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Archive for February, 2013

The Psycholinguistics of Everyday Life (Paroemics)

The language of thought includes inner speech, i. e., speaking silently to oneself, which can be a significant indicator of one’s mental state at any given moment, as well as over the span of one’s mental life. In this second respect, a person with a good knowledge of their native language’s stock of proverbs (paroemics) can habitually disinter them from memory in order to punctuate a thought linguistically. Here is an illustration.

Over many years I have been in the habit of looking down from time to time while walking in a city and have often espied stray pennies lying on the pavement, which I invariably pick up. Whenever this happens, my inner speech always silently utters the Russian proverb, копейка рубль бережет, a literal translation of which is ‘a kopeck preserves a ruble’, meaning that without that last kopeck/penny the ruble/dollar would not be what it is, being short one kopeck/penny. The literal meaning in Russian exploits one of the senses of the verb berech’ ‘to preserve, guard’, which is used in other proverbs as well (cf. береги честь смолоду ‘guard your honor from youth onward’). The transferred meaning, of course, goes beyond kopecks to apply to any whole that would be deficient if as little as one constituent unit were lacking.

Why a presumably sane person would want to repeat the same proverb every time he picks up a stray penny from the sidewalk is, of course, open to interpretation. Perhaps one reason is the prosodic structure of the proverb, which falls neatly into an iambic line so long as the word рубль ‘ruble’ is pronounced (as it normally is) with an epenthetic (inserted) vowel––a schwa, i. e., [ə]––between the two consonants of the final cluster. The paronomastic nexus of sound and sense evidently gives this particular individual pleasure above and beyond the trivial monetary gain that seems to attend his everyday life with some regularity.


Colloquialism as Emphasis (“ain’t”)

When a speaker of Standard American English (SAE) suddenly resorts in an otherwise completely standard utterance to an obvious colloquialism, “ain’t” for “isn’t,” as did a professor being interviewed on NPR this morning (“Morning Edition”), one wonders what the function of this stylistic shift might be. The only answer that makes sense is EMPHASIS. Since the word “ain’t” is a negation, other than resorting to suprasegmental means (loudness, intonation), the speaker has only this stylistic item at his disposal in order to call heightened attention ––i. e., to a higher degree than communicated by the neutral SAE negation “isn’t”––to the fact that the meaning intended involves emphasis.


Metanalysis as Explanans of a Common Solecism (*between you and I)

Increasingly in both spoken and written varieties of English, especially in America but not only, one hears/reads the subjective case pronoun form replacing the standard objective case form in coordinate constructions. For example, on May 24, 1993, the sentence “I’m picking you and I” emanated from the mouth of a commentator on the National Public Radio program “Morning Edition,” in a lame attempt at humor, admitting to the program’s host his inability to predict the winner of the doubles competition in the French Open Tennis Championships. This jarring solecism is more often to be found after prepositions, e. g., *between you and I, etc. The  substitution of I for me here is what is usually called a hyperurbanism (hypercorrection), meaning the use of the wrong form as a result of the speaker’s wishing to sound educated. However, one can explore the possibility of there being a deeper reason for this substitution, and to propose a different interpretation, one that relies on an understanding of METANALYSIS or boundary shift.

First a short description of the grammatical facts. When grammatical government is involved, as it is in between you and I/me, the normal domain of the preposition extends to each constituent in the complement, as it does to the direct object of the verb in picking you and me. Thus whether there is a preposition preceding the coordinate phrase or not, the form of all constituents in the complement should be in the objective case. The second person pronoun you is syncretic; it does not differentiate the subjective from the objective form, but the first person does. Why do some speakers place the subjective form I in objective position?

The  first thing to point out is the fact of a coordinate construction. We are dealing here not with a simple complement but with a compound. Even in nonstandard American English there are no attested instances of sentences like *He  picks I or *She  talks to I (although British dialects do have them). So the compound character of the complement is evidently a necessary precondition for the solecism.

Now, one property of a unit is its boundedness. In a compound unit, the boundaries envelop all of the constituents; otherwise the compound would lose its character as a unit. In other words, disregarding the conjunction, a coordinate phrase of the type you and I is bracketed [you and I] rather than [you] and [I]; it has only two major boundaries, at the two margins of the construction, rather than six minor boundaries––the number it would have if it were simply the additive product of two personal pronouns separated by a conjunction. In the solecistic construction, the individual constituents inside the boundaries that enclose the compound seem to be insulated from case government. They undergo no change, even while being syntactically liable to it, apparently because compounds of this type are analyzed by speakers who utter these solecisms as being unitary, undifferentiated gestalts. Such speakers ignore the internal noun phrase boundaries, assigning case only to the whole compound noun phrase. In standard American English, by contrast, the boundaries are observed, and each constituent receives its appropriate morphological inflection.

The  grammatical solecism can thus be understood as the effect of boundaries being suppressed, specifically the minor boundaries around the pronouns. (This might also explain why solecisms like *to he and I are heard, but not *to him and I.)

Which is not to say that the boundaries on either side of the individual constituents cease to exist just because the coordinate construction has boundaries enclosing it. Not at all. Here we have  an example of the variable strengths of linguistic boundaries. In the hierarchy of boundaries involved in the phrase at issue, the supervening compound boundary is the major or salient one, while the remaining minor ones are present but not germane.


Reconceiving Linguistics in the Light of Pragmaticism: Language Analysis as Hermeneutic

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,” vol. 56 [1980], pp. 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 sketched, 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 conceptual 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., the 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.


Nominalism and Realism in Linguistics from a Neostructuralist Perspective

Philosophers have always thought of nominalism as a doctrine, not as a practice. They may therefore be excused for having trouble seeing the relation of nominalistic linguistics to the doctrine of nominalism, which is that the former is a way of doing linguistics to which doctrinal nominalists could not object, but that would seem deficient to those who are doctrinal realists. For if there are no classes in reality, but they exist in name only, as doctrinal nominalists claim, then any way of dividing up phenomena, including linguistic phenomena, is as good––or at least as true––as any other. And by ‘nominalistic linguistics’ I mean the practice of imposing an arbitrary taxonomy on linguistic phenomena.

This use of terms and concepts from the history of philosophy to make headway in linguistic theorizing may be interesting but also possibly confusing, the latter for the following reason. The linguistic phenomena classified might include linguistic universals (the Peircean ‘types’) as well as linguistic individual events (the Peircean ‘tokens’). And one who is familiar with the nominalist/realist distinction as a matter of  doctrine only might naturally suppose that by ‘nominalist linguist’ is meant one who denies the reality of linguistic universals. That, of course, would be an application of the nominalist doctrine to linguistic phenomena; but that, one can see now, is distinct from nominalist linguistics as a practice or method. Nominalism as a practice would not necessarily deny that universals are real; rather, it consists in deciding their classification arbitrarily––both their classification into subtypes, if they are segregated from individuals, and whether to so segregate them. Even their classification as real or unreal would be quite arbitrary.

The Chomskyan (= mainstream linguistics) search for deep structure and generative principles looks relatively realist from a doctrinal point of view. For whether or not surface phenomena are conceptualized in terms of types as well as tokens, the deep structure and principles look like universals, and especially so the way Chomsky and his followers speak of them. Chomsky and his school are nominalist linguists, not realist linguists, because their taxonomy of surface phenomena––the phenomena they wish to explain as following from deeper principles––is arbitrary. (It would follow that the hypothetical structure must be arbitrary too, for it is justified only by its capacity to explain those phenomena.)

‘Realism’, of course, is used to designate the opposite of phenomenalism as well as the opposite of nominalism. With respect to doctrine exclusively, not method, Jakobson and  his structuralist continuators (like me) look like phenomenalists in contrast to Chomsky and his followers, since the former seem much more concerned with the description of what is here being called surface phenomena, whereas the latter plunge quickly to the (putative) underlying realities that explain them. One could say that Chomsky et al. are in error for proceeding too quickly: after all, how can they abduce explanatory realities when they are wrong about the explanandum? But this is not so simple an issue as that. For if the classification of phenomena is to be real, not nominal, then it is often impossible to know what that classification is until the underlying realities have been identified.

As an example from a domain other than language, consider whether it was possible to know that rusting, fire, and metabolism should be classed together as members of the same natural kind before they were all explained as different forms of oxidation. The circle here is like the hermeneutic circle: the explanans and the explanandum are found together, not first one and then the other.

But there is another way of looking at this which can be identified, mutatis mutandis, with that of semeiotic neostructuralism in linguistics. Realism in contradistinction to nominalism (doctrinally) is connected with teleology—or so, at least, Peirce appears to have thought. A natural class is one the members of which exist because each satisfies the same idea. That idea has a certain potency, and hence the class exists independently of anyone’s having named it. This idea is consistent with the argument of the preceding  paragraph, according  to which some natural classes may be those classes entailed by a true explanatory theory. But it is not limited to cases where the explanatory structures lie beneath the surface phenomena.

Suppose language qua phenomenon has a history, and suppose that history can be understood by postulating goals not involving any underlying mechanisms. For example, linguistic change might be seen as tending toward a more adequate diagrammatization (as it is, in fact, by semeiotic neostructuralists). Then we have a teleological basis for identifying natural linguistic classes, namely those that we have to attend to in order to understand language as diagrammatization. (This too involves a hermeneutic circle: neither the right description of the process nor the goal that explains it can be discovered without also discovering the other.)

If the preceding is a roughly correct account of the linguistic practice of semeiotic neostructuralism, then it would seem that one who espouses the latter is in method, if not in doctrine, a realist as opposed to a nominalist, but a phenomenalist as opposed to a realist, and a teleologist to boot. One may doubt whether a semeiotic neostructuralist is a phenomenalist in doctrine. For such a linguist does not deny, in fact, he presupposes that there are realities beyond or beneath language but for which his teleological  account of linguistic change would make no sense. That is, there must be flesh-and-blood bodies that speak and listen, and it is their  desires and needs that explain why ever more adequate diagrammatization is an inevitable if unintended goal. If the research program subtended  by semeiotic neostructuralism can be made to work, then it will indeed conflict with Chomskyan (= mainstream) linguistics––and prove superior to it.


Markedness, Tense-Number Syncretism, and the Etiolation of the Subjunctive

English grammar has an interesting peculiarity of its verb morphology in that the subjunctive mood governing wishes and counterfactuals of the type headed by if triggers the use of the past tense rather than the present in the copula. Thus the normative pattern is I wish I were in Dixie, but the song goes “I Wish I Was In Dixie,” exemplifying a long-established deviation from the traditional norm whereby the number of the verb to be in the subjunctive can be singular rather than plural, while the tense remains past (rather than present) in both normative and colloquial usage.

The very fact that the number requirement in the copula has been relaxed––but not the tense––is evidence of the weakening of the grammatical force (salience, restrictedness) of the subjunctive mood as a verbal category in the history of English. It is also a sign (in the strict semeiotic sense) that tense is superordinate to number in the hierarchy of grammatical categories participating in English verbal syntax.

Both past tense and plural number are the marked members of their respective oppositions, non-past (present, future) and singular being the unmarked members. The subjunctive mood is also marked vis-à-vis the indicative, and it is this fact that elicits the appearance of the two marked members of the tense and number categories of the syncretic copula, a process called markedness assimilation, whereby marked grammatical contexts are coordinate with (govern the use of) marked units.

The upshot of this analysis for those contemporary speakers who habitually adhere to and insist––as parents offering a model of language use to their children––on the use in the subjunctive mood of both marked members––the past tense as well as the plural number––in the copula is not just a dogged grasping at linguistic straws but a sign that their internalized grammar valorizes not just the semantic but the EXISTENTIAL AND PRAGMATISTIC distinction between wishes and counterfactuals, on the one hand, and all other sentence types utilizing the copula, on the other.


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