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.


Horror Silentii

March 10, 2010

In the substantial literature on speech disfluencies in normal spoken language ([pause] fillers, false starts, repairs, etc.), there is no mention as their cause of what can be called horror silentii ‘the horror of silence’––on the model of the well-known phrase from art and design, horror vacui ‘fear of empty spaces’. The exceedingly common incidence of STAMMERING (as distinct from pathological stuttering) in contemporary American English, particularly in public discourse, is of a piece with the insertion of fillers such as you know and like and is to be explained not only by speakers’ varying skill in thinking through the grammar of an intended utterance in advance of its articulation but by a near-compulsive need to maintain the intactness of the PHATIC FUNCTION, alias the channel of communication.

This horror of empty discourse spaces is responsible for stammering and other non-pathological disfluencies and is, moreover, a peculiar feature of American English in its present-day form, markedly distinct from ordinary educated speech in (for instance) French, German, Russian, or Japanese––all of which, to be sure, have their own fillers. Keeping the channel open by filling it with otiose vocables is, at bottom, a (largely unconscious) way of asserting one’s ego at the expense of the interlocutor’s right to interrupt. This is a characteristically American phenomenon that is part of the general tendency in American culture to prize individualism over communitarianism, akin to slamming instead of simply closing the door upon stopping of a car one was riding in or driving––a totally gratuitous percussive punctuation of one’s presence.


Just Plain Folks

March 7, 2010

The word folks in American usage has an established stylistic value, namely that of informality or endearment vis-à-vis its neutral synonym people. Speakers in certain regions may prefer to use folks rather than people to such an extent that the former word becomes neutral in their variety of American English and the latter formal. But for most speakers of standard American English folks remains an informal counterpart to people. Whatever the regional backdrop of an individual’s idiolect, however, it is a miscarriage of the stylistic force of folks to use it with reference to malefactors, terrorists, and generally to evildoers of all stripes. Such usage, when it occurs––and is not ironic––can only be evaluated as perverse. But this perversion is also perforce a sign of the mind set of a speaker who utters the word with such a referent. To denote evildoers as folks is to extend a term of endearment to those who, far from being endearing, are incontrovertibly repellent morally.

But that is precisely what President Barack Obama does, as recorded in the following interview:

“KATIE COURIC: Have you ruled out trying confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in New York City?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have not ruled it out, but I think it’s important for us to take into account the practical, logistical issues involved. I mean, if you’ve got a city that is saying no, and a police department that’s saying no, and a mayor that’s saying no, that makes it difficult. But I think that the most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush Administration handled them all through 9/11.

They prosecuted the 190 folks in these Article III courts. Got convictions. And those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes. And it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of. Now, what I’ve also said is that, you know, it’s important for us to recognize that when we’re dealing with Al Qaeda operatives, that they may have national security intelligence that we need.

And it’s important to make sure that the processes and procedures we approach with respect to these folks are not identical to the ones that we would use if we’re apprehending the local drug dealer. And that’s why we’ve put in place some very particular ways of dealing with these issues that ensure our security, but also still uphold our due process.

KATIE COURIC: Are you talking about reading them the Miranda rights? Their Miranda rights? In other words, like Abdul Matallab, who was read his Miranda rights? A lot of people are very upset about that. Because he was giving information to the F.B.I. Then his rights were read to him, and he clammed up.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that’s actually not what happened. What happened was he clammed up, and after we had obtained actionable intelligence from him, that’s when the F.B.I. folks on the ground then read him his Miranda rights. But keep in mind, Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights five minutes after he was arrested, under the previous Administration. Some of the same critics of our approach have been employing this policy for years.”

KATIE COURIC: Chris from Falls Church, Virginia writes, “Mr. President, I lost my house two years ago and I’ve been out of work for a year. Can the Federal Government really stimulate the economy enough to start creating new jobs any time soon?” Without getting into too much policy speak, what would you say to Chris?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’d say to Chris — I know how tough it’s been. I’d say that we are seeing the corner turn on the economy growing again. Last year, at this time, the economy had contracted, had shrunk by six percent. We know now that last quarter it had grown by six percent. That’s a good sign that companies are starting to pick up hiring again, because they see the opportunities to go out there and make money.

It’s not happening as fast as we’d like. And that’s why there’s still some things we can do in terms of tax credits for small businesses. Taking some of that TARP money that’s been repaid and giving it to community banks, so that they can lend it to small businesses. Giving job credits to small businesses for hiring. Potentially, a million small businesses out there could get $5,000 for each employee they hire this year. All those things, I think, are moving us in the right direction. And my hope is, is that [note the reduplicative copula!] for folks who are unemployed, they’re gonna start seeing concrete improvement in their own lives in the next few months.” (Lynn Sweet, “Katie Couric Super Bowl Obama Interview,” Chicago Sun Times, February 7, 2010)

Given the instances highlighted above (in boldface italics), one can only adjudge President Obama’s use of the word, when referring to terrorists  and drug dealers, to be at complete variance with its ordinary stylistic value. Like all linguistic aberrations, his idiosyncratic usage must be seen as mirroring an aberrant forma mentis. This is the only interpretation one can come to in the presence of the blithe equalization of malefactors with morally neutral referents (F.B.I agents and the unemployed).


The Vocabulary of Self-Delusion

February 18, 2010

In my post of May 9, 2009, “Issues ≠ Problems,” I broached the subject of a failure of thought associated with the substitution of the words issue and challenge for problem in contemporary speech. The nub of this failure is the elision of the semantic core of the word problem when using the other two. Mathematical and related uses aside, the word problem necessarily connotes SOMETHING WRONG, implying a need for rectification. By contrast, the words issue and challenge are non-committal as to wrongness, the former properly connoting something inviting discussion, the latter connoting a difficulty to be overcome. So that by substituting the latter two words for problem, when something is patently wrong, one is effectively deluding oneself (and possibly one’s interlocutors) into thinking either (1) that no problem sensu stricto exists; or (2) that whatever is wrong can always be rectified (or both). These are typically American instances of a blithely optimistic outlook underlain by a value system that eschews analytical rigor in speech and thought.

Such self-delusion can be dangerous, particularly in the political arena. It is favored, of course, by media language, whose practitioners work hand in glove with politicians and their minders in “crafting” messages that are meant to thwart thought. It is no surprise, then, to hear President Barack Obama constantly substituting challenge for problem, as in the catachrestic phrase “solving our fiscal challenge,” which he uttered in the course of his appearance on February 17, 2010, at the White House before an audience of small-business leaders (Andrea Seabrook, “Commission Charged With Controlling Federal Deficit,” NPR, Morning Edition, February 18, 2010; also reported by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Obama and Republicans Clash Over Stimulus Bill, One Year Later” The New York Times, National Edition, February 18, 2010, p. A16). Here is another instance of the substitution in the same issue of the newspaper, this time from the pen of a marriage and family therapist writing on the Op-Ed page: “This challenge is not as great as widespread preconceptions would suggest.” [referring in the preceding sentence to the damage suffered by children when their parents divorce] (Ruth Bettelheim, “No Fault of Their Own,” p. A 21).

This usage has been adopted not only by non-Americans but by non-native speakers of English as well––no surprise, of course, seeing as how American media language has come to be the main vehicle for the transmission of English throughout the world. Thus, again in the same issue of The New York Times, an Israeli identified as the director of the Center for International Communications at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Eytan Gilboa, is quoted as saying “This country’s main challenges are the false comparison people make with an apartheid state and the questioning of its right to exist” (Ethan Bronner, “Positive Views of Israel, Brought to You by Israelis” (p. A6). No example could be more strongly illustrative of the self-delusory nature of the substitution of challenges for problems.


The Ideology of Vowel Reduction

February 7, 2010

It is not altogether uncommon among the Indo-European languages to have what is called vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, by which is meant the substitution (typically, in a polysyllabic word, but not only) of a shorter and partially displaced vowel for what would otherwise, under stress, be a so-called full vowel. This happens, for instance, in standard Russian and Bulgarian, as it does in English.

The difference between the two Slavic languages and English is that whereas vowel reduction is completely regular in the native vocabulary of the former, it is subject to much variation in the latter. Thus a word like candidate can be pronounced either with secondary stress and retention of the full vowel in the final syllable, or with no secondary stress and the pronunciation of a schwa (ə) in the ultima. The character of the stress and the character of the vowel are linked: primary stress goes with full vowels, secondary stress or unstressedness with schwa. Any secondarily stressed or unstressed syllable can contain a schwa: the a in adept, the e in synthesis, the i in decimal, the o in harmony, the u in medium, the y in syringe are all schwas.

The appearance of schwas differs somewhat as between British and American English. In standard British English, schwa regularly appears in some words where American pronunciation retains a full vowel; cf. the differential phonetics of pentagon, Amazon, businessman, and even legislature. The case of the toponym Birmingham (Alabama vs. England) is a perfect illustration. Of course, in large part the two versions of English have the same vowel in unstressed syllables, but there is a marked propensity in British speech for schwas to occur where they do not in American. This means that where American English has a reduced vowel, so will British––but not vice versa.

One of the sign functions of vowel reduction is to underscore the unity of the word, that its constituents are subordinate to the unified integrity of the word as a whole, as a gestalt. Thus when, in British but not American English, the element man in businessman loses its full vowel character in this compound, it is IN THAT MEASURE also subordinated in value to the semantic unity of the compound. This is a matter of semantic hierarchy: constituents of words are always subordinate in meaning to that of the whole word of which they are parts. Vowel reduction and concomitant absence of secondary stress are a sign, therefore, of the word’s unity, of the parts being subordinate to the whole.

The difference between British and American speech in the distribution of reduced vowels in polysyllables is not au fond a matter of mere phonetics but of mentality. By consistently reducing vowels that are unreduced in American English, British English emphasizes the value of the whole at the expense of the parts, whereas American speech tends to give equal value to the vowels of secondarily stressed syllables. This phenomenon can be interpreted as a sign––an ICON, in fact, in that word’s proper semiotic sense––of what is fundamentally an ideological difference, always necessarily historical, between the two Englishes: British English here emphasizes the superordinate historical value (unconsciously) placed by its speakers on the unity of the nation manifested linguistically, whereas American English, by giving nearly equal value to part and whole, aligns itself ideologically with its enduring history as a revolutionary product, to this day less a nation than an uneasy federation of disparate states.


Bad Guys

January 31, 2010

The phrase bad guys has been used incessantly by the media––and by ordinary speakers influenced by media language––as a handy substitute for enemy or terrorist in referring to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This can perhaps be understood as a convenient covering reference to an enemy that does not belong to traditional warfare. They wreak evil and are “bad,” but they are often not soldiers in the conventional sense, since they may not belong to a conventional army.

But the use of this phrase is semantically fraught with the wrong connotations, for the following reasons. First, guy is a colloquialism that is associated with an informal attitude to the referent that is, moreover, at least stylistically neutral if not entirely hypocoristic in contemporary English. Second, and more tellingly, the phrase derives from the world of Hollywood motion pictures, where evildoers of all sorts have always been referred to as “bad guys” in opposition to “good guys” in denominating the characterological identity of the dramatis personae of movie (and, by extension, television, etc.) plots.

There is thus a strong current of trivialization whenever the enemy and terrorists are referred to by this phrase. This colloquialization has the unintended effect of minimizing the evil wrought by them, just as it is by its frequent equivalent bad actors. Both must be expunged from public discourse because any reference to the enemy or to terrorists that even subcutaneously allows for a quasi-endearing evaluation of their status can result in a weakening of the resolve to defeat them. It is thus a failure of thought that cannot be tolerated for moral as well as rhetorical reasons.