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Archive for February, 2016

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 7 (Authenticity)

All of us––but especially Americans, because of our history as a nation of immigrants––have a drive for authenticity in our lives, in our experience and use of language, as well as in other aspects of our daily existence. This was exemplified yet again this morning when Y-H-B descended to the laundry room in his Manhattan apartment building for his weekly wash and encountered the sole other visitor, a man in his sixties who asked Y-H-B for help with the new machines that had just been installed.

What was remarkable about this gentlemen (for Y-H-B, at least) was his impeccably authentic New York accent, with all the correct vowels and intonations and the thorough r-lessness (elision of the liquid /r/) in all the right contexts. What a joy to hear this historically pristine speech, this rarely encountered exemplum of linguistic tradition!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Incomplete Voicing in Initial Plosives: A Survival of Immigrant Speech?

Americans who learned English as children and were either born overseas or grew up in a family in which foreign languages––particularly, German––were spoken by the parents or other close relatives may pick up and unknowingly import one or another heterolingual phonetic trait into their own speech. This is the case with the so-called incomplete voicing of initial stop consonants such as [b] in boy or [dʒ] in judge, which one occasionally hears on the radio from announcers whose family background probably includes non-native speakers of American English.

The incompleteness pertains to the onset of the stop, which is to say that the speaker starts by pronouncing the consonant without voicing––i. e., delays the vibration of the vocal bands––and only midway through its articulation actuates the vocal bands.

Two radio personalities who regularly manifest this trait are Terry Gross of the program Fresh Air (on NPR) and Jim Svejda (on-air host on KUSC, the classical music station of the University of Southern California). Gross apparently grew up in Brooklyn and must have encountered many speakers of Yiddish as a child. The origin of this feature in Svejda’s speech is unclear, but given the fact that this surname derives from Bohemia and the Austro-Hungarian area in general, one suspects a German-speaking milieu somewhere in America as the likely source.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[ADDENDUM: In answer to my query about his background, Mr. Svejda kindly responded as follows: “It was 22nd Street Chicago English (with a Czech accent) leavened by Arkansas white trash; I also spent several years in speech therapy for various afflictions, including a lateral lisp.”]

A Grammatical Case of Euphemism (pass)

Every language has euphemisms, which are defined as “that figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended” (Oxford English Dictionary Online). But this definition trades exclusively in terms of lexical substitution, whereas English, for instance, has at least one euphemism that is grammatical, specifically that of pass ‘to die’ instead of pass away (mainly in Black English, but now not exclusively). (Note, incidentally, that pass away is already a euphemism to begin with.)

This use of the verb pass without the postposition away can be seen as a grammatically achieved attenuation of the “harsh” or “offensive” meaning comported by the original construction with the postposition, and in that sense it fits the ontology of any euphemism by taking the sting out of the lexical unit being defanged.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Hypertrophization Continues Apace (definitive, secretive)

In many previous posts, the march of hypertrophization in contemporary English has been instanced via examples of redundancies and pleonasms of all stripes, including ones that have become conventional and accepted like advance planning. To continue in this vein, recently your Y-H-B has repeatedly heard presenters on the BBC World Service use the words definitive instead of definite and secretive instead of secret (adj.), where the suffix {-ive} is added redundantly to unaffixed counterparts whose meanings and usage are well-established in the traditional norm.

Like all discourse strategies that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary English, hypertrophization seems to answer to a felt need for overdetermination of meaning through formal redundancy, in what seems to be a (misguided) linguistic application of the principle, “The more, the merrier!”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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