Leveling Out the Ablaut Pattern in Strong Verbs

November 15, 2010

In the recent history of English, there is a tendency to simplify the three-vowel alternation pattern in strong verbs with post-vocalic root nasals like begin, drink, ring, run, shrink, sing, sink, spring, stink, swim, such that the u-vowel of the past passive participle replaces the a-vowel of the preterit, especially in non-standard or colloquial speech. Here, for instance, is a contemporary example from the online edition of The New York Times:

“And although Mr. Rangel was not present, his booming voice still rung [instead of rang; emphasis added] through the hearing room as the committee lawyers played videos of him admitting to several of the charges during an impromptu speech he made on the House floor this summer, pleading for mercy from his colleagues.” (David Kocieniewski, “House Panel Says Facts in Rangel Case Are Undisputed,” November 15, 2010).

This process has already become normative in cling, fling, sling, slink, spin, sting, string, swing, and wring.

The directionality of the change should be noted: it is invariably the u-vowel of the past passive participle that replaces the a-vowel of the preterit, and never the other way around. Why? Because the /æ/ of rang, shrank, etc. is a marked vowel (marked for  the feature of compactness), whereas the /ʌ/of rung, shrunk (cf. the 1989 movie title “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”), etc. is an unmarked vowel (unmarked for the feature of compactness). The overarching tendency in language, whether in phonology or any other component of grammar, is for the marked unit to be replaced by its unmarked counterpart in a paradigm. The leveling of the ablaut pattern in English strong verbs conforms to just this tendency.


[Postscriptum, June 14, 2011: The degree to which the process of ablaut leveling has advanced in American English can be gauged by an example appearing on today’s Op-Ed page of The New York Times and written (nota bene) by someone identified as a professor of American studies and English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York: “Unfortunately, these themes were lost in many of the stage versions . . . that sprung from its immense popularity.” (David S. Reynolds, “Rescuing The Real Uncle Tom,” New England Edition, p. A21)

Yiddishized Enumerative Intonation

November 6, 2010

American English intonation (unlike British English) is not characterized by steep rises and falls. However, there is one case where a rise is followed by a significant fall, and that is in enumerations, e.g., “Moishe wants the jump suit, the aviator glasses, the parachute all to be the best.” The intonation curve of all three enumerated objects first rises and then markedly falls. This is an entirely un-Anglo-Saxon pattern, but it can be heard increasingly often emanating from the mouths of decidedly gentile speakers utterly oblivious of the intonation’s origin. It owes its existence to Yiddish (ultimately from Slavic, namely Russian) and can be added to lexical importations (meshugge, shlep, mamzer, etc.) that have been registered by normative dictionaries as borrowed from Yiddish and now belonging to the stock of English vocabulary. This we needed like a lokh n kop!


Ingratiation by Englessness

November 5, 2010

English has three nasal consonants, /n/, /m/, and /ŋ/. The last is a velar nasal and is called “eng” by phoneticians, pronounced just the way it’s written, i. e., [ɛŋ], as in the first syllable of Engels. This is the sound that appears in participles/gerunds written with the suffix {-ing}, as in going, happening, etc.

In many English dialects on both sides of the Atlantic, the eng is replaced by the dental nasal {-n], which is typically rendered orthographically with an apostrophe after the n, signifying the missing velarity of the norm. This phenomenon is referred to as “dropping one’s g‘s.” Historically, this pronunciation is of some antiquity and was the older norm in England for all stylistic registers. After around the turn of the twentieth century, doubtless under the influence of the spread of literacy, standard English began to adhere to the form with eng where dialects maintained the simple nasal. In American English there are many regions (like the American South) where speakers who adhere to the norm in every other respect have a dental rather than a velar nasal in participles and gerunds.

Many speakers  can switch between the norm and a regional version when they wish to maintain a colloquial stylistic register, as in informal speech. For purposes of public speaking, as by politicians and others who need to ingratiate themselves with their audiences, the eng is typically simplified to an n. This gives utterances a colloquial flavor.

One speaker who regularly does this kind of intra-code switching is Barack Obama. In his public appearances he can be heard laying on the englessness as a means of staying in a colloquial mode, the better to ingratiate himself with audiences he must reckon to be composed largely of speakers who need to be catered to linguistically as well as in other respects. Tant pis!


Passage Out of Passivity

October 28, 2010

English has a long history of changing a verb that starts out life as exclusively transitive into a concomitant intransitive (stative) variant without any alteration in form (i. e., no suffixation), just a change in category. In recent times this development has affected verbs like launch, ship, and even complete. Instead of sentences like “The package was shipped yesterday” we now habitually get “The package shipped yesterday.” Similarly, rather than “A rocket was launched at the Kennedy Space Center,” we now hear and read “A rocket launched this morning at the Kennedy Space Center.” (Incidentally, then, the subsequent creation of a deverbal substantive launch (instead of launching)––a postwar neologism––is but a predictable and understandable progression.

One could explain this drift away from the construction with the past passive participle as a concession to compactness of expression, but there is a more potent explanation close to hand. Despite remaining the topic notionally, the subject in a passivization always experiences a hierarchical devaluation in meaning vis-à-vis its unpassivized counterpart, i.e. with an active (transitive) verb. So the status of the subject in “the rocket launched . . .” is necessarily of higher value semantically than in “the rocket was launched . . .” Shifting the passivized subject out of this secondary status by changing the verb from transitive to intransitive thus upgrades its meaning as the focus of the sentence.


The Reality Is

September 21, 2010

The phrase increasingly heard introducing utterances emanating from the mouths of American speakers of English (but not only), the reality is, typically followed by the reduplicative copula is + that––i. e., the reality is is that––can only be adjudged a hypertrophic way of saying what could easily be said more succinctly by using the word actually.

This particularly odious case of hypertrophy is of a piece with all such instances––especially of pleonasm proper––that are inundating American English. One could perhaps provide some weak justification by assessing it as a form of emphasis, where the substantive reality gives the phrase some modicum of substance missing from the adverb actually, but rarely is any emphasis intended by the speaker or demanded by the context. Stylistically, the reality is can be chalked up to the inbred prolixity of speakers used to passing off hyperurbanisms as if they were the coin of the realm instead of the counterfeit that they are.


Continuity, Markedness, and the Jakobsonian Mode

June 30, 2010

The idea of continuity, or unbrokenness, which is the leading idea of the differential calculus and of all the useful branches of mathematics, plays a very great––if covert––part in all scientific thought, not least in linguistic theorizing. Mathematics, despite its fundamental allegiance to purity and the ideal, is also an observational, experimental science of diagrammatic thought. When language is viewed as a patterned system of cognized relations, the method of investigating the pattern comes close in spirit to mathematical reasoning. This is particularly true when the relations are understood to be points on a continuum, similar to the “cuts” a topological analysis would identify in the mathematics of spatial relations. Linguistic oppositions are analogous to such “cuts” because they are simultaneously discrete and mutually contingent points along the form/content continuum that informs all language structure. Such points, when cumulated, are equivalent to the inventory of linguistic categories in any natural language. While oppositions are based on the idea of mutual exclusivity, in language (as distinct from logic) they are to be understood fundamentally as reintegrated in language use and language history by their inherence in a continuum where gradience or contrast subsists alongside polarity.

Markedness is a formal universal, a property of all oppositions in language, which superimposes a value system on the network of oppositions in language. Markedness theory investigates the interaction between the form and the substance of linguistic oppositions, and it is this dual focus that binds the theory to the idea of continuity in the mathematical sense.

A “topological” approach to language structure inspired by Jakobson’s articulation of the affinities between mathematical reasoning and the conceptualization of grammatical relations––by the language user as well as the language analyst––is embedded in the framework of a linguistic theory that takes the form of meaning, i.e., markedness, to be the key to the understanding of language structure.

All contemporary linguistic theorizing is structural in the sense of this conception of language as a system of patterned relations. This means that whether they acknowledge their debt to Jakobson explicitly––as Chomsky and Halle did by dedicating their Sound Pattern of English to their teacher––or work unwittingly in the paradigm established for all subsequent investigations of language structure by Jakobson’s seminal “Russian Conjugation” essay (1948), all contemporary practitioners of mainstream linguistics are essentially working in the Jakobsonian mode.


Obama and Bush: A Shared Departure from the Linguistic Norm

June 28, 2010

As different as their linguistic backgrounds are, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush share one phonetic trait (at least) that is a non-standard (dialectal) feature of American English, namely the “de-voicing” of obstruents after sonorants in final position. This happens most frequently in the case of the desinence {-s} of the possessive and the plural; hence in their speech what in standard English is [–z] comes out as [-s]. The final sound in doors, bills, moons, rooms, where a liquid or a nasal consonant is followed by what would be pronounced [-z], is rendered by them both as [-s]. If the more expansive definition of sonorant is used to include vowels as well, then for Messrs. Obama and Bush one can observe the same “devoicing” after stem-final vowels, except that it is not as sustained as in position after consonants.

How to explain this phonetic departure from the norm in speakers who in (most) other respects, albeit in varying degree, speak Standard American English? Is it a willful distortion? an instance of imperfect learning? a spelling pronunciation? No, it is none of these.

In order to understand this trait, we must first disabuse ourselves of the conventional definition of the sound at issue as “devoiced,” i. e., the “voiceless” counterpart of “voiced” /z/. From the strictly phonetic point of view, English [s] is indeed voiceless, and [z] voiced, hence the seeming aptness of the designation of the process observed in the two presidents’ speech as a “devoicing.” Traditionally, these obstruents are classified as, respectively, tenuis and media (pl. tenues/mediae). In the languages of Europe, this phonetic distinction translates into the phonological opposition between either the protensity feature (tense vs. lax) or the sonority feature (voiceless vs. voiced). In a language like French, for instance, the paired series of obstruents s/z. p/b, t/d, k/g, etc. are all opposed by the feature tense vs. lax, whereas in Russian they are opposed by the feature  voiceless vs. voiced. These features are phonologically distinctive in these two languages. However, from the phonetic point of view, they typically go together in the physical realization of the sounds at issue, such that while the French /s/, for instance, is phonologically tense, it is also phonetically (non-distinctively, redundantly) voiceless (the vocal bands do not vibrate in its production); conversely, its counterpart /z/ differs from it phonologically by being lax but is phonetically (non-distinctively, redundantly) voiced (the vocal bands do vibrate in its production). In Russian, the same phonetic parallelism holds despite the difference in phonological values: Russian distinctively voiceless obstruents are redundantly tense, their voiced counterparts redundantly lax.

Unfortunately, descriptions of English have persisted in misidentifying which of these conjugate designations are distinctive, which redundant. All those phonetic traits that typically obtain in the realization of the media (“voiced”) members of the obstruent series in a language like French (or German or Serbo-Croatian, for that matter)––delayed onset of voicing, incomplete voicing, etc.––also pertain to English. But hierarchically these phonetic data are ancillary to the understanding of which feature is distinctive, which non-distinctive. The surest diagnostic in all such cases is not the phonetic realization per se but the manifestation of the two values of the phonological opposition in mutually exclusive contexts––otherwise known as positions of neutralization. Typically, in positions of neutralization, it is the so-called unmarked member that appears to the exclusion of its marked counterpart. Thus, in Russian, in final position before a pause the distinction obtaining elsewhere between voiced and voiceless obstruents is suspended, and it is the unmarked voiceless member that appears; hence rod [rot], xleb [xl’ep], voz [vos], etc.

The phonetic implementation of the opposition is not just a physical event: it is a sign of the relational values that define the opposition. That is the function of neutralization: it implements in sign-theoretic terms the values that define the phonological structure as a system. Without this sign function of the phonetic implementation, the phonology of a language would be neither a structure nor systematic––and would be neither learnable nor perptetuable. The sign function is the raison d’être of the phonetic implementation. Pace all the standard handbooks, it has nothing to do with such purely physical (phonetic) considerations as “economy of effort” or “assimilation.”

The interesting thing about neutralization is that while it is typically manifested without exception, this is the case only when the conditions of its manifestation are either positional or make reference to distinctive rather than redundant features. In the case at hand, Messrs. Obama and Bush’s trait of “devoicing” final desinences after liquids and nasals, what we have is a kind of neutralization that also has a sign function, but a slightly different one from straightforward neutralizations in which the unmarked term appears to the exclusion of the marked term of the opposition. The fact that voicing is non-distinctive in English liquids and nasals––while being normally voiced but positionally also voiceless, these sonorants cannot be opposed by the feature voiced vs. voiceless (unlike, say, Burmese)––is something that the phonology of English manifests sequentially as a sign-theoretic fact by allowing, as a matter of idiolectal variation, for either the “voiced” (i. e.,  lax/media) value [z] of the norm to appear after them; or, as in the speech of Messrs. Obama and Bush, the non-normative [s]. Here the typical result of neutralization––the appearance of the unmarked member, which would be the phonetic realization of /z/, alias [z] in English––does not obtain in non-normative speech precisely because the neutralization makes reference to a phonetic position (initial, medial, final), not to a sequential phonetic context.

Messrs. Obama and Bush’s departure from the norm follows as a matter of course, once we understand that the very indifference to a tense or lax realization of {s] as the possessive/plural desinence in English is wholly coherent with the semiotic nature of the phonetic realization, which is to signify the non-distinctiveness of protensity in sonorants.


Sprig of Palestine

June 25, 2010

I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and happened to look up to see a very tall palm tree. For some reason, just at that moment, I was reminded of Lermontov’s 1837 poem “Sprig of Palestine” (R Ветка Палестины), which I had once memorized but now only remembered fragments of. This triggered the memory of why my family had chosen Los Angeles to move to from Japan when we immigrated in 1952. My father had seen a photo of a palm tree on a postcard from L. A. and decided while we were still living in Tokyo that our new home in America would be the City of the Angels.

Here is Lermontov’s poem:

Скажи мне, ветка Палестины:
Где ты росла, где ты цвела,
Каких холмов, какой долины
Ты украшением была?

У вод ли чистых Иордана
Востока луч тебя ласкал,
Ночной ли ветр в горах Ливана
Тебя сердито колыхал?

Молитву ль тихую читали,
Иль пели песни старины,
Когда листы твои сплетали
Солима бедные сыны?

И пальма та жива ль поныне?
Все так же ль манит в летний зной
Она прохожего в пустыне
Широколиственной главой?

Или в разлуке безотрадной
Она увяла, как и ты,
И дольний прах ложится жадно
На пожелтевшие листы?..

Поведай: набожной рукою
Кто в этот край тебя занес?
Грустил он часто над тобою?
Хранишь ты след горючих слез?

Иль, божьей рати лучший воин,
Он был с безоблачным челом,
Как ты, всегда небес достоин
Перед людьми и божеством?..

Заботой тайною хранима
Перед иконой золотой,
Стоишь ты, ветвь Ерусалима,
Святыни верный часовой!

Прозрачный сумрак, луч лампады,
Кивот и крест, символ святой…
Все полно мира и отрады
Вокруг тебя и над тобой.

Those who have no Russian will, unfortunately, not be able to appreciate the beauty and consummate skill of this poem. (Alas, there exists no decent translation into English.) Suffice it to say that this chef d’oevre was composed at one sitting on 20 February 1837 (O. S.) when Lermontov came to visit his friend the writer A. N. Murav’ev at the latter’s apartment but found him absent. Murav’ev (to whom the poem is dedicated in the original manuscript copy) relates in his memoirs that Lermontov had “long been waiting for my return and wrote his wonderful verses, which at a sudden inspiration burst out of him (R у него исторглись) in my icon room (R в моей образной) at the sight of the Palestinian palms which I had brought from the East” (A. N. Murav’ev, Znakomstvo s russkimi poètami [Kiev, 1871], p. 24).

I remembered the last stanza in particular, with its archaic stress on the word for symbol in the second line (R симвóл святой ‘sacred symbol’). The linguist and poetic analyst will immediately understand when I say that it is precisely this archaic stress (where modern Russian has initial stress) which gives the entire poem a special flavor by punctuating its religiosity.


Sound over Sense and the Iconic Impulse

May 29, 2010

In recent years the old phrase to make a long story short has undergone a shortening of its own: “long story short.” This distorted version of the original can be heard from the mouths of younger speakers (in their 20s and 30s). Here is an explanation of the change.

First, the new form has a metric pattern that demonstrates the typical triumph of sound over sense, in that it is now cast in dactylic meter, i.e., a ternary meter with stress on the first syllable. The new phrase has four syllables, wherein the main stress falls on the first of the initial three (“lóng story”) followed by the single stressed syllable (“short”) of a truncated second dactyl.

Second, the new version makes a covert iconic citation of the meaning of the older one, to wit: long story short is the result of applying the sense of to make a long story short to itself. Q. E. D.


Adjectival Stress on the Wrong Sylláble

March 14, 2010

Word stress in English can fall on any syllable but is typically circumscribed when the word is derived, as in the case of adjectives derived from substantives (nouns). As in all derived entities throughout grammar and culture, derived adjectives are subordinate in rank (hierarchical value) relative to the substantives from which they are derived. Moreover, where adjectives are formed by the addition of a suffix to the nominal base, their subordinate status can be expressed by a different place of stress in comparison with the deriving noun. Adjectival suffixes that displace the stress in this way are called “auto-” and “pre-stressed,” the first type pulling the stress onto itself (Japán > Japanése, grótto> grotésque), the second onto the penult or antepenult (ádjective > adjectíval, geriátric > geriatrícian, évidence > evidéntiary, Eúrope > Européan, Terpsíchore > Terpsichoréan, Hércules > Hercúléan [stress doublet = both stresses are extant]). Some suffixes occasion such stress shifts obligatorily; others do so facultatively, depending on the nature of the vowel (conventionally termed “strong” vs. “weak”), for instance súicide > suicídal, mícroscope > microscópic, but máyor > máyoral, eléctor > eléctoral, dóctor > dóctoral, pástor > pástoral, Chíle > Chílean, Ghána > Ghánaian.

The last set of examples is significant in that one often hears these words mispronounced in contemporary American (and, to a certain extent, British) speech, specifically with stress on the penult, thus non-standard mayóral, etc.; and Ghanáian, Chiléian (the spelling is irrelevant). For all three of these particular items, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary cite both pronunciations as equivalent while listing the traditional one first. It is clear historically that the newer stress is the one on the penult, which raises (NOT “begs” !) the question, why the shift?

The answer has nothing to do with the phonetic characteristics and everything to do with the semiotic characteristics of these words. In order to make sense of the shift, one must recognize the fact that prosody in languages like English––the (suprasegmental) placement of stress––has a SIGN FUNCTION, and that this function is coordinated with the function of suffixation. Specifically, where derivational morphology is concerned, as the derivative comes into more widespread use it tends to assert its independence formally and semantically from the deriving base. This process gathers strength if and when the derivative all but loses a synchronic connection with the deriving base, as is the case of pastor > pastoral, where the meaning of the latter refers to a literary genre and not an agricultural or ecclesiastical context (although the latter contexts may ultimately come under the sway of the more frequent reference, thereby shifting the stress to the penult for all meanings). Cf. áncestor > ancéstral, sépulchre > sepúlchral. Semiotically, what obtains in the interplay between prosody (stress) and segmental structure (derivation via suffixation) is a teleological tendency to align the prosodic markedness value of the deriving base with that of the derived form. Any derived form whose constituent structure is transparent, i. e. where the semantic link between base and derivative has been preserved, is evaluated semiotically as marked by definition. Thus in the case of the adjectives at issue, their derived status and hence their marked value tends to occasion the emergence of a form of the deriving base (here: a noun) that is likewise marked vis-à-vis the unmarked value of the noun. A shift of stress away from the syllable stressed in the noun onto another of its syllables closer to the end in the derived adjective produces a prosodic form of the deriving base that is marked vis-à-vis its unmarked underived counterpart. The markedness value of the adjective is, in other words, mirrored by the markedness value of its base, thereby promoting the structural coherence of the form.

Note that this analysis is confirmed by the fate of the adjective banal, where the traditional penultimate stress has been all but superseded by stress on the ultima in contemporary English, a reflection of the fact that the word has lost all semantic links to its etymologically recoverable deriving base, ban. The word illustrates what happens when the deriving base is monosyllabic: in the absence of an alternate syllable to which stress could shift in the derived adjective, it falls on the lone other available syllable, viz. that of the suffix.

A more straightforwardly simple way of expressing the process, of course, might be to say that derivation always tends to promote a contrast between deriving base and derivative. But this is a specious simplicity: contrast––not just between word classes––is so often violated as to be practically useless in explaining language change, whereas the coherence of markedness values is a telos that obtains universally in change. The contemporary shift of máyoral to mayóral and Chílean to Chiléian, etc., is thus to be understood not merely as a violation of the traditional norm but as a realization of an IMMANENT STRUCTURAL COHERENCE in the derivational morphology of English.