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Archive for November, 2015

When Only Learnèd (Recondite, Recherché) Words Will Do

Even if we adopt the translation theory of meaning, wherein every immediate object (to use Peirce’s terminology) has an interpretation in terms of another immediate object (meaning), there is one such “object” that escapes ultimate characterization: the individual human being. This latter creature in its individuality can only be captured linguistically by the use of two learnèd words and no other (in English, at any rate): (1) haecceity, defined as the status of being an individual or a particular nature; otherwise individuality, specificity, thisness; specifically that which makes something to be an ultimate reality different from any other; and (2) quiddity, defined as the essential nature or ultimate form of something; what makes something to be the type of thing that it is.

These two Latinate words cannot be supplanted by any others from the rich storehouse of native English vocabulary because only they capture what is semiotically true––and at the heart of Peirce’s apothegm (meant asexually), “Man is a sign”––quite apart from such abstract defining characteristics of human personhood as thought and consciousness. The haecceity (“thisness”) of any given human person necessarily adumbrates a concomitant quiddity (“suchness”), and the two jointly body forth a unique, unreplicable figura that underwrites all the interpretants adumbrated thereby.

Only English, with its uniquely mottled Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman history, has the capacity to use learnèd vocabulary to such precise ontological effect.


Russian Patronymics

Although Russia is the biggest country in the world and has played a prominent role in modern world history, few people have any first-hand knowledge of Russia or the Russians, let alone of the Russian language. One of the special linguistic and cultural features of the latter (which it shares with the other East Slavic languages) is the obligatory use of an individual’s father’s name plus the suffix {ov/-ič} for males and {ov/ič + -na} for females–called a patronymic (pronounced [ˌpætrəˈnɪmɪk])––as a middle name between one’s given name and surname. Every Russian person has and uses all three names. This triplet appears on all formal documents, and the first two together (i.e., the forename and patronymic) are routinely used in formal and semi-formal speech (minus the surname). In colloquial speech the patronymic can be and is used alone as a substitute for the forename.

In Russian, therefore, Y-H-B––whose father’s name was Constantine, i. e., Константин in its Russian form–– goes by Михаил Константинoвич ‘Michael son of Constantine’ with stress on the ultima in the forename and the antepenult in the patronymic.

In allegro speech routinely and a few instances regularly for all styles, the patronymic utilizes a contracted version of the father’s forename, so that, for example, Y-H-B’s daughter Abigail (‘father’s joy’ in Hebrew, as in reality) is called Авигея Михайловна ‘Abigail daughter of Michael’. The case of the name Михаил ‘Michael’ is unique as to vowel contraction because in fact the last vowel is elided before the patronymic in formal speech as well, as it is in the patronymic, so that Y-H-B’s name comes out as Михал Констиныч (note the dropping of the suffix {-ov-}), and his daughter’s as Авигея Михална.

The existence of this onomastic pattern in Russian turns out to be uniquely useful as a cultural norm in ordinary discourse because if affords an intermediate stylistic means for addressing persons with whom the use of the forename alone would be ruled out because of familiarity and that of the surname preceded by a title (like Mister or Professor) awkward because of its formality. Thus, for instance, a student can avail him/herself of the forename + patronymic in addressing a professor instead of resorting to the equivalent combination in the typical Western European formal pattern.

As it happens, a particular irony of Y-H-B’s forename and patronymic duo is the fact that Mikhaíl Konstantínovich just happens to be the name historically of a Grand Duke (Великий Князь in Russian), i. e., a member of the Russian Imperial family. You can be sure, therefore, that when he introduces himself for the first time to a Russian speaker by saying his forename and patronymic, he never misses the opportunity to add the phrase “like the Grand Duke.”


Normativity, Habit, and Willful Mistakes

Any language is a system of habits that tolerates variety (stylistic among others) while subscribing wholly to the rule of norms. We all speak our native language in such a way as to be understood by our fellows, and that means deviating from the norm sparely under rational circumstances.

This is by way of introducing the topic of what can only be called “willful mistakes.” For example, recently Y-H-B audited a series of lectures in typically fluent (but heavily accented) English by an eminent mathematician of South American provenience. For some reason, this person kept pronouncing the English word category incorrectly, with stress on the second rather than the initial syllable. Now, the same item in Spanish (categoría) has penultimate stress. Why, then, the constant mispronunciation of the English word? Even categorizing the mistake as “willful” (pardon the pun) only begs the question.

One attempt at an answer could lie in the level of awareness that we all exhibit to differing degrees of our actions, including speech. Speakers may be innocently unaware that they are exhibiting an idiosyncratic linguistic habit even when the specimen is unambiguously erroneous from the standpoint of the norm. This is true in spades when the language spoken is not native but foreign.

The question remains open.


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