All posts by Michael Shapiro

The English Obstruents Revisited: A Semiotic Analysis

November 10, 2019

The founder of modern phonology, the great Russian linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy(Николай Сергеевич Трубецкой [1890-1938]), claimed that it is impossible to say whether English has distinctive voicing or distinctive protensity (tense vs. lax) in its obstruent system, but the concept of rule coherence with its reliance on markedness considerations now makes this agnosticism seem groundless. Positions of neutralization are diagnostic in this respect because neutralization rules provide contexts in which variation rules tend typicallyto produce diagrams of the markedness values of the terms of phonological oppositions. The relation between syllable peaks and contiguous obstruents in English is such that syllable peaks are [-long] before tense obstruents but are [+long] before lax obstruents, sonorants, and in final position. Hence beet is [bit], but bead, beam, and bee are [bi:d], [bi:m], and [bi:], respectively. Beyond the fact that the complementary distribution here is semiotically significant-–as a sign of the non-distinctiveness of quantity in English–-it is the stipulation of the tenuis and media obstruents as distinctively tense vs. lax that allows the variation rule to be coherent. Since tense obstruents are marked relative to the unmarked lax obstruents, and shorter realizations understood as abridgements of syllable peaks are marked relative to unabridged peaks (which are unmarked), the markedness values of the vowels replicate those of the contiguous obstruents. If the tenuis and media obstruents were assumed to implement the opposition voiced vs. voiceless (as they often erroneously are to this day), the variations would lack coherence because the markedness values of the obstruents would not match those of the vowels (voiced obstruents are marked, voiceless unmarked).

This little digression into the phonological problematics of English illustrates the methodological status of what is now commonly referred to as “independent motivation” in linguistic explanation. Trubetzkoy’s claim of irresolvability of the English tenuis/ media problem in its obstruent system can be seen as justified only as long as circularity is barred from explanations of language structure (as if language were not a hermeneutic object). The mutual dependency of the elements of the solution proposed above––the shorter realizations of the syllable peaks seen as abridgments rather than the longer ones as prolongations, the stipulation of protensity as the relevant phonological category rather than voicing, and the invocation of markedness considerations as the vehicle of grammatical coherence––testifies to the fact that these elements cohere as an ensemble of conditions informing the data. This is the structural coherence that emanates from an evaluation (intrinsically, in the grammar) of the units and the contexts in tandem, in a mutually dependent manner, so that randomness and arbitrariness are reduced to a minimum (if not always to nil ).

In an unavoidably circuitous way we now come back to the earlier examples of alternation between English tenuis and media obstruents in stem-final position. The alternation becomes coherent when we understand it to subsume two conditions:(1) the alternation is morphophonemic, hence the markedness values as between sounds and meanings will be chiastic (complementary);(2) the obstruents involved are distinctively tense vs. lax. The recognition of these two conditions enables us to assert a coherence based on markedness values. Otherwise the alternation would be strictly arbitrary, non-iconic, and non-coherent.

When units and contexts do not cohere, the typical outcome in the long run is a heightened tendency toward the reduction of such instances, to the limit of their wholesale elimination from the language. With reference to our English examples there are attested historical changes that confirm the correctness of the analysis, specifically by showing morphophonemic coherence in just the sense advanced to be the telos of the changes. Where coherence has already been reached, no further changes occur. Thus in the history of English there is evidence of generalization of either the tense or the lax obstruent in words which now regularly have orthographic s, e.g., enterprise, compromise, purpose, promise, practise ( = American practice). In Middle English texts one can observe the testing of the contemporary rule in the occasional writing of z instead of s, particularly in verbs (but not only). In a Milton manuscript, for example, one finds the spelling practiz’d; and as late as 1836, the pronunciation of the infinitive with a z is proscribed as vulgar by normative grammarians. The same difference in pronunciation as between the nominal and the verbal forms of the word evidently obtained for enterprise and compromise in Middle English, the difference here being in the particular obstruent that was generalized. In the case of practise and promise,it was the tenuis obstruent that was generalized;in enterprise and compromise it was the media obstruent. Exactly why it was s in the first pair and z in the second constitutes a separate problem that might be treated in the spirit of rule coherence and markedness, but I hesitate to offer an explanation. Perhaps, in the presence of a primarily or secondarily stressed vowel in the verb form there is a discernible tendency to generalize the unmarked media z (compromise, but also close, as in at the close of … ). Similarly, one might want to explain the gradual elimination of the pronunciation of greasy with [-z-] (but cf. its continued presence in Southern American dialects) as a case of an unmotivated alternation being dropped from the (standard) language:there is no chiastic distribution of markedness values within the category of nominals. The semantic split between louse and lousy would tend to confirm such an analysis, albeit obliquely.

All of the above goes to show just how valid explanatorily is the conception of phonology as a semiotic system.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 13: Vexatious

October 20, 2019

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines the word ‘vexatious’ as follows:

1a:causing or likely to cause vexation: distressing, afflictive <a vexatious child> <nothing is more vexatious than to find that one is wrong> b: lacking justification and intended to harass <the company’s vexatious refusal to pay a patently valid claim> <a vexatious suit at law>

2:lacking in peace or calm:full of disorder or stress:unquiet, disordered, troubled <a vexatious period in his life> <a very vexatious interview>

So much of what goes on these days is so highly vexatious that one wonders why this very useful word is not heard at all in the media nor in ordinary speech. Tant pis!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

How Languages Change

Y-H-B was ordering his evening meal at one of his favorite restaurants in Manchester, Vermont, the Marsh Tavern at the Equinox Resort, when the waitress taking his order, a young woman––and evidently a native speaker of American English––used the form “teached” instead of the correct past tense form “taught.” From the rest of her utterances I gathered that she was at least a high-school graduate, so the use of a completely wrong past tense was totally unexpected.

Theorists of language change (with the notable exception of Henning Andersen, Roman Jakobson’s most outstanding Harvard student) barely if ever mention speech errors as drivers of change, although such errors must to be taken into account, especially when they are the product of imperfect learning and false analogy. The waitress clearly applied the normal rule for the formation of the past tense of typical weak verbs (like “cover/covered”) to a strong verb, which is what yielded the incorrect “teached” instead of the correct “taught.” But that is exactly how languages change, i. e., when errors are made and then propagated by other speakers equally inclined to violate the rules of grammar as was the initiator.

Language change is not always predictable or regular. It may be the product of individual propensities, including the creation and propagation of errors.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Contemporary Prevalence of Syntactic Dross (“to be honest with you,” etc.)

October 6, 2019

In an earlier post (“The Decline of Straight Talk and the Rise of Linguistic Dross,” December 28, 2012) the tendency in contemporary English of all stripes to interlard meaningless syntactic units was discussed and analyzed for what it is, essentially a linguistic apotropaism. Listening seven years later to the BBC on a regular basis impels me to return to this topic.

Because English is now the world’s lingua franca, the BBC World Service is a very good source for the derivation of linguistic data of all kinds, including how people actually speak when interviewed and not reading from a script. One thing that is notable is the incidence of superfluous syntactic material such as the phrase “to be honest with you” (and variations on this model). Another such piece of linguistic dross is the high-frequency phrase “having said that.” Such phrases add nothing to the communicative efficiency of any given utterance and are to be avoided as much as possible. The only possible reason for their constant intercalation must be the speaker’s psycholinguistic lack of confidence in what is being said. Again, it falls under the purview of apotropaism. Such is the temper of the times that speakers are constantly wary of being caught out when it comes to the validity of their utterances.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Vacillation in the Stress of Ukraine

September 29, 2019

Because of the current hoo-ha over Trumpus’s attempts to undermine Biden in next year’s presidential election, the word “Ukraine” has been uttered ad nauseam in all the media reports on the situation. More often than not, the various reporters and hosts cannot seem to decide which vowel gets the stress in this word, to the point where both initial and medial stress can occur in the same sentence. Little do the utterers of the word realize that the variant with initial stress is non-standard, even dialectal. It follows the pattern established by such items as guitar and insurance in Southern American English.

In this era of universal media saturation, one cannot but be gobsmacked by the fact that speakers of Standard American English falter when it comes to uttering Ukraine. What homunculus possesses them to mispronounce it thus [NOT “thusly”!]?

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Language as an Aesthetic Object

September 13, 2019

Language is primarily conceived of as a vehicle of thought and a tool for human communication. Secondarily, however, language is also an aesthetic object, admired for its use in poetry and in accompaniment of song. Poetic devices like alliteration and rhyme are to be found as well in ordinary speech as an enhancement of communicative role. These are all instances of language use involving aesthetics as well as the referential function.

One further aesthetic aspect of language use is authenticity. This was illustrated to Y-H-B yesterday on a flight between NY/JFK and LAX, when I heard the pilot making an announcement to the passengers aboard. He spoke in a perfect Boston accent, of the sort I used to hear all around me when I lived in Cambridge, Mass. As a graduate student and research fellow. The aesthetic appeal of hearing an authentic Boston accent, with all its deviations from Standard American English, was what captured my attention, not the content of the announcement. I silently congratulated the pilot for adhering to the variety of speech that he had grown up with.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Trans-Language Distortions in Pronunciation

August 13, 2019

When items from foreign languages are pronounced by native speakers in normal speech, there is almost always an adaptation such that the foreign word is rendered using native phonetics. For instance, the other day Y-H-B was speaking to the redoubtable P. Honan and recalling the players of the Boston Red Sox who were known to me from my childhood in Japan. This conjured up the Japanese pronunciation of the name of my matchless hero Ted Williams (“The Splendid Splinter”), whose forename in that language is [detto], with the initial voiceless [t] distorted as its voiced counterpart [d], the final voiced consonant doubled by its voiceless counterpart, a vowel [o] in final position (to conform to the open-syllable structure of Japanese), and the surname rendered with a medial [r] instead of the authentic [l].

Although Japanese is a language whose speakers rarely if ever make an effort to pronounce foreign words authentically, all languages make such distortions to one or another extent, including English. These adapted renderings become standard, and no one is expected to pronounce such items “authentically,” although some speakers with a knowledge of the foreign original choose to do so in some instances. Thus no speaker of English is going to say the name of the capital of France Paris a là française, with stress on the second syllable and a silent final consonant, except as a joke, etc. This is simply a cultural and historical fact that English speakers replicate when using their native language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Stylistic Integrity and Grammatical Variation (“It is I” vs. “It’s me.”)

July 21, 2019

Much ink has been spilled over the difference between sentences like “It is I” versus “It’s me.” What this matter comes down to, of course, is the coherence between stylistics and grammar, in case there is a choice. That is why in contemporary English, whenever a speaker chooses to utter the answer to the question, “Who is it?,” will use the objective form of the pronoun with a contracted copula (i. e., “It’s me”) and the subjective (nominative) form of the pronoun with the full (uncontracted) form of the copula (i. e., “It is I”, as stilted as this may sound in contemporary speech).

The underlying reason for this particular outcome has to do with the stylistic value of contraction. As between contracted and uncontracted forms, contraction always involves the colloquial (informal) stratum of the linguistic means at one’s disposal, while the uncontracted form is coherent with the formal stratum. Hence the variation of the form of the copula in the construction at issue.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Addendum re mantra

July 13, 2019

My redoubtable fitness trainer, Daniel J. Mulroy, Jr., whom I see regularly for workouts at the Prospect Rehabilitation Center in Manchester Center, VT., informed me yesterday that he had done a bit of field work in connection with my preceding blog post, to wit: Dan queried each of the seven participants in a stretching class he teaches as to how they pronounced the word mantra. Without exception they all responded by saying that their pronunciation accorded with the currently ubiquitous [mántrə]. Sic transit gloria mundi!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Mispronunciation of the Buzzword mantra

July 9, 2019

The word mantra is an early borrowing from Sanskrit via Hinduism into English, the donor language’s meaning being (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) ”A sacred text or passage, esp. one from the Vedas used as a prayer or incantation; a word or phrase from a sacred text repeated in this way. Also: a holy name, for inward meditation.” Its present-day occurrence, especially in the media, comes with the meaning (as defined in the OED): “A constantly or monotonously repeated phrase or sentence; a characteristic formula or refrain; a byword, slogan, or catchphrase.”
The traditional pronunciation renders the initial vowel as that of the garden-variety English word man, i.e. the flat vowel [a]. The ubiquitously erroneous pronunciation, heard constantly in the media, however, takes the word mantra as esoteric, hence marked (cf. my article in American Speech 72 (1997), 437-439), and identifies it with that of song, i.e. the broad vowel. This mispronunciation is clearly and directly the outcome of ignorance of the word’s traditional normative rendition in English, again due to imperfect learning.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO