Basically the Attenuation of Assertory Force

November 23, 2010

There are several ways speakers have of blunting the assertory force of an utterance, including fillers (like, you know, know what I’m saying, etc.). When they edge over the line and start polluting speech, these linguistic elements are called disfluencies. One such filler that has been growing in frequency in American English is the adverb basically. More than ample recorded evidence of this word’s prominence is available in an interview with the American-Indian (Sikh) internet executive Gurbaksh Chahal (conducted on the BBC World Service by Mike Williams, November 19, 2010). Mr. Chahal, who is now 28 and speaks standard American without an accent, came to the USA at the age of four from Punjab and grew up in Northern California. Though lacking a precise count of the number of times that basically cropped up in his responses (the interview lasted 28 minutes), suffice it to say that it could not have been less that 20-30.

The frequent insertion of this word in one’s speech serves an EMOTIVE, not a referential function. The speaker is moved to attenuate the assertory force of his utterances, and in this respect the word’s appearance serves exactly the same function as one of those fulfilled by that other frequent speech pollutant, like. Whatever their primary semantic load, these words now function to qualify or deflect the force of anything being (nominally) asserted. They are thus analogous in effect segmentally to the near-ubiquitous suprasegmental feature of contemporary female speech, viz. an interrogative intonational contour on clauses that are not questions.

Like the apotropaic smile (of females in particular), any gratuitous attenuation or deflection of assertory force can be seen as an APOTROPAISM, an atavistic survival mechanism that likely has deep evolutionary roots. The emergence of a linguistic apotropaism in present-day circumstances means only that the evil being warded off need not be confined to mastodons or saber-toothed tigers: evil lurks as well in the jungles of modern life, albeit not in the form of wild beasts but in the form of fellow humans.


Fear of the Objective Case

November 19, 2010

A well-documented hyperurbanism is the substitution of the subjective for the objective case of pronouns in syndetic compounds (with and, or). Here are two examples from media language (emphasis added):

(1) “I’m picking you and I.” (John Feinstein, NPR, “Morning Edition,” May 24, 1993);

(2)  “Mozart wrote the Concerto for he and his sister.” (Bill Winans, WMHT-FM, November 19, 2010)

This grammatical solecism is often heard in British speech as well as American. Even as superlative a writer as P. D. James allows it:

(3) “And those two deaths bound you and she together indissolubly for life.” (P. D. James, Shroud for a    Nightingale [New York: Popular Library, 1971], p. 278)

While this mistake can easily be reckoned to result from a fear of the objective case in compounds involving one or more pronouns, a deeper analysis would take into account the creation of a spurious boundary separating the compound from the preposition. The speaker/writer who countenances this hyperurbanism implicitly erects a boundary on both sides of the compound, as if the latter were a binomial––a single unit––rather than two units joined by a conjunction, hence immune to case government and therefore in the uninflected (direct, non-oblique) subjective case.


The Semiosis of Grammatical Error

November 17, 2010

When a person speaking his native language makes a grammatical error, it can be chalked up to a number of reasons, including imperfect learning. But the commission of such an error––as long as it is no mere slip of the tongue––also has semiotic significance, as it connotes the utterer’s less-than-sure command of his language, which inclines his listener(s), in turn, to make negative assessments of that person’s credibility and social status. This situation is aggravated when the error is made in the public domain.

Here is a contemporaneous example from the context of American media speech.

On the November 17, 2010 broadcast of the WAMC-FM talk show, “The Roundtable,” Alan Chartock, a professor emeritus of political science and communications at the State University of New York at Albany, garbled the quasi-proverbial phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” by substituting the mistaken third-person singular form goes for the correct first-person singular verb form go. Nota bene: Mr. Chartock pronounced the phrase with complete aplomb, without the slightest hesitation or consciousness of its erroneousness. That a completely familiar saying should have been uttered containing such a hair-raisingly egregious grammatical error can only be interpreted as a sign that casts doubt on the speaker’s entire persona, including his education, his knowledge, and his gravitas. As the modern founder of sign theory, Charles Sanders Peirce, wrote in that landmark of American philosophy, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities”: “My language is the sum total of myself.”


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.