All posts by 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

Mindless Speech

June 4, 2019

Increasingly since the advent of the internet and of social media, one hears phrases like “big tech giants”––a “giant” is by definition “big”––spewing forth from native speakers of contemporary American English, witness the mindless divagations including this pleonasm of a miscellaneous voice on today’s broadcast on NPR of the program “Here and Now.” Redundancies of this sort are too numerous to catalogue. Suffice it to say [NB: “suffice it to say” and not the ubiquitous mistake “suffice to say”], mindlessness is now the quotidian currency of the blather that has come to infect social media. No amount of so-called education in what currently passes for American colleges and universities can stanch the flow of this galimatias.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Addendum re Mispronunciation

May 28, 2019

One subscriber has unsubscribed from this blog in high dudgeon, as the following comment gives witness:”Unsubscribing! You can’t expect that everyone understands Russian phonetics just because you do. I did not subscribe for old-guy-knowitall-syndrome posts!”

As I said in my response to this individual, he evidently misunderstood the thrust of my post, to wit: someone who purports to be a classical music announcer/host on the radio should at least make an effort to discover how names and compositions of foreign composers are pronounced in American English. This applies in spades to those hosts who are monolingual. Accepted pronunciations of names and compositions––whether from Russian or any other foreign language––are readily available in any number of reference books and pronouncing dictionaries. That is the least one can expect as a listener to the radio, whether or not one knows the authentic pronunciation in the source language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Mispronunciation and the Limits of Linguistic Tolerance

May 27, 2019

As regular readers of this blog know, one of Y-H-B’s salient bêtes noires is the mispronunciation of the names of classical music composers and of the titles of their compositions. This morning, on VPR Classical, the entirely incompetent announcer (nomen ist odiosus) mispronounced not only Mikhail Glinka’s forename but the second item in the piece’s title, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. He pronounced Mikhail as [mikáyl], to rhyme with derail––a not unheard of distortion in American English of the Russian Mixail—but (more direly) Ljudmila as [ludmíja], as if it were a Mexican version of Spanish double ll! No latitude of aesthethic tolerance will allow for such a colossal error. An ignoramus of this monumental diapason has no business being a classical music announcer/host.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Synonymy, Semantic Distinctions, and the Uniqueness of Russian

May 19, 2019

As many linguists have noted, there is no such thing as perfect synonymy. Any words deemed synonymous will always be distinguished by some subtlety of meaning, including stylistic differences.

An interesting case––though considered beyond the pale in polite speech––is the unique distinction in Russian between the two verbs meaning, on one hand, farting noiselessly (бздеть [bzdet’]) and making a sound during this action (пердеть [perdét’]). Y-H-B cannot think off any other language in which this distinction is extant.

Perhaps this is not so surprising, if one knows that Russian has among the world’s languages perhaps the richest profane vocabulary, for which there are two designations, both featuring the word/base for ‘mother’, viz. мат [mat] and матерщина [matershschína]. In fact, this sector is so rich in Russian that utterances utilizing profanity have come to be differentiated by so-called “stories/floors (R этáж),” so that, for instance, speech studded with numerous and elaborate swear words is called семиэтажная брань ‘seven-story swearing’.

There is an anecdote (related to me by my oldest brother Joseph [1926-2004], who lived for many years in post-war Russia [mostly the USSR] and was employed in different species of work, incl. a railroad-car factory in Nizhny Tagil) that Stalin once tried to ban all profanity from the workplace, but this edict had the unintended consequence of slowing down production and had ultimately to be rescinded. The reason was that workers who were used to calling out objects in the production line by their profane names––the word for penis, R хуй, being the most frequent––had to stop to search for a non-profane term before proceeding. Incidentally, this one item of the Russian profane vocabulary even has the distinction of having an entire dictionary devoted to its array of uses.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Repetition Compulsion and Anosognosia in Language Use

May 16, 2019

The term “repetition compulsion” is associated with Freud and his theory of psychopathic behavior and is defined in Wikipedia as “a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again.” When applied to language use, the term includes verbal tics (phenomena detailed several times before herein). For example, Jacobus Primus invariably begins every conversation over Skype with Y-H-B by saying “What’s cooking?” Such quasi-meaningless repetition is, of course, typical of the beginning of a conversation, when one of the interlocutors simply wishes to essay a variation on openings such as “How are you?”

In large part, the compulsion to repeat oneself linguistically can be classed with anosognosia, defined as a “deficit of self-awareness, a condition in which a person with a disability seems unaware of its existence.” This is a stylistic deficit, resulting not only from a lack of self-awareness but a quasi-pathological reliance on habit where a whole panoply of variants exist in the language and could easily be implemented. To a certain extent, this deficit is concomitant with the advent of the digital revolution and the sway of social media. Clichés of all kinds are definitely in the ascendant in contemporary American English speech, much to the detriment of intelligent conversation.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Change in Grammar as a Change in Conceptual Structure (“based on” vs. “based around”)

April 9, 2019

For some time now in the recent history of American English, people have been saying “based around” instead of the traditionally normative “based on.” This phrase can be heard almost daily on the media, uttered by speakers who seem to be in their twenties and thirties. Why this change in grammar?

Apparently, these speakers conceive of the passive mode of the verb base as denoting some sort of peripherality rather than the centrality/fundamentality commonly associated heretofore with this word. The latter, after all, means (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online) ‘the fundamental part of something; basic principle; essence, foundation, basis, groundwork’. The foundation of something is as central as one can get in the conceptual universe, is it not?

The shift in current speech must therefore be based on (take my grammar advisedly!) a reconceptualization of the verb. In the thinking of millennials et al., apparently resting on a foundation is conceived of as something tangential rather than central, i. e., covering the periphery of anything rested on (= its base), not on its core or center.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Basically Rampant, No Longer Couchant

April 5, 2019

In contemporary American English, with the internet and media regnant, new turns of phrase have a tendency to spread quickly if they express a basic cultural need as served by language. As noted in earlier posts here, the word “basically” has traced just such a trajectory, to the point of becoming a verbal tic in the speech of some members of the society (occasionally noted by Y-H-B in his own utterances). This was illustrated today by one of the co-hosts of NPR’s program “Morning Edition,” Steve Inskeep, who uttered the combination “basically automated.” Now, either something is “automated” or it isn’t. Hedging the meaning by inserting “basically” only changes the attitude of the speaker toward their own utterance, not the meaning sensu stricto. But this lion has raised its legs and can no longer be stopped.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Pronunciation of Foreign Words in English

March 4, 2019

Y-H-B was recently interviewed by the Director of Programming at Vermont Public Radio for the position of part-time morning host on VPR Classical. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. The successful candidate was a woman with an utterly colorless voice and standard diction. As is so often the case with such announcers on classical radio stations, however, this host is clearly not a speaker of any of the foreign languages such a person constantly encounters in announcing composers and titles of works, a knowledge of which is useful in pronouncing the composers names and the titles of their compositions correctly.

One such example of the latter deficit occurred this morning when the woman pronounced the second word in the title of Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo brillant for Piano & Orchestra in E flat major, Op. 29 as [ˈbril-yənt], exactly synonymous with the English word (but note the different spellings), despite the fact that this title is meant to be pronounced à la française, i. e. with a nasal vowel in the second syllable. Not knowing how to say this foreign item correctly is a sign of rank incompetence, equivalent to making a grammatical mistake in one’s own native language. But such is the usual pattern among almost all classical music hosts: they have no command of any language other than English, and there is no practical recourse to a remedy. Tant pis!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO