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Archive for December, 2012

The Decline of Straight Talk and the Rise of Linguistic Dross

When it comes to discourse strategy, American English in the last twenty-five years or so has undergone a marked decline in what can be called “straight talk” for want of a better phrase or term, meaning discourse patterns that are not engorged by a variety of fillers. The most common instance of linguistic superfluity, particularly among younger speakers, is the hiccup-like insertion of the word like. Another such word is the clause-initial basically; and to a lesser extent, so. All of these items have been characterized for what they are in earlier posts, as has the general prevalence of HYPERTROPHY in its myriad forms, among which the varieties of PLEONASM figure prominently.

What becomes clear as a leitmotif is the overarching concept of QUALIFICATION. Speakers seem more and more unable to clothe their ideas in linguistic dress that is not weighted down with dross. Here, again, as in so many cases chronicled in earlier posts, what comes to mind as explanans is APOTROPAISM. Qualification invariably comports some degree of pulling back from constating things/ideas directly. The more hedges speech is intercalated with, the less likely that its purport will entail (potential) danger.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Element Order and the Grammar of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun owners assert a right to own and use firearms on the basis of the main clause of the amendment. In the so-called Heller case, the United States Supreme Court has sustained their right, ignoring in 2007 the well-reasoned amicus brief filed by professional linguists that argued that the grammar of the amendment does not allow such an interpretation. Here is a summary (from Dennis Baron, “Guns and Grammar: the Linguistics of the Second Amendment” (www.english.illinois.edu/-people/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf):

“In our amicus brief in the Heller case we attempted to demonstrate,
• that the Second Amendment must be read in its entirety, and that its initial
absolute functions as a subordinate adverbial that establishes a cause-and-effect
connection with the amendment’s main clause;
• that the vast preponderance of examples show that the phrase bear arms refers
specifically to carrying weapons in the context of a well-regulated militia;
• that the word militia itself refers to a federally-authorized, collective fighting
force, drawn only from the subgroup of citizens eligible for service in such a
body;
• and that as the linguistic evidence makes clear, the militia clause is inextricably
bound to the right to bear arms clause.
18th-century readers, grammarians, and lexicographers understood the Second
Amendment in this way, and it is how linguists have understood it as well.”

What is paramount in the correct interpretation is something Baron et al. do not discuss, namely the order of the two clauses. The participial first clause, even in 18th-century English, could just as well have been placed second, in a familiar pattern that can be seen, for instance, in a sentence like: “There will be no swimming today at the recreation center, the pool being closed on Mondays.” Clearly, there is a cause-and-effect relation between the fact of no swimming and the particular day of the week, regardless of the placement of the two clauses vis-à-vis each other, but what  is at stake here is a form of grammatical government that is best captured by their ORDER, which is to say their HIERARCHICAL relationship. The first clause occurs where it does because the writer/utterer deems it to be MORE IMPORTANT than the second clause.

The same obtains in the element order of the Second Amendment. The word militia of the first clause governs––is hierarchically superordinate to––the phrase the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The framers of the Constitution had the grammatical option to invert the two clauses but did not. The element order speaks for itself, rendering militia the pragmatistic scope (i. e., in the Peircean sense of the philosophical doctrine of pragmatism) under which right to keep and bear arms is restricted.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

‘Atrocity’, Not ‘Tragedy’

Contemporary Anglo-American news media and politicians persist in calling the heinous murder of innocents a ‘tragedy’ rather than an ‘atrocity’, thereby blunting the force of the act by scanting the role of human agency. This is not just a linguistic failure but a noxious failure of thought, and therefore a moral failure with important social and public policy consequences.

The word ‘atrocity’ is defined as ‘savage enormity, horrible or heinous wickedness’. That is the proper description applying to the recent killings in Connecticut.

By contrast, the word ‘tragedy’ is defined in the first instance as ‘a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion’. Its extension, as to consequences, beyond playwrighting and the theater as a substitute for the proper term ‘atrocity’ should everywhere be resisted. Beside the debasement of the purport of mass murder, the effect of constantly using the transferred meaning of a word from theatrical nomenclature necessarily abuts in a tendency to equalize horrific crimes committed by human beings against their fellow humans with excogitated or imaginary acts; and, more significantly, with impersonal events such as natural cataclysms that are unavoidable. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor more inimical to the forma mentis betokened linguistically when the prevention of further such crimes is the overriding social goal.

Words matter.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Adjusting Speech to the Linguistic Competence of One’s Interlocutor(s)

English is a marvelous language, verily a miracle of nature. It has the largest lexical corpus of any language on earth, allowing nigh on an infinity of expressive means, including a stylistic range unmatched by any other form of human communication. But like a musical instrument and the repertoire at the player’s disposal, this rich linguistic lode demands an awareness of one’s audience’s competence in understanding the form and content of what is being expressed. There is, in other words, a discourse strategy involved in every linguistic utterance, no matter how trivial or grandiloquent.

As a rule, British speakers (like British actors) have always enjoyed a decided advantage vis-à-vis their American cousins when it comes to native linguistic competence. English is, letzen Endes, a creation of the English nation, and only secondarily that of the American Demos. In speaking any language, but particularly English, one’s speech must be adjusted to suit one’s interlocutor(s): speaking like an Oxford don to a six-year-old child can only be observed in quasi-pathological situations, when the utterer persists in taking no account of his/her conversation partner’s knowledge of the language. In normal speech situations, the utterer always makes allowances for the interlocutor(s) linguistic competence––assuming, of course, the latter is a known––and adjusts his/her speech, consciously or not, to assure comprehension. After all, only a deliberate or pathological flummoxer wishes to speak in such a way as to beggar understanding.

Here is a contemporary example: “I did somehow manage to keep up a heroic correspondence with our son H., who nostalgically enough was at Tōdai this year, and that made me feel like the fons et origo of all wisdom. Most of it was water off a duck’s back, of course.” The phrase fons et origo, embedded in the first sentence, is Latin for ‘font and origin’, common enough in educated Anglo-American written discourse. But its use on the writer’s part presupposes a discourse strategy that takes into account the addressee’s knowledge of the phrase, i. e., of the addressee’s linguistic competence. And whether or not the writer intended it, in an addressee alert to paronomasia, fons here may have inadvertently adverted to the “water” in the phrase “like water off a duck’s back,” given the aqueous semantic link between the two phrases.

To repeat: English is a marvelous linguistic instrument, truly the handmaiden of lapidary expression when wielded by a virtuosic player.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Prowess of Systemzwang

German linguistic terminology includes a handy compound word that English lacks, viz. Systemzwang, which combines System ‘system’ with Zwang ‘compulsion, force, drive’ to yield a sense amounting to ‘the force of the system’. For language this translates to the concept of the linguistic system as a whole exerting a force on an individual fact in order to bring about a change in form and/or meaning. This force is akin to that of simple analogy but is more specific.

Here is a recent example. The BBC World Service reporter Lucy Williamson, a native speaker of British English (RP = Received Pronunciation) mispronounced the Anglo-Norman word prowess by putting the stress on the second syllable instead of the first, a mistake registered secondarily by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as extant in current British speech, thus making it clear that it is the result of a change in the history of  English wherein prówess has been replaced for some speakers by prowéss. The source of this mistake is analogy with derived words ending in –ess (like princess), which in a standard variety of British English can take suffixal (final) stress.

Of course, analogizing prowess to princess is a misconstrual of the word, since it is not a derived substantive in contemporary English (pace its provenience). In this case, the explanation is that Systemzwang has had its sway.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Islands of Englessness in Seas of Normativity

“Dropping one’s g’s” in gerunds and present participles (and the substantives derived therefrom) is typical of colloquial and non-standard (dialectal) speech of all regions, and stereotypically of Cockney, Southern American English, and African American Vernacular English. (Eng is the linguistic term for the velar nasal stop sound rendered orthographically by the digraph –ng.) It can also be an (unconscious?) affectation in the speech of Standard American English speakers who make a point of showing their solidarity with the plebes by recurring to englessness as a linguistic badge of their democratic outlook.

One can hear this kind of (faux-?) linguistic solidarity being manifested by Bayard Winthrop, the CEO of the company American Giant, in an interview broadcast on today’s installment of the NPR program “All Things Considered Weekend.” The irruption of englessness in otherwise utterly normative speech, deployed in an utterly neutral context, can only be interpreted as pandering to the current tropism toward an indecorous lowbrowishness among educated speakers (cf. Barack Obama).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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