The other evening Y-H-B was perched on a bar stool in the tavern of his Vermont Stammlokal, The Dorset Inn, when the conversation with the bartender, the redoubtable Patrick Honan, turned to one’s “taking the bull by the horns,” “leaving no stone unturned,” etc., in seeking a job in the Northshires by a retired college professor (alias Y-H-B), when the Russian proverb “под лежачий камень вода не течет” swam into my head. The literal meaning of the Russian original is “water does not flow beneath a recumbent stone.” It is used paroemically to mean something like “without effort, no result will ensue.”
Now, there are a number of ways of expressing this meaning, but the point being urged here is to assert that the meaning one seeks to express always already preexists its articulation by the speaker. Once the speaker forms the intention of articulating it, this is possible only because there already exists the semiotic web in which the meaning is embedded in its most general form, so that the linguistic clothes the particular semantic content wears on any given occasion is entirely dependent on the inventory of locutions in the speaker’s wardrobe.
As has been chronicled here before, there are native speakers (and second-language learners as well) whose habitual use of language includes the (near-pathological) repetition of certain words. This was the situation Y-H-B encountered last night at a restaurant in Manchester Center, Vermont, when the co-owner who served him at the bar––an American lady in her fifties––kept repeating the word “awesome” at every turn, no matter what utterance was directed at her by her guests. Every response consisted of or necessarily included this word, whatever the content of speech.
This is clearly an extreme case of repetition, but speakers are all aware in different degree to what they are saying. Control of one’s speech varies greatly, and there are speakers (like the restaurant lady) who seem to have next to none when it comes to certain locutions uttered for emphasis and seem to be oblivious to the impression this creates on one’s interlocutors.
For readers of this blog (and there are now over 1,000/day according to Webalizer) who might appreciate some linguistic byplay from Y-H-B’s novel, here is an excerpt:
“2. Why Did I Say Devilishly And Not Fiendishly?
Why did I say devilishly and not fiendishly, or demonically or diabolically? Why tricky, not intricate or difficult? Why does Nabokov write phocine instead of seal-like? Knee-jerk predilection for the highfalutin Graeco-Roman, avoidance of the geminately hinged Germanic? Parading his command of English, reaching sideways for recondite vocabulary like the wall-eyed Harvard professor who instructs the fair-haired grad student on how to get buzzed into his aerie on Mass Ave with his aporetic “Ring the bell, I open, and you penetrate.” The Russian exiles who war with each other in their prerevolutionary idiolects but know their adopted language better than the aborigenes.”
I trust this snippet will impel some of you to delve into the entire fiction for other exempla of language used playfully.
As has been emphasized many times in earlier posts the supposed dichotomy between language and society is non-existent in two respects. For one thing, language is an entirely social phenomenon and cannot be separated from its social functions. For another, when linguistic rules make reference to social categories such as age, gender, or class, these categories are also themselves linguistic categories. They can and should be strictly distinguished from such parameters as chronological age, biological sex, or socioeconomic status, which can be defined prior to––and without regard to––the investigation of any language. What linguistic expressions index are culture-specific categories such as ‘youthfulness’, ‘femininity’, or ‘upper class’, not as defined in universal, naturalistic terms, but as conventionally encoded and understood by speakers of the language in question at the given time. Far from being “sociological factors” or “social factors bear[ing] upon linguistic features” these are in fact linguistic features. They are language-particular categories of content, indexed by linguistic elements of expression, that are selected for expression in discourse by speakers in accordance with their communicative intentions and with the same degree of freedom (and responsibility) as other categories of linguistic content. While it is a commonplace that language is totally embedded in society (linguistic facts are social facts), what is important to understand is that through the sociolinguistic categories of content indexed by linguistic expressions, the categories of a society are embedded in its language “unevenly”.
When a language changes, it is not only the strictly phonic features that undergo change. In contemporary American English, the paralinguistic features betokening emotional content have changed most radically to encompass bodily and facial movements accompanying speech that were kept to a minimum in the past. Speakers––especially women, but not only––typically use gestures of all kinds to express the emotions animating them, and these gestures extend to facial expressions such as twists of the mouth, eyebrow raising, etc. Whereas British speakers of an earlier era were particularly noted for their “stiff upper lip” as a linguistic characteristic extending beyond character traits, this is only rarely to be witnessed today, the American format having taken over in language as in so many other expressions of social values. This development in the general history of English is probably to be understood as owing its impetus to the rampant dissolution of community solidarity, which then eventuates in a greater need to exhibit one’s emotional state through the use of paralinguistic features beyond words.
English, with its overwhelmingly large vocabulary, presents problems not only for language learners but for native speakers as well. A report this morning on the BBC World Service illustrated the problem when a reporter misused the word interior instead of internal. These two words are not only close synonyms but are morphologically closely related. In speaking of the shooting in Kuala Lumpur of a Hamas operative, the reporter referred the event to “an interior matter” instead of “an internal matter” of the organization.
Such episodic mistakes, even by native speakers, are not rare, and normally the speaker making such an error immediately corrects it, typically by saying something like “I mean/meant” and supplying the correct word. Errare humanum est.
One rarely pays attention to the linguistic tokens of habitual repartee, but given the growth in the use of such items among younger speakers of American English in particular, perhaps they deserve a post on this blog.
No matter how innovative the content of what is being said, in conversation––especially between two people––there are always utterly habitual elements that are purely phatic and assure each interlocutor of the validity of what has just been uttered. Such is clearly the role ejaculations like “Fantastic!” or “Absolutely” play in conversation. A visit today by Y-H-B to his favorite lunch spot n Manhattan (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) included several exchanges between customer and waiter, in which the waiter, a young man named Zack, constantly uttered these words, meant to give tacit approval of the customer’s choice of dishes and drinks.
But one does not need the setting of a restaurant meal to be convinced that people habitually respond in conversation with linguistic items that are used solely to keep the interlocutors informed that what they are saying to each other is being evaluated––either positively or negatively––no matter what the content of their utterances.
In terms of this rather abstract characterization of meaning, the immediately preceding post can be amplified by numerous examples, and not just by paronomastic ones like “done and dusted” (British English, a phrase heard constantly on the BBC World Service, for instance). Any idiom that has arisen long enough ago to have lost any real connection with the objective context of its initial coinage will conform to the idea that meaning is arbitrary in the round. Such is the case of the phrase “hat trick,” which probably arose originally in association with the British game of cricket (although the OED Online disputes this etymology) and meant ‘taking three wickets with three consecutive deliveries’ but was then extended to other games (like hockey and soccer) to mean any combination of three gains, whence its ultimate extension to any combination of three successful actions. The meaning of ‘hat trick’ now has no connection with its etymology and must be learned by speakers in order to be used correctly in contemporary English. As with so much of the vocabulary of natural languages, this is a typical example of the arbitrariness of meaning.
There are elements of speech that are characterized as “slang” or “colloquial” and resolutely eschewed by educated speakers (like Y-H-B) but are in common use. Such is the phrase “from the get/git-go” that seems to have originated in Black English but is now uttered by American speakers regardless of race. Whatever its origins (disputed by etymologists), this phrase has an emotional force that its neutral counterpart, “from the (very) beginning/start,” lacks, owing to the paronomastic frame constituted by the conjoined words “get” and “go.” Paronomasia––here represented by the typical English case of alliteration––always accentuates the emotive content of whatever is being uttered by foregrounding the playful function of language at the expense of the purely referential. The paronomastic duple “get-go” is the emphatic means equivalent to the single word “very” in its neutral counterpart. Meaning achieved by indirection (the core of linguistic ontogeny) always has a power that its direct semantic counterpart lacks.
To continue one sub-genre among these posts, whose motto might be, “Linguista sum: linguistici nihil a me alienum puto” (echoing the late but unlamented Roman Jakobson’s paraphrase of Terence; vide Y-H-B’s article, “Roman Jakobson in Retrospect: Unvarnished Remembrances of a Stiff-Necked Student,” Chinese Semiotic Studies, 14 , 41-56), my waiter at one of my Stammlokale (a young man in his twenties, and irrefragably a native speaker of American English) uttered the words “awesome,” when first taking my order, and “fantastic,” when I ordered a double espresso at the end. The communicative function of these two words was clearly and exclusively PHATIC,i. e., linguistic tokens meant purely as acknowledgments of my utterances in continuance of the act of communication––and, nota bene, utterly divorced from the meaning of their stems, viz. “awe” and “fantasy.” Needless to say, young speakers nowadays use these phatic words constantly and habitually without any intention of alluding to their literal meaning.
This account of one limited aspect of a miscellaneous prandial exchange is worth rehearsing in the service of asserting (yet again) 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.
In today’s broadcast of the NPR program, “Marketplace Morning Report,” the host David Brancaccio (a native English speaker with exemplary vocal timbre, diction, and stylistic acumen), used the phrase “like a thief in the night,” with the contemporary meaning ‘secretly or unexpectedly and without being seen’, which anyone with a smattering of biblical knowledge would recognize as coming from the New Testament. The exact locus is 1 Thessalonians 5, to wit: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” In all English versions of this passage, including the King James, the relevant phrase is in perfectly contemporary language.
By contrast, the contemporary Russian phrase maintains an archaic (Church Slavonic) wording throughout: “яко (or как) тать в нощи» (transliterated: “iako tat’ v noshchi”). The meaning and usage remain the same as in English, but stylistically the force of the phrase has gravitas because of the archaisms, which the English lacks. Any Russian speaker uttering the phrase will automatically associate it with something ancient––hence, weightier––than will an English speaker using the same idiom, irrespective of any knowledge of the phrase’s origin.