American English as a Typologically Hypertrophic Language

June 25, 2017

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.


The Groves of Academe (Not Academia)

May 7, 2017

The phrase “groves of academe” has been in English since at least the eighteenth century. The OED cites it as deriving from Horace’s Odes:

groves of Academe [translating classical Latin silvās Acadēmī in Horace: see the etymology] (literary): a place of studious seclusion; the academic world, viewed as sheltered from the demands of everyday life.

In post-war America the phrase came into common use due largely to Mary McCarthy’s eponymous 1952 novel, whence the word academe as a frequent designation for the academic world or academic life. Lately, however, it is being supplanted by the hypertrophic variant academia, often mispronounced to rhyme with macadamia (as in “macadamia nuts”). This variant is on the cusp of consigning the correct form to oblivion and is even to be heard emanating from the lips of academics, who should know better.