Y-H-B was waiting for his gazpacho to appear as the start of a noon meal at one of his favorite Manhattan restaurants (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) when instead of the waitress one of the owners appeared bearing the soup––an unprecedented event in Y-H-B’s experience––which elicited my comment: “Are you short-staffed today?” To which the man (looking to be in his sixties or seventies) retorted: “No, we’re undercustomered,” a complete nonce word (spontaneous neologism) that he’d conjured up on the spot (the restaurant was empty except for me).
All languages have considerable room for word play of this sort, especially languages like English with a rich derivational morphology. The use to which speakers put this capacity is very much a matter of individual linguistic skills and predilections. Upon hearing undercustomered, Y-H-B made a mental note of it and silently complimented the owner-turned-waiter on his linguistic sprezzatura.
When rules of grammar change, meaning is always involved, whatever the formal effects of the change. This is illustrated concisely by the current expansion of the syntactic government of the past participial form of the verb base, i. e., based, in both American and British English, whereby the traditionally normative phrase “based on” is being replaced and or augmented by the variant “based around” (and even “based off of”), as heard increasingly in media language on both sides of the Atlantic.
This change is semantic as well as syntactic because it can be analyzed as an attenuation of the meaning of the complement on, which is what results when the complement changes to based around. The conceptual core of on is weakened to indicate only something circumferential (as it were) rather than solidly central. Speakers who have shifted to using based around mean something different, therefore, from those who adhere to the traditional norm.
As has been noted several times in earlier posts, particular words may have private meanings for speakers while remaining vocabulary items of natural languages, not fabricated items in ad hoc or artificial languages (like Esperanto or those spoken by characters in theatrical or cinematic productions). Especially memorable for individual speakers may be names by which people refer to each other, such as pet names from early childhood or those exchanged by members of one’s immediate family. But nomina propria are not the only category of words that may carry a private meaning.
It is accordingly a reminiscence from childhood that has prompted this post. Driving from Manchester to Bennington (cities lying near one another in the state of Vermont), Y-H-B happened to turn on the classical radio station of Vermont Public Radio and heard the piano music his mother, Lydia Shapiro (1905-1983), often practiced at home and played in her concerts. It was Liszt’s “Au bord d’une source [Beside a Spring],” an especially powerful and beautiful exemplar of the composer’s consummate mastery of the lyric genre. But it was when the announcer identified the piece after the performance had concluded that the (utterly mundane) words of the French title exerted an especially powerful emotional effect on the listener, moving him to tears. They had brought back to mind, from many years of repetition in the distant past, the flawless French in which they had been uttered by the pianist whose playing of Liszt’s music had lain deeply embedded in her son’s psyche for all time.
A purist (according to the definition in the OED Online) is “a person who aims at or insists on scrupulous adherence to an ideal of purity or correctness, esp. in language or style; a person who adheres strictly to a principle or doctrine.” As readers of this blog may have divined from earlier posts, Y-H-B belongs to the dwindling breed of linguistic purists, especially when it comes to the languages he speaks fluently (Russian, Japanese, and English).
The puristic impulse was rekindled anew by the trip I took recently to Japan; also by viewing the new Yiddish-language film “Menashe,” in which all but one actor belong to the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community in Borough Park Brooklyn, New York. In Japan I constantly heard the contemporary variety of standard Japanese wherein practically every other word or phrase is a Japanized borrowing from (American) English, also known as Japlish (cf. Spanglish, Franglish, etc.). This hybridized (not to say bastardized) species of language eschews perfectly well-established native (or Sino-Japanese) forms of expression when an English alternative is readily available through the penetration of modern media. In “Menashe” a similar situation obtains, with lexical items from American English studding the speech of the characters, especially the younger ones.
Linguistic purism is seen as “the practice of defining or recognizing one variety of a language as being purer or of intrinsically higher quality than other varieties.” A linguistic purist is exercising a value judgment as to the integrity of the spoken or written language in active use. In the case of contemporary English, like any language with a long record of lexical borrowing from other languages, speakers resort to items that are of foreign provenience and of different time depths without realizing that they were borrowed (typically, from Latin or Anglo-Norman). When an item is obviously foreign––like machismo—it has a cultural resonance and is utilized in contexts that make direct or indirect reference to its origin.
Unlike borrowings in active use in contemporary English, however, those that are so frequent and growing in number in Japanese or Yiddish serve only the most expedient communicative purposes, which enable speakers to elide the necessity of learning how to express the same linguistic content in language that is more in keeping with traditional norms.