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Archive for September, 2016

The Advent of Uptalk in British English

The phenomenon known as “uptalk,” by which is meant the use of interrogative intonation in declarative clauses, has become thoroughly incorporated into the speech of (mostly younger) American females and some males but has not typically been noted for British English. However, on the evidence provided by the speech of a young female doctor being interviewed this morning about her research on the BBC (Dr. Michelle Beaumont, King’s College London) makes it abundantly clear that RP (the so-called “Received Pronunciation,” which is the British standard) is no longer immune to the penetration of uptalk. As in American English, this new intonation is used by females who wish to make a declarative statement while simultaneously conceding to their interlocutors that (1) the content of their assertion is subject to doubt or disproof; and (2) the interlocutor is invited to only tentatively or provisionally entertain its veracity.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Integrity of Idioms (‘wrap one’s head around’)

Idioms in all languages are typically univocal as to form. If English has ‘kick the bucket’ with its idiomatic transferred meaning of dying, then there is no latitude for speakers to change ‘bucket’ to ‘pail’ (or any other synonym for that matter). However, when idioms first enter a language, some variation may occur, whereby one or another synonymous element is substituted for the authentic version.

This has happened in recent American English with the idiomatic phrase ‘get/wrap one’s head around’, meaning ‘understand with some difficulty’, such that speakers frequently replace ‘head’ with ‘brain’ or ‘mind’. These substitutions ought to be ruled out of court for one fundamental reason: they are the result of a misconstrual of the stylistic link between the verb and the direct object. Both ‘get’ and ‘wrap’ are words from the common (non-elevated) stratum of English vocabulary, whereas neither ‘brain’ nor ‘mind’ is. Speakers who alter the idiom by changing the stylistic level of its verbal complement are thus guilty of linguistic misprision.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 8 (Russian Proverb)

Since living in Manhattan (unlike Los Angeles, to take a marked contrast) necessarily involves walking, Y-H-B often finds himself perambulating in his neighborhood and observing the pedestrian scene, including that of miscellaneous persons walking their dogs. These canines, in their turn, swivel about on their leashes and, whenever possible, engage each other through reciprocal barks, sniffing of hind quarters, and other untoward behavior. These sidewalk encounters typically cannot be obviated by human walkers, intruding willy nilly as they are wont to do on one’s consciousness as well as on one’s private space.

This morning an encounter of just this sort provoked the disinterment of a very pithy Russian proverb in Y-H-B’s brain, to wit: свои собаки грызутся, чужая не приставай, literally meaning ‘if someone else’s dogs are nipping at [squabbling/quarreling with] each other, one’s own [dog] oughtn’t pester [= mix in]’. This proverb also happens to be the title of one of the most prominent Russian dramatist A. N. Ostrovsky’s plays (1861, subtitled “Pictures of Moscow Life”). The transferred meaning of the proverb is: ‘stay clear of other people’s quarrels’. Good advice.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 7: ‘meretricious’

One consequence of living in The Age of Depravity in America is the falling away of rational thought when it comes to appraising aspects of contemporary culture (esp. popular culture and the arts, but not only). What is ubiquitously proffered by avatars of all stripes as excellent or meritorious more often than not turns out to be counterfeit but continues the life of all false coins long beyond their minting.

The word that best captures this state of affairs is the adjective ‘meretricious’, glossed as follows by the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

“Origin: A borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element.

Etymons: Latin meretrīcius + -ous suffix.

Etymology: < classical Latin meretrīcius ( < meretrīc- , meretrīx meretrix n. + -ius , suffix forming adjectives) + -ous suffix. Compare Italian †meretricioso (14th cent.).

  1. Of, relating to, or befitting a prostitute; having the character of a prostitute. Obs. (arch. in later use).
  1. Alluring by false show; showily or superficially attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.”

Noting the surprising (now obsolete and archaic) first meaning of the word, one is reminded of the axiom that true love is never for sale.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Language as the Laissez-Passer Par Excellence

As an immigrant and the son of refugees, Y-H-B often heard the phrase “Nansen passport” uttered by his parents, who were stateless until immigrating to the United States in 1952 and were able to travel between the wars only because they held this document, a laissez-passer (from the French ‘let pass’) issued to Russian refugees by Fridtjof Nansen in 1922 in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations.

Given today’s world situation, with its high incidence of forced migration due to wars, it might be apposite to remind readers that the key to acceptance of migrants in their new countries is their command of the language of the communities they join. Nothing is as powerful a warrant of their bona fides as speech that conforms in every possible respect to the linguistic norms of their adoptive countries.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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