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Archive for August, 2014

Assertion sub rosa (Lengthening of Clause-Final Unstressed Syllables in Female Speech)

One increasingly noticeable feature of the language of younger female speakers in contemporary American English is the lengthening of clause-final syllables, both open (ending in a vowel) and closed (ending in a consonant), in unstressed syllables. Thus words like America and negotiation, when occurring at the end of clauses, routinely have hyper-long unstressed vowels in the speech of women but not of men, most noticeably when the syllable is followed by a pause.

One possible explanation is compensatory. Lengthened syllables (syllables of greater duration) are always marked vis-à-vis their normal counterparts, and this marked character can serve the function of emphasis sub rosa. Speech in which this occurs can be interpreted as an attempt covertly to convey assertory meaning where overt assertion would undercut the apotropaic flag under which women’s speech––in American English, but not only––generally flies.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Mangling of French by Speakers of American English

When native speakers of one language try to reproduce the words of another language, the results will vary naturally and understandably with the linguistic skills of the imitators. In this respect, the speakers of certain languages—Japanese in particular comes to mind—have a deservedly bad reputation for their utter inability to refrain from mangling the vocables of foreign languages. In this respect, speakers of English are somewhere in the middle of the scale of success when it comes to this task.

Speakers whose native language is American English do not, as a rule, fare well with French, despite the ubiquity of French borrowings in English and the frequency of French words and phrases that happen to be intercalated in English utterances as a matter of course. Particularly glaring examples are items that end in –eur in French (like entrepreneur and liqueur), which are typically rendered with the vowel of English pure rather than the more authentic vowel of sir. The latter is certainly within the grasp of an English speaker, who typically mangles the French by modeling their pronunciation on the orthography. Also badly served are words that end in –oir, such as the frequent item noir of film noir, which are regularly distorted by having the final [-r] omitted in utterances containing them by Americans. [ADDENDUM: Cf. the all-too-common mispronunciation in the media (as pointed out to Y-H-B by Jacobus Primus) of the phrase coup de grâce with the final consonant of  grâce missing, making it sound ludicrously like gras ‘grease’ instead of ‘mercy’!]

Lately, because of its prominence in world affairs, the designation of the organization of doctors who go by the appellation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) comes in regularly for mispronunciation in the mouths of the American media. The first word, Médecins, is actually easy to reproduce, once one knows that the second vowel is elided in French, hence disyllabic and not trisyllabic, and the final vowel equivalent to the nasal vowel of aunt.

The upshot of all this distortion is inescapable, namely the deep-seated idea in the American psyche that FRENCH IS AN EXOTIC LANGUAGE, with a hopelessly wayward phonetics that lies beyond the reach of speakers of American English. Vive la France!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Gender-Specific Designations of Human Referents: Vacillations in Usage

In contemporary American English usage, the words on either side of the virgule man/woman, boy/girl, gentleman/lady, male/female can be used more or less interchangeably, but in some cases it remains unclear which of the two alternatives is stylistically appropriate. (This is the sort of vacillation that facilitates the well-know sexist joke: Q: “Who was that lady I saw you with? A: That was no lady, that was my wife.”). Women in particular are sensitive to being referred to by the word “woman” rather than “lady.” Colloquially, of course, women refer to themselves and to other members of the female sex casually as “girls,” even when the referents are well beyond girlhood in age.

Occasionally, with women designees in particular, one becomes unsure as to the stylistically appropriate term. This was brought to mind recently when Y-H-B was being tended to by two nurses (female) in a hospital examining room. When one nurse left the room, the patient asked the other the first’s name and vacillated before choosing woman. Lady would clearly have been inappropriate, but at the same time woman seemed coarse, especially after being treated so kindly and gently by her. Once having uttered woman nevertheless, the patient wished that he had avoided the impasse by choosing “other nurse” (“colleague” would doubtless have sounded pompous under the circumstances) in framing the question. This sort of linguistic problem, let it be noted, rarely comes up in referring to adult males, a reminder of the semiotic fact that the feminine is the marked gender in all languages, regardless of whether that opposition is grammatically codified or not.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Productive but Wrong (Childish Linguistic Errors)

A five-year-old boy whose native language is American English answers his mother and uses two forms of the past tense in consecutive sentences that exemplify productive rules of verb morphology but happen to be wrong, viz. *holded (hold) and *bended (bend; but cf. on bended knee). Eventually, of course, typically after having been corrected, he will learn that the correct preterits are held and bent, respectively, and are part of the class of verbs with irregular past-tense forms (the so-called strong verbs).

The bulk of a language’s morphology conforms to rules that determine the productive sector of its structure, and unproductive rules (like the change of root vowel in English accompanied by the suffixation of a desinence in the preterit) tend to disappear with time. Children understandably apply the productive rules first when learning their native language and only later acquire a mastery of the unproductive sector.

An interesting question of linguistic theory is why unproductive forms (= exceptions) perdure in every language despite the general tendency to whittle away exceptions and replace them by productive ones. Some unproductive sectors of the morphology are large enough (like the English strong verbs) to constitute a distinct class of exceptions with its own localized raison d’être, although it may be difficult to define. Others are isolated enough to drop out of the language with time, although they persist in the speech of those who––perhaps unconsciously––use them to define their linguistic identity in terms of superiority to speakers who are ignorant of the traditional norm. Eventually, of course, the norm changes with the death of those who adhere to it, and the productive rules inevitably triumph, solidifying the new norm.

Even within unproductive sectors of the vocabulary there may occur changes toward the elimination of certain forms. Thus, to continue with the English preterit, not all vowel alternations in strong verbs are being sustained in contemporary speech and writing. Instead of the normative shrank and stank, for instance, one increasingly observes the substitution of the past participle form shrunk and stunk for shrank and stank. In the long run, given the strength of this shift, the traditional forms will wither away and disappear. Meanwhile, those speakers who adhere to the older norm will thereby define themselves linguistically and culturally vis-à-vis the increasingly larger group who use only the newer forms while recognizing the extancy of what used to be their only correct counterparts.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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