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Archive for May, 2016

Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion Revisited (Hiroshima)

In an earlier post (“Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion in English,” March 19, 2011) the peculiarities of the Japanese suprasegmental system of pitch affecting vowels was outlined, and the distortions English speakers tend to introduce in rendering Japanese vocables was sketched. With the city of Hiroshima in the news these days in connection with President Barack Obama’s visit there, it might be useful to subject this toponym to some prosodic scrutiny.

The word is a compound consisting of the elements hiro(i) ‘wide’ and shima ‘island’. The toponym has low pitch on the initial syllable and high pitch on the remaining syllables, with the high pitch on the final syllable automatically being transferred to the vowel of any particle that follows it, hence, for instance, the phrase Hiroshima ga ‘Hiroshima is’ bearing high pitch on the particle ga.

Since it is stress, not pitch, that is distinctive in English, native speakers of English typically put the accent on one of either the second or the penultimate syllable, i. e., Hiróshima or Hiroshíma.

Judging by what one hears on the BBC World Service, British speakers favor the first variant, American the second. Thus, Britishers interpret the word as a typical English quadrisyllable (like hegémony or chirópody), whereas Americans interpret it as a compound, putting secondary stress on the first element and primary stress on the second.

 MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 2: ‘importune’

Literate speakers of American English are likely to have the word importunate ‘troublesomely urgent: unreasonably solicitous: overly persistent in request or demand’ (Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online) in their passive vocabulary at least, but perhaps not the related verb importune ‘to press or urge with frequent or unreasonable requests or troublesome persistence; to annoy, worry, trouble’ (ibid.). It is interesting to note that the verbal form of this word comes in both transitive and intransitive meanings.

None of the word’s synonyms has the insistence or the annoying character of the action connoted by importune, in parallel to its related adjective importunate. Both words deserve to be kept at the ready in the linguistic arsenal of speakers (and writers) who wish to give their utterances that special fillip when called for.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 1: ‘meretricious’

This is to inaugurate a new series of posts on Language Lore featuring words from the rich store of English vocabulary that are not in common use but are of particular usefulness withal. Such a word is ‘meretricious’, glossed as follows by The Oxford English Dictionary Online:

Etymology: < classical Latin meretrīcius ( < meretrīc- , meretrīx  meretrix n. + -ius , suffix forming adjectives) + -ous suffix.

1. Of, relating to, or befitting a prostitute; having the character of a prostitute. Obs. (arch. in later use).

2. Alluring by false show; showily or superficially attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.

In the Age of Depravity––which is the one that we are living through in the twenty-first century in the United States––this word is particularly apt because the digital revolution has tended to subvert and level all value hierarchies such that something superficially attractive or seemingly meritorious––i. e., meretricious––can blind people to its true status. All one needs to be convinced of the validity of this assertion is to heighten one’s awareness to the category of meretriciousness whenever claims for true merit are advanced for things and ideas in our Umwelt.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

‘Before’, Not ‘In Front of’

One constantly hears speakers of American English confusing the word ‘before’ in the transferred spatial sense (e.g., “appear before the court”) with the phrase ‘in front of”, substituting the latter for the former. This is a gross stylistic error that goes against a long normative tradition and should be expunged. It doubtless stems from diminishing experience with written texts and constant exposure to speakers with a less-than-normative command of their native language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Shunning the First-Person Pronoun: Onomastic Reference to Oneself

In these days of incessant broadcasting of US primary candidates’ utterances, it is not unusual to hear them referring to themselves with their full names rather than the first-person pronoun “I.” Bernard Sanders does this habitually, but he is not alone.

While this linguistic quirk may at first blush seem like a distancing device, it is actually a rhetorical trait of speakers who wish to arrogate to themselves a measure of self-dignification. To refer to oneself by one’s full name rather than the pronoun “I” tends to elevate the ontological status of the speaker by making him/her unique, whereas the use of the first-person pronoun always has a leveling effect, since “I” only and always refers to the speaking subject, a reference that is purely deictic, hence flattened in content because of its second-order (i. e., context-dependent, derivative) status.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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