All posts by Michael Shapiro

Vocabulary as an Indicator of Intelligence

December 30, 2018

As is his custom, Y-H-B was sitting in his Sunday morning restaurant in Manchester Center, Vermont, “Up for Breakfast,” talking to one of the waitresses, a middle-aged woman who grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in Bennington, Vt. We were engaging in the usual early breakfast banter when the waitress (Gwen), a very nice and well-spoken lady, used the word potpourri to refer to a miscellaneous collection of implements in the restaurant. I immediately made note of this usage as a sign of higher-than-expected intelligence and silently congratulated Gwen for using this word.

While it is common for children in every country to be urged to expand their vocabulary in preparation for higher and higher schooling, in America it is not common for ordinary speakers to use high-style words like potpourri (a French borrowing) unless the context calls for their special use. In general, speech in America between people of different social classes and professions rarely goes beyond the boundaries of common vocabulary, although doctors and dentists are well-known for gratuitously engaging in special vocabulary out of habit instead of using common words to describe medical conditions.

Word choice as a stylistic matter is not merely facultative: it is always a sign of intelligence and necessarily has the effect of affecting one’s general evaluation of one’s interlocutors.


Asserting One’s Bona Fides

December 5, 2018

In contemporary American English, speakers are constantly asserting their good faith to their interlocutors by interpolating (or adding, or prefacing) the phrase “to be honest” as if to assure them that what they saying is valid or authentic, thereby elevating their bona fides as far as the authenticity of their utterances is concerned. However, almost without exception, there is no patent need for this phrase because the speaker’s sincerity or the accuracy of the information being conveyed is never in question.

This is yet another instance when Americans resort to utterly otiose verbal warrants in speech in order to prevent their interlocutors from so much as suspecting that what is being said fails to represents the speaker’s true thoughts. Media chatter of all kinds, because of its ubiquity and pervasiveness, only exacerbates the situation by providing a typically inauthentic model of ordinary speech.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 16: When Words Fail One

November 18, 2018

Y-H-B turned on his radio this morning to VPR Classical (as usual) and heard Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, being played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. This is a piece I often heard as a child growing up in Tokyo and later Los Angeles, when my mother of blessed memory (1905-1983), Lydia Ita Shapiro (née Chernetzky [Лидия Абрамовна Шапиро, ур. Чернецкая], practiced it in preparation for one of her solo concerts (including Hibiya Hall in Tokyo). It was also the last piece that my beloved wife, Marianne Shapiro (1940-2003 עליה השלום), was learning before she was no longer able to sit at the piano.

When one hears music that is so close to one’s heart, there are no words to describe the emotional power of the sounds.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 15: Two Russian Proverbs and a Poem in Prose

November 13, 2018

As instanced in these posts more than once, Y-H-B is prone to engage in silent autocommentary by repeating material from his fund of Russian lore. Today, under particularly onerous mental circumstances on a cold day in Vermont, the following two sayings/proverbs came to mind:

Не мытьем, так катаньем ‘By hook or by crook.’
Попытка не пытка, спрос не беда. ‘It can’t hurt to try.’

This paroemiac material was then mentally garnished with the following poem in prose by the great Russian writer, Ivan Turgenev:

Иван Тургенев (1818-1883)
Стихотворения в прозе: Русский язык
Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины, — ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык! Не будь тебя — как не впасть в отчаяние при виде всего, что совершается дома? Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!
Июнь, 1882
[Translation: THE RUSSIAN TONGUE [Constance Garnett]
In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!
June 1882.]

One’s thoughts do not necessarily have to be original to embody emotional force, especially in sad moments. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.


Syntactic Arbitrariness and Analogical Leveling in Language Change

November 7, 2018

When speakers of American English make grammatical mistakes like saying *play a factor (instead of be/constitute a factor) and *ask a question to (instead of ask a question of), they are relying on the analogy between similar constructions, viz. play a role and direct a question to. These two departures from normative grammar in present-day speech are frequently heard in media language and point to the arbitrariness of the traditional syntax involved.

The mistakes arise, of course, via the establishment of an implicit dominance relation between the newer (mistaken) form and the older traditional one. The postposition of in the verb phrase ask of represents a use of the postposition that is no longer felt by speakers to have the meaning of directionality, since its contemporary predominant meaning is possessive, i. e., “belonging to” and not “directed at/toward.” Similarly, the word factor has been reconstrued as being identical in meaning to role, hence to be governed by the verb play.

Analogical leveling of this sort in language change always has a structure that reposes on a reconstrual of the meaning of the constituents involved in governing their syntax.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 14: On the Sociology of Knowledge

October 21, 2018

Y-H-B is allowing himself to go slightly off-topic in this post, focusing as it does not on language and linguistics but on the SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, which is defined as the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises. This field of investigation was pioneered primarily by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1885-1917) at beginning of the 20th century.

About three years ago I submitted an article to The New York Times for its Op-Ed page, which was not printed. Here it is:

Sham Solutions to Real Problems in Education by Michael Shapiro

Educational reform is constantly in the news, driven by the Obama administration’s avowed aim of improving test results nationwide. The most prominent nostrums today are the same as before: measuring achievement by standardized testing, awarding merit pay to teachers, and ending tenure. None of these comes to grips with the real problem: recruiting and retaining good teachers. Everything that happens in the classroom––the only genuinely crucial arena where learning takes place–begins and ends with the teacher. Good teaching is the only portal at which knowledge enters and educated students exit. Boards of education, superintendents, principals, department chairs–the entire horde of barnacles on the ship of learning–only impede the ship’s progress. Parents and politicians must learn this lesson and act on it if America is ever going to have an excellent system of public education.

Here are two real-life cases known to me personally which illustrate how good teachers are prevented from entering and staying in teaching. Both are drawn from the world of higher education but apply to the problem in general.

Case 1: an assistant professor is hired to teach in a language department but is not told that she is merely a place-holder for the chairman’s chosen candidate who cannot assume the position until he satisfies a visa requirement. A year goes by. The place-holder does an excellent job. The fair-haired boy then becomes eligible, so the chairman manufactures an entirely bogus dossier to make it look like the woman is incompetent and get her terminated. The vice chancellor rubber stamps the chairman’s action. Learning of this, the woman complains of sham treatment to a university-wide committee, which rules in her favor and censures the chairman. But the vice chancellor [may he rot in hell!] ignores the ruling, saying to the aggrieved scholar: “Do you think I’m going to exchange a chairman for an assistant professor?” The teacher sues the university but is unsuccessful because the federal judge refuses to allow into evidence material from confidential files that would have vindicated the plaintiff and reinstated her. The law suit not only leaves her jobless but renders her unable to secure a tenured position over her entire working life because the chairman and his henchmen repeatedly blackball her out of spite by writing poisoned-pen letters to prospective employers. The woman perseveres as a scholar and dies prematurely, her only revenge being a legacy of written work that marks her as the most accomplished and versatile American specialist in her field of the 20th century.

Case 2: a university professor with forty years’ experience, a record of distinguished scholarship and teaching at all levels through the postdoctoral, and an international reputation for pioneering research in his field retires and some time later offers his services–without salary–to the presidents of five colleges near his new domicile in a Northeastern state. Three do not bother to answer his letter at all. Of the two that do respond, only one accepts the offer, the second’s response being, “There is currently no appropriate context for your services.”
Despite their differences, these two cases––each in its own way––testify to the fact that administrators, who have the responsibility for insuring that the best teachers are recruited and retained, routinely allow considerations unconnected with education to hold sway over their personnel decisions. Their overriding goals, in order of importance, are: 1) keeping themselves in their jobs; 2) keeping the natives (alias their subordinates) from causing trouble. The second conduces to the first. Anything that avoids resentments and recriminations trumps everything else. After all, unlike business or commerce, there is no profit motive in education.

Ending tenure might help but is not a panacea; nor is merit pay, which already exists anyway and is bootless to change the situation fundamentally. In higher education these issues are usually raised in the context of a false dichotomy–between good teaching and research. After more than fifty years spent in the trenches, I can testify that only infinitesimally are professors who produce no lasting scholarship first-rate classroom teachers all the same. That most publications are dross, not gold, changes nothing: it’s their habits of thought that scholars and scientists of the first rank pass on to their students. A useful comparison is with music pedagogy. My parents’ conservatory instructors in inter-war Germany, the cellist Julius Klengel (Leipzig) and the pianist Leonid Kreutzer (Berlin), were world-renowned pedagogues whose mastery of their instruments was an indispensable ingredient of their success as teachers. My father’s University of Freiburg teacher Edmund Husserl, whose philosophical writings will endure for all time, gave lapidary lectures that attracted students and colleagues from all faculties. But for every Husserl, there are always numberless—-tenured!—-time servers. Abolishing tenure won’t change that. Nor will merit pay.”


Schwa in Unstressed Syllables as between British and Amderican English

October 20, 2018

Among the many differences between British and American English is the way that vowels are treated in unstressed syllables. For the most part, British English tends to pronounce them with schwa, so that the final vowel in Pentagon and Amazon, which has a relatively full vowel in American speech, has a reduced vowel in British. Occasionally, the results are inverted, so that the final syllable of Maryland and partisan in British speech has the full vowel, whereas a schwa is the norm in American.

The occurrence of a reduced vowel in unstressed position (or in syllables with potentially secondary stress) is to be interpreted as a sign that the word is being interpreted as a unified whole, with a constituent structure. Maryland pronounced by a speaker of American English is thus construed as having no segment structure phonetically, whereas in British speech the maintenance of [a] and secondary stress is a sign that speakers are interpreting the word has having two constituents, Mary– plus –land.

This sort of (tacit) construal of a word’s constituent structure has different phonetic outcomes in the speech of newer vs. older generations of American speakers when it comes to items that contain final morphemes like {ent} in student and president, with younger speakers coming increasingly to pronounce them with a full vowel rather than the traditional schwa. This secondary stress in the newer variant seems to be occasioned by the reconstrual of these words as containing a suffix, since the stems (stud– and presid-) also occur elsewhere in verbs.


Interrogative Intonation in the Service of Politesse

September 28, 2018

The main use of interrogative intonation is for the posing of questions. However, by comparison with declarative intonation, the interrogative pulls back from the domain of assertion, which is always more forceful than that of questions. Diminished force, for obvious reasons, is associated with politeness, to which assertiveness is always alien.

This use of interrogative intonation in the service of politesse was brought home to Y-H-B the other day while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and hearing the first and last names of patients called out by a nurse in order to signify that their turn has come to be examined. Invariably, the full name was uttered by the nurse with interrogative intonation, not declarative. Now, this usage can naturally be understood to signify something like the unasked question, “Is So-and-So here?” But this interpretation is largely gainsaid by the fact that the patient had already registered their presence with the receptionist before taking a seat in the waiting area. This leaves politesse as the sole reason for the use of the interrogative intonation.


Every Creature Wants to Express Itself

September 21, 2018

Every living creature––in virtue of being alive––exhibits an impulse to express itself, whether that creature is an ant or a mastodon. Only humans, however, use language (in the fullest sense of this semiotic system’s hypostasis) to express themselves, and this applies fully even to those persons who are cognitively or physically impaired, and whose speech suffers in the bargain.

This latter condition was brought home to Y-H-B when I visited the local gym and had my tri-weekly fitness session with my trainer. Two others––one a young man, the other an older fellow––who were there were both cognitively impaired. Both are guided through their exercises by my trainer. One of them in particular (as the result of a serious injury) exhibited all the symptoms of echolalia, which is described (in its Wikipedia entry) as follows:

Echolalia (also known as echologia or echophrasia) is defined as the unsolicited repetition of vocalizations made by another person (by the same person is called palilalia). In its profound form it is automatic and effortless. It is one of the echophenomena, closely related to echopraxia, the automatic repetition of movements made by another person; both are “subsets of imitative behavior” whereby sounds or actions are imitated “without explicit awareness”. Echolalia may be an immediate reaction to a stimulus or may be delayed.”
The word “echolalia” is derived from the Greek ἠχώ, meaning “echo” or “to repeat”, and λαλιά (laliá) meaning “speech” or “talk” (of onomatopoeic origin, from the verb λαλέω (laléo), meaning “to talk”).”

To hear echolalic speech is to realize how precious the human capacity for language is, and how tragic when it is seriously impaired.


How Some Other Linguists Assess Y-H-B’s Work (ca. 2011)

September 15, 2018

In 2011 Y-H-B submitted a manuscript for possible publication to the journal Diachronica. You can find it among the PDFs at the top of the home page of this blog under the title “Value Systems and Language Change: Grammatical Hypertrophy in Present-Day American English.” Here are the three reader’s reports I got back from the Editor. You are invited to be the judge as to whether their criticisms are valid. Needless to say, my manuscript was rejected.


I think this paper is good and has promise, but I find it way too short and cryptic and not full enough of evidence at times.
Page 4, second paragraph, it speaks of “broad” a and speakers’ attitudes. I totally missed this one — I’m not aware of the correlates here! I had no idea there were other than geographic nuances on these. So this is the type of thing where the author [henceforth referred to as ‘he’.] really needs to elaborate/exemplify a bit. If I didn’t know this, I’m guessing that other non-US readers wouldn’t either.
Very bottom of page 4, top of page 5, failure to apply the laxing rule — OK, but this doesn’t read quickly and easily, one has to kind of decode it into current terminology. How much easier to phrase in terms of [s] and [z]. It would help the average reader to simply spell it out in phonetics. This is kind of a grand assumption, but I guess he’s covered as he says “can be seen as…”.
Page 5, second full paragraph, talking about “commit”, I think this is also too sweeping (and again, he only says “can be analyzed”, “may be said”… well, yeah, of course it can… but is it right?) I would never have thought of this quite so literally, that when you take that reflexive out you are somehow stepping back from the commitment.
Page 6, informer/informant. He states that one is being replaced by the other — but what is the evidence? Any frequency counts from a corpus? And what’s the evidence for older and newer? Is it e.g. an OED date? It all may or may not be true — it’s just sketchy, and it feels like an unsubstantiated claim, just a personal observation – and maybe he could be wrong. Also, he says the two suffixes differ in length. Do they? Both are one syllable, one has two phonemes and the other one, one has three letters the other two, but exactly what are we counting here? I would have thought actual physical duration in msec would be the same. But anyway, again the point is not that I think this or he thinks that — what is the evidence and/or the basis for the claim?
Page 7, 4 lines from bottom, but also in lots of places in the article, “hypertrophy” should be defined — many won’t know what it means, but even for those who do/think they do, making sure we all are working from the same definition would be good.
Page 9, first full paragraph — many unsubstantiated claims for such a short paragraph! What is the evidence that this is an innovation? Compared to what? When did it happen? The solidity of our confidence in that claim is also broken by the next phrase that states that it’s perhaps also in British English as well. Well, the author should know!
Page 9, example 14 and example 15 are the same, are they not?
Further down page 9, do we really have to use words like “otiose” and “cisatlantically” — especially as the latter means opposite things depending on where you sit. Although we give author affiliation, one shouldn’t have to look that up to make sense of the article.
Page 10, just before section II. “clearly a general grammatical tendency” — I’d dispute the clarity of that — I’m the kind who likes data and figures! Also, is this a grammatical tendency or discourse tendency?
Page 10, very bottom, “prior to” / “before” feels very different from the other examples. Rather than just a surplus syllable (etc.) that just seems like a synonym. What am I missing in his argument? Similarly, top of page 11, I don’t get it with “right” vs. “correct” — isn’t that just the usual English thing of two synonyms, in this case (as often) traceable to our Germanic vs. Romance/Latinate influencers? Same thing with examples 26 and 27. I’m not getting it.
Page 10, pleonasm. Friend of mine vs. my friend — to me these are quite different. There are few places (in discourse) where I could substitute one for the other and have it mean the same thing.
Page 10, bottom, what’s wrong with 38 and 39? If there’s some sense of redundancy being claimed in 39, I disagree — there is such a thing as partially right. Or partially correct (!). What would he say it should be, or was before these changes?
Page 11, “receive” is probably more complicated, because the logical alternate, “get”, is subject to all sorts of odd prescriptivism. So, there’s more to be said here.
With all of these examples here — what evidence is there that these are on the increase? What evidence is there that these aren’t the type of errors we all make under pressure?
Example 60, “country dacha” — well, the meaning of dacha isn’t likely to be transparent to most Americans. Example 63, “unfairly vilifying” — well, only an example if you deny the possibility of “fairly vilifying”… and why would you do that?
Page 14 — deictic introduction. This one could surely be proved from corpus counts. Definitely on the rise!
Anyway, I’m favourably inclined and think there is interesting stuff here, but it needs a lot more work and fleshing out — this is just a sketch of an idea, and not yet somehow the real scholarly paper with all the backup. It needs lot more evidence, corpus counts, historical dates, just more explanation … .

Assessment of ‘Value Systems and Language Change: Grammatical Hypertrophy in Present Day American English’
This is a curious paper because, while it claims to be concerned with the social  motivation for, and the social significance of, language change, it fails to refer to at least three decades of work within sociolinguistics that has been concerned with this very topic.  The only reference to this work in the list of references is Labov (1974) and Weinreich, Labov and Herzog (1968)—both very old references.
In addition to the problem above (i.e., the fact that the paper is not appropriately contextualized within the relevant scholarly literature), there are also problems with the evidence that the author presents for his/her central argument.  On page 4, the author states that ‘linguistic innovations can provide clues to the meaning of social and cultural changes in contemporary American society’ and, in particular, the author seems to be interested in the value systems that such innovations index.  However, the author provides little evidence for these ‘value systems’ that are said to motivate certain linguistic innovations.  For example, on page 6, the author says that ‘Americans who habitually drop the article [before specifying persons by their class membership] have incorporated the attitude summarized by the formula “you ARE what you DO.”’ But, no evidence is provided to support the claim that this ‘value system’ is what motivates this particular linguistic innovation.  (And, this is true for similar kinds of claims made throughout the paper.)  Even more problematic is the author’s explanation for linguistic hypertrophy on page 15.  The author states that it is caused by a ‘FAILURE OF THOUGHT, in a culture of excess.’  While I am not completely sure what this means, the author then goes on to associate linguistic hypertrophy with ‘historically marginalized groups in society.’  That is, the author seems to be associating a ‘failure of thought’ with socially marginalized groups.  It seems to me that this is a very controversial and problematic claim, only made worse by the fact that there is no evidence presented in the paper for such a claim.
Finally, I would suggest that the author adopts a very prescriptivist attitude towards language change in this paper.  I note, in particular, that in the footnote associated with the final sentence of the paper, the author presupposes ‘the inappropriateness of the drift at issue here.’  While I am not a historical linguist, I can only assume that the vast majority of historical linguists do not make value judgements about the changes in language that they are investigating, specifically, they do not characterize them as ‘inappropriate.’
In sum, I recommend the rejection of this paper because (1) it isn’t contextualized within the relevant scholarly literature (2) it doesn’t provide evidence for its claims, some of which are highly controversial and (3) it takes a prescriptivist stance to the issue of language change.

Overall my recommendation is to reject. Frankly, the paper is a bit bewildering, and has a disconcertingly prescriptive “kids these days” feel to it.
I found it somewhat difficult to determine the goal of the article, but it appears to be an effort to connect language change in general, and specific forms in US English in particular, to cultural and/or individual value systems.
The paper is roughly divided into two sections, in the first, a general understanding is presented of the connection between language forms and value systems.  In the second section, a set of specific examples in US English is presented as evidence for particular cultural phenomena.  In both cases, the discussion is challenging to follow and the arguments are presented generally, but not at the depth needed to fully support the proposals.
Taking the first, more general part first, many of these sentences are very dense.  For example, this could be clarified and simplified: “But whereas, for instance, Labov’s study refers the specific values carried by the innovations to such established categories of connotative content as those mentioned above, my investigation concentrates on uncovering the purport of innovations before their definite, collectively understood connotative content has been  widely adopted;  and before the stage of consolidation of their values has been reached.”
The argument that language is inextricably social is well-taken, but it is not clear in this discussion how the current paper is contributing to thinking on this topic. One element discussed in the paper is the ways in which language patterns contribute to social boundaries between speakers. This phenomenon is the subject of a number of well-developed literatures in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology and the sociology of language, but almost no work in those fields is cited, so it is not clear how the discussion relates to existing knowledge on the subject.  No specific social groups are discussed, either here or later in relation to hypertrophic forms.
Another element of connection argued for is the fact that many social categories (which themselves may structure language use) are expressible as linguistic forms.  It is not clear to me how this point fits into the larger argument.  It’s also not clear whether the author intends to claim that all linguistically relevant social categories (or all social categories?) have generally known labels, as seems to be implied.  If the intent is to claim that, it would be a startling suggestion.
Page 3 introduces the author’s approach, with the example of the pluralization of “knowledge”.  If I follow the discussion accurately, the proposal is that “knowledges” is not found in English because of the lack of acknowledgement of multiple incompatible knowledge systems.  The basic idea is reasonable here, that forms are unusual where they would refer to unusual concepts (although a Google search suggests that “knowledges” is used quite a bit in English, albeit  typically by academics). What is less clear is the actual approach that this observation is meant to represent.
The second half of the paper does not clarify the approach.  Many examples of specific forms of US English are presented, first as diverse small examples, then the apparently central data, various hypertrophic forms. In each case, the author presents the form(s), then presents an argument for a cultural perspective or pattern that the form might be said to represent.  The overall argument appears to be that the introduction of these (apparently new?) forms reflects cultural beliefs of some sort, startlingly attributed at the end of the paper to marginalized groups specifically, due to lack of education and possibly unstable social identities.
What is missing from the discussion is an argument showing that the forms in question are new, and, more importantly, to support the proposed meanings and/or cultural attributes of the forms.  Currently, the author appears to be drawing on intuitions to argue that, for example, saying “commentator” rather than “the commentator” signals adherence to the American obsession with professional work as a cornerstone to identity.  I do not find these bald assertions convincing, and no evidence is given for any of these analyses.
Also useful would be references to other work on similar phenomena in language change more generally, for example with respect to the use of “back in [time period]”, some discussion of the bleaching of emphatic forms.  As presented, the paper does not address questions of language change substantively, making me wonder about the appropriateness of the topic generally for Diachronica.