).

The occurrence of the spondee in the anapestic word absolutely is to be explained as yet another discursive implementation in English of the poetic function (focus on the message for its own sake), structurally of a piece with alliteration, with which it shares the feature of repetition of identical elements, here manifested in its most basic form, that of DOUBLING, and as a prosodic rather than a segmental feature. In turn, the possibility of spondee helps explain the otherwise unmotivated rise to monopoly status of absolutely as the preferred form of emphatic affirmation in contemporary English.


Glottally Catching The Football

There is a sound in English called a GLOTTAL CATCH or GLOTTAL STOP, which is a stop consonant articulated without release and having glottal occlusion as a secondary articulation, as in the Scottish articulation of the sound t of little, bottle, etc. This sound is present in nearly all dialects of English as an allophone of /t/ in syllable codas and is symbolized orthographically as an apostrophe, e. g., sto’p, tha’t, kno’ck, wa’tch, lea’p, soa’k, hel’p, pin’ch, etc. It also occurs in word-final position, where it is represented with a p, as in yep for yes and nope for no. To generalize, the incidence of a glottal catch at the end of a syllable is a kind of APOCOPE, i. e., a truncation.

It is also a PHONOSTYLISTIC datum, in that it is characteristic of informal speech and is not normative of neutral or formal style. In this respect, as a species of truncation (of the syllable), it fits into the general pattern whereby informality is achieved via ABBREVIATION vis-à-vis its formal counterpart.

One aspect of informal or colloquial style is the AFFECTIVE meaning of abbreviation, specifically its close association with the phenomenon known as HYPOCORISM (as in baby talk). This form of endearment is typical, for instance, of pet names, wherein abbreviated versions of their full neutral or formal counterparts are the norm.

In this light it becomes clear why the word football is commonly heard uttered by ardent fans and followers of the sport with a glottal catch for the t ending the first constituent of this compound, whatever the stylistic context or the utterer’s dialectal profile. In such speakers’ value system football is a hypocoristic, hence to be pronounced uniformly––regardless of context––with a phonetic feature answering to a term of endearment.


Enjoy! Whatever . . . (Calques)


acumen, n.: quickness, accuracy, and keenness of judgment or insight
amalgam, n.: a combination of diverse elements; a mixture
calque (= loan translation), n.: a form of borrowing from one language to another whereby the semantic components of a given term are literally translated into their equivalents in the borrowing language
echt, adj.: real; genuine (German)
excogitate, v.: to consider or think (something) out carefully and thoroughly
milieu, n.: environment (French)
normative, adj.: of, relating to, or prescribing a norm or standard
paralinguistic, adj. < paralinguistics, n.: the aspects and study of spoken communication that accompany speech but do not involve words, such as body language, gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice
patois, n.: the special jargon of a group
semantic, adj.: relating to meaning
semiotic, adj.: pertaining to elements of or any system of signs, defined as anything capable of signifying an object (meaning)
sociolectal, adj. < sociolect, n.: a variety of a language that is used by a particular social group
univerbal, adj. < univerbation, n.: the creation of one word from two or more
Yiddishize, v.: to make into or like Yiddish

The ubiquitous interjection, “Enjoy!,” minus its otherwise normative direct object and pronounced with emphatic intonation as a one-word sentence, can be heard from speakers of American English, particularly as addressed to their customers by waiters and waitresses. Little do they realize that this usage must have originated in the language of Yiddish speakers in New York, an idiom influenced by the overwhelmingly Slavic––specifically, Russian––milieu from which these speakers’ ancestors immigrated to the New World. That this special use in American English of an Anglo-Norman word (Middle English enjoien, from Old French enjoir) could have a Russian provenience via Yiddish has not generally been acknowledged, doubtless owing to (1) the rarity of a thorough knowledge of Russian among those who concern themselves with Yiddish borrowings into English; (2) the ignoral of CALQUES as the likely source.

Here the Russian item serving as the model for a Yiddish-influenced loan translation into English are the imperative forms of the verb naslazhdát’sia (наслаждаться), i. e., naslazhdájsia (наслаждайся [sg.]) and naslazhdájtes’ (наслаждайтесь [pl.]). What might weaken this motivation is the fact that Yiddish seems to have no univerbal equivalent. Also: (1) Russian does not use the imperatives of the verb naslazhdat’sia (наслаждаться) in a way that would validate the Yiddish borrowing––and thereby the usage––of “Enjoy!” in contemporary American English; and (2) any such calque would consequently have to be motivated by Yiddish speakers’ flawed knowledge of idiomatic Russian usage.

It should be noted that the proper author of this attribution’s line of thought is Marianne Shapiro. With her matchless etymological acumen, she recalled from her own New York childhood that the use of “Enjoy!” originated with (and was popularized by) its frequent occurrence in the speech of Molly Goldberg in the long-running American radio and television show, The Goldbergs (excogitated by the native New Yorker, Gertrude Berg, née Tillie Edelstein, who also played its lead character).

The transplanted version of the New York Yiddish milieu would also seem to be the source of the slang use in American speech of whatever, notably in its echt r-less form, viz. [wʌtɛ́və]. This was the pronunciation used repeatedly, for instance, by the main character, Archie Bunker, on the 1970s television show, All in the Family, shot in Hollywood but set in New York City (Queens). The use of this word may have originated earlier in the Yiddishized patois of female Hollywood show business types (wives and girlfriends of producers?), whence it migrated into general American speech via popular films (like Clueless) that featured the sociolectal mannerisms of female Southern Californians known as “Valley girls.”

Its ultimate semiotic pedigree could perhaps be traced to an unusual variety of calqueing, namely the loan translation into speech of a (wordless) gesture––a shrug of the shoulders, inclination of the head, elevation of the hands, or all three––signifying the semantic amalgam now embedded in the word. These are in fact just the paralinguistic body movements commonly associated with Yiddish/(-ized) speech.



Every standard language is characterized by a range of speech styles, which encompasses not just the segmental aspects but such paralinguistic features as the pace at which speakers habitually deliver their utterances. In this respect American English is unexceptionally variegated, even though most speakers fall into fairly narrow categories when it comes to pace of delivery. Typically, the truly idiosyncratic speaking styles are those that are categorized by speech mannerisms, including dialectal peculiarities in otherwise normative speech.

The qualification “ponderous” or “portentous” applies to speech that is so painfully slow when compared to general norms as to stand out as stylistically inappropriate regardless of the speaker’s predilections. Moreover, when the content is utterly trivial or plebeian, utterances delivered at a labored and gravid pace can only try an interlocutor’s patience and create the impression (among others) that the speaker has nothing to say. Those who speak at the same pace regardless of what they are saying run the risk of seeming dull and colorless.

Speaking a language is like playing a musical instrument. A gavotte played at a tempo appropriate to a dirge will not set anyone to dancing.


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