• Category Archives: Language

Just Plain Folks

March 7, 2010

The word folks in American usage has an established stylistic value, namely that of informality or endearment vis-à-vis its neutral synonym people. Speakers in certain regions may prefer to use folks rather than people to such an extent that the former word becomes neutral in their variety of American English and the latter formal. But for most speakers of standard American English folks remains an informal counterpart to people. Whatever the regional backdrop of an individual’s idiolect, however, it is a miscarriage of the stylistic force of folks to use it with reference to malefactors, terrorists, and generally to evildoers of all stripes. Such usage, when it occurs––and is not ironic––can only be evaluated as perverse. But this perversion is also perforce a sign of the mind set of a speaker who utters the word with such a referent. To denote evildoers as folks is to extend a term of endearment to those who, far from being endearing, are incontrovertibly repellent morally.

But that is precisely what President Barack Obama does, as recorded in the following interview:

“KATIE COURIC: Have you ruled out trying confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in New York City?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have not ruled it out, but I think it’s important for us to take into account the practical, logistical issues involved. I mean, if you’ve got a city that is saying no, and a police department that’s saying no, and a mayor that’s saying no, that makes it difficult. But I think that the most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush Administration handled them all through 9/11.

They prosecuted the 190 folks in these Article III courts. Got convictions. And those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes. And it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of. Now, what I’ve also said is that, you know, it’s important for us to recognize that when we’re dealing with Al Qaeda operatives, that they may have national security intelligence that we need.

And it’s important to make sure that the processes and procedures we approach with respect to these folks are not identical to the ones that we would use if we’re apprehending the local drug dealer. And that’s why we’ve put in place some very particular ways of dealing with these issues that ensure our security, but also still uphold our due process.

KATIE COURIC: Are you talking about reading them the Miranda rights? Their Miranda rights? In other words, like Abdul Matallab, who was read his Miranda rights? A lot of people are very upset about that. Because he was giving information to the F.B.I. Then his rights were read to him, and he clammed up.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that’s actually not what happened. What happened was he clammed up, and after we had obtained actionable intelligence from him, that’s when the F.B.I. folks on the ground then read him his Miranda rights. But keep in mind, Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights five minutes after he was arrested, under the previous Administration. Some of the same critics of our approach have been employing this policy for years.”

KATIE COURIC: Chris from Falls Church, Virginia writes, “Mr. President, I lost my house two years ago and I’ve been out of work for a year. Can the Federal Government really stimulate the economy enough to start creating new jobs any time soon?” Without getting into too much policy speak, what would you say to Chris?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’d say to Chris — I know how tough it’s been. I’d say that we are seeing the corner turn on the economy growing again. Last year, at this time, the economy had contracted, had shrunk by six percent. We know now that last quarter it had grown by six percent. That’s a good sign that companies are starting to pick up hiring again, because they see the opportunities to go out there and make money.

It’s not happening as fast as we’d like. And that’s why there’s still some things we can do in terms of tax credits for small businesses. Taking some of that TARP money that’s been repaid and giving it to community banks, so that they can lend it to small businesses. Giving job credits to small businesses for hiring. Potentially, a million small businesses out there could get $5,000 for each employee they hire this year. All those things, I think, are moving us in the right direction. And my hope is, is that [note the reduplicative copula!] for folks who are unemployed, they’re gonna start seeing concrete improvement in their own lives in the next few months.” (Lynn Sweet, “Katie Couric Super Bowl Obama Interview,” Chicago Sun Times, February 7, 2010)

Given the instances highlighted above (in boldface italics), one can only adjudge President Obama’s use of the word, when referring to terrorists  and drug dealers, to be at complete variance with its ordinary stylistic value. Like all linguistic aberrations, his idiosyncratic usage must be seen as mirroring an aberrant forma mentis. This is the only interpretation one can come to in the presence of the blithe equalization of malefactors with morally neutral referents (F.B.I agents and the unemployed).


The Vocabulary of Self-Delusion

February 18, 2010

In my post of May 9, 2009, “Issues ≠ Problems,” I broached the subject of a failure of thought associated with the substitution of the words issue and challenge for problem in contemporary speech. The nub of this failure is the elision of the semantic core of the word problem when using the other two. Mathematical and related uses aside, the word problem necessarily connotes SOMETHING WRONG, implying a need for rectification. By contrast, the words issue and challenge are non-committal as to wrongness, the former properly connoting something inviting discussion, the latter connoting a difficulty to be overcome. So that by substituting the latter two words for problem, when something is patently wrong, one is effectively deluding oneself (and possibly one’s interlocutors) into thinking either (1) that no problem sensu stricto exists; or (2) that whatever is wrong can always be rectified (or both). These are typically American instances of a blithely optimistic outlook underlain by a value system that eschews analytical rigor in speech and thought.

Such self-delusion can be dangerous, particularly in the political arena. It is favored, of course, by media language, whose practitioners work hand in glove with politicians and their minders in “crafting” messages that are meant to thwart thought. It is no surprise, then, to hear President Barack Obama constantly substituting challenge for problem, as in the catachrestic phrase “solving our fiscal challenge,” which he uttered in the course of his appearance on February 17, 2010, at the White House before an audience of small-business leaders (Andrea Seabrook, “Commission Charged With Controlling Federal Deficit,” NPR, Morning Edition, February 18, 2010; also reported by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Obama and Republicans Clash Over Stimulus Bill, One Year Later” The New York Times, National Edition, February 18, 2010, p. A16). Here is another instance of the substitution in the same issue of the newspaper, this time from the pen of a marriage and family therapist writing on the Op-Ed page: “This challenge is not as great as widespread preconceptions would suggest.” [referring in the preceding sentence to the damage suffered by children when their parents divorce] (Ruth Bettelheim, “No Fault of Their Own,” p. A 21).

This usage has been adopted not only by non-Americans but by non-native speakers of English as well––no surprise, of course, seeing as how American media language has come to be the main vehicle for the transmission of English throughout the world. Thus, again in the same issue of The New York Times, an Israeli identified as the director of the Center for International Communications at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Eytan Gilboa, is quoted as saying “This country’s main challenges are the false comparison people make with an apartheid state and the questioning of its right to exist” (Ethan Bronner, “Positive Views of Israel, Brought to You by Israelis” (p. A6). No example could be more strongly illustrative of the self-delusory nature of the substitution of challenges for problems.


The Ideology of Vowel Reduction

February 7, 2010

It is not altogether uncommon among the Indo-European languages to have what is called vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, by which is meant the substitution (typically, in a polysyllabic word, but not only) of a shorter and partially displaced vowel for what would otherwise, under stress, be a so-called full vowel. This happens, for instance, in standard Russian and Bulgarian, as it does in English.

The difference between the two Slavic languages and English is that whereas vowel reduction is completely regular in the native vocabulary of the former, it is subject to much variation in the latter. Thus a word like candidate can be pronounced either with secondary stress and retention of the full vowel in the final syllable, or with no secondary stress and the pronunciation of a schwa (ə) in the ultima. The character of the stress and the character of the vowel are linked: primary stress goes with full vowels, secondary stress or unstressedness with schwa. Any secondarily stressed or unstressed syllable can contain a schwa: the a in adept, the e in synthesis, the i in decimal, the o in harmony, the u in medium, the y in syringe are all schwas.

The appearance of schwas differs somewhat as between British and American English. In standard British English, schwa regularly appears in some words where American pronunciation retains a full vowel; cf. the differential phonetics of pentagon, Amazon, businessman, and even legislature. The case of the toponym Birmingham (Alabama vs. England) is a perfect illustration. Of course, in large part the two versions of English have the same vowel in unstressed syllables, but there is a marked propensity in British speech for schwas to occur where they do not in American. This means that where American English has a reduced vowel, so will British––but not vice versa.

One of the sign functions of vowel reduction is to underscore the unity of the word, that its constituents are subordinate to the unified integrity of the word as a whole, as a gestalt. Thus when, in British but not American English, the element man in businessman loses its full vowel character in this compound, it is IN THAT MEASURE also subordinated in value to the semantic unity of the compound. This is a matter of semantic hierarchy: constituents of words are always subordinate in meaning to that of the whole word of which they are parts. Vowel reduction and concomitant absence of secondary stress are a sign, therefore, of the word’s unity, of the parts being subordinate to the whole.

The difference between British and American speech in the distribution of reduced vowels in polysyllables is not au fond a matter of mere phonetics but of mentality. By consistently reducing vowels that are unreduced in American English, British English emphasizes the value of the whole at the expense of the parts, whereas American speech tends to give equal value to the vowels of secondarily stressed syllables. This phenomenon can be interpreted as a sign––an ICON, in fact, in that word’s proper semiotic sense––of what is fundamentally an ideological difference, always necessarily historical, between the two Englishes: British English here emphasizes the superordinate historical value (unconsciously) placed by its speakers on the unity of the nation manifested linguistically, whereas American English, by giving nearly equal value to part and whole, aligns itself ideologically with its enduring history as a revolutionary product, to this day less a nation than an uneasy federation of disparate states.


Bad Guys

January 31, 2010

The phrase bad guys has been used incessantly by the media––and by ordinary speakers influenced by media language––as a handy substitute for enemy or terrorist in referring to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This can perhaps be understood as a convenient covering reference to an enemy that does not belong to traditional warfare. They wreak evil and are “bad,” but they are often not soldiers in the conventional sense, since they may not belong to a conventional army.

But the use of this phrase is semantically fraught with the wrong connotations, for the following reasons. First, guy is a colloquialism that is associated with an informal attitude to the referent that is, moreover, at least stylistically neutral if not entirely hypocoristic in contemporary English. Second, and more tellingly, the phrase derives from the world of Hollywood motion pictures, where evildoers of all sorts have always been referred to as “bad guys” in opposition to “good guys” in denominating the characterological identity of the dramatis personae of movie (and, by extension, television, etc.) plots.

There is thus a strong current of trivialization whenever the enemy and terrorists are referred to by this phrase. This colloquialization has the unintended effect of minimizing the evil wrought by them, just as it is by its frequent equivalent bad actors. Both must be expunged from public discourse because any reference to the enemy or to terrorists that even subcutaneously allows for a quasi-endearing evaluation of their status can result in a weakening of the resolve to defeat them. It is thus a failure of thought that cannot be tolerated for moral as well as rhetorical reasons.


Infantilization of Lexis

December 31, 2009

Up until a certain age American children, like children in other countries, articulate the vocables of their native language in a childish way because their linguistic abilities are commensurate with their physical development in other respects. Whereas until about forty years ago these childish speech patterns were outgrown from pre-adolescence on, it is now typical of the speech of young American women in particular to retain what used to be purely puerile traits into adulthood. This recessive infantilization of language broadly affects the vocal timbre as well as the intonation of female adult speakers, to the point where a young American woman who doesn’t sound like a superannuated child is exceptional. (Those who are familiar with female speech patterns in Japanese will immediately recognize the cross-cultural similarity to the contemporary American situation.) Whether speaking like a child into adulthood is to be reckoned an apotropaic linguistic adaptation, of a piece with other behavioral strategies calculated to forestall conflict, is an open question.

Infantilization can also affect lexis as well as phonetics. The current preference for the Lallwörter (nursery words)  “mom,” “dad,” and “kid” instead of their grownup counterparts “mother,” “father,” and “child” is clearly an example of this phenomenon. With increasing frequency, public speech (both oral and written) refers to “single mom” and “stay-at-home mom” regardless of the stylistic register of the context in which these phrases are embedded. In fact, the media routinely eschew designating parents by their stylistically neutral names. Particularly jarring is the neologism “grandkid,” connoting as it does (regardless of the age of the child) yet another instance of an American cultural tropism toward a state of permanent infantilism––here, tellingly, of both the grandchild AND the grandparent.


Linguistic Solipsism

December 18, 2009

While every language is rife with variation, some variants can only be adjudged to be the wayward product of a kind of tone deafness or linguistic solipsism, conditioned more often than not by an unconscious adherence to the orthographic representation of a word. To cite an example from my own linguistic milieu, I have a friend who consistently mispronounced the first name of another friend even though he heard me pronounce it correctly on numerous occasions. This was a case where the spelling -ai- of the Finnish name Raimo gave rise to the vowel in English rain instead of the vowel of line. Eventually, the insistence of the letter yielded to the aural dominance of the sound, and the name is now pronounced correctly.

But this sort of linguistic solipsism can also persist uncorrected regardless of numerous audible examples to the contrary and in the absence of spelling influence. A prominent case is the speech of President Barack Obama, who consistently pronounces Taliban with a flat first vowel, a palatalized liquid, and a broad final vowel, in what seems like an attempt to imitate a fancied foreign model taken to be “authentic.” Perversely, Afghanistan in his speech is rendered with uniformly flat A‘s, but Pakistan with uniformly broad A‘s.  (The latter pronunciation is doubtless an imitation of Pakistani English.) He also vacillates between pronouncing Copenhagen correctly and incorrectly, i. e., with a broad A instead of the traditional –ay– diphthong of rain––yet another instance of faux authenticity (not unknown in the speech of miscellaneous other Americans as well).

At bottom, this kind of idiosyncratic variation is a sign of linguistic insecurity. And no wonder: confronted with having publicly to render the Babel of foreign names and their variant phonetic forms in English, anyone––but especially a monolingual speaker––can easily come a cropper.


Girlized Intonation

December 17, 2009

While the near-ubiquity of interrogative intonation instead of traditional declarative intonation in subordinate clauses in the speech of young females has often been remarked, it now needs to be observed that this feature has begun spreading to the speech of young males, and not just adolescents. (It is also occasionally appropriated by not-so-young females in a pathetic effort to sound girlishly modern, as in the off-putting patois of the NPR interviewer Terry Gross.)

Although it is clear that the substitution of interrogative for declarative intonation can have the function of communicating the indecisiveness or unsureness of the speaker in making an assertion (“do  you follow me?,” “do you know what I’m saying?” also being implied), there is also a more general meaning attaching to this kind of change in intonation pattern. The deployment of the interrogative where no explicit question is being asked is tantamount to conceding in advance the rightness or force of an assertion, analogous in its purport to the typically feminine apotropaic smile that is so common in American culture. In this respect, younger males are only belatedly mimicking the self-protective tactics known to women from the beginning of time, and of increasing utility to both sexes in a milieu where predisposing or maintaining anodyne interpersonal relations is of superordinate value.


Truncated Postpositions

December 16, 2009

Contemporary American English, particularly its colloquial variant, has a tendency to delete postpositions from verbs that have traditionally required them, e.g. cave for cave in, or bail for bail out. An example of this phenomenon that is constantly heard on the radio in the responses of interviewees is thanks for having me instead of the normative thanks for having me on, doubtless influenced by the confusion attendant upon the varied meanings (with and without postpositions) of the verb to have.

It is tempting to identify all such instances of truncated postpositions with a SEMANTIC ATTENUATION of the compound verb (in comparison with the untruncated standard variant), by which is meant a meaning that falls short of the full force of the untruncated verb form by remaining noncommittal as to the completion of the action. According to this analysis, for instance, thanks for having me is aspectually incomplete or noncommittal in comparison to thanks for having me on because the omission of the postposition comports a vagueness as to what specific semantic connotation of the verb have is at stake when it is conjoined with a postposition. This analysis is akin to the one I offered of the dropping of the reflexive after the verb commit as an attenuation of the complete degree of binding or pledging designated by commit myself/oneself/themselves, etc.


The Last Straw

December 3, 2009

The growing power of linguistic hypertrophy in present-day American English (in particular) can be measured inter alia by the incorrect rendering of fixed phrases, wherein the traditional form is replaced by a longer one. This is happening to the normative version of the expression the last straw, which is increasingly heard as the final straw (for instance, in a report by my namesake Ari Shapiro on today’s installment of the NPR program “All Things Considered”).

Recently I was waiting to pick up some laundry early in the morning at a cleaning establishment in Westwood, Calif. when an elderly gentleman came in and said to me “the early bird gathers the worm.” I couldn’t restrain myself and corrected him: “You mean ‘gets’ the worm.” He said nothing and looked at me with incredulity.

Note the greater length of gathers vis-à-vis gets.


Triumph of the Ungrammatical

October 29, 2009

The rise of mass communications and the concomitant spread of literacy to previously marginalized users of a national language present a problem to language historians who have heretofore had the luxury of dismissing variation attributable to imperfect learning and outright grammatical error. That is to say, what would have been ignored as a nondatum in the past must now be taken into account, especially if it becomes a constant presence in the written language. A prominent contemporary example in American English is the reinterpretation of the plurale tantum troops––strictly a collective or mass noun in traditional usage––as a count noun permitting the back-formation of a singular, troop.

Before the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the troops referred to a mass of soldiers, and the singular troop was blocked in this meaning. But with the prominent participation of the Marines along with the Army in these wars, the media followed the participants in discriminating between soldiers and marines, necessitating the use of a word that made no reference to whether the combatants belonged to a specific branch of the armed services. Herein lies the origin of the back-formed singular troop, with its status as a countable noun allowing locutions with numerals like “The insurgents killed 5 troops,” which remain ungrammatical for those speakers who adhere to the traditional norm.