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Archive for June, 2013

The Communicative Upshot of Uptalk

The manner of speaking that has come to be called ‘uptalk’, in which declarative sentences and clauses are rendered with interrogative instead of declarative intonation, has spread from its origin in the speech of adolescent girls to children of all ages and both sexes; and even to male young adults. As a linguistic phenomenon with social consequences, uptalk has also become part of a speech strategy that betrays largely unconscious motives which are worthy of note.

As has been detailed in earlier posts, the main thrust of uptalk is clearly APOTROPAIC, by which is meant a strategy employed in order to forestall danger, in this case the danger of possible censure or criticism as a result of what is being said. Asserting something with the normal declarative intonation runs the risk of being disapproved or criticized, whereas phrasing a non-question with interrogative intonation takes the assertory edge off whatever is being said, thereby softening the utterance and removing or attenuating the risk of censure for the content of the utterance.

A subsidiary motivation for uptalk is the communicative desirability on the part of the utterer for reinforcement that the utterance is being understood and (at least) provisionally agreed with on the part of the utterer’s adressee(s). The appropriate gloss of uptalk in this aspect is something like ‘Do you follow me?’ or ‘Do you know what I’m saying?’, phrases which are in actual use in speech without the presence of uptalk as tags to assertions in normative English anyway.

The semeiotic upshot of a fundamentally apotropaic speech strategy abuts in conceptions of the self and the other in their communicative interrelations as part of social interaction. When one has to be careful to mask  assertions as questions for fear of potential censure in order to get along socially with others, this attitude clearly betrays a fundamental lack of confidence in the society’s members’ ability to weigh assertions on their merits instead of automatically reacting with some measure of bias or animus to so much as the mere articulation of linguistic content that is not implicitly unquestionable.

The urge to promote a society speciously free of communicative risk––specifically, THE RISK OF BEING (PROVEN) WRONG––is at bottom the motivation of uptalk. Where it might have been understandable as a speech strategy of adolescent girls, evidently involving matters of gender and power, its latter-day spread to groups beyond its original  locus can only be assessed as a peculiar––and baneful––failure of thought.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Attenuation of Arbitrariness in the Semantics of Quantification

The overall drift in language development is toward greater diagrammaticity (iconicity) between sound and meaning, which thereby necessarily results in the attenuation of the arbitrariness characterizing the fundamental relation of all language structure.

This can be illustrated in the history of English by the gradual gain in scope of the quantifier of mass nouns less at the expense of its counterpart fewer, which according to the traditional norm is reserved for count nouns. Many speakers of American English (but not only) regularly substitute less for fewer where the norm specifies the latter to the exclusion of the former.

The iconic motivation of this usage is twofold. First, less is shorter than fewer, thereby fitting it more adequately than its counterpart to its meaning, namely ‘lesser quantity’. Second, individuation as a semantic category is marked (more restricted in conceptual scope) that non-individuation, so that a drift toward non-individuation is a movement toward the unmarked member of the opposition, instantiating the general iconic (semeiotic) principle according to which language change favors replacement of marked units, categories, and contexts by unmarked ones.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Hypertrophic Emphasis in Neology (begrudging[ly])

A recent morphological change in American English is the mistaken substitution of the adjective/adverb begrudging(ly) for the normative grudging(ly). This has come about as an indirect result of the fading into obsoleteness of the verb grudge (intr. ‘to murmur; to utter complaints murmuringly; to grumble, complain; to be discontented or dissatisfied’), whereas its prefixed successor begrudge (‘to grumble at, show dissatisfaction with; esp. to envy [one] the possession of; to give reluctantly, to be reluctant’) is currently alive and well.

Beyond the particular morphology of the neologism, however, lies the general contemporary tendency in English toward hypertrophy, which in this case means the expansion of grudging(ly) by the prefix be-. This tendency includes the substitution of previously emphatic forms for their neutral counterparts, a process which always comports a difference in semantic grading. In the case of begrudging(ly), part of the explanation for the neologism would accordingly make reference to the felt need (by younger generations of speakers, but not only) to emphasize (heighten) the negative––i. e., uncharitable––meaning of grudging(ly), an end subserved by the prefixed form(s).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Slave to Ignorance

A native speaker of American English (as of any other language) can make a mistake in pronunciation simply because of their ignorance of the word family to which the mispronounced item belongs. Thus, for instance, on today’s installment of the NPR program “Morning Edition” a reporter mispronounced slavishly to rhyme with lavishly, evidently unaware of the fact that the adjective slavish is derived from slave and has the primary meaning ‘of or characteristic of a slave or slavery’.

Pronunciations that are at variance with the established norm are typically to be explained as arising from ignorance of one’s language in the round, which in the digital age is clearly to be ascribed in turn to a paucity of book learning among speakers who otherwise pass for being nominally literate.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Phonetic Indicators of Word Unity

The word in English (as in all Indo-European languages) may or may not have a constituent structure, so that its unity may be simple or complex. Affixes are added on to roots and bases in derived words, complicating the structure. The constituent parts of the word are all ultimately subordinated to the unity of the whole, and the process of word formation may be accompanied by phonetic alternations of the base or root.

Thus, for instance, a word like penitentiary is the product of penitent + –iary, and comports the change of stem-final /t/ to /∫/, yielding the pronunciation /ˌpɛnɪˈtɛnʃəri/. This change is called PALATALIZATION because the dental stop of the deriving base is replaced by the palatal fricative in the derived form. The change is part of the regular alternation in English derivational morphology (but not only) between the consonants /t d s z/, on the one hand, and /∫ tʃ ʒ /, on the other, before the front vowel /i/ or the glide /j/; hence consent ~ consensual, tort ~ tortuous, grade ~ gradual, process ~ processual, Paris ~ Parisian, use ~ usury, seize ~ seizure, etc. The derived form is marked in comparison to the unmarked deriving base, hence the appearance of the marked sound /∫/ in place of the unmarked /t/, etc.. The alternation of stem-final consonants is a sign of the hierarchical relation between the two forms (quite apart from the presence of the suffix in the derived form).

It should be noted that American and British usage in the forms at issue is not always the same. Before the suffix {-ian], for instance, the British form does not palatalize the stem-final consonant, hence Christian is /ˈkrɪstjən/ in British English but /ˈkrɪstʃən/ in American; and Parisian in Brit. /pəˈrɪzɪən/ as contrasted with U. S. /pəˈriʒ(ə)n/. This also applies to non-derived words like prescient, for which Brit. is /ˈprɛsɪənt/ but U. S. /ˈprɛʃ(i)ənt/; cf. fustian Brit. /ˈfʌstɪən/ but U. S. /ˈfʌstʃən/, etc.

Linguists have, for the most part, not understood the function of phonetic alternation outside a purely segmental (linear) phonetic context, but it is clear from the examples cited here that palatalization contributes to the structural unity of the word and is thereby SEMIOTICALLY significant. The word as a structural unit always tends to subordinate its parts to itself as a whole, and in the case of derivational morphology (including word formation) the deriving base’s being altered in its stem-final consonant in the process of derivation is a sign that the base has been rendered subordinate in the context of a derived form.

A useful check on this analysis can be seen in the process of what is called UNIVERBATION, where two or more words are contracted into, or treated as, one. In the case of palatalization across morpheme boundaries within the word, the process described above applies without fail, whereas across word boundaries (where there is no pause) it may apply optionally, as in the phrase this year pronounced frequently in American English with [ʃ] instead of [s] for the last consonant of this (cf. gotcha /ˈgɒtʃə/ for got you).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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