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Archive for January, 2014

Adjectival Derivation (anent short- and long-lived)

Adjectives can be derived from other parts of speech in a number of ways, including simple suffixation (e.g., adjective > adjectival). Interestingly, the adjectival suffix can itself be derived from another part of speech, as is the case where the past participle suffix {-(e)d} is added to a noun (e.g., red-breasted < red-breast).

There are two common compound adjectives that utilize the word life as their deriving base, viz. short-lived and long-lived, that are often mispronounced, a mistake abetted by the ambiguity of the orthography. Since the element -lived coincides in spelling with the past tense form, this triggers the pronunciation of the second element of the compound adjectives in question as [lɪvd] instead of the correct [laɪvd].

The usurpation of the noun life as the deriving base by the participial form with –ed in this mistaken pronunciation is of interest because it may also betoken an unconscious reconstrual by speakers who favor it that rests on the difference between a denominal and a deverbal sense for such adjectives. The derivation from a nominal base (i.e., life) that underlies the traditional normative pronunciation implies that the compound adjective in question is giving expression to one sense in the ramified range of meanings that the noun subsumes––notably, with an enhanced reference to the qualitative meaning of duration. By contrast, when understood as being derived from a verbal base and pronounced to coincide with the past tense of live, the sense of the compound adjective backgrounds the meaning of duration and focuses instead on the endpoint of the action involved in the verb.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Latino and Its Linguistic Congeners

Latino speakers of American English often substitute a Spanish version of the word Latino while speaking English. What this amounts to phonetically is pronouncing the pretonic vowel in the first syllable unreduced—[a] instead of [ə]–– and the posttonic vowel without a diphthongal off-glide––[o] instead of [oʊ]. Moreover, the typical American English intervocalic rendering of the dental /t/ as what is called an alveolar flap and notated [ɾ] is replaced in the Spanish-tinged version by the dental stop [t]. Finally, the stressed vowel /i/ in this version sounds unlike the American English one by being correspondingly more tense after [t] than what is heard after the alveolar flap. (The alveolar flap is what appears between vowels in American English as the representative of both /t/ and /d/, i. e., neutralizing the tense/lax distinction between these dental stops, so that writer and rider sound the same in colloquial [allegro tempo] speech.)

The intercalation of alien phonetic features in one’s otherwise native American speech is evidently done in order to serve as a sign or badge of the speaker’s allegiance to their linguistic and cultural heritage, but (as was pointed out in an earlier post) this phonetic trait can only be evaluated stylistically as a barbarism, regardless of the ultimate motivation.

Speakers who use both Spanish and American English habitually may vary in the degree to which they permit themselves this departure from the normal American pattern. This license is especially defensible when it comes to the phonetic profile of one’s own name––especially one’s surname––which is, of course, largely within a speaker’s exclusive purview, regardless of whether it calls attention to itself (and thereby to the speaker’s cultural value system). For a linguistic purist (like Y-H-B), however, hearing the consistent pronunciation of a surname like Gonzalez with a blatantly Spanish accent as the closing tag of a radio reporter’s self-identification (sc. Sarah Gonzalez, WNYC) on the heels of an otherwise perfectly native stream of American English vocables can only be mentally consigned to the realm of linguistic bizarreries.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Prestige and Language Change

The linguistic norm for any language in the world that has a standard (usually set by academies or by traditional ascription to a prestigious social group) is subject to change over time like any other aspect of human behavior. We all aspire to speak like our fellows––specifically, members of our own community, starting with our immediate family and working outward as we grow older and come in contact with a widening circle of individuals.

What speakers conceive of as the norm is variable and fluid. No sane person whose native language is American English would normally (i. e., excepting a jocular intent) say something like “It is I” in answer to a question instead of “It’s me,” even though the subjective case of the personal pronoun is traditionally required after the copula (and may have been inculcated by old-fashioned teachers). On the other hand, older speakers may still adhere to “whom” rather than “who” with pre- and postpositions (cf. “To whom did you give it?” vs. “Who did you give it to?”). The drift of the language is clear, in any event: the colloquial has been replacing the formal as a general trend for some time.

When the norm is violated by speakers who have great prestige, even the fact of the solecism’s perception as such may not deter other speakers from imitating the mistake. A recent example is President Barack Obama’s use of the catachrestic “good-paying job” (instead of the correct “well-paying job” [explained in an earlier post, “Semantic Contamination,” July 22, 2009]) in a speech on the economy broadcast two days ago. Within a speaker’s lifetime the choice of linguistic variant may change, of course: Mr. Obama may have adhered to the norm at an earlier stage of his life and adopted the contemporary (incorrect) form under subcutaneous pressure to sound “like one’s fellows.” Whatever the biographical facts in this case, the prestige of a public figure’s office and of his persona typically works to give powerful impetus to the perpetuation and spread of an innovation––no matter how erroneous––among speakers whose admiration for a model overrides linguistic probity.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Baring the Grammatical Underbelly of a Hypercorrection

One of the most egregious cases of hypercorrection (hyperurbanism) in contemporary English on both sides of the Atlantic is the failure of speakers and writers to use the objective case of personal pronouns after prepositions. This is what is at stake when one hears an educated speaker of American English, a female Time magazine writer, uttering in an interview (NPR, “Morning Edition,” January 10, 2014) the solecism “between she and Ben Bernanke” (speaking of Janet Yellen, the Chairwoman-Designate of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System). Is there an explanation?

Perhaps the substitution of the subjective case for the normative objective here is a sign of the prominence that the speaker has assigned to the person designated by the pronoun in this sentence, in the specific context of its juxtaposition to the name of a male. The use of the correct pronoun her in this context would have lowered the importance that the speaker wishes to insinuate of Yellen as compared to Bernanke, given that the former is being elevated to the rank of the latter. The objective case is hierarchically not as highly-valued as the subjective, since subject is always necessarily more germane than object. Hence placing the normative objective case form her in initial position in the syndetic phrase between A and B would have devalued  the referent (A) vis-à-vis its counterpart (B) in the binomial portion of the phrase. The subjective case form of the personal pronoun, while flying in the face of its grammatical position after a preposition, restores and foregrounds the importance of the actual person denoted deictically. In other words, here person trumps case in the teeth of the resultant ungrammaticality.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Ethical Dative, Lost But Not Forgotten

There is a variant of the dative case in English––deriving from its Indo-European heritage and once much more common than in contemporary usage––that is defined as follows (The Free Dictionary): “a use of the dative of a pronoun to signify that the person or thing spoken of is regarded with interest by some one; as, Quid mihi Celsus agit? ‘How does my friend Celsus do?'” Webster’s Unabridged gives it a somewhat different spin: “a colloquial use of the dative of a pronoun for a person to whom it imputes a vague concern with the matter in question (as German mir, literally ‘for me”, in bleibe mir nur gesund ‘I just hope you stay well’). English translations of the ethical dative from languages like German or the Slavic languages will always fail to convey the full semantic force of the ethical dative; cf. the German humorous idiom es kann mir gestohlen werden ‘you can keep it’ (said of something one doesn’t want oneself) which literally means something like ‘you can steal it from me’. The possessive dative pronoun mir here makes all the difference in the world and is hardly reflected in the English phrase from me.

            This kind of discrepancy between English, which lacks the ethical dative, on the one hand, and those languages like German (or Russian or Serbian), which have it, on the other, makes translating poetry into English a particular problem. Take the following lines from the first panel (Вече ‘Evening’) of the triptych Na liparu (‘On Lipar Hill’) by Đura Jakšić:

Јесте ли ми род, сирочићи мали?
Ил’ су и вас, можда, јади отровали?
Или вас је, слабе, прогонио свет –
па дођосте само да, кад људе знамо,
да се и ми мало боље упознамо,
у двопеву тужном певајући сет?…

Ми смо мале,
ал’ смо знале
да нас неће
нико хтети,
нико смети
тако волети
као ти…
–  Ћију  ћи!

Моје тице лепе, једини другари,
у новоме стану познаници стари,
срце вам је добро, песма вам је мед;
али моје срце, али моје груди
леденом су злобом разбијали људи,
па се, место срца, ухватио лед.

С белом булом,
са зумбулом,
шарен-рајем,
рајским мајем,
цвећем, миром,
са лептиром,
летимо ти ми
срца топити…
–  Ћију  ћи!

Моје тице мале, јадни сиротани!
Прошли су ме давно моји лепи дани,
увело је цвеће, одбего ме мај,
а на души оста, ко скрхана биљка,
ил’ ко тужан мирис увелог босиљка,
једна тешка рана, тежак уздисај.

            One doesn’t have to know Serbian to follow the alternation of the possessive pronoun moje with the ethical dative mi in this beautiful poem about how the poet’s mood is affected by seeing birds flying about at night. When Jakšić says in the opening verse, addressing the little birds, ‘Are you my kin?’, he uses the ethical dative mi in referring to the fourth word rod ‘kin’  (Јесте ли ми род, сирочићи мали?), which would normally be rendered ‘Are you my kin, little orphans’, i. e., ‘are you kin to me’, where the ethical dative of the original has to be supplanted by a prepositional phrase, blunting the emotional force of the original sense. Those who have Serbian will notice how often the poet here plays on the distinction between the possessive pronoun and the ethical dative to convey the affective aura of his lived experience. Ut pictura poesis.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Accent and Dialect Differentiated

Prompted by a query about the difference between the terms “accent” and “dialect” from a loyal subscriber (Julia Arvin of Manchester, Vermont) with a keen interest in language and languages, YHB would like to set down some observations about these two terms and how they are used.

Accent is meant to refer to the acoustic physiognomy of a person’s speech––specifically, the phonetic profile or peculiarities––when that profile differs from the expected norm for a given language taken as a whole (and not just the standard). Thus, we say that a person has a “Southern accent” when we hear a typical speaker from the American South––say, Georgia or Alabama––because that person’s speech is identifiably and patently different from what is called Standard American English (SAE). They may be speaking English that conforms to all the grammatical and lexical norms of SAE, but phonetically their speech still exhibits features of a regional dialect to one or another extent. An educated Alabamian in his seventies––say a Huntsville aerospace scientist with a Ph. D.,  for example––may maintain all the features of a regional dialect despite having lived as well in places other than the South. From the point of view of an observer or interlocutor, his speech is what will be characterized as a Southern accent. Moreover, such a speaker is also necessarily cognizant of the fact that he “speaks with an accent.” Any ensemble of differences from SAE that are perceptible enough to be recognized as such will make such a characterization perfectly understandable and natural.

The adhesion of the word “foreign” to the word “accent” is a different matter. In such a case, we are obviously not talking about a regional dialect lying at the base of a native speaker’s phonetic profile because the accent is identifiable as a variety of speech stemming from the superimposition of a foreign language’s pronunciation habits on the target (non-native) language. Thus, American English spoken by native Russians has typical features with a clear source in Russian phonetics, and it is the ensemble of such features that constitutes a “Russian accent” (as occasionally exemplified in the public consciousness via some famous utterance, as in the case of “I [vant] to be alone,” attributed in this slightly inaccurate form to Greta Garbo [a Swede playing a Russian] in Ninotchka). Foreign accents occupy an interesting place in a native speaker’s (typically unarticulated) conceptualization of their language in the round. Stylistically, there is typically a range of values attaching to the production by foreigners of one’s native language. Thus, a Frenchman’s heavily accented English is regarded by most people as “charming;” not so that of a Japanese or a Chinese (or a Russian, for that matter), regardless of the degree of adherence to the grammatical norm.

Finally, the word “dialect” can extend terminologically beyond its regional (geographical) home terrain to encompass speech that is characteristic of a social group, such as a profession. Social dialects in this sense are often called “jargons” or (more strictly) “argots,” as in “thieves’ argot” or “sailors’ argot.” An interesting linguistic variety of the condition the French call déformation professionnelle is the supervening preference for jargon in the speech of professionals like academics, scientists, lawyers, and doctors. This habit is so seductive for some younger speakers, who are not professionals themselves but aspire to elevated social status, as to cause them to mimic such argots incongruously enough to elicit the (disapproving) comment from older family members (e. g., an uncle to a nephew), “You talk like a lawyer!”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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