Michael Shapiro

As readers will see, this blog is written by someone who is a professional linguist and semiotician (specialist in sign theory) with a uniquely wide range of knowledge and experience in the humanities and social sciences. Since retiring from active university service in 2005, I have devoted myself to writing of all kinds, including fiction, and to public lectures at a variety of venues in the USA and abroad. In October 2017 I will be lecturing in China on language and linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University and at Mongolia Technology University (Hohhut, Inner Mongolia).

For readers who are interested in availing themselves of my expertise and experience as a teacher and lecturer, I am available to tutor students who are preparing for various examinations (including the SAT, GRE, and LSAT) that test proficiency in the language arts. Initial contact with me can be established by e-mailing me (mms33@columbia.edu). Students wishing to get my help in preparing papers, theses, and dissertations are also welcome to contact me. I have a wealth of experience in this kind of work with students, including guidance in turning drafts of books into finished publications.

Language as Semeiotic: The Example of the Russian Verb

June 25, 2017

Recalling the singular appearance of the word hermeneutic in the title of any article published over the multi-year history of the journal Language, and relying anew on Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticism and his apothegm “My language is the sum total of myself,” a program for reorienting linguistics in the twenty-first century can be sketched, prompted by the conviction that the prevailing conception of language as rule-governed behavior tout court has driven linguistics into barren byways which are powerless to explain speech as it is manifested in nature (in the spirit of the physis versus thesis debate in Plato’s Cratylus). This sterility can be overcome by postulating as a fundamental principle the idea 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. This principle then encompasses the following five postulates: (1) language is like a piece of music or a poem––i. e., a made (aesthetic = L formosus) object, a work that unfolds in time (unlike an art work which is static), always dynamic, while remaining changeable and stable simultaneously; (2) linguistic competence can only transpire in performance, and in ensembles of performances, and is not a work; (3) the ecology of language is constituted by discourse rather than by structural relations; (4) linguistic theory is immanent in the concerted––i. e., syntagmatic––data [=performance] of language in its variety, not merely in its paradigmatic structure; (5) hence the goal of theory is the rationalized explication of linguistic variety.

For those readers of this blog who have an appetite for linguistic theory, offered below is a truncated version of the beginning of the article by Y-H-B in the journal Language (Vol. 56, No. 1 [Mar., 1980], pp. 67-93), which can be accessed in full among the PDFs listed under the links above (see ‘Russian Conjugation: Theory and Hermeneutic’).

Russian conjugation has a rather special place in the history of linguistics, quite apart from its intrinsic interest as a topic of inquiry. Thirty years ago [this article was written in 1978], Roman Jakobson published his celebrated ‘Russian conjugation’ (1948), which became the seedbed for an over-arching concept of language that  was  later known as transformational-generative grammar (cf. Birnbaum 1970:31, Halle 1977:141, Worth 1972: 80). That article was preceded by the equally important ‘Zur Struktur des russischen Verbums’ (1932), which focused on the grammatical categories of the Russian verb and analysed them in terms of markedness, while reserving treatment of morphophonemic alternations for a future  study. The latter was, indeed, executed as Jakobson (1948; and the triptych was completed by Jakobson 1957, representing an innovative synthesis of the earlier panels.

Jakobson’s application of the concept of markedness to morphology was utilized by Trubetzkoy in his path-breaking Das morphonologische System der russischen Sprache (1934), the ‘first structural description of the morphophonemic system of a contemporary literary language’ (Stankiewicz 1976:109). For all its merits, however, this short book makes no real attempt to integrate. the fine discussion of grammatical categories with the thorough analysis of morphophonemic alternations.

In short, neither Jakobson nor Trubetzkoy appears to have implemented fully the requirement of a thorough-going, unified theoretical approach to the problem of form and meaning-specifically, in an explanatory rather than a purely descriptive framework. Unfortunately, the subsequent history of structural linguistics failed to make significant advances toward the solution of this all-important problem (cf. Andersen 1975). This is true no matter how broadly or narrowly the scope of ‘structural’ is construed. Contemporary linguistic practice of all persuasions is notably characterized by a preoccupation with rule formulation-–in concord with the prevailing concept of language as rule-governed behavior, and the presumption that advances in theory are to be identified with the construction of formalisms of maximal generality and abstractness. Even when the overt aim is claimed to be the explanatory understanding of structure, the chief goal of linguistic research-–MAKING SENSE OF GRAMMAR-has never effectively been at the forefront of theoretical concern (cf. Anttila 1975, 1977a).

In the last ten years [i. e., 1968-1978], however, a concept of linguistic structure has emerged that places precisely this goal at the center of its research program. The fundamental assumption of this attitude toward structure is that LANGUAGE IS A SEMIOTIC, A SYSTEM OF SIGNS. Taking Jakobson 1949, 1965c, and 1970 as its basis, the research conducted under the aegis of this concept has striven to give practical substance to the assertion that ‘language is …  a purely semiotic system. All linguistic phenomena-–from the smallest components to entire utterances and their interchange-–act always and solely as signs’ (Jakobson [1970] 1971: 703). This emphasis largely relies on Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of signs (cf. Hardwick 1977). As one modern student of Peirce has put it, ‘The semiotical method is a kind of analytical interpretation which EXPLAINS THE SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHED COGNITION’ (Buczynska­Garewicz 1978:14; emphasis added).

My own explorations of language in a semiotic perspective (particularly 1969, 1972, 1974, 1976) are an attempt to amalgamate Peirce’s thinking about signs with neo-structuralist work in linguistics (e.g. Andersen 1972, 1973, 1974a; Anttila 1977b). Three cardinal interconnected tenets inform this perspective: (1) semiotic universals–-principles of organization-–exist which govern  the  patterning of linguistic data; (2) the patterning is COHERENT, in the sense that the genuinely structured or motivated sets of facts (the STRUCTURE sensu stricto, as distinct from the rule-governed ADSTRUCTURE) are explicable as cohesions or correlations between expression-form and content-form (cf. Hjelmslev 1954); (3) the patterning of form/meaning correlations owes its coherence to a mediating interpretative component of ‘structural cement’ that binds the facts together and allows them to subsist systematically alongside each other. This component is MARKEDNESS. Though contemporary semioticians have taken little notice of it, markedness will be seen to provide the key to the understanding of form/meaning correlations in grammar.

The cardinal question is: WHY are certain specific expressions associated with certain specific contents? Expression and content cannot be compared directly, because the structure of language is such that purely diacritic signs (the ultimate units of phonology), which possess no meaning except ‘otherness’ (Jakobson [1939] 1962: 304), are implemented to constitute content signs  (more precisely, their signantia), which do possess a substantive meaning. Language overcomes this structural disjunction by means of an intermediary component of the sign situation: the semiotic value, Peirce’s INTERPRETANT, which inheres simultaneously and uniformly in the expression-form AND the content-form. The structuralist thesis of isomorphism obtaining between all parts of grammar and lexis reposes on just this kind of concept.

The semiotic values that enable sounds and meanings to cohere in a pattern are markedness values. Just as the phonological structure is determined ultimately by the markedness relations between the sets of oppositions that comprise it, so grammatical and lexical categories organize themselves into a coherent system through oppositions of grammatical and lexical meaning informed by the evaluative dimension that is markedness. The common intermediary, semiotic value, bridges the apparent chasm between expression and content in language.

In an earlier article (Shapiro 1974), dealing primarily with anaptyxis (vowel/zero alternations) in the morphophonemics of Russian derived substantives, I pointed to a major impasse in contemporary linguistic theory brought on by the pervasive recourse to ‘deep structure’.  As is well known, this practice results in the positing of underlying forms, and the derivation of surface forms by a mechanistic application of ordered rules. Collocating the problem of morphophonemic alternation in an explicitly semiotic framework-–that of markedness––suggested the existence of certain principles of grammatical structure, and traced the means of their implementation in the Russian material. My concept of structure prompted me to substitute for the question ‘How does one get from deep to surface structure?’ the question ‘WHY are the facts of grammar as they are?’ Seeking the answer to such a radical question presupposes, naturally, the belief that ‘surface’ variations­–the actual stuff of language-do not vary unsystematically, but rather organize themselves into a semiotic, a system of signs. Surface variants are thus seen not as mere agglomerations of data to be systematized by appeal to formalisms at a putatively deeper (hence ‘truer’) level of reality, but as entering into patterned semiotic relations with each other.


American English as a Typologically Hypertrophic Language

Linguistic typology studies the various types of language structure as evidenced by human languages past and present. For instance, when it comes to the sound structure of a language, the broad general division is into two types, vocalic and consonantal languages. Accordingly, a language with a relatively large inventory of vowels (like English) is contrasted with one (like Russian) that evinces a relatively large inventory of consonants.

A language type that has not been noticed by linguists is one that can be called “hypertrophic.” More concretely, as has been explored in many posts on this blog, American English should be regarded as a hypertyrophic type for manifesting a marked tendency toward all kinds of superfluous engorgement and functionless redundancy, including pleonasm. This tendency should be classified as a species of failure of thought and rooted out wherever possible. Unfortunately, even educated speakers of Standard American English can be heard utilizing locutions that evince this typological feature. For instance, on this week’s NPR program “On the Media” the author David Daley was heard uttering the phrase “based off of” instead of the correct “based on” in a spontaneous answer to the host’s question about the American census. In analyzing this solecism, only some sense of linguistic hypertrophy accurately reflects what is at stake.


Grammar and Usage: The Abuse of the Vocative

June 21, 2017

Every language has its own rules of grammar which must be followed by native speakers as well as non-native learners. These rules have differing degrees of play or looseness/strictness, such that some rules are observed without fail by those who are speaking/writing the language correctly, and some rules are episodically or regularly bent by users.

Usage (L usus) is not tantamount to strict observance of grammatical rules. There are always more or less idiomatic ways of using any given language, and the tolerance between idiomaticity and stiltedness is largely a matter of linguistic style. Speakers typically have individual styles that reflect the tolerance that is built into usage. When this tolerance is exceeded––which is largely a matter of judgment––a given usage may become evaluated as a verbal tic.

An interesting case of ticacity is the abuse of the vocative, by which is meant the excessive insertion of the interlocutor’s name in the utterance that is being addressed to him/her. An example of this abuse can regularly be heard from the NPR social science correspondent  Shankar Vedantam (as it was today on “Morning Edition”). Mr. Vedantum, who is evidently of South Asian extraction judging by his accent (but whose English is otherwise impeccable), habitually and ticastically inserts the name of the show’s host in his responses to their questions. Different listeners may respond differently to this usage, but Y-H-B considers it an abuse of the vocative.


Degrees of Veracity of Utterances (“to be honest”)

June 9, 2017

When a speaker makes a simple declarative statement, there is an implicit assurance in both the utterer’s and the interlocutor’s minds that it is veracious. If one wishes to make the assurance linguistically explicit, one can interpolate the phrase “to be honest” (which has its counterparts in European languages besides American English). This phrase has recently risen in frequency to be almost a verbal tic with certain speakers, especially those whose speech is recorded in the broadcast media.

The reason for this tic is not hard to find. The anomie surrounding public discourse––particularly in America, but not only––includes designations such as “post-truth,” “alt-truth,” etc., which have put participants and observers on the alert to the ever-present possibility of an utterance’s factitiousness, not to speak of its falsity. In such an environment, the addition of a phrase such as “to be honest” becomes almost mandatory, if one wishes to vouchsafe the truth of any utterance. A sorry state of affairs.


Speech Styles and Their Pathological Misuse

May 23, 2017

Every language has speech styles, some typical labels for which are ‘neutral, ‘formal’, ‘colloquial’, etc. Part of one’s ability to speak (and write) correctly is the knowledge of what speech style is appropriate in what context in a given language. While norms of linguistic appropriateness may vary considerably across languages, there is no language in which a knowledge of these norms is absent in a non-pathological speaker’s command of the language.

The pathological misuse of stylistic norms in speech was demonstrated yesterday in Donald Trump’s widely broadcast comments on the suicide bombing in Manchester (England). Trump called the bomber an “evil loser.” In the sense meant by Trump,  Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines ‘loser’ as “one who is incompetent or unable to succeed.” Stylistically, especially in American English, this word has a colloquial or informal connotation, which makes it fundamentally incompatible with the adjective ‘evil’ used and meant in its strict (non-figurative) sense.

To call a suicide bomber, who killed and maimed innocent children (among his victims in Manchester yesterday), a “loser” is a pathological use of the colloquial style in American English because it makes what can only be considered a terrible murderer into someone who is merely a misfit or (incorrectly, given the attack’s success) a failure. Trump’s linguistic choice of words in this instance is––tragically––of a piece with his other pathologies.


Addendum: Lost in Translation

May 18, 2017

The platitudinous Italian apothegm, “traduttore, traditore” (‘translator, traitor’ = ‘to translate is to betray’ [the original]), applies in spades to the Russian poem in the preceding post (Constantine Shapiro, Selected Writings, 2nd, expanded ed., [Book Surge Publishing: Charleston, S. C., 2008], p. 181). One crucially distorted element of the original is the last line, the last (rhyme) word in particular, щит ‘shield’. The “shield of truth” is salient because this phrase encompasses much of the addressee’s haecceity. In the Russian, the word at stake occurs in rhyme position, whereas in the English translation it does not. The positional purport of the original poetic diction is thereby lamentably lost in translation.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 10: Mother’s Day 2017

May 14, 2017

The goal of every human being’s life is to make others happy, especially those whom we love and who love us. That is what my mother, Lydia Shapiro (1905-1983), did for her five sons every day of her life. My father, Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992), wrote a poem in 1943 addressed to her (“К Лидии» [“To Lydia”]), whose iambic lines read as follows:


Ланиты розами покрылись,
Вы пополнели, расцвели,
Вы поумнели, оперились,
Совсем как дама стали Вы.

А все ж в глазах огонь играет
И детской шалости мечты,
Годов следы с лица стирает
Волна сердечной теплоты.
Поэт Вам счастия желает,
Он жизнь спокойную сулит
Тому, в душе чьей обитает
Любовь и правды верный щит.

A loose prose translation goes like this:

To Lydia

Your cheeks have become covered with roses,
You’ve filled out, blossomed,
You’ve gotten smarter, full-fledged,
You’ve become just like a lady.

And all the same a fire plays in your eyes
And thoughts of childhood pranks,
[And] traces of the years have been removed
By a wave of cordial warmth.
The poet wishes you happiness,
He prophesies a peaceful life
To one in whose heart abide
Love and the faithful shield of truth.

The last two lines are the key to my mother’s being and essence. She and I played the entire piano/clarinet duo repertoire together when I was a child (just as Marianne and I did our whole married life together). I think of Mama every day of my life.


Idiosyncrasies in Lexica (Tea with/without Sugar in Russian)

May 12, 2017

Languages always differ to some extent in the diapason of their word stock. One language may have a name for an item of vocabulary that corresponds to real-life differences lacking in another. Such is the case, for instance, of English finger and toe to name digits on human hands and feet, respectively, which is lacking in Russian. The latter uses the word palec (палец) for both. Although the word without further specification refers to hands, when a differentiation is required a clarificatory phrase is used to designate the anatomical item, namely пальцы на руках ‘fingers’ and пальцы на ногах ‘toes’.

A unique case of lexical specificity is to be observed with a triplet of compound adverbs (preposition + verbal stem + feminine accusative desinence) in Russian that designate whether one puts the sugar in the cup/glass of tea or drinks it with the (piece of) sugar between one’s teeth. (Tea drinking is an activity Russians are traditionally very fond of.) Thus, when sugar is used in one’s tea, the appropriate phrase is внакладку (vnakládku) ‘placing in’. When the sugar is held between the teeth while drinking tea, the word is вприкуску (vprikúsku) ‘biting in’. And finally, in jocular use, when no sugar is taken at all with one’s cup of tea, the word is вприглядку (vprigljádku), which means something like ‘while eyeing [it]’. This three-way differentiation between drinking tea with or without sugar amply testifies to the wide-spread idiosyncrasies of word usage observed across languages.


The Glossary of Useful Words 12: punctilious

May 9, 2017

Sometimes Jacobus Primus (moniker of Y-H-B’s older brother Jacob [b. 1928]) comes up with a word in conversation that is eminently apposite but rarely heard these days in ordinary speech. Such is the adjective punctilious, defined by the OED as follows:

Strictly observant of or insistent on fine points of procedure, etiquette, or conduct; extremely or excessively particular or correct. Also: characterized by such scrupulous attention to detail or formality.

Here is its pedigree:

Origin: A borrowing from French, combined with English elements; modelled on a French lexical item. Etymons: punctilio, n., -ous suffix, French pontilleux.
Etymology: pointilleux (a1608; c1580 in Middle French as pontilleux). Compare Italian puntiglioso (1618)

Jacobus mentioned this word the other day (inter alia) because he can be said to embody its meaning in his own attitude and behavior. Once again, Aristotle was right when he averred that action is the overt embodiment of character. Q. E. D.


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.