• Category Archives: Language

The Arbitrariness of Meaning

April 2, 2018

In terms of this rather abstract characterization of meaning, the immediately preceding post can be amplified by numerous examples, and not just by paronomastic ones like “done and dusted” (British English, a phrase heard constantly on the BBC World Service, for instance). Any idiom that has arisen long enough ago to have lost any real connection with the objective context of its initial coinage will conform to the idea that meaning is arbitrary in the round. Such is the case of the phrase “hat trick,” which probably arose originally in association with the British game of cricket (although the OED Online disputes this etymology) and meant ‘taking three wickets with three consecutive deliveries’ but was then extended to other games (like hockey and soccer) to mean any combination of three gains, whence its ultimate extension to any combination of three successful actions. The meaning of ‘hat trick’ now has no connection with its etymology and must be learned by speakers in order to be used correctly in contemporary English. As with so much of the vocabulary of natural languages, this is a typical example of the arbitrariness of meaning.


Why Do People Say Things Like “From the get/git-go?”

March 13, 2018

There are elements of speech that are characterized as “slang” or “colloquial” and resolutely eschewed by educated speakers (like Y-H-B) but are in common use. Such is the phrase “from the get/git-go” that seems to have originated in Black English but is now uttered by American speakers regardless of race. Whatever its origins (disputed by etymologists), this phrase has an emotional force that its neutral counterpart, “from the (very) beginning/start,” lacks, owing to the paronomastic frame constituted by the conjoined words “get” and “go.” Paronomasia––here represented by the typical English case of alliteration––always accentuates the emotive content of whatever is being uttered by foregrounding the playful function of language at the expense of the purely referential. The paronomastic duple “get-go” is the emphatic means equivalent to the single word “very” in its neutral counterpart. Meaning achieved by indirection (the core of linguistic ontogeny) always has a power that its direct semantic counterpart lacks.


“Awesome” and “Fantastic” (The Triumph of the Phatic)

February 15, 2018

To continue one sub-genre among these posts, whose motto might be, “Linguista sum: linguistici nihil a me alienum puto” (echoing the late but unlamented Roman Jakobson’s paraphrase of Terence; vide Y-H-B’s article, “Roman Jakobson in Retrospect: Unvarnished Remembrances of a Stiff-Necked Student,” Chinese Semiotic Studies, 14 [2018], 41-56), my waiter at one of my Stammlokale (a young man in his twenties, and irrefragably a native speaker of American English) uttered the words “awesome,” when first taking my order, and “fantastic,” when I ordered a double espresso at the end. The communicative function of these two words was clearly and exclusively PHATIC,i. e., linguistic tokens meant purely as acknowledgments of my utterances in continuance of the act of communication––and, nota bene, utterly divorced from the meaning of their stems, viz. “awe” and “fantasy.” Needless to say, young speakers nowadays use these phatic words constantly and habitually without any intention of alluding to their literal meaning.

This account of one limited aspect of a miscellaneous prandial exchange is worth rehearsing in the service of asserting (yet again) that the locus of linguistic reality is the ACT, the CREATIVE MOMENT OF SPEECH––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.


Archaisms and Gravitas: A Cross-Linguistic Example from the New Testament

February 9, 2018

In today’s broadcast of the NPR program, “Marketplace Morning Report,” the host David Brancaccio (a native English speaker with exemplary vocal timbre, diction, and stylistic acumen), used the phrase “like a thief in the night,” with the contemporary meaning ‘secretly or unexpectedly and without being seen’, which anyone with a smattering of biblical knowledge would recognize as coming from the New Testament. The exact locus is 1 Thessalonians 5, to wit: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” In all English versions of this passage, including the King James, the relevant phrase is in perfectly contemporary language.

By contrast, the contemporary Russian phrase maintains an archaic (Church Slavonic) wording throughout: “яко (or как) тать в нощи» (transliterated: “iako tat’ v noshchi”). The meaning and usage remain the same as in English, but stylistically the force of the phrase has gravitas because of the archaisms, which the English lacks. Any Russian speaker uttering the phrase will automatically associate it with something ancient––hence, weightier––than will an English speaker using the same idiom, irrespective of any knowledge of the phrase’s origin.


Violations of Well-Formedness

January 22, 2018

While blatant violations of English grammar are common in media language, one can also observe the utterance of speech that seems to be grammatical but on closer analysis violates what is called “well-formedness.” This happened on today’s NPR program “Morning Edition,” when one of the hosts (David Greene––a graduate of Harvard, no less!) uttered the phrase “both sides blamed the other” instead of the correct “each side blamed the other” in speaking of the current government shut down. Of course, it is not clear whether Mr. Greene was reading from a script or offering an ex tempore description, but in either case the breach of well-formedness stands.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 13: Hypertrophic Noses Everywhere

January 18, 2018

It seems that anywhere one looks these days, one is confronted by the faces of the growing crowd of geriatrics, and what stands out is their noses––bulbous, pock-marked proboscides––that tend to mar the visages of these ancients (whether they realize it or not).

It is a scene involving four such unhandsome snouts that confronted Y-H-B as he sat at his usual table for lunch today at a neighborhood French restaurant (Le Moulin à Café) on York Avenue in Manhattan. Four senior citizens with outsize schnozzes had just sat down (evidently, two pairs of husband and wife) and started chattering, when the word ‘nose’ from Goethe’s Faust (Pt. 1, opening scene, “Night”), uttered by the protagonist, came suddenly to mind:

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;
Heiße Magister, heiße Doktor gar
Und ziehe schon an die zehen Jahr
Herauf, herab und quer und krumm
Meine Schüler an der Nase herum –
Und sehe, daß wir nichts wissen können!

I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine,—
And even, alas! Theology,—
From end to end, with labor keen;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before:
I’m Magister—yea, Doctor—hight,
And straight or cross-wise, wrong or right,
These ten years long, with many woes,
I’ve led my scholars by the nose,—
And see, that nothing can be known!
[translated by Bayard Taylor]

“Leading [somebody] by the nose” has a fixed meaning: to cause to obey submissively. Given the deflated look of the geriatrics in question, their unsightly noses only conjured up submissiveness and worse.

Cf. Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac:

Ah… your nose… hem!…
Your nose is… rather large!
CYRANO (gravely)
VALVERT (simpering)
Oh well—
CYRANO (coolly)
Is that all?
VALVERT (turns away with a shrug)
Well, of course—
Ah, no, young sir!
You are too simple. Why, you might have said—
Oh, a great many things? Mon dieu, why waste
Your opportunity? For example, thus:—
AGGRESSIVE: I, sir, if that nose were mine,
I’d have it amputated—on the spot!

Such are the literary loci that drifted into Y-H-B’s mind when confronted by the ubiquitous schnozzolas of today.


Is the So-Called ‘Vocal Fry’ an Apotropaism?

January 14, 2018

One feature of contemporary female speech in American English of the last few decades is the so-called ‘vocal fry’, defined as a vocal register “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency.” Words uttered by mostly younger women at the end of clauses in this register have been characterized variously––and contradictorily–– as (1) producing greater credibility; or (2) making female speakers sound less confident, thereby undermining the effectiveness of their communication.

In light of several other cases (such as uptalk) that have been instanced in previous posts as characteristic of the speech of young women and girls in the 21st century, and explained as APOTROPAISMS, perhaps vocal fry should be categorized similarly, i. e., as a strategy used by speakers to avoid or forestall danger. More specifically, vocal fry could be likened to the behavior of an animal confronted by danger, including baring its teeth and/or claws, bristling, etc. The meaning communicated to her interlocutor(s) by a female speaker who resorts to the vocal fry is something like ‘don’t mess with me’. At a time when sexual harassment has become a staple of media discussions detailing the perils confronting American women in the 21st century, an explanation of vocal fry as an apotropaism gains special credence.


Adjectivization of Verb Phrases and Its Contemporary Vogue

January 4, 2018

Contemporary media language (but not only) constantly reverts to compound adjectives like jaw-dropping and game-changing to spice up the discourse. Such items are the product of adjectivizing verb phrases, hence “drop [one’s] jaw” is the source of jaw-dropping and “change [the] game” the source of game-changing. These neologisms draw on a time-tested morphological pattern in the history of English, which has given us back-breaking and nit-picking et al. along the way.

What is it about this derivational pattern that contributes to its current productivity? There is always the possibility of using a non-compound deverbal adjective like astounding (instead of jaw-dropping) and revolutionary (instead of game-changing). Naturally, the connotations of these simple adjectives are not identical, there being no such thing as perfect synonymy. But the most salient difference is the presence of the semantic category of PROCESS in the compounds, derived from the fact that the objective complement of the verb is specified in the derived adjective. It is this necessary presence of the verbal complement in these new deverbal adjectives that gives rise to their popularity as a matter of linguistic iconicity. More specifically, PROCESS rather than RESULT being the distinctive feature of 21st-century American culture, this adjectivization of a verb phrase can be assessed as a diagrammatization in language of an overarching societal value.


The Waxing and Waning of Phraseologisms (British ‘if you like’ and American ‘if you will’ Revisited)

December 24, 2017

Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that its most frequently downloaded PDF (according to Awstats) is the article “Wimp English” (American Speech 68.3 [1993], 327-330), co-written by my wife of blessed memory, Marianne Shapiro, a scholar with a high level of awareness (and avoidance) of speech mannerisms, especially clichés. The Macmillan Dictionary definition of this phraseologism is ‘FORMAL used when describing something in an unusual way or in a way that you think someone might not agree with;’ (Example: “It’s relaxation; another form of meditation, if you will.”) Whereas this locution is heard les and less frequently in public discourse, the corresponding British English phrase “if you like” is still to be heard often enough, if speakers on BBC World Service are any measure of its frequency. The Oxford Living Dictionaries definition is ‘Used when expressing something in a new or tentative way’ (Ex: ‘it’s a whole new branch of chemistry, a new science if you like’).
While the speech practices of present-day Albion with regard to this phraseologism have alredy been instanced herein (“Fear of Linguistic Indirection: British ‘if you like’,” March 31, 2016), perhaps it would bear emphasis to say that speakers are evidently sensitive to the limits of credibility of their utterances and structure them with this awareness in mind, quite apart from their epistemic truthfulness or validity. The thoughts, attitudes, and value systems lying behind speech are always ready to be linguistically expressed––and are––when needed.


Ab und zu Exzellenz.’ (Repetition and the Lure of Excessive Metaphoricity)

December 17, 2017

Repetition is a necessary part of speech and discourse in every language.Clichés exist only through repetition. Contemporary American English, especially media language, however, has hypertrophied in recent years to such an extent as to risk stylistic opprobrium. To recall a fresh example, Y-H-B has a lifelong friend who prefaces almost every non-initial utterance with the phrase “having said that,” to the point where it has become a verbal tic.

Speaking of which, my father (who was fluent in five languages, including German) often told the joke of a subordinate in Germany who constantly added the word Exzellenz to every sentence he addressed to his superior. (Exzellenz ‘Excellency’ is a German form of address for certain high officials or dignitaries, as it is in English.) Finally, the superior said to his subordinate: “Ab und zu Exzellenz,” which means “[use] Excellency [only] from time to time!”

So it should be with excessive preference for metaphors over plainspokenness. There is no necessary gain in communicative force or stylistic excellence when speakers constantly resort to metaphorical expressions instead of direct speech. As with all aspects of linguistic choice, metaphoricity increases in stylistic aptness and communicative power only in the measure of its judicious deployment.