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Archive for March, 2014

The Function of Phonetic Ellipses (Syncope and Voiceless Vowels)

Ellipsis understood in its most capacious sense as an omission of linguistic material wherever it occurs includes phonetic phenomena such as syncope and voicelessness (= absence of voicing) in vowels. Typically, such ellipses occur in the so-called ELLIPTIC CODE of any language, by contrast with the EXPLICIT CODE, wherein the full variety of the relevant material does appear. Often the elliptic code version of a word is generalized as a matter of linguistic change and renders the explicit code version antiquated, then displaces it from the language altogether. Thus a word like listen––as the orthography, which still reflects an older period in the history of English, indicates––has two vowels but is typically pronounced either without the second vowel, viz. [ˈlɪsn], where the final consonant is syllabified, or with a schwa before the [n], i. e., [ˈlɪsən].

The “explanation” of phenomena such as the syncopation of the second vowel of listen may seem to be purely phonetic, i. e., to be couched in terms of the phonetic properties of the consonant involved and that of its context. Accordingly, the dropping of the sound /t/ here would be ascribed to (1) its definition as a “voiceless” (properly, tense) stop; and (2) the presence of the preceding (immediately contiguous) sound /s/ (a “voiceless” continuant) before an /n/ (a nasal continuant). This garden-variety appeal to phonetic context (both simultaneous and sequential), however, obscures the fact that phenomena of this kind have a PHONOLOGICAL FUNCTION, which has nothing to do with economy of effort or other such physical explanantia that have traditionally seduced linguists.

Phonological implementation rules (as they are called) make iconic reference to the distinctive (diacritic) feature values that constitute phonemes in the sound system of every language; and indexical reference to the sequential context in which phonemes occur in speech. Thus, in an item like listen (or whistle, for that matter), the fact of syncope in this context is a sign that makes reference to both the constitution of the sound syncopated and to the sounds of the context in which the syncope occurs. It has, in other words, essentially to do with semeiosis––with phonology as semeiotic–– and only secondarily with physical (= phonetic) reality.

Syncope is routinely aligned as a form of simplification with other linguistic phenomena where a sound is dropped or a feature elided. Accordingly, one should regard the “omission” of voicing in vowels in definable contexts as typologically homogeneous, hence an example of  simplification as well. Thus in English, secondarily stressed or unstressed vowels in the context of immediately following nasals routinely appear as voiceless in the elliptic code. An example is the way the NPR reporters/hosts Eleanor Beardsley and Ira Glass pronounce the initial vowel of the words NPR and American (of  “This American Life”), respectively––Beardsley with a voiceless [e] and Glass with a voiceless [ə] (schwa). The indexical function of vocalic voicelessness is triggered by (refers to) the voiced character of the neighboring nasals (/n/ and /m/, resp.), which (incidentally) belies the knee-jerk notion that this is a kind of phonetic “assimilation.”


Absence of Number Concord in Subject-Predicate Grammar

No doubt due to the linguistic promiscuousness induced by the rise of internet communication, with its instantaneous transmission capacity, less than punctilious attendance to grammar has become a workaday phenomenon. Particularly frequent is the absence of agreement in subject-predicate number, viz. invariably a plural subject being paired with a singular predicate, as in the following sentence drawn from today’s CNN Money (cnn.com) website: “As much as investors and traders may want to forget about it, concerns about worsening relations between the West and Russia over the fate of Ukraine is weighing on market sentiment.” From a performance perspective, it is evident that the likelihood of such grammatical transgressions increases with the distance of the subject (noun) from the predicate (verb). It would be easy to conclude that the writer has forgotten the plural number of the subject noun and has simply regarded all of the intervening linguistic material en bloc as a mass undifferentiated as to number, hence a singular by default.

Since the direction of this error never reverses the number relation between subject and predicate (i. e., the error always and only occurs when the subject is in the plural), it is tempting to ascribe this phenomenon to a kind of neutralization, in which the expected unmarked term of the opposition (= the singular) represents the category of number in the position of neutralization, i. e., the predicate.

Another way of analyzing the mistake is to examine the semeiotic purport of the condition under which it occurs, namely element distance separating subject from predicate. Markedness is defined as an interpretant of the restriction of conceptual scope, where the marked term is valorized as being of greater restrictedness vis-à-vis its unmarked counterpart in the binary oppositions of grammar (as in all semeiosis). In the case at hand, the more numerous the elements intervening between subject and predicate, the greater the scope, thereby weakening (notionally) the centrality of restrictedness to the very meaning of scope. Once the threshold of restrictedness as such has been crossed, evidently the unmarked number supervenes despite the resultant violation of concord, in a development that instantiates the diagrammatic specificity of the context.


The Emotive Use of Dialectal or Non-Standard Speech

With the modern-day establishment of standard languages in most parts of the globe, the status of dialects and non-standard language has changed from a strictly regional phenomenon to a potential source of stylistic variety. For example, in Europe and North America (but not only) playwrights are known to write in characters that speak in dialect by contrast with the rest of the cast in order to lend characterological depth through speech as well as ideological traits. More generally, people who otherwise adhere in their everyday speech to the standard may occasionally deviate from this pattern in order to lend local color to their utterances. Thus politicians who wish to pander to class differences in their public pronouncements often deliberately resort to colloquial or non-standard grammar and lexis, hoping thereby to ingratiate themselves with the lowest common denominator.

An interesting case in point is the signage on the façade of a New York pizzeria, which among other information has the sentence “It Don’t Get Better Than This!” painted below its name. The use of the dialectal “Don’t” (for standard “doesn’t”) is clearly not accidental. It connotes through its emotive (= stylistic) value the idea that people of all stripes are welcome, including persons whose class or provenience is reflected in speech that is grammatically not (entirely) normative.


The Stress of Foreign Nomina Propria (Kiev, Ukraine)

With the incessant bleating of the media about the Ukrainian crisis comes the usual mispronunciation of foreign nomina propria (proper nouns), specifically the stress of polysyllables. There is no reason, of course, to expect broadcasters (hosts, presenters, correspondents et al.) to have any knowledge of foreign languages, let alone the Slavic ones, but there are well-established traditional norms in English for the placement of stress in items such as Kiev and Ukraine that are being flouted seemingly at every turn.

The capital of Ukraine, Kiev, has initial stress in both Ukrainian and Russian. However, in line with the general tendency of American English to subject all foreign place names in particular to what has been called in earlier posts the “Frenchification rule” (= stressing the last syllable, especially with dissyllabic items), one constantly hears the stress being displaced to  the second syllable, producing Kiév instead of Kíev.

The situation of Ukraine seems to take a directly reverse direction, rendering standard Ukráine as Úkraine, with stress on the first rather than the second syllable. (Interestingly––though not strictly relevantly––the older Russian norm has stress on the second syllable of Украина, whereas the contemporary norm evinces stress on the third syllable.) Here the culprit is the dialectal undercurrent (Southern American English) which tends to equalize all dissyllabic items without constituent structure (NB!) by placing their stress on the first syllable, as in dialectal gúitar for normative guitár; note the extant extension to items with more than two syllables, as in dialectal ínsurance for normative insúrance.

In a strange twist of linguistic irony, those Americans who otherwise speak standard English but pronounce Ukraine with stress on the initial vowel are unwittingly rendering the name of the country into something less dignified than what would be accorded the appellation of a full-fledged nation by recurring to what sounds in American English like its “hick” version. This actually mirrors the attitude of older Russians toward Ukraine, which in pre-Revolutionary times was called “Little Russia” and its inhabitants uniformly considered rustics.


Cultural Differences in the Reception of the Graeco-Roman Patrimony

Typically without realizing it, we speakers of English utilize utterly common phrases that are calques from Latin and Greek. Nothing is more emblematic of this phenomenon than the phrase common sense, whose origin (ca. 1525-35, according to the OED) is Latin sēnsus commūnis, itself a translation of Greek koinḕ aísthēsis (< Ancient Greek αἴσθησις ‘perception’ < αἰσθάνομαι [aisthanomai ‘I perceive’]). Among the modern European languages, this comes out as French sens commun [or colloquial bon sens].

Here are some meanings of the phrase from current online dictionaries:

I. sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.
1. Perception from the senses, feeling, hearing, seeing
2. Perception by the intellect as well as the senses
3. That which is perceived: scent
4. Ability to perceive: discernment
5. Cognition or discernment of moral discernment in ethical matters

II. 1. An ‘internal’ sense which was regarded as the common bond or centre of the five senses, in which the various impressions received were reduced to the unity of a common consciousness. Obs.
2a. The endowment of natural intelligence possessed by rational beings; ordinary, normal or average understanding; the plain wisdom which is everyone’s inheritance. (This is ‘common sense’ at its minimum, without which one is foolish or insane.) b. More emphatically: Good sound practical sense; combined tact and readiness in dealing with the every-day affairs of life; general sagacity.
3. The general sense, feeling, or judgement of mankind, or of a community.
4. Philos. The faculty of primary truths; ‘the complement of those cognitions or convictions which we receive from nature; which all men therefore possess in common; and by which they test the truth of knowledge, and the morality of actions’ (Hamilton Reid’s Wks. II. 756). Philosophy of Common Sense: that philosophy which accepts as the ultimate criterion of truth the primary cognitions or beliefs of mankind; e.g. in the theory of perception, the universal belief in the existence of a material world. Applied to the Scottish school which arose in the 18th c. in opposition to the views of Berkeley and Hume.

III. 1: a sense believed to unite the sensations of all senses in a general sensation or perception
2: good sound ordinary sense: good judgment or prudence in estimating or managing affairs especially as free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety or as not dependent on special or technical knowledge <too absurdly metaphysical for the ears of prudent common sense — P. E. More>
3a. among Cartesians :  something that is evident by the natural light of reason and hence common to all men b. (1): the intuitions that according to the school of Scottish philosophy are common to all mankind (2): the capacity for such intuitions c.: the unreflective opinions of ordinary men :  the ideas and conceptions natural to a man untrained in technical philosophy—used especially in epistemology.

In Russian, by contrast, the phrase comes out as здравый смысл, where the adjective corresponding to ‘common’ is здравый, whose primary meaning is ‘healthy’ (cf. the translation of L mens sana in corpore sano ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ as здоровый дух в здоровом теле, where the demotic [pleophonic] form of the root is utilized rather than the Church Slavonic form). What is interesting here is the substitution of the word meaning healthy, moreover in its Church Slavonic (= high style) hypostasis, for L commūnis ‘common’. Even allowing for connotative nuances of the Russian word (not just ‘healthy’ but ‘rational’ and ‘sane’), there is a world of difference between the meanings ‘common’ (English and French) and ‘healthy’. English ‘common’ shades into connotations that are hardly admirative, whereas Russian здравый never veers from its positive semantic core.

One would think that the upshot for the difference between the English and the Russian attitudes toward what constitutes something as basic in the cultural stock of meanings as the phrase common sense could not be more epitomical, viz. ‘a sense shared by the community’ vs. ‘a sense that is healthy/sane’. Alas and alack, no scrutiny of the modern history of the two nations––the Anglophone and the Russophone––can sustain any argument that would be grounded in this linguistic difference. So much for language as an index of virtue.


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