All posts by Michael Shapiro

Humor Is Not Necessarily Leavening: Platitudes and Causerie

February 28, 2020

One pervasive feature of contemporary American culture as it involves language is
the constant resort to what passes for humor, no matter who is conversing and what the subject of the exchange. This can be observed in the most ordinary situations, e.g. among adults of both sexes in a gym while exercising or diners sitting together at the bar of a restaurant. No topic, no matter how seemingly immune to hilarity, is nowadays discussed without the intervention of jokes and wan attempts at humor. This kind of typical repartee comes with a debasement of whatever linguistic material is being exchanged.

Americans in the twenty-first century seem to treat their speech as merely a vehicle for humor whenver they find themselves speaking to each other in informal contexts. There is thus a fundamental undermining of what constitutes seriousness as distinct from humor.

Language, being the main instrument of both thought and intentionality, now tends to serve only one primary purpose: the purveying of platitutudes masquerading as ideas.


Linguistic Fads

February 13, 2020

Just as fashion in all of culture, language is subject to fads and faddish uses of words. As with all such phenomena, they are often short-lived (pronounced [ʃɔrtlʌɪvd]).

A recent word in American English that has become faddish is negative instead of the traditional minus to designate the temperature below zero degrees. Why this has happened has mainly to do with the powerful tendency in contemporary American speech toward hypertrophy. The faddish word has three syllables, whereas the traditional one has two. Also, negative sounds more “scientific,” which is license enough for many contemporary speakers, who elevate science to a religion. One can only hope that this faddish usage will go the way of all such fashions.


Criteria Is Not a Singular Form

January 30, 2020

A common mistake of current American English speech is the use of the form criteria as a singular instead of the normative criterion. This incorrect form is currently to be heard emanating from the mouth of Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor emeritus vainly endeavoring to exonerate his client, the miscreant president Donald Trump, during the current impeachment trial in front of the Senate.

However learned and accomplished Mr. Dershowitz may be in the law, this one constant error in his English, no matter how frequently to be heard in common speech, is already enough to vitiate his argument.


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.


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.


The Glossary of Useful Words: gobsmack

December 29, 2019

Although the word stock of British and American English are practically identical, there are items in the vocabulary of each version of English that are original to one of them. Such is the status of the verb ‘gobsmack’, defined in the OED as follows:

slang (originally and chiefly British).
Transitive. To amaze, astound.

As to frequency of use, it is the predicative “gobsmacked” that one encounters most frequently in contemporary British speech, defined as

“Flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement.”

Also in common use is the participial adjective “gobsmacking,” defined as

“That causes astonishment; astounding, breathtaking, staggering.”

The etymology of ‘gob’ as given in the OED is itself of special interest:

Origin: Probably a borrowing from Irish. Etymons: Irish gob, Gaelic gob.
Etymology: Probably < Irish gob and Scottish Gaelic gob beak, mouth (Early Irish gop muzzle, snout, beak) < a Celtic base of uncertain, probably expressive, origin.

Therefore, to “gobsmack” literally means to hit in the mouth––an act that would certainly shock!

We Americans would do well to incorporate these words into our usus. They are, after all, gobsmackingly useful.


British Retraction of Stress in Borrowings from French

December 24, 2019

English has borrowed words from French from at least as long ago as Anglo-Norman times. French invariably has stress on the ultima (the final syllable), but British English regularly retracts that stress by one syllable closer to the beginning of the word when it borrows a given word from French. This is what accounts for stresses like gárage and bístro in British English loans from French, as it does for rappróchement (heard today from a speaker of British English on the BBC World News Service, for example). Cf. American English garáge, which preserves the stress of the French original.

How to account for this retraction? Here, as many times before in these posts, Y-H-B (who was once called “the markedness man” by the late Robert Austerlitz, quondam professor of linguistics at Columbia) invokes markedness to explain the phenomenon. Final position of stress in French as perceived by an English speaker is interpreted as being marked because of the fundamental distinction in English between nominal and verbal stress, as in prógress (noun) vs. progréss (verb), etc., etc. Since verbs necessarily make reference to time, whereas nouns do not do so necessarily, verb as a category is marked and noun unmarked. Hence when British English speakers––but not Americans–– hears final stress in a French word that is being borrowed, they nativize it by automatically unmarking it by retracting the stress one syllable closer to the beginning of the word. Voilà!


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.


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!


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.