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Archive for June, 2015

Contraction in Language and Its Stylistic Dimension

To expand a bit on the previous post (prompted in part by Gary Richmond’s apposite comments), contraction in language is necessarily to viewed as a stylistic alternative to its unexpanded counterpart, specifically as a colloquial/informal/elliptical variant on a “full” form that is employed in stylistically formal or neutral contexts. This is overwhelmingly the case in English (as well as most other languages), where augmentation as part of a shift to a colloquial or informal genre of speech is extremely rare. Thus nope, which is the colloquial counterpart of no, represents a completely atypical example of adding a segment in order to signify informality instead of subtracting one.

By the bye, the case of nope, while rare, is nevertheless a good riposte to those who maintain that informality is achieved through economy of effort, hence contraction as something to be explained primarily as a physical means. Anything stylistic, whatever its value, is always conceptual precisely because value is necessarily conceptual, always part of the cognitive dimension of human semiosis.

Why contraction lends itself to implementation as a means of conveying informality is an interesting question. There is clearly something about the human mind that tends to regard the patterned reduction of plenitude as informal in comparison. But examining this question further would take us too far afield from language and must therefore be left unanswered for the time being, at least.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Vowel Syncope and Its Functions

Vowels that appear in one form of a word may be elided in speech (and even in writing) depending on the context, especially between consonants but not only. This elision (called “syncope”) occurs in many languages of the world including European languages like English or Russian and is typically the product of a historical process, wherein earlier “full vowel” forms (i. e., unsyncopated) alternate with newer forms that omit the vowel in question. The occurrence of syncope is routinely associated with the stylistic dimension of language, specifically with the so-called “elliptic code,” and contrasted with the “explicit code” wherein the vowel in question appears unelided. (These terms were introduced for the first time into the discourse of linguistics in Y-H-B’s first book, Russian Phonetic Variants and Phonostylistics [University of California Press, 1968]). The elliptic form tends to be generalized over time at the expense of the explicit one, as often happens under the appropriate circumstances in the pronunciation of nomina propria, including English (British) place names such as Leicester (pronounced [lɛstər]); cf. the colloquial syncopated pronunciation of the British English word governor as [‘ɡʌvnə(r)], occasionally rendered as guvna orthographically to reflect the colloquial phonetics.

In English the archetypical instance of syncope is in contractions. Thus, for example, the subject-verb combination “I am” is characteristic of the explicit code but is reduced to “I’m” (where the apostrophe marks contraction) in the elliptic code.

Certain phonetic contexts are more likely to induce syncope than others. The occurrence of a vowel in an unstressed syllable is a sine qua non by itself. From that basic starting point, the occurrence of an adjacent sonorant in the syllable––more specifically, a nasal consonant like /n/ or /m/––often leads to the unstressed vowel being dropped, as when heaven is pronounced (esp. in British English) in the second syllable without the vowel and a syllabic nasal.

Traditional phonetic explanations of vowel syncope rely on such notions as economy of effort, but this is clearly inadequate, even though items in the elliptic code tend to be pronounced faster than their counterparts in the explicit code. The function of vowel syncope is rather the usual semiotic one, viz. of mapping the hierarchy of distinctive features that define a phoneme through its instantiation contextually in speech. Thus vowels––which are defined as [+ vocalic] and [- consonantal]––signify this definition in connected speech by being liable to syncope, the only speech sounds which function that way in the rules of implementation characterizing a phonological system.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Pluralia tantum and Their Contemporary Misconstrual

In the European languages, including English, there are words which either appear exclusively in the plural form or do so with particular meanings. Thus, for instance, the Russian word часы ‘clock/watch’ is a plurale tantum in the meaning of a timepiece, the singular form being used to mean ‘hour’.

In English there is a long history of pluralia tantum such as qualifications, finals, negotiations, etc., but in contemporary speech (especially American, but not only) these words are being misconstrued to mean things rather than activities (the latter being their proper semantic category). Thus the last match in a tennis tournament is properly called “(the) finals,” NOT “the final,” but this normative and traditional form is now routinely being replaced by the word in the singular. Speakers who make this mistake evidently take the event to be a thing rather than an activity, whence the change in morphology.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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