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Archive for September, 2012

Forms of Address (The Dignity of Namelessness)

In twenty-first-century America, as only the latest manifestation of a long cultural drift, “first-name basis” is prevailingly the norm, although there are certain pockets of resistance, particularly in the South. When addressed by my first name over the telephone by customer service representatives, I used to respond, “Do we know each other?”, but the incredulity that réplique engendered soon forced me to drop it and accept the inevitable. It is noteworthy that some companies obviously train their representatives to use the formal prefixes and to avoid forenames, but this practice is getting rare enough to be remarked.

A personal vignette involving forms of address, therefore, might be worth chronicling here. Whenever I am in Manchester, Vermont, every Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. I frequent a small upstairs restaurant on Main Street to have pancakes or a waffle for breakfast before proceeding to fetch the Sunday newspaper. The same two middle-aged ladies always wait on me, both of whom greet me cheerfully, wish me a “good week” when I leave, and are impeccably polite in every respect. But over the two years, week in and week out, that I have been following this Sunday morning routine, neither lady has ever asked me my name, nor I theirs. We transact our prandial linguistic exchanges in splendid anonymity, thereby preserving a kind of dignity that somehow enhances the meal and is regrettably absent in many precincts of American life.


Idiomaticity (Anent Freedom and Constraint in Language Use)

All languages have idioms, defined in Webster’s ‘as an expression established in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in grammatical construction (as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived as a whole from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as Monday week for “the Monday a week after next Monday”; many a for “many taken distributively”; had better for “might better”; how are you? for “what is the state of your health or feelings?”).’ In learning a language, speakers have to learn not just the rules of grammar but also the rules defining idiomatic use of the language. This happens naturally in the case of native speakers acquiring their own language from childhood on; and more or less naturally in the acquisition of a foreign language as well.

Idioms involve a certain degree of arbitrariness with respect to their incorporation of a language’s collocation rules, and a non-native speaker has to navigate these linguistic shoals in learning to distinguish between idiomaticity and normative grammar. Here is an example of the difficulty involved as overheard in an interview broadcast recently on the BBC World Service with the Belorussian ethno-jazz singer Rusia, who appears to have a fluent command of English. It has to do with the unidiomatic word *schoolguy concocted on the pattern of schoolboy and schoolgirl. Rusia uttered this word during the interview as part of the phrase “schoolguys and schoolgirls,” thereby violating the rules of idiomatic word formation in English, even as she followed the rules of compounding. It just so happens that English has only schoolboy but no *schoolguy. Hence Rusia could be said to have failed to observe the boundary between freedom and constraint inhering in the rules of English word formation.

By contrast, a seven-year old boy with English as a first language already “knows” that he has the freedom to coin the phrase word blind on the model of color blind, when he utters it in reference to his golden retriever in the process of asserting to his ten-year-old sister that the their pet dog is not “word-blind” qua dog despite being unable to read. Cf. Psalms 8:2  “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength . . .,” etc.


Exactly Wrong

In contemporary American English the phrase exactly right has acquired near-universal currency as the emphatic equivalent of the simple adjective right. What underlies the spread of this phrase has nothing to do with emphasis, however, but with the loosening of the semantic boundaries that define the adjective in its moral dimension, whether it pertains to straightforward accuracy/correctness or to ethics sensu stricto.

The adjective right and its antonym wrong are ABSOLUTE ADJECTIVES, by which is meant a grammatical category that does not admit of scalar values. Relativization, as implied by the use of the phrase exactly right, is thus in a fundamental sense a FAILURE OF THOUGHT, comparable to graded uses of the adjective unique (< Latin unicum ‘one of a kind’). The kind of moral relativism that licenses exactly right in both its emphatic and non-emphatic senses can thus be identified as evidence for––and of a piece with––the powerful cultural trend in present-day American discourse that scants ethical absolutes while privileging (the quicksands of) a value-free outlook in the name of “freedom of choice.” Alas, the integrity of both language and morals is degraded as a result.


Leaning Obama, Voting Romney

The use of nomina propria in adverbial position after verbs that normally govern a postposition is a fairly recent innovation in American media language, derived no doubt from the language of advertising (shop Gucci, ski Bromley). Eliminating the postposition (i.e., lean Democratic instead of the orthoepic lean toward the Democrats) is stylistically colloquial, consonant grammatically with the greater immediacy of transitivity vs. intransitivity.

Those speakers who use such locutions may or may not be motivated by the goal of a certain stylistic rakishness, but what this violation of collocation rules confers on phrases like leaning Obama and voting Romney in any event is the impression of greater closeness to the topic of discourse––here, the political fray––when compared with their normative syntactic equivalents.


Nicht alles geht nach Regeln (contra Kant)

Recalling the singular appearance of the word hermeneutic in the title of any article published over the multi-year history of the journal Language (“Russian Conjugation: Theory and Hermeneutic,” 56 (1980): 67-93) and relying anew on Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticism and his apothegm “My language is the sum total of myself,” a program for reorienting linguistics in the twenty-first century can be advocated, prompted by the conviction that the prevailing conception of language as rule-governed behavior tout court has driven linguistics into barren byways which are powerless to explain speech as it is manifested in nature (in the spirit of the physis versus thesis debate in Plato’s Cratylus).

This sterility can be overcome by postulating as a fundamental principle the idea that the locus of linguistic reality is the ACT, THE CREATIVE MOMENT OF SPEECH––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.

This principle then encompasses the following five postulates: (1) language is like a piece of music or a poem––i. e., a made (aesthetic = L formosus) object, a work that unfolds in time (unlike an art work which is static), always dynamic, while remaining changeable and stable simultaneously; (2) linguistic competence can only transpire in performance, and in ensembles of performances, and is not a work; (3) the ecology of language is constituted by discourse rather than by structural relations; (4) linguistic theory is immanent in the concerted––i. e., syntagmatic––data [= performance] of language in its variety, not merely in its paradigmatic structure; (5) hence the goal of theory is the rationalized explication of linguistic variety.


[Postscript: My blog posts are often first excogitated over a restaurant meal. Today, mulling over this one while consuming unagi donburi, the following lines––remembered from a Serbo-Croatian class at UCLA in the 1950s––swam into my consciousness:

Jа и не знам,
Шта jе било
У тренутку том.
Тек осетим, да jе нешто
Лакше срцу мом.

M. S.]

The Vogue for Portmanteau Words (Stupravity)

An earlier post (March 9, 2012) was an aperçu of the subject of blends or portmanteau words, for which there is now a decided vogue, especially in advertising and the media. In the spirit of this trend, here is a coinage––stupidity + depravity––that will perhaps gain some notoriety when the book that introduces it, A Word Paints a Thousand Pictures: The Consolation of Philosophy in the Age of Stupravity, is published in the near future.

Your humble blogger’s first foray into the sloughs of social criticism brings an ancient genre to bear on the moral topography of twenty-first-century America and consists of an imaginary dialogue between Confucius and Boethius (the influential Latin philosopher [ca. 480–524 or 525 AD]), moderated by Lady Philosophy. No mean task.


Words as Acts (The Cultural Context)

Certain species of language are not mainly intended to convey information (which they may also do concomitantly) but to designate the performance of an act (“I pronounce you man and wife.”). They are called “performatives,” the acts so designated then being termed “illocutionary.” Such cases of words serving as acts are––in the round––called “speech acts.”

Different languages have different norms when it comes to speech acts. An interesting difference culturally is the one associated with the act of thanking one’s interlocutor (or an audience). For instance, judging by close observation of Finnish speakers using fluent English as a lingua franca in America, the act of thanking through speech (oral as well as written) is much less frequent for Finns than for native speakers of American English. The same is true for the act of congratulation. For such speakers, when using English, the words expressing these acts (“Thanks,” “Congratulations”) do not naturally come into speech when embedded in an American cultural context. A kind of mental code-switching is required in order to produce the words in a foreign language that are adequate to the cultural norms of that language, and not all speakers are either able or willing to perform the switch consistently. They may not even realize that they are violating politesse.

This sort of cultural overlay in the case of performatives can even prompt meta-linguistic commentary when multilingual speakers interact. For example, the author remembers at least one occasion when his otherwise completely native Russian was criticized in Russia for being too polite.


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