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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

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