• Category Archives: Language

Self-Irony and the Linguistic Fashioning of Personality

May 8, 2017

It is a commonplace of the analysis of personality that language is the main ingredient in the self-fashioning of a persona. Gestures, clothing, mannerisms of all kinds contribute to this process but are ancillary to the cumulative result. “You are what you say”––or so one can safely maintain, although a distinguished Colombian philosopher of mathematics, when recently exposed to this statement, responded by countering, “You are what you are” (a notably vacuous formulation all the same).

Humor at one’s own expense (self-irony included) can be characteristic of one’s personality, and those who lack this trait often stand out in contemporary American culture––negatively, one must say, although it need not prevent such persons from succeeding in life. A total absence of the ability to ironize on oneself is part of the general lack of self-awareness (clinically: anosognosia) that is more typically characteristic of the male members of the species, but not only.

One such person in Y-H-B’s early academic experience stands out, namely a former colleague (a male Slavist), who as a young man exhibited a total absence of self-irony linguistically and of self-awareness behaviorally, then came out of the closet publicly after two failed marriages to women (N.B.!), and ended up with an endowed chair at one of America’s elite universities–– despite remaining unchanged as to personality all the while.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Groves of Academe (Not Academia)

May 7, 2017

The phrase “groves of academe” has been in English since at least the eighteenth century. The OED cites it as deriving from Horace’s Odes:

groves of Academe [translating classical Latin silvās Acadēmī in Horace: see the etymology] (literary): a place of studious seclusion; the academic world, viewed as sheltered from the demands of everyday life.

In post-war America the phrase came into common use due largely to Mary McCarthy’s eponymous 1952 novel, whence the word academe as a frequent designation for the academic world or academic life. Lately, however, it is being supplanted by the hypertrophic variant academia, often mispronounced to rhyme with macadamia (as in “macadamia nuts”). This variant is on the cusp of consigning the correct form to oblivion and is even to be heard emanating from the lips of academics, who should know better.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

When Only a Foreign Locution Will Serve (German erblich belastet)

April 29, 2017

English is a magnificent instrument of linguistic expression, arguably the richest and most adaptable language in the human firmament. However, occasionally it lacks a specific word or phrase that can only be found in another language, and the use of this heterolingual means in an English utterance conveniently fills the gap that happens to exist in the native lexicon.

     Y-H-B was reminded today of this fact while sitting in a fish restaurant on Third Avenue in Manhattan and enjoying a rare treat of caviar and wine. His waitress happened to turn her back as she made her way from the table after taking the order, thereby revealing a derrière characteristic of a certain human female type, and immediately the German participial compound phrase erblich belastet (from das Erbe ‘inheritance’ + die Last ‘load’) hove into Y-H-B’s consciousness, a phrase he had acquired in childhood from his mother (who spoke five languages fluently, including German). The meaning is something like “encumbered by heredity,” i. e. inescapably part of one’s biological inheritance. That was the most apposite description of the waitress’s lower anatomy, for which there is no idiomatic equivalent in English.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Meaning and the Trirelative Semiotic Orientation of Language

April 28, 2017

Linguistics is axiomatically an observational science. It pays attention to and analyzes the ontology and the use of language in a triad of respects: (1) language as code, i. e., a set of norms that every speaker inherits when they become members of the community of learners and users; (2) language as inner/personal speech, i. e., the internal communication that occurs between phases of the thinking self; and (3) language as social/external speech, i. e., vocalized communication with interlocutors. In all three of these respects language at any given stage of its development is the cumulative result of its history, i. e., the teleological outcome of past stages.

Expanding these postulates with respect to linguistic meaning, Plato says that “thought and speech are the same; only the former, which is a silent inner conversation of the soul with itself, has been given the special name of thought” (Sophist 263E). Peirce goes one step further and says that “all thought is in signs.” Synthesizing these ideas, we can say that LANGUAGE IS THE INSTRUMENT OF THOUGHT AND OF SPEECH, both, and consists of semeiotic units––SIGNS––that are, furthermore, to be defined as THE PATTERNED COLLIGATION OF SOUND AND MEANING. The epitomical units of language, words, are units of meaning consisting of a sequence of sounds (called PHONEMES) that are associated in the minds of speakers with one or more meanings. A sign is defined, in language more particularly, as (1) anything that is capable of signifying something else (called its OBJECT) and (2) anything capable of being interpreted as signifying the particular meaning(s) intended by the speaker or language user (called its INTERPRETANT).

Philosophers have agonized from time immemorial about the nature of meaning and how to define it. When it comes to language, there is no difficulty because meaning is the object of linguistic signs, alias words. If I utter the sounds “dog” and intend by this sequence to mean the English word for “a small- to medium-sized carnivorous mammal (Canis familiaris synonym Canis lupus familiaris) of the family Canidae,” any interlocutor with a knowledge of English will know what I am referring to. Saying French chien, German Hund, Russian sobaka, or Japanese inu changes nothing as far as the object signified is concerned: they all mean ‘dog’, differing only in linguistic means of expression.

Meaning is often localized as being “in the head” of speakers, but Peirce had a much more profound idea of meaning’s locus: it is everywhere in the universe around us. From this postulate he draws the conclusion that WE ARE IN MEANING, rather than meaning being in us. Since all thought is in signs, the universe is therefore “perfused” by signs, and we are creatures so constructed by evolutionary biology to make sense of our environment and to communicate to ourselves and to our fellow humans what that sense is. Language is, to repeat, both the instrument of thought and the means by which thoughts are communicated through speech (oral and written).

For those readers of this blog who have enough French, much of what is stated apodeictically above can be discerned experientially to be in harmony with the present approach to language in the splendid, path-breaking new book by Nils B. Thelin, L’aspect, le temps et la taxis en français contemporain: Vers une sémantique de la perspective temporelle (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Studia Romanica Upsaliensia 83. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2016), to whom this post is dedicated in token of friendship and esteem.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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

April 9, 2017

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)

March 19, 2017

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

March 12, 2017

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)

February 11, 2017

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’

January 30, 2017

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)

January 2, 2017

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