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Archive for April, 2012

Speaking Like One’s Fellows (f.)

No matter what the language, the speech of women and men differs (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the language, traditional Japanese, for example, being an extreme case), even though all human beings in a homogeneous social group tend to speak like each other. Biological sex is a determinant of speech production, in the first place, because the size of the organs involved in articulation (like the larynx, the oral and thoracic cavities, etc.) are typically larger in men than in women. Women, therefore, normally use a higher register (pitch) than do men to produce speech sounds, although under special circumstances (like falsetto or castrato) men and women are both capable of speaking with uncharacteristically high or low pitch.

In contemporary American English, because of the general tendency among younger women and girls in particular toward apotropaic strategies (the “apotropaic smile” being one such largely unconscious device), the increasingly dominant place of articulation in the buccal cavity is toward the back. This gesture involves retracting the lips and narrowing their aperture, all of which constricts the vocal tract and contributes to the  impression of constraint on the hearer that is notably absent in the speech of males of the same age.

As an ensemble with the intonational and vocal timbre peculiarities of contemporary female speech noted in earlier posts, these apotropaisms can only be evaluated as an atavism that runs semiotically athwart––and threatens in part to undermine ––the aims and gains of the women’s movement.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Prosody and Emphasis

Greater than normal force in the stressing of a word is the most common way of producing emphasis, which in American English concomitantly produces a lengthening of the stressed vowel (“That doughnut was sóoo good!”). There is, however, a slightly different way of heightening emphasis, and that is by reducing to zero the number of contiguous unstressed vowels between stressed syllables. It is, in fact, this way that has led to the supersession of the phrase “Thanks very much” over the last decade or more by “Thanks so much.” Because the combination very much is trisyllabic and tending toward an anapestic pronunciation (stronger stress on the third syllable), one currently hears much more frequently its equivalent “Thanks so much,” in which the relevant phrase is dissyllabic and prosodically iambic.

The emphasis the word so imparts to the phrase so much is enhanced by the latter’s being monosyllabic, exceeding that imparted by its anapestic alternate, with its unstressed medial syllable. In an age when all forms of linguistic hypertrophy are gaining at the expense of plainspokenness in American English, this particular case of emphasis is especially interesting because the quantitative criterion (here: fewer syllables) yields to the supervening prosodic one in exemplifying the continuing drift toward overdetermination in the contemporary language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Linguistic Self-Indulgence and Meaning by Indirection

American public discourse is full of clichés, especially of the figurative kind, so that shallow phrases like “low-hanging fruit” and “kick the can down the road” are inevitably to be met with at every turn. In fact, there are certain speakers––not just politicians or persons in the media––who cannot put anything into words without resorting to locutions of this sort. By extension, the use of figurative expressions from one stylistic domain in referring to material in another––for instance, calling a physician’s practice a “hustle” (without any necessary pejorative connotation)––is to be regarded as yet another prevalent form of linguistic self-indulgence.

In all such instances, what we have in current speech is a tilt toward meaning by indirection, which amounts to an avoidance of precision. Plainspokenness and direct designation of concepts and actions are sacrificed at the altar of what is erroneously taken to be enhanced expressiveness, whereas all that this discourse strategy achieves is a reliance on clichés and dead tropes that exposes their utterers’ fundamental impoverishment of thought.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

A Grammatical Hyperurbanism

There are some speakers of American English for whom the plural of process involves altering the inserted unstressed vowel of the desinence {-s} from [ɨ] to [iy] so that processes is pronounced [prɔ́sɛsíyz], as if it were a word of Greek origin via Latin, like basis or thesis or hypothesis, which regularly alter the last vowel to form plurals without adding a desinence (thus pl. bases, theses, hypotheses).

Noting that the regular alternation of the final vowel occurs in abstracta that belong by definition to originally learnèd––and hence stylistically elevated––vocabulary, the pronunciation of processes as if it were similarly of Graeco-Latin origin (which it is not) can only be adjudged a HYPERURBANISM (hypercorrection), in that speakers who resort to it (subconsciously) analogize its inflectional morphology to that of analysis or neurosis rather than glass or ace. Whether this mistaken plural form should also be considered an affectation––as with all hyperurbanisms––is in the ear of the beholder.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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