web analytics

Archive for January, 2012

Emotive Force and the Sense of Form (Balaam’s Ass)

Grammatical form may have an emotive force, as is the case with gender in those languages where gender distinctions are an obligatory category of grammatical structure. This is not to confuse biological sex with gender. In German, for instance, a maiden (das Mädchen) is neuter, and in Russian a male servant (sluga) is desinentially (inflectionally) feminine while being of masculine gender (a female servant is called prisluga––also of feminine gender).

In those cases where feminine and non-feminine are opposed in the designation of biological sex, the non-feminine––alias masculine––is the unmarked (generic) member of the opposition because it applies to both sexes, whereas the feminine is marked, being applicable exclusively to the female of the species. Thus in Russian, the unmarked word for ‘donkey’ is osël (осёл), whereas the word for ‘she-ass’ is formed by adding a suffix {-ica} to the deriving base {osl-}, resulting in oslítsa (ослица). This sort of play of derivational morphology can be accompanied by emotive force, as in the English compound jackass, which is marked with respect to the simplex ass. Interestingly enough, the Russian pejorative counterpart of jackass is the masculine noun osël (not the feminine oslítsa).

This is all by way of introducing a well-known Bible story known as Balaam’s Ass that appears in Numbers 22:

21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. 22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him.–Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.– 23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. 25 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again. 26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. 27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff. 28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?’ 29 And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because thou hast mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.’ 30 And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Nay.’ 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me; 33 and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’

Now, the Hebrew original uses an archaic word of feminine gender athon (הָאָת֜וֹן) ‘female donkey’, which is reproduced in the Vulgate (L asina [fem.] rather than asinus [masc.]), and not the newer masculine hamor (חֲמוֹר) ‘male donkey’. The upshot of the feminine gender to designate the animal for the emotive force of the word in the Biblical narrative is stylistically crucial. All the poignancy of the animal’s suffering is tied up with its biological sex as conveyed by its grammatical gender. Therefore, those translations which use donkey or ass instead of she-ass are necessarily scanting the emotional core of this marvelous story.


Residual Dialectisms as Shibboleths

Speakers of standard languages may occasionally betray their social or geographical origins by retaining a non-standard or dialectal feature in their speech as a residue. For instance, the metathetic pronunciation [aks] instead of [ask] for the verb ask in the otherwise impeccably standard speech of an educated African-American is identifiably a residual dialectism.

This sort of linguistic atavism, i. e., the retention of an anomalous feature doubtless left over from childhood, can be observed when a person’s native dialect is refurbished to conform to speech norms associated with their occupation. Public radio broadcasting is (still) one such profession. Thus, one hears in the pronunciation of the NPR presenter/host Robert Siegel (“All Things Considered,” NPR Radio) a failure to palatalize the /n/ in news, regularly resulting in the dialectal form [nooz]; and the retention of  dialectal [git] instead of [get] for get, along with the pen/pin merger, in the speech of his NPR colleague Renee Montagne (“Morning Edition”).


Metaphors We Die By (Metaphorically)

Writers have no creative license to do violence to language, but in the age of depravity the scope of licentiousness extends to violations of linguistic usage, the media being a particularly fecund realm of examples. When it comes to the figurative use of language, the line between what used to be called “fine writing” and journalism has gradually been erased, due inter alia to the baneful influence of modern poetry, where catachresis abounds.

The form that catachresis takes when it comes to tropes is typically a matter of semantic overextension, whereby a dead metaphor that has been lexicalized is distended to include a nonsensical denotative referent.

Here is a fresh case:

“But others have not, and her story is entering the pantheon of secular anger building as a battle rages in Israel for control of the public space between the strictly religious and everyone else.” (Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kirshner, “Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women,” The New York Times, National Edition, January 15, 2012, p. 1; emphasis added)

What has happened here is evident when compared with the etymology of the word pantheon and the senses adduced for it in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 2002):

Etymology: Middle English Panteon, temple at Rome built by the Roman statesman Agrippa died 12 B.C. and rebuilt by the Roman emperor Hadrian died A.D.138, from Latin Pantheon, from Greek pantheion temple dedicated to all gods, from pan- + theion, neuter of theios of the gods, from theos god

1 : a temple dedicated to all the gods
2 : a treatise on the pagan gods
3 : a building serving as the burial place of or containing memorials to the famous dead of a nation
4 a : the gods of a people; especially: the gods officially recognized as major or state deities b : the persons most highly esteemed by an individual or group

That two journalists and their editors, for whom writing is presumably their stock in trade, could conceive of pantheon as the metaphorical locus of anger is a failure of thought tout court––and a particularly telling one for the current state of American English in its pragmatistic dimension.


The Meretriciouness of Economy of Effort as Explanans

Linguists have always been tempted to explain language change by appeals to economy of effort (alias the principle of least effort) whenever the latter seems plausible, but the meretriciousness of such explanations is also easily detected. A good case in point is abbreviation, i. e., the appearance of a shorter form of a word or phrase.

As has been illustrated in more than one earlier post, clear cases of functionality involving economy of effort aside (what sane person would say “the John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport, please” to a cab driver instead of “JFK, please”) when a word or phrase is shortened, the most common stylistic outcome is the creation of emotive or affective value by comparison with the original (unshortened), neutral form, an outcome that is especially prized in advertising (both print and broadcast). This applies to acronyms as well as other types of abbreviation. However, when acronyms or other abbreviations become so common as to efface their unabbreviated progenitors from most speakers’ memories (take NATO, for example), what originally could have been ascribed to economy of effort as well as to a stylistic impulse fades from memory and assumes common currency without an attendant stylistic value. This is what happened over time, for instance, with knickers < knickerbockers.

Abbreviations continually arise in spontaneous speech, and these neologisms typically need time to take hold. Here is a contemporaneous example extracted from a real-life speech scenario involving the recent introduction of grands as an affective (emotive, hypocoristic) derivative of grandchildren. When a trainer in his twenties used grands in a sentence inquiring after the progeny of his seventy-two-year-old client, it took even a linguistically sophisticated auditor to request a restatement of the question before the trainer’s meaning became clear, as the client was encountering grands for the first time.

The point of this exchange has nothing to do with economy of effort and everything to do with the semiotic value of abbreviation, which is typically affective. The trainer’s choice of grands instead of grandchildren (thankfully, not the odious grandkids) was clearly in the service of expressing a shared attitude of endearment grounded in an abductive inference (in the Peircean sense) that the designation of the client’s progeny with a hypocoristic abbreviation would be stylistically more appropriate in this informal context than would the unabbreviated, linguistically neutral form.


The Emotive Value of Transitivization

Transitive verbs are verbs that govern direct objects without the intervention of postpositions, whereas intransitive verbs are those that do not require or cannot take a direct object. In contemporary American English, especially in the language of advertising and the media, there has been an extended trend toward the transitivization of traditionally intransitive verbs, as in “ski Bromley,” “shop Target,” “surf the web,” “lean Republican,” etc., all of which constructions, strictly speaking, are missing postpositions (i. e., “ski on Bromley [Mountain],” “shop at Target,” etc.). This trend was illustrated yet again on the front page of today’s issue of The New York Times: “Mr. Reid said he would vote [instead of “vote for”] Huntsman in the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday.” (Jim Rutenberg, “Ready or Not, Huntsman Faces His Moment in New Hampshire,” January 8, 2012, Late Edition, p. 1).

The omission of the postposition has the effect of increasing the emotive force of the verbal action on the direct object. The intercalation of a postposition between the verb and the object makes the latter necessarily indirect. The indirection of verbal force accompanying intransitivity, by comparison with transitivity, can be reversed by simply changing the grammatical category of the verb and dropping the postposition. Closing the distance between verb and complement in this way––as with all instances of relative closeness between governing and governed form––eventuates in a rise in emotive value, and it is precisely this value that is at a premium in language styles that aim at predisposing the utterer/writer to the listener/reader.


Stylistic Retention of Unproductive Stress Patterns

As mentioned in earlier posts, English has a regular––and productive––alternation of the position of stress in verb/noun pairs, e. g., combát vs. cómbat, defáult vs. défault, procéed vs. próceeds, etc. In each such pair, the verb has stress on a non-initial syllable, whereas the noun has it on the initial.

This contrast extends beyond dissyllabic words to embrace verb/noun pairs consisting of more than two syllables, e. g., envélop vs. énvelope, interchánge vs. ínterchange, reprimánd vs. réprimand, etc. Even though in some of these cases the stress need not contrast––réprimand with initial stress does double duty for many speakers as both a verb and a noun––the important and unalterable fact is that no matter how many syllables the word has, if there is a contrast at all, the stress in the verbal form will be NON-INITIAL, i.e. be on one or more syllables closer to the end than in that of the nominal form. Moreover, and just as importantly, THE REVERSE IS NEVER TRUE: there are no English verb/noun pairs which contrast by having an initial stress in the verbal form and a non-initial in the nominal form.

Where a non-initial stress is retained in the nominal form, it tends to acquire stylistic value, such that this (unproductive) variant is necessarily associated with formal or neutral diction by comparison with an extant (productive) variant that is associated with informal or colloquial style. This is the case with items like defáult vs. défault: the first form is typical of a neutral or high style, whereas the second occurs in informal or colloquial contexts, the latter typically including the vernacular of sports.

Moreover, once the colloquial variant gains general ascendancy, it may become terminologized, by which is meant a specialized occurrence as a constant feature of a certain sector of the vocabulary. Thus, no person familiar with the jargon of sports would ever confuse offénse ‘a violation or infraction of a moral or social code, etc.’ with óffense ‘the means or tactics used in attempting to score, etc.’; or defénse ‘the act of defending against attack, danger, or injury’ with défense ‘means or tactics used in trying to stop the opposition from scoring, etc.’ (Note in these particular cases that the verb differs from the noun by having a d in final position [offénd, defénd].)

The drift of the language is just as straightforwardly clear, viz. toward the regularization of initial stress for BOTH grammatical categories regardless of stylistic differentiation. This is the overall trend which accounts for the emergence not only of non-standard nominal variants like défault or óffense but the replacement of traditional non-initial stress in verbs like frequént by contemporary innovations with initial stress. This historical trajectory is evidently to be explained by what can be called the THE LAW OF THE SUPERSESSION OF THE MARKED BY THE UNMARKED, which dictates that, ceteris paribus, linguistic oppositions distributed contextually only by the markedness value of the terms tend to generalize the unmarked value regardless of context.


241 feed subscribers