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Archive for June, 2014

Sinning Against Usage (Dead Last, but Flat Broke)

Idiomatic phrases and constructions are part of linguistic usage and as such not amenable to alteration. A command of one’s own language includes the knowledge of idioms. Violation of the idiomatic norms of a language is a sign of deficiency.

In a recent utterance attributed by the media to Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Clinton mentioned that when she and Bill left the White House, they were “dead broke.” American English does not have such a phrase, the idiom being “flat broke.” One can be “dead drunk” and “dead last,” but not *dead broke (in linguistic notation the asterisk signifies either an incorrect or a reconstructed––hence questionable––form).

How should one evaluate a sin against usage? In the case of a prominent politician like Hillary Clinton (who actually writes remarkably well), one can perhaps chalk the mistake up to the heat of the media moment. At the same time, usage is a form of truth, since by its very fixity, it is immutable. A violation of usage––whatever the circumstances––is, therefore, a transgression against verity, i. e., a sin against truth. Such a mistake, especially emanating from the mouth of a politician, thereby speaks against their veracity.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

World-View and Untranslatability (The Case of Yiddish)

Because of the deep historical and cultural connectedness between world-view and language in traditional societies, it has often been pointed out by anthropologists and linguists that words and phrases are not necessarily translatable from one language into another. Yiddish stands as a well-known exemplar of this situation, despite the steady penetration of Yiddish vocables into languages (like English or Russian) whose speakers include sizable Jewish segments.

It has been remarked that for Jews––and not only those from the ghetto––life consists of four elements, designated by the following Yiddish words (all derived from Hebrew originals): tsores (צרה) ‘troubles’, nakhes (מכּה) ‘pleasure, especially that of a parent from a child’, makes (מכות) ‘abcess; scourge, plague’, and yikhes (ייִחוס) ‘descent, lineage, pedigree’. Of these, perhaps the most familiar one to English speakers is tsores (also transliterated tsures and tsuris). But the translation ‘troubles’ cannot do justice to what the Yiddish word connotes in the Jewish worldview. Here is a piece of personal linguistic folklore that will illustrate this assertion.

A paternal distant cousin of Y-H-B known in the family only as “Uncle Misha” was routinely cited in the appropriate conversational context for his having excogitated the humorous rhyming couplet (a takeoff on Cicero), “[Latin] O tempora or mores/[Russian] O vremena, o tsores [О времена, о цорес].” The original has Cicero deploring the viciousness and corruption of his age, for which the literal translation is ‘oh what times!, oh what customs!’ The use of the Yiddish word tsores in Uncle Misha’s version immediately shifts the semantic dimension into the age-old experiential context of Eastern European Jewry, a world utterly incompatible with that of ancient Rome. (By the bye, this is the same Uncle Misha who made an appearance in an earlier post on the word continental, namely the picaresque personage who escaped death by firing squad in revolutionary Kiev, immigrated to Paris, and lived there into his hundreds as a wealthy arms dealer. Among his other (putative) witticisms was “Il y a une différance entre air et courant d’air.”)

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Ideology and Grammatical Error (The Feminine Pronouns)

Here is a contemporary example (from the editor’s introduction to a book published in 2010) of the untraditional generic use of the feminine pronoun instead of the masculine: “If mathematical reasoning is in some sense maximally perspicuous, then no other kind of reasoning can be capable, by dint of its greater perspicuity, of rescuing the mathematician when she goes wrong.” The writer of this sentence––a man––uses the feminine pronouns she/her without fail in every case where he/his is demanded by the norms of English grammar. This practice––perceived by Y-H-B as a verbal tic––is evidently intended by the writer as a badge of his ideological bias against the exclusivity of the masculine gender when the personal pronoun refers to a noun unspecified as to biological sex.

What writers of English who resort to the blatant inversion of the generic/specific distinction fail (or care not) to understand is that their practice is a grammatical error. This error is rooted in the markedness value of the feminine in all languages which have gender as a grammatical category. That value is marked, i. e., conceptually restricted vis-à-vis the masculine (and the neuter gender, if the latter is extant), which is correspondingly unmarked. In a language like English, where gender in nouns is not overtly specified morphologically (unlike, say, Russian), the only other way for gender to inhere in the grammatical makeup of a word is to be part of its lexical meaning. Thus woman can only refer to a member of the biologically female human sex, just as bitch in its straightforward (i. e., non-emotive, non-pejorative) application can only designate a female dog; or gander a male goose, etc.

Thus the use of the feminine pronoun to refer to a word like mathematician––which is neutral, i. e., undesignated lexically as to biological sex––is not only a violation of the rules of English grammar but a distortion of the specific/generic distinction rooted in nature, of which grammar, like biology, is an integral part. The ideological motivation for this contravention of grammar, far from advancing the cause of feminism, only serves to undercut it.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Tenues and Mediae in English

The terms ‘tenues’ and ‘mediae’ have traditionally been used to denote the series of obstruents (= true consonants) associated with the letters p, t, k, s, etc. and b, d, g, z, etc., respectively.

From the phonological point of view, tenues and mediae subsume two distinctive features in terms of which they can be opposed: voiced vs. voiceless and tense vs. lax. The distinctive feature voiced vs. voiceless presents, from a logical viewpoint, two contradictory opposites whose physical counterparts are the presence vs. absence of glottal vibrations. A distinctively voiced media is thus normally constituted by the corresponding tenuis with superimposed glottal vibrations. Since voicing and tenseness are syncategorematic features, there obtains a normal complementary distribution of their physical correlates such that, in languages with distinctive voicing (like Russian), voiced obstruents are phonetically lax and voiceless ones phonetically tense. At the same time, in comparison to languages (like English) which have distinctive tenseness, languages evincing distinctive voicing manifest tenues which are normally relatively lax and tenuis stops which are relatively unaspirate (aspiration being a concomitant of distinctive tenseness, not voicelessness).

The distinctive feature tense vs. lax, on the other hand, is composed of two contrary opposites––greater vs. lesser protensity––typically implemented as a difference between tenues and mediae in the relative duration of the release portion and the tenure portion.

Despite the availability of a rich phonetic literature since at least the time of the pioneering English phonetician Henry Sweet (1845-1912), contemporary phonologists (including those of the generative stripe and their offshoots) have continually vacillated in their interpretation of English tenues and mediae, with the voiced vs. voiceless feature posited as distinctive more often than not. The great Russian phonologist Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) even claimed in his Principles of Phonology that it is “impossible to say whether in English a correlation of tension or a correlation of voice is present.”

A refutation of this latter view is implicit in the several earlier posts (vide infra) where the theory of phonology underlying the analysis reposes on the fundamental principle that the sound system of a language is a semeiotic, a system of signs. Once the semiotic workings of the system are charted, using phonological implementation rules as a sign of the underlying hierarchy defining the sounds (phonemes), the membership of English in the typological group of languages (e.g., Japanese, Latin, Ukrainian, etc.) evincing protensity and not voicing in their tenues and mediae becomes irrefutable.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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