• Category Archives: Language

The Alogical Effacement of Meaning

December 5, 2017

The meaning of words is rarely stable throughout the history of a language, and English is no exception, witness the current change in the government of the verb to center, which has traditionally been used with the postposition on but is increasingly heard with around instead, especially in media speech.
Why is this occurring? The most straightforward explanation involves the effacement the core meaning of center in its verbal hypostasis. Speakers evidently no longer understand that the conceptual semantic integrity of center excludes the notion of “periphery” and is univocally bound up with the logical quiddity of the word. In other words, the postposition around is coming into use with the verb center because there has been an oblivion of the core meaning and a shift toward the erroneous meaning “association with.” This change-in-progress of contemporary American English speech has to be seen for what it is, viz. one of the many FAILURES OF THOUGHT confronted here in earlier posts.


“Patently Incorrect:” The Interplay of Grammar, Norm, and Habit in Speech

November 17, 2017

Last night Y-H-B was sitting in the audience of a classical music concert (four Brandenburg Concertos by Bach) when he overheard a man behind him (who looked to be in his sixties or seventies) say to a companion the phrase “patently incorrect.” What was significant about this utterance was the fact that he pronounced the first word in the British manner, i. e., [péɪtntli], with the stressed vowel of pate, not pat, as would be the case for the American pronunciation of patent. The British pronunciation has long been recommended by American dictionaries as the correct form for the meaning of patent, as defined in the OED Online as ‘Of a fact, quality, phenomenon, etc.: clear, evident, obvious’; cf. the Merriam-Webster Unabridged definition ‘readily visible or intelligible: evident, obvious’.

Now, it is true that contemporary American dictionaries qualify the pronunciation exhibited by my fellow concert-goer (an American, judging by his speech) as “Chiefly British,” whereas fifty years ago this form of the vowel would be the sole one codified for this meaning (as in “patently incorrect”). This whole matter brings up the interplay of grammar, norm, and habit in any living language. What is grammatically possible is always constrained at any stage of the language’s history by usage, dictated in the modern period (from the Enlightenment on in Europe and America) by academies and various other norm-setters. Norms are set not only by institutions but by speakers who adhere to them and thereby propagate a certain usage, especially where (what used to be called “free”) variation is possible. The prestige accruing to speakers by virtue of their status in society necessarily also enhances the prestige of their speech, such that learners and other speakers will adopt variants heard in the speech of such prestigious persons. This process over time results in speech habits, which are just like the whole ensemble of behavioral traits that define us as human beings in constituting (letzten Endes) part of the stylistic repertory that reaffirms the conception of style as a fundamentally cognitive category.


Teleology, Markedness, and Linguistic Change (Strong Verb Ablaut)

October 22, 2017

Markedness values are asymmetric. The value MARKED means relative narrowness of conceptual scope, whereas its counterpart UNMARKED means relative breadth of conceptual scope. These basic definitions are aligned respectively with greater and lesser complexity. When languages change, there is a general tendency to change from the more complex value (= marked) to the corresponding less complex value (= unmarked).

This teleology can explain the tendency in contemporary American English speech (and in American dialects) to collapse the three ablaut vowels of strong verb conjugation, as in sink/sank/sunk, drink/drank/drunk, etc. such that the simple past vowel is eliminated and replaced by the vowel of the past passive participle. Thus one constantly hears speakers saying things like “Honey, I shrunk [instead of the correct shrank] the dog,” etc.

The markedness values of the vowels involved underwrite this change in grammar. The [ae] of the simple past is marked, whereas the schwa [ə] of the past participle is unmarked, and thus the teleology is unmistakably from marked to unmarked, which corresponds to the empirical facts.


Stress Retraction and the Principle of Marked Beginnings

October 13, 2017

Contemporary American English has a peculiar device at its disposal for expressing emphasis, whereby the stress is retracted onto a preposition in a prepositional phrase, as in the following statement and response: “You need to tell him to dó it.” “Tó do it isn’t so easy.” The stressed preposition can only be explained as an implementation of the PRINCIPLE OF MARKED BEGINNINGS, which was first enunciated by Y-H-B as applying to metric structure in an article on verse theory (“The Meaning of Meter,” Russian Verse Theory [UCLA Slavic Studies, 18], ed. B. Scherr and D. S. Worth, 331-349. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989; revised version in Michael and Marianne Shapiro, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language, 2nd, expanded ed., 259-77. Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2009).

In a larger semiotic context going beyond verse and even language, beginnings, middles, and ends always have a value such that beginnings are marked, ends less marked by comparison––but still marked––and middles unmarked. These markedness values need to be taken into account whenever there is a stretch of semiotic space that has this fundamental tripartite structure.


The Second Amendment Revisited (Anent the Recent Events in Las Vegas)

October 5, 2017

The terrible atrocity and loss of life in Las Vegas last Sunday night have brought the Second Amendment into public view yet again, with some persons calling for its repeal. In that connection, Y-H-B wishes to repeat verbatim his post of December 24, 2012, to remind readers of the Second Amendment’s correct interpretation, the Supreme Court and its originalist faction notwithstanding. Here it is:

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun owners assert a right to own and use firearms on the basis of the main clause of the amendment. In the so-called Heller case, the United States Supreme Court has sustained their right, ignoring in 2007 the well-reasoned amicus brief filed by professional linguists that argued that the grammar of the amendment does not allow such an interpretation. Here is a summary (from Dennis Baron, “Guns and Grammar: the Linguistics of the Second Amendment” (www.english.illinois.edu/-people/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf):

“In our amicus brief in the Heller case we attempted to demonstrate,
• that the Second Amendment must be read in its entirety, and that its initial absolute functions as a subordinate adverbial that establishes a cause-and-effect connection with the amendment’s main clause;
• that the vast preponderance of examples show that the phrase bear arms refers specifically to carrying weapons in the context of a well-regulated militia;
• that the word militia itself refers to a federally-authorized, collective fighting force, drawn only from the subgroup of citizens eligible for service in such a body;
• and that as the linguistic evidence makes clear, the militia clause is inextricably bound to the right to bear arms clause.
     18th-century readers, grammarians, and lexicographers understood the Second Amendment in this way, and it is how linguists have understood it as well.”

What is paramount in the correct interpretation is something Baron et al. do not discuss, namely the order of the two clauses. The participial first clause, even in 18th-century English, could just as well have been placed second, in a familiar pattern that can be seen, for instance, in a sentence like: “There will be no swimming today at the recreation center, the pool being closed on Mondays.” Clearly, there is a cause-and-effect relation between the fact of no swimming and the particular day of the week, regardless of the placement of the two clauses vis-à-vis each other, but what is at stake here is a form of grammatical government that is best captured by their ORDER, which is to say their HIERARCHICAL relationship. The first clause occurs where it does because the writer/utterer deems it to be MORE IMPORTANT than the second clause.
The same obtains in the element order of the Second Amendment. The word militia of the first clause governs––is hierarchically superordinate to––the phrase the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The framers of the Constitution had the grammatical option to invert the two clauses but did not. The element order speaks for itself, rendering militia the pragmatistic scope (i. e., in the Peircean sense of the philosophical doctrine of pragmatism) under which right to keep and bear arms is restricted.


Is Intonation Iconic? The Question Refined

September 21, 2017

In an earlier post, “Yiddishized Enumerative Intonation” (November 6, 201), Y-H-B raised the question regarding a peculiar intonational pattern in contemporary American English involving items in an enumerative series. Since this pattern in the intervening seven years has become almost pervasive, particularly in female speech, one needs to examine it in semiotic terms, whether there is something iconic about it sensu stricto, i. e., similarity between sign and meaning). The rises and falls that accompany enumeration in a series (typically, consisting of more than two items) are significant because the rise is the physical manifestation of what is meant in locutions like “to raise a question” and is the linguistic analogue of what is meant by OSTENSION, i. e., the “display” of some content for examination or consideration.
This enumerative intonation is exactly what all languages also display in interrogative intonation. When one asks a question, one is linguistically offering a content for consideration without the certainty of a statement. The use of the verb “to raise” with the direct object “question” in many languages (including Y-H-B’s “native languages, Russian Japanese, and English) shows that the idea of the action associated with querying is metaphorized such that the trope is an index of the iconic relation between the linguistic means (rise of pitch) and the discourse meaning. This answers the question posed in the title hereinabove affirmatively.


Done and Dusted: Paronomasia as a Form of Emphasis

September 18, 2017

Languages have a variety of means to express emphasis, including repetition, lengthening of vowels, raising and lowering of normal pitch, pleonasm (and other species of hypertrophy), etc. In English the typical alliterative phrase one finds in paronomastic constructions (e.g., “through thick and thin”) is particularly effective because it utilizes the poetic principle of similarity amid difference to seal the semantic bargain. “Done and dusted” is to be heard in British English but has yet to attach itself to cis-Atlantic speech. It’s just a matter of time.


For the Nonce: Spontaneous Neologisms in Speech

August 31, 2017

Y-H-B was waiting for his gazpacho to appear as the start of a noon meal at one of his favorite Manhattan restaurants (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) when instead of the waitress one of the owners appeared bearing the soup––an unprecedented event in Y-H-B’s experience––which elicited my comment: “Are you short-staffed today?” To which the man (looking to be in his sixties or seventies) retorted: “No, we’re undercustomered,” a complete nonce word (spontaneous neologism) that he’d conjured up on the spot (the restaurant was empty except for me).

All languages have considerable room for word play of this sort, especially languages like English with a rich derivational morphology. The use to which speakers put this capacity is very much a matter of individual linguistic skills and predilections. Upon hearing undercustomered, Y-H-B made a mental note of it and silently complimented the owner-turned-waiter on his linguistic sprezzatura.


Syntactic Change Is Always Semantic Change: A Case in Progress

August 20, 2017

When rules of grammar change, meaning is always involved, whatever the formal effects of the change. This is illustrated concisely by the current expansion of the syntactic government of the past participial form of the verb base, i. e., based, in both American and British English, whereby the traditionally normative phrase “based on” is being replaced and or augmented by the variant “based around” (and even “based off of”), as heard increasingly in media language on both sides of the Atlantic.

This change is semantic as well as syntactic because it can be analyzed as an attenuation of the meaning of the complement on, which is what results when the complement changes to based around. The conceptual core of on is weakened to indicate only something circumferential (as it were) rather than solidly central. Speakers who have shifted to using based around mean something different, therefore, from those who adhere to the traditional norm.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 12: Words with Private Meanings

August 15, 2017

As has been noted several times in earlier posts, particular words may have private meanings for speakers while remaining vocabulary items of natural languages, not fabricated items in ad hoc or artificial languages (like Esperanto or those spoken by characters in theatrical or cinematic productions). Especially memorable for individual speakers may be names by which people refer to each other, such as pet names from early childhood or those exchanged by members of one’s immediate family. But nomina propria are not the only category of words that may carry a private meaning.

It is accordingly a reminiscence from childhood that has prompted this post. Driving from Manchester to Bennington (cities lying near one another in the state of Vermont), Y-H-B happened to turn on the classical radio station of Vermont Public Radio and heard the piano music his mother, Lydia Shapiro (1905-1983), often practiced at home and played in her concerts. It was Liszt’s “Au bord d’une source [Beside a Spring],” an especially powerful and beautiful exemplar of the composer’s consummate mastery of the lyric genre. But it was when the announcer identified the piece after the performance had concluded that the (utterly mundane) words of the French title exerted an especially powerful emotional effect on the listener, moving him to tears. They had brought back to mind, from many years of repetition in the distant past, the flawless French in which they had been uttered by the pianist whose playing of Liszt’s music had lain deeply embedded in her son’s psyche for all time.