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Archive for February, 2012

Linguistic Anaesthetics

Ways of blunting the assertory force of an utterance can be subsumed under the designation “linguistic anaesthetics,” in that they are discourse strategies designed to propitiate one’s interlocutor by lessening the sensitivity to potentially dangerous or harmful topics. Political correctness in language use is of a piece with this phenomenon. More specifically, two such strategies are the insertion of the word like in the speech of adolescents (particularly girls, but not only) where it has no grammatical function; and the use of interrogative intonation instead of declarative where no question is being asked (currently being labeled “uptalk”). The insertion of like is akin to the repetitive use by some adult speakers of if you like in British English and you know in all Englishes (and “you know what I’m sayin'” in Black English).

Judging by the confused way in which professional linguists interpret such usages (cf. the comments cited in the recent article “They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrve,” by Douglas Quenqua, in The New York Times, February 28, 2012, Late Edition, pp. DI-D2), there is still no general cognizance of the principle that unites them, namely what has been referred to here in earlier posts as APOTROPAISM. Strictly speaking, this term is proper to cultural anthropology, where it means the use of magic or ritual to avert evil influences, danger, or bad luck. But one can profitably apply it to ordinary language use as well.

Fillers of the sort at issue (like, I mean, you know [what I’m sayin’]) have the function of defanging or otherwise attenuating the assertory force of an utterance, in which respect they join hands naturally with the implementation of “uptalk.” The functional identity of these two strategies is revealed when one understands the interrogative intonation to share in the effect it has on the content of whatever is being uttered, since a question is necessarily but an adumbration of what the same content would be taken to be by one’s interlocutor if stated declaratively.


[Postscript: The use of three r‘s in the spelling of the last word of the title of the afore-mentioned article is an attempt to indicate a kind of vibration in the phonation of clause- and sentence-final elements in the speech of contemporary American females, called by the barbarism ‘vocal fry’. Technically, the phrase used to describe this phenomenon is ‘creaky voice’. Since creaky voice is accompanied by a diminution of acoustic energy, it can be reckoned as yet another apotropaic strategy, structurally and functionally of a piece with the disfluencies adduced for analysis above.]

A Peculiar Case of Metathesis ([æks] < [æsk])

Metathesis is the name of a process in language whereby the position of (typically) two sounds is inverted so that the historically preceding sound in a sequence exchanges places with its succeeding companion. In the history of English, this process is largely confined to sequences involving a liquid (l, r), as in third compared to three, wherein the vowel and the liquid have exchanged places in the ordinal numeral.

An example of metathesis that can be heard in Southern American English (but not only; cf. especially the speech of African-Americans, regardless of region) is [æks] instead of standard [æsk] for ask. (Etymologically, this verb goes back to Middle English asken, from Old English ācsian, āscian.) Judging by examples of metathesis in this word attested from Old English (e.g., in Chaucer), this is a very old change in the language, and reflexes of both forms can be found dialectally in both England and America.

How to explain the persistence of the non-standard form in American English? As in all cases of change, one must look for a rationalized explication of variety, not just for an ad hoc phonetic epiphenomenon or vagary of pronunciation. In semiotic terms, this instance can be explained as an implementation of a general principle governing the order of elements in grammar, whereby (ceteris paribus) the unmarked term precedes the marked term. Thus the etymologically correct order of the two consonants in the cluster in question, s and k, happens to contravene the normal cooccurrence of unmarked element before marked, /s/ being marked for the feature of stridency and /k/ being unmarked. The reversal of their order by metathesis in [æks] can thus be explained as a reversion to norm as applied to the sequence of markedness values in the consonant cluster.


The Significance of Spontaneous Back-Formations

Back-formations are among the most productive sources of new vocabulary in English, particularly the creation of a verb from a noun (as in enthuse < enthusiasm). At the initial stage of spontaneous production as nonce words, they signify something over and above what would be signified by a traditional phrase.

Thus when one hears the viva voce sentence “I video-conversate with my nephew” emanating from the mouth of a native speaker of American English (a 27-year-old male college graduate), instead of what would be normative, i. e., “I have video conversations with my nephew,” the phenomenological intention embedded in the back-formation can be explained as springing from the incorporation of the word conversation in a verbal form that goes beyond the attested verb converse.

One motive, to be sure, could simply be the avoidance of a certain stiltedness resulting from the stylistic register of the latter. But the more likely explanation must have to do with the semantic premium gained by incorporating the first of the two morphemes in the compound suffix –at-ion (the second morpheme being truncated in the process of back-formation), thereby alluding to the abstract backbone of the substantive as part of the nonce verb.


The Function of Hieratic Diction (smite, smote, smitten)

The language of religious (and quasi-religious) ritual is typically studded with vocabulary that is recondite or archaic or both. As with all divinatory or sacerdotal diction, the function of specialized vocabulary in this realm goes beyond the denotation of objects or acts to include a generalized reference to sacred meanings that derive their force in part from their very obscurity. If a priest is the only one who knows the full meaning of a hieratic text, this linguistic asymmetry between preacher and congregation can work to heighten the sacredness of the text. Thus the use of Hebrew in Orthodox Judaism, for example, can enhance the validity of the service simply by creating a linguistic context that imparts a feeling to the celebrants of an illud tempus suffused not just by authenticity but by aetiological piety. Where the language of ritual is understood only by the priest, this fact alone can function to heighten the words’ religious force. As with magical incantations, intelligibility of  linguistic material is not at a premium and can even serve as a drawback.

To a lesser extent, the continued use of archaisms in a religious text can be seen to adhere to the same principle, witness the incidence of the verb smite in the immediately preceding post. There is no contemporary context (other than cricket) in which the Oxford English Dictionary Online records its use. Quite apart from its origin in the King James Version, this word maintains its stylistic appropriateness compared to modern synonyms precisely because substitutes would rob the Biblical diction of its hieratic force.


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