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Archive for May, 2013

“That’s a (Really) Great/Good/Interesting Question”

Speakers of (American) English not infrequently start answers to a question with one or another variant of the sentence “That’s a good question.” It can be heard, for instance, in broadcast interviews, but not only. This opening can be annoying to the questioner (or to someone listening/overheating the conversation) because it may seem utterly otiose. However, it does have the multiple communicative effect of: (1) complimenting the questioner for posing the question; (2) informing the questioner that an adequate answer may not be in the powers of the interlocutor, and forestalling a censorious judgment (silently) resulting therefrom; and (3) keeping the channel of communication open withal.

The last effect fulfills the so-called PHATIC FUNCTION, i. e., that of keeping the conversation going. Speech gambits that keep the channel of communication open include not only whole sentences but a range of vocables that are not really words sensu stricto but sounds such as “uh-huh,”hm,” grunts, and even audible intakes of air. These are all (largely unconsciously) meant to avoid creating the effect that one of the parties to the conversation is not listening or not interested in keeping it going. All genuine conversations (unlike speeches or declarations) are embedded in a social matrix, in which mollifying one’s interlocutor is an intermittently necessary goal among others.


Prior to Instead of before: A Hyperurbanism

There is no doubt that American English in the twenty-first century is swarming in hyperurbanisms, which dictionary.com defines as “a pronunciation or grammatical form or usage produced by a speaker of one dialect according to an analogical rule formed by comparison of the speaker’s own usage with that of another, more prestigious, dialect and often applied in an inappropriate context, especially in an effort to avoid sounding countrified, rural, or provincial, as in the pronunciation of the word two (to̅o̅) as (tyo̅o̅).”

The tendency to sound “educated” is aided and abetted by another tendency, namely to linguistic hypertrophy, prominently including pleonasms. These two tendencies have conspired to push the simplex (Germanic) preposition, conjunction, and adverb before to the margins of usage in its temporal sense, the bookish (Latinate) compound prior to (sometimes reduced to prior without the to) often being preferred instead.

The compound prior to, it must be admitted, has the possible advantage of being confined to temporal precedence, whereas the simple word before does double duty as a denotation of spatial and temporal position relative to the word it governs. But before has been perfectly serviceable in both meanings since Old English days and is in no need of supersession.

The rise of hyperurbanisms is a direct consequence of the acquisition of the literary language by speakers who in the pre-digital past would have had little access to book learning and/or little desire to acquire it. Be that as it may, such formations are to be avoided as stylistically fulsome by anyone who values plain-speaking.


Lost in Transliteration (Russian Hypocoristics in English)

As detailed in an earlier post, Russian hypocoristics (pet names) comprise a rich onomastic lode, perhaps unparalleled in the world’s languages. When they are transliterated into English (or other languages using the Roman alphabet) their status as affectives is not necessarily recognizable as such by those who have no knowledge of Russian.

In this respect, the incidence of diminutives as first names among well-known Russian-Jewish violinists and pianists of the twentieth century born in the Pale of Settlement (Odessa, in particular) is to be explained by the fact that these were child prodigies who simply continued to use the hypocoristic form of their Russian forenames into adulthood as stage names. Thus the famous violinists Jascha Heifetz (R Иосиф Рувимович Хейфец), Mischa Elman (R Михаил Саулович Эльман), and Tossy(a) Spivakovsky (Натан Давидович Спиваковский) had the given (official) forenames Joseph (not Jacob, curiously enough, from which Jascha is the proper derivative), Michael, and Nathan, resp.; and the full forename of the pianist Shura Cherkassky (R Александр Исаакович Черкасский) was Alexander (Шура < Сашура < Саша < Саня < Алкесандр).

This early twentieth-century custom among Russian-Jewish child prodigies of keeping their pet names is understandable, given the desirability of maintaining reputations first won in childhood. In the event, for audiences and a general public outside the Russophone milieu the hypocoristic force is lost, and with time, even for a Russian speaker, the fact of a familiar performer well on in years appearing under a diminutive as a first name ceases to be onomastically dissonant.


[Addendum: One thing I neglected to mention (but can be inferred from what I did say) is that the older practice of keeping a pet name as a stage name fell into desuetude sometime between the wars. Odessa didn’t stop producing Wunderkinder (cf. David Oistrakh), but musical prodigies who post-dated the Mischas and Jaschas of yesteryear did stop following the older practice. – M. S.]

Affectation as Incipient Sound Change

All languages change over time, although some are more conservative than others. The causes of sound change have been at the center of the historical study of language for many generations. One such cause––no doubt a marginal one––is affectation, i. e., a largely unconscious imitation of a prestige pronunciation whereby a speaker of a socially lower class aspires to be considered for accession to a socially higher class by adopting a speech trait that is characteristic of the latter group.

This is apparently the cause of the recent raising of the vowel [æ], as in past, pad, and palindrome, to the vowel [a:] of arm, father, etc. among young female speakers (adolescents and younger women). As has been remarked in earlier posts, the latter (so-called broad vowel) is to be heard as the affected variant in foreign borrowings like Iran and Iraq instead of the traditional (so-called flat) vowel [æ] and native words like rather. This particular affectation is especially favored by those who wish to sound “educated” or “cultivated” despite the fact that their brand of American English in other respects merits neither of these designations.

Since this trait is an incipient one manifested by young females, it is worth noting that affectations as innovations that fall short of full-fledged changes in language typically begin among speakers who are socially less powerful but aspire through borrowed prestige to elevate themselves linguistically. If this innovation spreads beyond its original locus, it bids fair to displace the traditional norm.


The Vanishing Article in Phraseologisms

In the past several decades or more, there has been a tendency in American English to omit the article where it previously was obligatory in phraseologisms. Thus, for instance, one could hear today the phrase in the wake of uttered by a reporter on the NPR program “Morning Edition” without the article, i. e., “in wake of . . .” Other examples of this phenomenon are “on par with” and “on air” (instead of the traditional on a par with and on the air). By the bye, the absence of an article in the phrase in hospital differentiates British usage from American, where in the hospital is steadfastly maintained despite the tendency to drop the article elsewhere.

There already exist many examples of phraseologisms that omit the article (like in cahoots with, in defense of, etc.), so it is not surprising to see that the trend is toward omission of the article rather than toward its insertion.

A possible explanation resides in the nature of a phraseologism, as contrasted with a simple prepositional phrase containing an article. In the first case, a unified meaning of the words as parts of a whole is paramount, rendering the individuating function of the article as a grammatical category subordinate to the syntactic unity of the phraseologism. But in the second case––that of a simple prepositional phrase–– the article retains its role as an individuator.

This ongoing change toward phraseologization as it affects articles is an instantiation of the principle of language structure whereby the implementation of the rules of grammar always tends over time toward the iconic realization of the ontological definition of the categories involved.


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