• Category Archives: Language

Schwa in Unstressed Syllables as between British and Amderican English

October 20, 2018

Among the many differences between British and American English is the way that vowels are treated in unstressed syllables. For the most part, British English tends to pronounce them with schwa, so that the final vowel in Pentagon and Amazon, which has a relatively full vowel in American speech, has a reduced vowel in British. Occasionally, the results are inverted, so that the final syllable of Maryland in British speech has the full vowel, whereas a schwa is the norm in American.

The occurrence of a reduced vowel in unstressed position (or in syllables with potentially secondary stress) is to be interpreted as a sign that the word is being interpreted as a unified whole, with a constituent structure. Maryland pronounced by a speaker of American English is thus construed as having no segment structure phonetically, whereas in British speech the maintenance of [a] and secondary stress is a sign that speakers are interpreting the word has having two constituents, Mary- plus -land.

This sort of (tacit) construal of a word’s constituent structure has different phonetic outcomes in the speech of newer vs. older generations of American speakers when it comes to items that contain final morphemes like {ent} in student and president, with younger speakers coming increasingly to pronounce them with a full vowel rather than the traditional schwa. This secondary stress in the newer variant seems to be occasioned by the reconstrual of these words as containing a suffix, since the stems (stud- and presid-) also occur elsewhere in verbs.


Interrogative Intonation in the Service of Politesse

September 28, 2018

The main use of interrogative intonation is for the posing of questions. However, by comparison with declarative intonation, the interrogative pulls back from the domain of assertion, which is always more forceful than that of questions. Diminished force, for obvious reasons, is associated with politeness, to which assertiveness is always alien.

This use of interrogative intonation in the service of politesse was brought home to Y-H-B the other day while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and hearing the first and last names of patients called out by a nurse in order to signify that their turn has come to be examined. Invariably, the full name was uttered by the nurse with interrogative intonation, not declarative. Now, this usage can naturally be understood to signify something like the unasked question, “Is So-and-So here?” But this interpretation is largely gainsaid by the fact that the patient had already registered their presence with the receptionist before taking a seat in the waiting area. This leaves politesse as the sole reason for the use of the interrogative intonation.


Every Creature Wants to Express Itself

September 21, 2018

Every living creature––in virtue of being alive––exhibits an impulse to express itself, whether that creature is an ant or a mastodon. Only humans, however, use language (in the fullest sense of this semiotic system’s hypostasis) to express themselves, and this applies fully even to those persons who are cognitively or physically impaired, and whose speech suffers in the bargain.

This latter condition was brought home to Y-H-B when I visited the local gym and had my tri-weekly fitness session with my trainer. Two others––one a young man, the other an older fellow––who were there were both cognitively impaired. Both are guided through their exercises by my trainer. One of them in particular (as the result of a serious injury) exhibited all the symptoms of echolalia, which is described (in its Wikipedia entry) as follows:

Echolalia (also known as echologia or echophrasia) is defined as the unsolicited repetition of vocalizations made by another person (by the same person is called palilalia). In its profound form it is automatic and effortless. It is one of the echophenomena, closely related to echopraxia, the automatic repetition of movements made by another person; both are “subsets of imitative behavior” whereby sounds or actions are imitated “without explicit awareness”. Echolalia may be an immediate reaction to a stimulus or may be delayed.”
The word “echolalia” is derived from the Greek ἠχώ, meaning “echo” or “to repeat”, and λαλιά (laliá) meaning “speech” or “talk” (of onomatopoeic origin, from the verb λαλέω (laléo), meaning “to talk”).”

To hear echolalic speech is to realize how precious the human capacity for language is, and how tragic when it is seriously impaired.


How Some Other Linguists Assess Y-H-B’s Work (ca. 2011)

September 15, 2018

In 2011 Y-H-B submitted a manuscript for possible publication to the journal Diachronica. You can find it among the PDFs at the top of the home page of this blog under the title “Value Systems and Language Change: Grammatical Hypertrophy in Present-Day American English.” Here are the three reader’s reports I got back from the Editor. You are invited to be the judge as to whether their criticisms are valid. Needless to say, my manuscript was rejected.


I think this paper is good and has promise, but I find it way too short and cryptic and not full enough of evidence at times.
Page 4, second paragraph, it speaks of “broad” a and speakers’ attitudes. I totally missed this one — I’m not aware of the correlates here! I had no idea there were other than geographic nuances on these. So this is the type of thing where the author [henceforth referred to as ‘he’.] really needs to elaborate/exemplify a bit. If I didn’t know this, I’m guessing that other non-US readers wouldn’t either.
Very bottom of page 4, top of page 5, failure to apply the laxing rule — OK, but this doesn’t read quickly and easily, one has to kind of decode it into current terminology. How much easier to phrase in terms of [s] and [z]. It would help the average reader to simply spell it out in phonetics. This is kind of a grand assumption, but I guess he’s covered as he says “can be seen as…”.
Page 5, second full paragraph, talking about “commit”, I think this is also too sweeping (and again, he only says “can be analyzed”, “may be said”… well, yeah, of course it can… but is it right?) I would never have thought of this quite so literally, that when you take that reflexive out you are somehow stepping back from the commitment.
Page 6, informer/informant. He states that one is being replaced by the other — but what is the evidence? Any frequency counts from a corpus? And what’s the evidence for older and newer? Is it e.g. an OED date? It all may or may not be true — it’s just sketchy, and it feels like an unsubstantiated claim, just a personal observation – and maybe he could be wrong. Also, he says the two suffixes differ in length. Do they? Both are one syllable, one has two phonemes and the other one, one has three letters the other two, but exactly what are we counting here? I would have thought actual physical duration in msec would be the same. But anyway, again the point is not that I think this or he thinks that — what is the evidence and/or the basis for the claim?
Page 7, 4 lines from bottom, but also in lots of places in the article, “hypertrophy” should be defined — many won’t know what it means, but even for those who do/think they do, making sure we all are working from the same definition would be good.
Page 9, first full paragraph — many unsubstantiated claims for such a short paragraph! What is the evidence that this is an innovation? Compared to what? When did it happen? The solidity of our confidence in that claim is also broken by the next phrase that states that it’s perhaps also in British English as well. Well, the author should know!
Page 9, example 14 and example 15 are the same, are they not?
Further down page 9, do we really have to use words like “otiose” and “cisatlantically” — especially as the latter means opposite things depending on where you sit. Although we give author affiliation, one shouldn’t have to look that up to make sense of the article.
Page 10, just before section II. “clearly a general grammatical tendency” — I’d dispute the clarity of that — I’m the kind who likes data and figures! Also, is this a grammatical tendency or discourse tendency?
Page 10, very bottom, “prior to” / “before” feels very different from the other examples. Rather than just a surplus syllable (etc.) that just seems like a synonym. What am I missing in his argument? Similarly, top of page 11, I don’t get it with “right” vs. “correct” — isn’t that just the usual English thing of two synonyms, in this case (as often) traceable to our Germanic vs. Romance/Latinate influencers? Same thing with examples 26 and 27. I’m not getting it.
Page 10, pleonasm. Friend of mine vs. my friend — to me these are quite different. There are few places (in discourse) where I could substitute one for the other and have it mean the same thing.
Page 10, bottom, what’s wrong with 38 and 39? If there’s some sense of redundancy being claimed in 39, I disagree — there is such a thing as partially right. Or partially correct (!). What would he say it should be, or was before these changes?
Page 11, “receive” is probably more complicated, because the logical alternate, “get”, is subject to all sorts of odd prescriptivism. So, there’s more to be said here.
With all of these examples here — what evidence is there that these are on the increase? What evidence is there that these aren’t the type of errors we all make under pressure?
Example 60, “country dacha” — well, the meaning of dacha isn’t likely to be transparent to most Americans. Example 63, “unfairly vilifying” — well, only an example if you deny the possibility of “fairly vilifying”… and why would you do that?
Page 14 — deictic introduction. This one could surely be proved from corpus counts. Definitely on the rise!
Anyway, I’m favourably inclined and think there is interesting stuff here, but it needs a lot more work and fleshing out — this is just a sketch of an idea, and not yet somehow the real scholarly paper with all the backup. It needs lot more evidence, corpus counts, historical dates, just more explanation … .

Assessment of ‘Value Systems and Language Change: Grammatical Hypertrophy in Present Day American English’
This is a curious paper because, while it claims to be concerned with the social  motivation for, and the social significance of, language change, it fails to refer to at least three decades of work within sociolinguistics that has been concerned with this very topic.  The only reference to this work in the list of references is Labov (1974) and Weinreich, Labov and Herzog (1968)—both very old references.
In addition to the problem above (i.e., the fact that the paper is not appropriately contextualized within the relevant scholarly literature), there are also problems with the evidence that the author presents for his/her central argument.  On page 4, the author states that ‘linguistic innovations can provide clues to the meaning of social and cultural changes in contemporary American society’ and, in particular, the author seems to be interested in the value systems that such innovations index.  However, the author provides little evidence for these ‘value systems’ that are said to motivate certain linguistic innovations.  For example, on page 6, the author says that ‘Americans who habitually drop the article [before specifying persons by their class membership] have incorporated the attitude summarized by the formula “you ARE what you DO.”’ But, no evidence is provided to support the claim that this ‘value system’ is what motivates this particular linguistic innovation.  (And, this is true for similar kinds of claims made throughout the paper.)  Even more problematic is the author’s explanation for linguistic hypertrophy on page 15.  The author states that it is caused by a ‘FAILURE OF THOUGHT, in a culture of excess.’  While I am not completely sure what this means, the author then goes on to associate linguistic hypertrophy with ‘historically marginalized groups in society.’  That is, the author seems to be associating a ‘failure of thought’ with socially marginalized groups.  It seems to me that this is a very controversial and problematic claim, only made worse by the fact that there is no evidence presented in the paper for such a claim.
Finally, I would suggest that the author adopts a very prescriptivist attitude towards language change in this paper.  I note, in particular, that in the footnote associated with the final sentence of the paper, the author presupposes ‘the inappropriateness of the drift at issue here.’  While I am not a historical linguist, I can only assume that the vast majority of historical linguists do not make value judgements about the changes in language that they are investigating, specifically, they do not characterize them as ‘inappropriate.’
In sum, I recommend the rejection of this paper because (1) it isn’t contextualized within the relevant scholarly literature (2) it doesn’t provide evidence for its claims, some of which are highly controversial and (3) it takes a prescriptivist stance to the issue of language change.

Overall my recommendation is to reject. Frankly, the paper is a bit bewildering, and has a disconcertingly prescriptive “kids these days” feel to it.
I found it somewhat difficult to determine the goal of the article, but it appears to be an effort to connect language change in general, and specific forms in US English in particular, to cultural and/or individual value systems.
The paper is roughly divided into two sections, in the first, a general understanding is presented of the connection between language forms and value systems.  In the second section, a set of specific examples in US English is presented as evidence for particular cultural phenomena.  In both cases, the discussion is challenging to follow and the arguments are presented generally, but not at the depth needed to fully support the proposals.
Taking the first, more general part first, many of these sentences are very dense.  For example, this could be clarified and simplified: “But whereas, for instance, Labov’s study refers the specific values carried by the innovations to such established categories of connotative content as those mentioned above, my investigation concentrates on uncovering the purport of innovations before their definite, collectively understood connotative content has been  widely adopted;  and before the stage of consolidation of their values has been reached.”
The argument that language is inextricably social is well-taken, but it is not clear in this discussion how the current paper is contributing to thinking on this topic. One element discussed in the paper is the ways in which language patterns contribute to social boundaries between speakers. This phenomenon is the subject of a number of well-developed literatures in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology and the sociology of language, but almost no work in those fields is cited, so it is not clear how the discussion relates to existing knowledge on the subject.  No specific social groups are discussed, either here or later in relation to hypertrophic forms.
Another element of connection argued for is the fact that many social categories (which themselves may structure language use) are expressible as linguistic forms.  It is not clear to me how this point fits into the larger argument.  It’s also not clear whether the author intends to claim that all linguistically relevant social categories (or all social categories?) have generally known labels, as seems to be implied.  If the intent is to claim that, it would be a startling suggestion.
Page 3 introduces the author’s approach, with the example of the pluralization of “knowledge”.  If I follow the discussion accurately, the proposal is that “knowledges” is not found in English because of the lack of acknowledgement of multiple incompatible knowledge systems.  The basic idea is reasonable here, that forms are unusual where they would refer to unusual concepts (although a Google search suggests that “knowledges” is used quite a bit in English, albeit  typically by academics). What is less clear is the actual approach that this observation is meant to represent.
The second half of the paper does not clarify the approach.  Many examples of specific forms of US English are presented, first as diverse small examples, then the apparently central data, various hypertrophic forms. In each case, the author presents the form(s), then presents an argument for a cultural perspective or pattern that the form might be said to represent.  The overall argument appears to be that the introduction of these (apparently new?) forms reflects cultural beliefs of some sort, startlingly attributed at the end of the paper to marginalized groups specifically, due to lack of education and possibly unstable social identities.
What is missing from the discussion is an argument showing that the forms in question are new, and, more importantly, to support the proposed meanings and/or cultural attributes of the forms.  Currently, the author appears to be drawing on intuitions to argue that, for example, saying “commentator” rather than “the commentator” signals adherence to the American obsession with professional work as a cornerstone to identity.  I do not find these bald assertions convincing, and no evidence is given for any of these analyses.
Also useful would be references to other work on similar phenomena in language change more generally, for example with respect to the use of “back in [time period]”, some discussion of the bleaching of emphatic forms.  As presented, the paper does not address questions of language change substantively, making me wonder about the appropriateness of the topic generally for Diachronica.

“If I’d Had My Druthers” (Form as Part of Meaning)

August 28, 2018

Y-H-B was sitting at one of his Manhattan Stammplätze, Quatorze Bis on East 79th 79the Street, when he overheard a lady say to her male companion, “If I’d had my druthers . . ..” Now, she could have said something similar in meaning like “If it were up to me,” “If the preference were mine,” etc., but she chose to put her thought in the particular linguistic dress of a phrase that derives from American dialectal speech of the 19th century and is still in common use.
What the use of this rather peculiar phrase shows is that one and the same general meaning can be expressed in a number of ways, but the choice of one particular way always carries a slight alteration of meaning because the form of the utterance enters into the meaning and thereby contributes to the utterance’s significative effect. A difference in form necessarily carries a difference in meaning even though the purport may remain the same.
The fact that the lady was overheard using “If I’d had my druthers” rather than something similar to indicate her preference may be adjudged a stylistic choice, but every difference in the stylistic presentation of the same general content always connotes a difference in meaning. This fact extends beyond language to everything that humans do, so that a semiotic choice exhibited through variations of representation by signs necessarily introduces variations in the immediate object (to put it in Peircean terms). This is especially relevant when the domain involves aesthetic considerations, as in art or music.

Clichés as Failures of Thought

August 14, 2018

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.


Logorrhea and Public Speech

July 30, 2018

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.


Linguistic Norms and Their Violation as a Shibboleth

July 22, 2018

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.


Absolutely, Great, Fantastic, Tremendous (Trump-Speak Unmasked)

July 12, 2018

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.


Meaning is Not in One’s Head but in the Semiotic Web

June 17, 2018

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.