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Archive for October, 2014

The Pathos of Everyday Life 1 (Ronkonkoma)

Herewith the first installment in a series of posts entitled “The Pathos of Everyday Life.” It will use words to entrain ruminations on lived reality. Pathos is understood here as an element in experience or in artistic representation evoking pity or compassion.

One is comfortably seated on an LIRR train from Penn Station to Mineola. The terminus is Ronkokoma, one of several towns on Long Island whose names evoke American Indian tribes and their language. Note that Ronkokoma (an adaptation of an Algonquin word) has a decided prosodic structure: a monosyllabic anacrusis followed by a dactylic clausula. It has three sonorants (r, n, m) and only one obstruent (k), but this true consonant is placed immediately before the stressed vowel (Ronkónkoma). It is this phonetic structure that limns the word and invites repetition for the sound’s sake alone.

Great thunderheads in the October sky lower as the train makes its way through the derelict houses and household detritus trackside. Airplanes coming in for a landing in Queens at JFK International Airport intersect with the clouds and buildings to suggest a constructivist painting.

One learns a new use of the word platform, viz. as a verb: “The front cars do not platform at Woodside,” proclaims the public address system. One announcement in particular, delivered in flawless diction by a disembodied but sure-footed baritone, begins to sound poetic: “As you leave the train, be careful to step over the gap between the train and the platform.”

It is then, for some mysterious reason, that the final four lines from a Russian poem dedicated to his wife (Y-H-B’s mother of blessed memory) by the musician-poet Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992) float unbidden into one’s consciousness:

Поэт Вам счастия желает,
Он жизнь спокойную сулит
Тому, в душе чьей обитает
Любовь и правды верный щит.

(The poet wishes you happiness,
He foretells a peaceful life
For one in whose soul reside
Love and truth’s faithful shield.)


Unstressed Vowels and the Demoticization of Vocabulary (synod, ebola)

English has a large stock of non-native vocabulary (i. e., words not of Germanic or Anglo-Norman provenience) whose pronunciation may still reflect their foreign origin. Typically, once such a word passes into common use, its pronunciation adjusts itself correspondingly to conform to traditional phonetic norms. At any intermediate stage between initial entry into English vocabulary and complete demoticization, there is usually some fluctuation involving doublets (two competing variants) before a historical resolution toward one as normative.

This process can be observed with two words that are currently in the news, synod (< late Latin synodus,< Greek σύνοδος assembly, meeting, astronomical conjunction, < σύν syn- prefix + ὁδός way, travel; reinforced later by French synode (16th cent.) and ebola (< Ebola, the name of a river and district in northwestern Zaire, where an outbreak of haemorrhagic fever occurred in 1976). The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives the following variant pronunciations for ebola: Brit. /iːˈbəʊlə/, /ᵻˈbəʊlə/, /ɛˈbəʊlə/, U.S. /ɪˈboʊlə/; but for synod all dictionaries register only one, namely /ˈsɪnəd/, despite the fact that one constantly hears the unstressed syllable pronounced with the full vowel of odd rather than the schwa alongside the normative pronunciation with the schwa.

In both words the American English pronunciation of something other than a reduced vowel ([ə] in synod and [ɪ] in ebola) in the unstressed syllable should be interpreted as a sign of its evaluation as a word of foreign origin. The value, specifically the markedness value, of the sounds at issue is what is at stake here. The appearance of a full vowel in unstressed position in dissyllabic words in English is marked, whereas that of a reduced vowel is unmarked. This follows from the value of reduced vowels as unmarked vis-à-vis their full vocalic counterparts. One way that demoticization of foreign words proceeds is by the gradual replacement of the marked vowel by the unmarked.

When persons who have either never heard the normative pronunciation of a word like synod or do not have it in their vocabulary start using it, the first result is to mark it as foreign by utilizing a full vowel (what might be called the “spelling pronunciation,” although the correct designation should be “reading pronunciation”) rather than the correct reduced vowel. In the speech of such persons the ultimate trajectory, when they have been exposed to sufficient instances of its use, is demoticization in the form of vowel reduction. The same is predictably true of ebola, as can already be heard in the pronunciation of some speakers of American English today.


Epenthetic N (Neither . . . Nor)

Epenthesis is defined as the insertion of a sound––generally, a consonant between two other consonants in a cluster––that is the result of a historical change in language. English has two unusual cases of epenthesis in morphophonemic alternations, both cases involving the sound n intervocalically (between vowels), viz. (1) after the indefinite article a before words beginning with a vowel, e. g., an apple (cf. a napkin); (2) before the head word either and its constituent conjunction or of the construction neither . . . nor (cf. either . . . or).

In the last twenty or thirty years, even otherwise careful writers and speakers are to be observed making the mistake of dropping the epenthetic n of nor, witness the following sentence penned by a Canadian writer in a contemporary scholarly publication: “What should be clear, however, is that Peirce’s praise of Spinoza is neither careless nor inconsistent with his thought or [instead of correct nor], indeed, with the early twentieth-century development of pragmatism.” In this example, where or appears instead of nor, the mistake could be mitigated, of course, by the fact that neither has already been copied once to its complementary first [n]or, thereby freeing the second or from obligatory epenthesis. But it is a grammatical mistake nonetheless.


[TERMINOLOGICAL CLARIFICATION: Although the term epenthesis does service for insertion of a sound at any position of a word, it is generally reserved for medial position, whereas the term prothesis is more particularly used for insertion in initial position, as in neither and nor. The insertion of a sound at the end of a word is called paragoge, which means that the n of an is, strictly speaking,  paragogic.]

“You Talk Like a Lawyah!”

Every language has several speech styles, including elliptical and explicit sub-codes, and a range of stylistic registers. One particularity of the language of an advanced society is the existence of professional jargons, by which is meant the specialized vocabulary, syntax, and diction that are found in the speech of professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, university professors, et al.). These jargons are normally used when professionals talk to each other and are generally not employed in talking to laypersons. However, some professionals seem unable to desist from utilizing jargonic speech even when the occasion and interlocutor would seem not to call for it. This indecorous habit amounts to what the French call déformation professionnelle.

Apropos, Y-H-B recalls that his father-in-law’s brother, an immigrant from Hungary, used to chide his nephew, a native-born American, for speaking in an especially crabbed way, and he did this by saying (in his heavily accented, quasi-New Yorkese English), “George, you talk like a lawyah!,” which usually put the quietus on what was otherwise a highly loquacious youth.


Fossilized Speech and Its Episodic Disinterment (“во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины”)

The way any living language is spoken (synchrony) always inevitably includes elements––phonological, grammatical, and stylistic––that are characterized as obsolete or obsolescent. This situation answers to what in the Prague School was described as “dynamic synchrony,” i. e., the presence as relics of older stages of any given language’s historical development, which is to say that there are always fossilized (“old-fashioned”) strata in any living language.

This idea was exemplified with striking patency when Y-H-B attended a meeting of a scholarly society in Seattle and had occasion to speak his mother tongue (Russian) to a fellow scholar, a Russian émigré many years his junior who was born and educated in the former USSR. At several points in the several conversations that took place between them over the span of three days, it was remarked with repeated amazement and delight by his interlocutor how Y-H-B had somehow managed to preserve and continue in what can only be described as fossilized form the refined pre-Revolutionary speech of the Russian educated elite to which his parents belonged and preserved over the long span of their worldwide peregrinations as refugees.

In order to understand the astonishment and incredulity of Y-H-B’s interlocutor, one needs to know that Russians as an ethnic group have a traditionally heightened fondness for their mother tongue. This affect was captured by the great Russian novelist Turgenev in his most famous prose poem (1882), which goes as follows:

«Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины, ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык!.. Не будь тебя — как не впасть в отчаяние при виде всего, что совершается дома. Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!»

[“In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!” (translated by Constance Garnett)]


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