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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 9 (Variations on the Speaking Self)

Riding on the SBSM15 bus down Second Avenue in Manhattan and talking to a recent acquaintance, we were joined in conversation by a woman sitting in front of us who overheard us and wanted to contribute to our discussion of a social topic, so we let her have her say.

The animated character of her words and gestures made me think of the piece of historical information my former teacher Roman Jakobson had imparted to me about the variety of linguistic expression as taught by the great Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, namely his use in acting classes of the last lines uttered by its hero Chatsky in the Russian classic play “Gore ot uma” (“Woe from Wit”) by Alexander Griboedov, “Karetu mne, karetu” (“My carriage, my carriage”). The exercise for students was to say these lines in as many variations as possible, including a whisper. The point was to habituate actors to the near-infinite expressive possibilities of language, where linguistic nuances based on enunciation, emphasis, and intonation embody emotive meaning and thereby necessarily differentiate a whole range of variants.

Especially through such chance encounters (as with the lady on the bus) one becomes more convinced than ever that the dictum “You are what you say” (my formulation) is exemplified not only by trained actors on the stage but by all of us when we speak. Whatever else we do with our bodies when we use language (gesticulate with our hands, turn our lips this way or that, etc.), it is more than anything the nuances of our speech that carve out those parts of the matrix of meaning in which all semiosis is embedded, and hence characterize our selves as speaking beings unlike any other species.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

For Emphasis (absolútely)

Languages have several means at their disposal whereby part or a whole utterance can be emphasized and thereby distinguished from a neutral stretch of speech. Relative loudness is one such means: something shouted at an interlocutor when the distance between speakers does not require raising one’s voice signifies emphasis (both emotive and referential). Another means, when it comes to English in particular, is elongation of the syllabic structure of words, i. e., pronouncing the vowels with unusual length. A related instance of elongation is what one observes in the word please, when a schwa is inserted between the first two consonants for emphasis.

As in the case of the amphibrachic structure of treméndous, to which appeal was made in an earlier post, prosody can also provide the means for realizing––or cooperating in the realization of––emphatic meaning. The currently ubiquitous answer to an interlocutor’s statement, instead of just agreeing by saying right or yes or certainly, is the emphatic absolútely, with high pitch on the stressed vowel. Aside from the intrinsic meaning of the word, its anapestic prosody (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable) is what has particularly contributed to this word’s being preferred nowadays as the emphatic riposte-in-agreement par excellence. The fact of the anapest having two unstressed syllables preceding the stress lends extra force by contrast to the stressed syllable, thereby heightening the emphatic meaning.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Capturing the Love Object in Words

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s well-known Sonnet 43 goes like this:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Compare it to Shakespeare’s immortal Sonnet 81:

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

When considering a fitting epigraph for the second edition of our book, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language (2009), I chose the Shakespeare to commemorate my Marianne (עליה השלום). It puts all other poems in the shade in capturing both the haecceity and the quiddity of the romance of our love, where romance is defined as embodying the triumph of spirit over flesh, in life as in death.

While sitting this afternoon in a neighborhood restaurant and savoring my caviar and oysters in Marianne’s honor, only the Russian adjective бесподобная (literally, ‘without + similar’ [fem.]) floated into my consciousness, to capture my love and her essence. The European languages have nothing to match this Slavic compositum, with the possible exception of French nonpareille, which is, of course, not strictly synonymous in either structure or meaning.

Poets from time immemorial have been trying to capture linguistically the multidimensionality of love. Perhaps the Old Provençal troubadours succeeded, but only in part. No words, no matter how well-turned, can do love justice.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Power of the Amphibrach (treméndous)

The newly-minted President of the United States, Donald Trump, has a penchant for the word treméndous, which he utters at every opportunity along with a few other favorites. Aside from its meaning, there are some structural (formal) reasons why this particular word has pride of place in Trump’s verbal armamentarium.

First of all, this word has no constituent structure other than the adjectival morpheme {-ous}, as in lugubrious, atrocious, populous, etc. This means that the word stands by itself as far as its core meaning is concerned: its base {treménd-} is unique, unassociated with any other lexical unit.

Second, and more important from the oratorical point of view, treméndous is amphibrachic, which is to say that it is a trisyllable whose medial syllable is stressed, buttressed on both sides by unstressed syllables. It is this prosodic structure––weak, strong, weak––that gives it the power one feels both when uttered by the speaker and heard by the auditor. Perceptually, nothing ever looms taller than a high surrounded on all sides by lows.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 10 & 11: ‘sycophantic’ & ‘calumniate’

What would English do without its Graeco-Roman patrimony?! Two words from that stratum of the lexicon swam into Y-H-B’s consciousness a few days ago when asked by the editor of a journal to write a piece about his dealings with his Doktorvater under the rubric of “unforgetting.” Here is the passage in which the pertinent items found their natural place:

There was a lot of acrimony on Jakobson’s side for a number of reasons, and my  dissertation went through four drafts before he signed off on it. But I aggravated my “sins” by publishing every one of the chapters he forced me to excise as journal articles. Then I got into a lot of hot water with Jak by writing a strongly critical book review in Language of one of his sycophantic former students. Jak went on the warpath (esp. in IJSLP) and tried to prevent me from getting tenure at UCLA. We eventually patched it up, but you can imagine the anguish of a young scholar to be calumniated in scholarly journals by a world-famous linguist!

The OED glosses them as follows:
           sycophantic, adj.
Etymology:
< Greek σῡκοϕαντικός, < σῡκοϕάντης sycophant n. and adj.

  1. Having the character of, or characteristic of, a sycophant; meanly flattering;  basely obsequious.
  2. Calumnious, slanderous.

         calumniate, v.
         Etymology: < Latin calumniāt- participial stem of calumniāri ; see
-ate suffix3. Compare 16th cent. French calomnier.


  1. a.
    trans. To asperse with calumny, utter calumny regarding; to accuse or        charge falsely and maliciously with something criminal or disreputable;to slander.
    b. intr. (absol.) To utter calumnies.
  2. To charge (a thing) calumniously against a person. Obs. rare.

The Russians have a saying, “Мeртвые сраму не имут,” literally “The dead take no shame,” which derives from the so-called Primary Chronicle and refers to words supposedly uttered by Prince Sviatoslav before sending his men into battle with the Byzantines in the tenth century. However, given the shameful circumstances chronicled in the passage above, here is one unforgettable instance where the paroemic is irrefragably beggared by the historical.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Sense of Grammar (Mood and Number)

Given the balkanized state of the field of linguistics in the twenty-first century, it may be easy to forget that an à la mode view of grammar may not necessarily be the best or truest. Apropos, a book published by Y-H-B almost a quarter of a century ago, The Sense of Grammar: Language as Semeiotic, still shows the way toward an understanding of the coherence of grammatical facts by stressing the overriding importance of diagrammatic semeiosis, wherein diagrammaticity (diagrams = icons of relation) prevails over arbitrariness.

This truth can be demonstrated concisely by examining the relation between mood and number in contrary to fact statements in English. The traditional norm requires such statements (as in wishes) to utilize the plural instead of the singular with a singular agent (“I wish I were in Dixie,” etc.). The contemporary tendency away from the plural may seem to restore grammatical coherence, but this is a specious judgment based on a basic incomprehension of how grammar makes sense semeiotically.

More precisely, the use of the plural number with the subjunctive mood constitutes a supervening coherence based on iconicity. A diagram (as noted) being an icon of relation, and the marked number being the plural (vis-à-vis the singular), just as the subjunctive mood is marked vis-à-vis the indicative, the sense of the use here of the plural transpires from the coherence of the markedness values of the two relevant grammatical categories. The Sense of Grammar may be out of print, but its purport has not suffered desuetude withal.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Orthoepic Shibboleths (*good-paying and *electóral)

With the growth of literacy and the spread of mass communications has come the dominance of linguistic standards all over the world. This is true of English as well as the languages of the rest of the first world. However, even among native speakers of the standard in any country there will always be the incidence of variation, specifically as regards older or traditional norms being superseded by innovations that contravene the latter, even among educated speakers.

Two vivid contemporary examples of this trend in Standard American English are the rise of the compound adjective *good-paying (instead of the correct well-paying) and the simple adjective *electóral (instead of the correct eléctoral), both of which were heard as uttered today on the National Public Radio program “Morning Edition Saturday” by a female college professor of sociology.

When linguistic errors become frequent enough to be part of an ongoing language change, they can be regarded as orthoepic shibboleths, as signs of the speaker’s cultural level (and typically of their chronological age). As with all such phenomena, contraventions of the linguistic norm always fall into the category of signs of human behavior that serve as criteria by which we judge each other and are, therefore, material to how societies work.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 9: ‘pullulate’

A word I learned from my late wife Marianne, and which she used quite frequently in her everyday discourse, is the verb ‘pullulate’, defined in full by the OED as follows:

  1. trans. To engender, bring into existence; to cause to spring up abundantly or multiply. Now rare.
  2. intr.
    a.To be developed or produced as offspring; to spring up abundantly, multiply.
    b. To teem, swarm. Freq. with with.
  3. intr.
    a. Of a seed, plant, etc.: to germinate, to put out shoots or buds. Obs.
    b. Of a bud, shoot, propagule, etc.: to appear; to sprout, grow. Obs.
  4. intr. Med. To develop growths; to proliferate. Obs. rare.
  5. intr. Of a cell or animal, esp. a pathogenic organism: to breed, multiply; to reproduce prolifically.
    Derivatives
    pullulating adj. budding, sprouting, flourishing.

Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymons: Latin pullulāt-, pullulāre.Etymology: < classical Latin pullulāt-, past participial stem (see -ate suffix3) of pullulāre to send forth new growth, to sprout, to sprout out, spring forth < pullulus young nestling or chick, young shoot or sprout < pullus young of any animal, chick (see pull n.2) + -ulus -ulus suffix. Compare French pulluler (c1350 in Middle French in sense 2a, first half of the 15th cent. in sense 3b, end of the 15th cent. in sense 2b; the transitive use in sense 1 is apparently not paralleled in French before 1764), Italian pullulare (1313).

Marianne (petnames Mooyin, Mumpkin) used it most often in meaning 2b and in the derivative adjective. Here is a paragraph containing the word as used by me in a recent e-mail message from Cali (Colombia), where I stayed for a week and reported on what I observed:

“The people here have been extremely nice and welcoming. The sponsor [of my lecture], Universidad del Valle, put me up in a first-class hotel and paid all my other trip expenses. Especially memorable was an iguana I saw at the University’s park yesterday. A truly splendid creature! The city is pullulating with people and animals and vegetation.”

As I wrote the sentence with ‘pulluate’, I thought of my Mooyin––as always––and of her beautiful speech.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Grammatical Errors and Imperfect Learning (Verbal and Adjectival Government)

Speakers of Standard American English, perhaps more often than speakers of any other European standard, make grammatical errors that are clearly not lapsus linguae (slips of the tongue). Nowhere is this more evident than in the government of verbs and adjectives, where the prepositional complements are frequently being confused, particularly for, with, and to. This was glaringly observed in the mistakes made today by interviewees on the NPR program “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio.

One such mistake was *rife for instead of the correct rife with; the other was *complying to instead of complying with. That any adult native speaker of contemporary American English can commit such grammatical errors testifies not only to what is called imperfect learning but to a fundamental lacuna in their command of the language. Since the speakers sounded on the young side, these mistakes––which could be multiplied manyfold in public oral discourse––can only be attributed to insufficient experience with the written word and a near-ubiquitous reliance on social media, which by their very nature promote frequent heedless neglect of the rules of grammar.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Meaning and the Continuum in Language

When language is (properly) understood as part of nature and not merely as a tissue of conventions, the explanatory power of Peirce’s synechism––his theory of continuity––becomes overwhelmingly apparent. Peirce’s 1892 lecture, “The Logic of Continuity” (reproduced in Reasoning and the Logic of Things [Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1992, pp. 242-68]), stresses the relation between continuity, generality, and habit:

Habit is a generalizing tendency, and as such a generalization, and as such a general, and as such a continuum or continuity. It must have its origin in the original continuity which is inherent in potentiality. Continuity, as generality, is inherent in potentiality, which is essentially general [p. 262].

In my own understanding of continuity/synechism that I’ve been trying to apply to language for the purposes of my talks in Colombia later this month, I emphasize what might be called ‘meaning as a preexistent continuum’ rather than what we “make” of things and events alone. In this vein, meaning is both the empirical result of what we make of the world and what “always already” surrounds and pours in on us (the semiotic web?). This idea then necessarily brings up the distinction (opposition?) between the virtual and the actual. Any Thirdness (or law) must be able to specify the relation between what is and could be, and what could be is only limited practically by what was. This is where history (and experience) come in, and the acknowledgment of the “real presence” (as inexcludable from either perception or inference) of history is what makes judgments both verifiable and ground-ed/-able. With reference to language and its use specifically, there is no such thing as being able to speak a language without the necessary, implicit presence of the time axis (history) in every utterance of one’s own and in every understanding of the utterances of others. (Parenthetically, the whole argument about subjunctives and conditionals in Peirce’s statement of the Pragmatic Maxim both as to origins and to effects will always be deficient unless it explicitly recognizes the necessary presence of the historical dimension in both thought and action.)

The only point that needs to be expanded is the one that bears on the opposition––more properly, the contrast–– between virtual and actual. Every linguistic form and series of forms in utterances is actual but has a virtual set of alternatives as a backdrop (= the system of relations that make up the structure of a given language). In language the historical tendency is to take contrary relations (= contrasts) and make them into contradictory relations (= binary oppositions). The system of relations is a continuum made up of relational singularities, and these singularities are what is manifested in speech.

As to the historical dimension, one can say that every human act, not just involving language, occurs as a singularity backdropped by a continuum that is the pool of possible acts. Every present fact is the cumulative result of past facts of the same genus. Innovation––in language as elsewhere in nature–– occurs only against the backdrop of preexistent possibilities.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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