Why do speakers of American English constantly recur to clichés? Not a moment goes by that one doesn’t hear “kick the can down the road,” “think out of the box,” or “low-hanging fruit” emanating from the mouths of speakers in the media, and this habit has now become cis-Atlantic, staining the speech of Brits as well as Americans.
On one hand, of course, like all idioms (including proverbs) such locutions have an immediacy of meaning in the temporal as well as semantic sense that render them efficient and useful to expression, especially when a circumlocution would take more time and thought. The latter word is directly relevant because letzten Endes these clichés are invariably failures of thought (to one or another degree), and when characteristic of someone’s speech, they tend to lessen both the directness and the value of utterances that contain them.
The term logorrh(o)ea is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as “Excessive volubility accompanying some forms of mental illness; also gen., an excessive flow of words, prolixity.” The word is modeled on diarrhea, and the condition is one that seems to afflict some speakers, especially those who are habitually speaking to an audience. In a normal conversation between two people, foisting this habit of excessive loquacity on a single interlocutor assumes the lineaments of a linguistic grotesque and can prove exceedingly fatuous and tiresome, but politesse typically prevents the interlocutor from remarking on this unpleasant habit.
One forum in which loquacity of this sort is now commonplace is the classical concert hall, where performers and others routinely assume that every piece the audience is about to hear must be preceded by a short lecture on the composer, the players, etc. This was brought home to Y-H-B yesterday afternoon in Manchester Center, Vermont, where the director of a music festival blathered at otiose length before the beginning of a chamber music concert. It was bad enough that he went on interminably, but the form and content of his speech were so painfully ineloquent as to make at least this audience member squirm. The constant repetition of the words “incredible/incredibly” to qualify everything only made the experience incredibly worse.
Speakers adhere to linguistic norms in varying degree regardless of whether they speak the standard language. Occasionally, they seem to depart from normative pronunciations for reasons that have largely to do with ignorance rather than willful deviation.
An example of this state of affairs was recently furnished on NPR when one of the announcers used the non-normative––but currently widespread––stress in the adjective electoral, when he put the primary stress on the third syllable rather than the second. In all other respects, this announcer’s speech adhered to the current American English norm.
The question posed here is: how does one evaluate this departure from the traditional norm? The answer is: this is clearly the result of ignorance of the normative stress. This speaker most likely has never heard the correct stress in this word, and probably makes the same mistake in similar words, e. g. doctoral, mayoral, etc., with the same adjectival suffix.
A mistake of this kind can be called a “shibboleth” because it fits the definition of this term, i. e., “a sound or a word containing a sound whose proper articulation is difficult for and whose mispronunciation is regarded as reliably indicating or betraying a speaker who is not native or whose speech has been influenced by early acquaintance with another language” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online). Ultimately, it is an index of a lack of learning.
Y-H-B has deliberately abstained from posting any commentary on the way Donald Trump speaks until now, but listening to an unannounced press conference this morning from Brussels on NPR has concentrated my mind on the topic and made me realize that the key to this form of pathological speech is the notion that “nothing means anything.”
Words normally have meanings that carve out semantic space in the semiotic web and are shared by speakers in sufficient measure for us to communicate with each other in a non-pathological way. We understand each other when we speak the same language to each other not because meanings are fixed but because the way in which linguistic tokens delineate semantic space in speech follow agreed-upon dimensions and do not vary capriciously.
These broad generalizations about language use do not apply to Trump-speak, which is what renders the latter pathological. If nothing means anything, then what passes for human speech cannot subserve the ends of human linguistic communication. It is simply a stream of English words masquerading as speech, hence linguistic tokens that make only specious reference to meaning.
The other evening Y-H-B was perched on a bar stool in the tavern of his Vermont Stammlokal, The Dorset Inn, when the conversation with the bartender, the redoubtable Patrick Honan, turned to one’s “taking the bull by the horns,” “leaving no stone unturned,” etc., in seeking a job in the Northshires by a retired college professor (alias Y-H-B), when the Russian proverb “под лежачий камень вода не течет” swam into my head. The literal meaning of the Russian original is “water does not flow beneath a recumbent stone.” It is used paroemically to mean something like “without effort, no result will ensue.”
Now, there are a number of ways of expressing this meaning, but the point being urged here is to assert that the meaning one seeks to express always already preexists its articulation by the speaker. Once the speaker forms the intention of articulating it, this is possible only because there already exists the semiotic web in which the meaning is embedded in its most general form, so that the linguistic clothes the particular semantic content wears on any given occasion is entirely dependent on the inventory of locutions in the speaker’s wardrobe.
As has been chronicled here before, there are native speakers (and second-language learners as well) whose habitual use of language includes the (near-pathological) repetition of certain words. This was the situation Y-H-B encountered last night at a restaurant in Manchester Center, Vermont, when the co-owner who served him at the bar––an American lady in her fifties––kept repeating the word “awesome” at every turn, no matter what utterance was directed at her by her guests. Every response consisted of or necessarily included this word, whatever the content of speech.
This is clearly an extreme case of repetition, but speakers are all aware in different degree to what they are saying. Control of one’s speech varies greatly, and there are speakers (like the restaurant lady) who seem to have next to none when it comes to certain locutions uttered for emphasis and seem to be oblivious to the impression this creates on one’s interlocutors.
For readers of this blog (and there are now over 1,000/day according to Webalizer) who might appreciate some linguistic byplay from Y-H-B’s novel, here is an excerpt:
“2. Why Did I Say Devilishly And Not Fiendishly?
Why did I say devilishly and not fiendishly, or demonically or diabolically? Why tricky, not intricate or difficult? Why does Nabokov write phocine instead of seal-like? Knee-jerk predilection for the highfalutin Graeco-Roman, avoidance of the geminately hinged Germanic? Parading his command of English, reaching sideways for recondite vocabulary like the wall-eyed Harvard professor who instructs the fair-haired grad student on how to get buzzed into his aerie on Mass Ave with his aporetic “Ring the bell, I open, and you penetrate.” The Russian exiles who war with each other in their prerevolutionary idiolects but know their adopted language better than the aborigenes.”
I trust this snippet will impel some of you to delve into the entire fiction for other exempla of language used playfully.
As has been emphasized many times in earlier posts the supposed dichotomy between language and society is non-existent in two respects. For one thing, language is an entirely social phenomenon and cannot be separated from its social functions. For another, when linguistic rules make reference to social categories such as age, gender, or class, these categories are also themselves linguistic categories. They can and should be strictly distinguished from such parameters as chronological age, biological sex, or socioeconomic status, which can be defined prior to––and without regard to––the investigation of any language. What linguistic expressions index are culture-specific categories such as ‘youthfulness’, ‘femininity’, or ‘upper class’, not as defined in universal, naturalistic terms, but as conventionally encoded and understood by speakers of the language in question at the given time. Far from being “sociological factors” or “social factors bear[ing] upon linguistic features” these are in fact linguistic features. They are language-particular categories of content, indexed by linguistic elements of expression, that are selected for expression in discourse by speakers in accordance with their communicative intentions and with the same degree of freedom (and responsibility) as other categories of linguistic content. While it is a commonplace that language is totally embedded in society (linguistic facts are social facts), what is important to understand is that through the sociolinguistic categories of content indexed by linguistic expressions, the categories of a society are embedded in its language “unevenly”.
When a language changes, it is not only the strictly phonic features that undergo change. In contemporary American English, the paralinguistic features betokening emotional content have changed most radically to encompass bodily and facial movements accompanying speech that were kept to a minimum in the past. Speakers––especially women, but not only––typically use gestures of all kinds to express the emotions animating them, and these gestures extend to facial expressions such as twists of the mouth, eyebrow raising, etc. Whereas British speakers of an earlier era were particularly noted for their “stiff upper lip” as a linguistic characteristic extending beyond character traits, this is only rarely to be witnessed today, the American format having taken over in language as in so many other expressions of social values. This development in the general history of English is probably to be understood as owing its impetus to the rampant dissolution of community solidarity, which then eventuates in a greater need to exhibit one’s emotional state through the use of paralinguistic features beyond words.
English, with its overwhelmingly large vocabulary, presents problems not only for language learners but for native speakers as well. A report this morning on the BBC World Service illustrated the problem when a reporter misused the word interior instead of internal. These two words are not only close synonyms but are morphologically closely related. In speaking of the shooting in Kuala Lumpur of a Hamas operative, the reporter referred the event to “an interior matter” instead of “an internal matter” of the organization.
Such episodic mistakes, even by native speakers, are not rare, and normally the speaker making such an error immediately corrects it, typically by saying something like “I mean/meant” and supplying the correct word. Errare humanum est.
One rarely pays attention to the linguistic tokens of habitual repartee, but given the growth in the use of such items among younger speakers of American English in particular, perhaps they deserve a post on this blog.
No matter how innovative the content of what is being said, in conversation––especially between two people––there are always utterly habitual elements that are purely phatic and assure each interlocutor of the validity of what has just been uttered. Such is clearly the role ejaculations like “Fantastic!” or “Absolutely” play in conversation. A visit today by Y-H-B to his favorite lunch spot n Manhattan (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) included several exchanges between customer and waiter, in which the waiter, a young man named Zack, constantly uttered these words, meant to give tacit approval of the customer’s choice of dishes and drinks.
But one does not need the setting of a restaurant meal to be convinced that people habitually respond in conversation with linguistic items that are used solely to keep the interlocutors informed that what they are saying to each other is being evaluated––either positively or negatively––no matter what the content of their utterances.