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Archive for September, 2013

Degrees of Linguistic Self-Awareness (Anosognosia)

It is reasonable to assume that speakers vary in the degree to which they are aware of how they speak their native language. Specifically, they may not always be aware of the fact that in some cases they have silently chosen from a range of variants that may characterize the pronunciation of a certain word. In an extreme case, moreover, the choice of a possible variant may be at odds with what is extant and habitual in the language, particularly as this pertains to the names of persons, where variation is usually strictly constrained by the preference of the person who bears the name.

Here is what can only be called a quasi-pathological case heard on NPR Radio. In a recent broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday, the host, Scott Simon (whose linguistic manner, incidentally, can only be characterized as pompously precious), while interviewing a correspondent, Scott Horsley, several times mispronounced the latter’s name by rendering the medial s of his surname as a [z] instead of Horsley’s own version with [s]. This kind of lack of self-awareness borders on what is called anosognosia in the mental health literature, defined as a ‘deficit of self-awareness, a condition in which a person who suffers a certain disability seems unaware of the existence of his or her disability’.

A possibly related case pertaining to linguistic self-awareness––also from a recent exchange between two NPR correspondents, Robert Siegel and Michele Keleman, this time on All Things Considered––involved the pronunciation of Iran and Iranian (about which see in detail an earlier post on the subject of broad and flat a in contemporary American English). Siegel several times pronounced these words correctly, i. e., according to the traditional English norm, to rhyme with ran and Pomeranian, whereas Keleman consistently used the forms influenced by foreign speakers (specifically, Iranians) to rhyme with Ron and raunchy. Over the course of an exchange that lasted several minutes, neither speaker deviated from their respective preferred pronunciation.

The degree to which interlocutors confronted with variant linguistic forms are aware of the variation as it occurs is an open question. In the particular case of Iran and Iranian, native speakers who ignore, or are ignorant of, the traditional norm should be informed of the possible deficit in status and power that is comported by a deviation from traditional English phonetics in the direction of a foreign mispronunciation, amounting to an unintended concession as to which of the interlocutors’ utterances are valid or veracious.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Supersessionist Drift of American English

The cultural dominion of American English as reflected in language use is well known. Native words in many languages of the world are habitually being replaced in ordinary speech (especially in media language) by items adapted from American English. Franglish has long been the bane of purist French speakers, and Japanese is increasingly being overwhelmed by English lexemes in their American forms (with the appropriate phonetic overlay). British English is no longer the default model for such adaptations.

Speaking of the British variant of English, it is noteworthy that the Americanization of Britain has affected language as well as other aspects of culture. When one listens to the BBC World Service, for instance, one regularly hears the use of truck instead of lorry (which has practically disappeared from the speech of English presenters), and even the noun patent pronounced to rhyme with latent has all but disappeared under pressure to conform to the American pronunciation. Apropos, it should be noted that for purist native speakers of American English the adjectival form retains the traditional British phonetic form.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Words in Desuetude

English has a huge lexicon, probably the largest word stock of the world’s living languages. As with all languages, some words in dictionaries carry the designation ‘obsolescent’, some ‘obsolete’, some ‘archaic’; and some are never (or very rarely) used in speech or writing. One such word is desuetude, a very good substitute for disuse, since it has a richer semantic range. But it has fallen into desuetude, just like malefactor, which is infinitely superior in every sense to the currently popular but utterly disposable phrases bad guy and bad actor. In this meaning field, evildoer is also superior to the latter two phrases and unwarrantedly neglected.

English vocabulary is unequalled for richness and eminently mineable for the most varied nuances of meaning that any writer or speaker might wish to express. Sad to say, however, words like malefactor and desuetude sleep the slumber of the dead in dictionaries, waiting only to be summoned into service by those who know of their existence and can exploit their aptness.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Is There a Logic of Linguistic Error?

In a clip from a news conference held in Sweden that has been replayed many times over the radio in the last two days, Barack Obama is heard uttering the following sentence: “The use of chemical weapons are abhorrent.” This sentence contains a flat-out grammatical error, since the subject of the sentence use is in the singular, whereas the verb are is the plural of the copula be. Obama is undeniably a native speaker of American English, and he nevertheless uttered this sentence without correcting himself.

Native speakers, let alone foreigners, make mistakes when speaking their own language. The gamut of errors is fairly broad, ranging from simple slips of the tongue to the most egregious grammatical errors of the sort just instanced by Obama. A number of causes for error come to mind, all of which come under the compass of linguistic competence, including the stress of the moment, memory lapses, etc. But is there such a thing as a logic of linguistic error? The question remains open, although in the case of a failure to coordinate grammatical number between subject and verb, one could appeal to the force of assimilation (however weak), since constructions involving a collective noun in the singular governing substantives in the plural is idiomatically aligned with plural number in the verb, e. g. a bunch of guys are standing in line, etc.

All the same, a grammatical error that goes uncorrected always raises the question of cognitive competence in general, not just one that pertains strictly to the utterer’s command of language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Swimming in Semeiosis

Charles Peirce, the modern founder of the theory of signs, made a special point of saying that we should think of ourselves as “being in semeiosis” just exactly as we think of a body “being in motion.” Parsing “semeiosis” as a more encompassing designation for “meaning,” and utilizing Peirce’s insight for the purposes of linguistic analysis (but not only), we become more acutely alert to explanations of phenomena––following Peirce––as THE RATIONALIZED EXPLICATION OF VARIETY.

Here is a concrete example that presented itself to your humble blogger this afternoon as he looked out the window of a restaurant on York Avenue in Manhattan. On a fitness studio’s awning across the street one reads the following phrase meant to communicate the establishment’s name: “Regenerate Fitness.” While the owner’s intention is to be interpreted as a command, i. e., something amounting to “Patronize us, and you will regenerate your fitness,” there is another way of reading the name, namely with the word “Regenerate” as an adjective, yielding a nominal phrase rather than a command. Quite apart from the unlikeliness of this second understanding, the contrast between the verb and the adjective of the word “regenerate” spelled identically involves a difference in pronunciation: the vowel –a– of –ate bears a secondary stress in the verb and is pronounced with the tense vowel [ɛj], whereas the adjectival form is pronounced with the lax schwa [ə]; cf. the exact same alternation as between the verb degenerate ‘to fall below a normal or desirable state, especially functionally or morally’ and its correlative adjective with the meaning ‘having declined, as in function or nature, from a former or original state’.

Only one theory of language, the one informed by Peirce’s semeiotic, is capable of giving a rationalized explication of the variation of the unstressed vowels in the two grammatical categories involved in the word degenerate. The key is the concept of MARKEDNESS, which is a species of interpretant, i. e., the semeiotic superstructure that guides variation by means of ICONICITY. Specifically in this example, the marked value of the verb (verbs are marked vis-à-vis nominal forms by necessarily referring to time) is mirrored by the implementation of the vowel marked for protensity (tense vowels are marked vis-à-vis lax vowels in English), rendering the form-meaning parallelism a DIAGRAM in the strict semeiotic sense, i.e., an icon of relation. It is the diagrammatic quiddity of the parallelism that gives the pattern exemplified by the two meanings of degenerate its raison d’être.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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