• Monthly Archives: January 2020

Linguistic Habit as an Index of Cultural Fact

January 19, 2020

All languages exhibit habits of expression that can be reckoned to be cultural facts because they are “fixed,” which is to say that they are idiomatic and not routinely subject to variation. However, even such “fixed” ways of expressing oneself can change over time. When they do, we can abduce that something in the culture has changed, not just in the language. Language is part of culture by definition, there being no dichotomy between the two spheres.

Sitting at my Stammtisch for my regular Sunday morning breakfast at the Manchester Center restaurant Up for Breakfast, I overheard another customer order an item from the menu by saying to the server, “I’ll do the bacon and eggs.” Now, the use of the verb do in this utterly quotidian milieu is actually a fairly recent innovation in American English, the older norm being have or take.

The difference between have or take and do in this particular context may seem simply to be a matter of free variation. However, as my old teacher Roman Jakobson used to insist, there’s no such thing as free variation, just as there’s no such thing as free love. Each use of a particular verb to mean the same thing has a different value associated with it, even though the meaning of the sentence amounts to the same thing.

When one says “I’ll do sweetbreads” rather than the older “I’ll have sweetbreads,” one is silently asserting some sense of control over the order, i. e., an active part in deciding one what will get to eat from the menu. The verbs “have/take” here connote––also silently, to be sure––that one will eat what is given to them as the result of the transactional relationship between diner and server.

There is, therefore, a subtle shift of value in the difference between the two verbs “do” and “have/take” that is ultimately a fact of contemporary American culture as it pertains to the attitude betrayed ex silentio in the shift of linguistic habit associated with this mundane situation of everyday life.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Self-Aggrandizement as the Subcutaneous Motive of Current Media Speech

January 12, 2020

In current media speech on American radio (esp. NPR) one constantly hears interviews with people who are incapable of expressing themselves directly and plainspokenly, i. e. without resorting to metaphoric expressions and generally to indirection of meaning. This feature extends particularly to younger speakers of both sexes, but especially to younger males.

The cause seems irrefutable: self-aggrandizement. Speakers mean to call attention to themselves and to the imputed power of what they are asserting by magnifying everything through figurative linguistic means, avoiding directness at all costs. This speech gambit not only calls attention to the form of the utterances itself but to the utterer as subcutaneously more important than what is being said. Such is the premium being placed on self-aggrandizement over meaning in present-day’s American cultural narcissism.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO