In contemporary American English, with the internet and media regnant, new turns of phrase have a tendency to spread quickly if they express a basic cultural need as served by language. As noted in earlier posts here, the word “basically” has traced just such a trajectory, to the point of becoming a verbal tic in the speech of some members of the society (occasionally noted by Y-H-B in his own utterances). This was illustrated today by one of the co-hosts of NPR’s program “Morning Edition,” Steve Inskeep, who uttered the combination “basically automated.” Now, either something is “automated” or it isn’t. Hedging the meaning by inserting “basically” only changes the attitude of the speaker toward their own utterance, not the meaning sensu stricto. But this lion has raised its legs and can no longer be stopped.
Y-H-B was recently interviewed by the Director of Programming at Vermont Public Radio for the position of part-time morning host on VPR Classical. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. The successful candidate was a woman with an utterly colorless voice and standard diction. As is so often the case with such announcers on classical radio stations, however, this host is clearly not a speaker of any of the foreign languages such a person constantly encounters in announcing composers and titles of works, a knowledge of which is useful in pronouncing the composers names and the titles of their compositions correctly.
One such example of the latter deficit occurred this morning when the woman pronounced the second word in the title of Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo brillant for Piano & Orchestra in E flat major, Op. 29 as [ˈbril-yənt], exactly synonymous with the English word (but note the different spellings), despite the fact that this title is meant to be pronounced à la française, i. e. with a nasal vowel in the second syllable. Not knowing how to say this foreign item correctly is a sign of rank incompetence, equivalent to making a grammatical mistake in one’s own native language. But such is the usual pattern among almost all classical music hosts: they have no command of any language other than English, and there is no practical recourse to a remedy. Tant pis!
In the twenty-first century, what used to be rigidly distinct in the grammar of American English––namely, the morphological distinction between verbs and nouns––has loosened so that verbs can easily serve as nouns without any change in form and vice versa. Thus the noun gift has come to be used as a verb (e. g., “X gifted me with Y”), and the verb build as a noun, as in computer lingo (e. g., “Choose how you get Insider builds,” from the Microsoft update page). To a linguistic purist like Y-H-B, this completely insouciant crossing of previously impervious categorial boundaries is stylistically anathema and not to be adjudged felicitous. Hoswever, there is evidently a semantic need that is being filled by such innovations, and younger speakers use them without any qualms. O tempora, o mores!
A reporter on todays’ NPR broadcast of “Morning Edition,” in speaking about the political troubles in Spain over Catalonia, was heard pronouncing the word Catalan with two broad a’s (as in want) in the first and last syllable instead of the normative flat vowel [æ] (as in fan). The reporter (a woman) had evidently never heard this word pronounced correctly and, therefore, took it to be marked (i.e., conceptually restricted), for which the marked broad vowel occurs de rigueur in contemporary American English.
Apropos, readers of this blog are reminded that among the PDFs on the upper portion of the homepage there is the link to my article, “Broad and Flat A in Marked Words,” American Speech 72.4 (1997), 436-439, which to this day provides the definitive explanation of the phenomenon at issue.
Every contemporary language, particularly in the First World, has professional jargons with their own norms that may differ from the standard in some aspect of grammar (usually phonology). Thus in contemporary standard Russian, mariners say kompás ‘compass’ with stress on the second syllable, whereas the ordinary norm for this word is stress on the initial syllable. A New York plumber may retain the flat vowel instead of the diphthong in the stressed first syllable of the word radiator.
Listening this morning to VPR Classical, Y-H-B heard the host mispronounce the word ballade in announcing one of Chopin’s Ballades. Instead of the accepted norm for musical pieces of this genre with stress on the second syllable, this host (evidently of the younger generation) put the stress on the first syllable, as if the word were spelled ballad. This mistake was a flagrant violation. Perhaps he had never heard the word pronounced properly by someone in the know.
As is his custom, Y-H-B was sitting in his Sunday morning restaurant in Manchester Center, Vermont, “Up for Breakfast,” talking to one of the waitresses, a middle-aged woman who grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in Bennington, Vt. We were engaging in the usual early breakfast banter when the waitress (Gwen), a very nice and well-spoken lady, used the word potpourri to refer to a miscellaneous collection of implements in the restaurant. I immediately made note of this usage as a sign of higher-than-expected intelligence and silently congratulated Gwen for using this word.
While it is common for children in every country to be urged to expand their vocabulary in preparation for higher and higher schooling, in America it is not common for ordinary speakers to use high-style words like potpourri (a French borrowing) unless the context calls for their special use. In general, speech in America between people of different social classes and professions rarely goes beyond the boundaries of common vocabulary, although doctors and dentists are well-known for gratuitously engaging in special vocabulary out of habit instead of using common words to describe medical conditions.
Word choice as a stylistic matter is not merely facultative: it is always a sign of intelligence and necessarily has the effect of affecting one’s general evaluation of one’s interlocutors.
In contemporary American English, speakers are constantly asserting their good faith to their interlocutors by interpolating (or adding, or prefacing) the phrase “to be honest” as if to assure them that what they saying is valid or authentic, thereby elevating their bona fides as far as the authenticity of their utterances is concerned. However, almost without exception, there is no patent need for this phrase because the speaker’s sincerity or the accuracy of the information being conveyed is never in question.
This is yet another instance when Americans resort to utterly otiose verbal warrants in speech in order to prevent their interlocutors from so much as suspecting that what is being said fails to represents the speaker’s true thoughts. Media chatter of all kinds, because of its ubiquity and pervasiveness, only exacerbates the situation by providing a typically inauthentic model of ordinary speech.
Y-H-B turned on his radio this morning to VPR Classical (as usual) and heard Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, being played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. This is a piece I often heard as a child growing up in Tokyo and later Los Angeles, when my mother of blessed memory (1905-1983), Lydia Ita Shapiro (née Chernetzky [Лидия Абрамовна Шапиро, ур. Чернецкая], practiced it in preparation for one of her solo concerts (including Hibiya Hall in Tokyo). It was also the last piece that my beloved wife, Marianne Shapiro (1940-2003 עליה השלום), was learning before she was no longer able to sit at the piano.
When one hears music that is so close to one’s heart, there are no words to describe the emotional power of the sounds.
As instanced in these posts more than once, Y-H-B is prone to engage in silent autocommentary by repeating material from his fund of Russian lore. Today, under particularly onerous mental circumstances on a cold day in Vermont, the following two sayings/proverbs came to mind:
Не мытьем, так катаньем ‘By hook or by crook.’
Попытка не пытка, спрос не беда. ‘It can’t hurt to try.’
This paroemiac material was then mentally garnished with the following poem in prose by the great Russian writer, Ivan Turgenev:
Иван Тургенев (1818-1883)
Стихотворения в прозе: Русский язык
Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины, — ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык! Не будь тебя — как не впасть в отчаяние при виде всего, что совершается дома? Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!
[Translation: THE RUSSIAN TONGUE [Constance Garnett]
In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!
One’s thoughts do not necessarily have to be original to embody emotional force, especially in sad moments. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
When speakers of American English make grammatical mistakes like saying *play a factor (instead of be/constitute a factor) and *ask a question to (instead of ask a question of), they are relying on the analogy between similar constructions, viz. play a role and direct a question to. These two departures from normative grammar in present-day speech are frequently heard in media language and point to the arbitrariness of the traditional syntax involved.
The mistakes arise, of course, via the establishment of an implicit dominance relation between the newer (mistaken) form and the older traditional one. The postposition of in the verb phrase ask of represents a use of the postposition that is no longer felt by speakers to have the meaning of directionality, since its contemporary predominant meaning is possessive, i. e., “belonging to” and not “directed at/toward.” Similarly, the word factor has been reconstrued as being identical in meaning to role, hence to be governed by the verb play.
Analogical leveling of this sort in language change always has a structure that reposes on a reconstrual of the meaning of the constituents involved in governing their syntax.