Violations of Well-Formedness

January 22, 2018

While blatant violations of English grammar are common in media language, one can also observe the utterance of speech that seems to be grammatical but on closer analysis violates what is called “well-formedness.” This happened on today’s NPR program “Morning Edition,” when one of the hosts (David Greene––a graduate of Harvard, no less!) uttered the phrase “both sides blamed the other” instead of the correct “each side blamed the other” in speaking of the current government shut down. Of course, it is not clear whether Mr. Greene was reading from a script or offering an ex tempore description, but in either case the breach of well-formedness stands.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 13: Hypertrophic Noses Everywhere

January 18, 2018

It seems that anywhere one looks these days, one is confronted by the faces of the growing crowd of geriatrics, and what stands out is their noses––bulbous, pock-marked proboscides––that tend to mar the visages of these ancients (whether they realize it or not).

It is a scene involving four such unhandsome snouts that confronted Y-H-B as he sat at his usual table for lunch today at a neighborhood French restaurant (Le Moulin à Café) on York Avenue in Manhattan. Four senior citizens with outsize schnozzes had just sat down (evidently, two pairs of husband and wife) and started chattering, when the word ‘nose’ from Goethe’s Faust (Pt. 1, opening scene, “Night”), uttered by the protagonist, came suddenly to mind:

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;
Heiße Magister, heiße Doktor gar
Und ziehe schon an die zehen Jahr
Herauf, herab und quer und krumm
Meine Schüler an der Nase herum –
Und sehe, daß wir nichts wissen können!

I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine,—
And even, alas! Theology,—
From end to end, with labor keen;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before:
I’m Magister—yea, Doctor—hight,
And straight or cross-wise, wrong or right,
These ten years long, with many woes,
I’ve led my scholars by the nose,—
And see, that nothing can be known!
[translated by Bayard Taylor]

“Leading [somebody] by the nose” has a fixed meaning: to cause to obey submissively. Given the deflated look of the geriatrics in question, their unsightly noses only conjured up submissiveness and worse.

Cf. Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac:

Ah… your nose… hem!…
Your nose is… rather large!
CYRANO (gravely)
VALVERT (simpering)
Oh well—
CYRANO (coolly)
Is that all?
VALVERT (turns away with a shrug)
Well, of course—
Ah, no, young sir!
You are too simple. Why, you might have said—
Oh, a great many things? Mon dieu, why waste
Your opportunity? For example, thus:—
AGGRESSIVE: I, sir, if that nose were mine,
I’d have it amputated—on the spot!

Such are the literary loci that drifted into Y-H-B’s mind when confronted by the ubiquitous schnozzolas of today.


Is the So-Called ‘Vocal Fry’ an Apotropaism?

January 14, 2018

One feature of contemporary female speech in American English of the last few decades is the so-called ‘vocal fry’, defined as a vocal register “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency.” Words uttered by mostly younger women at the end of clauses in this register have been characterized variously––and contradictorily–– as (1) producing greater credibility; or (2) making female speakers sound less confident, thereby undermining the effectiveness of their communication.

In light of several other cases (such as uptalk) that have been instanced in previous posts as characteristic of the speech of young women and girls in the 21st century, and explained as APOTROPAISMS, perhaps vocal fry should be categorized similarly, i. e., as a strategy used by speakers to avoid or forestall danger. More specifically, vocal fry could be likened to the behavior of an animal confronted by danger, including baring its teeth and/or claws, bristling, etc. The meaning communicated to her interlocutor(s) by a female speaker who resorts to the vocal fry is something like ‘don’t mess with me’. At a time when sexual harassment has become a staple of media discussions detailing the perils confronting American women in the 21st century, an explanation of vocal fry as an apotropaism gains special credence.


Adjectivization of Verb Phrases and Its Contemporary Vogue

January 4, 2018

Contemporary media language (but not only) constantly reverts to compound adjectives like jaw-dropping and game-changing to spice up the discourse. Such items are the product of adjectivizing verb phrases, hence “drop [one’s] jaw” is the source of jaw-dropping and “change [the] game” the source of game-changing. These neologisms draw on a time-tested morphological pattern in the history of English, which has given us back-breaking and nit-picking et al. along the way.

What is it about this derivational pattern that contributes to its current productivity? There is always the possibility of using a non-compound deverbal adjective like astounding (instead of jaw-dropping) and revolutionary (instead of game-changing). Naturally, the connotations of these simple adjectives are not identical, there being no such thing as perfect synonymy. But the most salient difference is the presence of the semantic category of PROCESS in the compounds, derived from the fact that the objective complement of the verb is specified in the derived adjective. It is this necessary presence of the verbal complement in these new deverbal adjectives that gives rise to their popularity as a matter of linguistic iconicity. More specifically, PROCESS rather than RESULT being the distinctive feature of 21st-century American culture, this adjectivization of a verb phrase can be assessed as a diagrammatization in language of an overarching societal value.


The Waxing and Waning of Phraseologisms (British ‘if you like’ and American ‘if you will’ Revisited)

December 24, 2017

Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that its most frequently downloaded PDF (according to Awstats) is the article “Wimp English” (American Speech 68.3 [1993], 327-330), co-written by my wife of blessed memory, Marianne Shapiro, a scholar with a high level of awareness (and avoidance) of speech mannerisms, especially clichés. The Macmillan Dictionary definition of this phraseologism is ‘FORMAL used when describing something in an unusual way or in a way that you think someone might not agree with;’ (Example: “It’s relaxation; another form of meditation, if you will.”) Whereas this locution is heard les and less frequently in public discourse, the corresponding British English phrase “if you like” is still to be heard often enough, if speakers on BBC World Service are any measure of its frequency. The Oxford Living Dictionaries definition is ‘Used when expressing something in a new or tentative way’ (Ex: ‘it’s a whole new branch of chemistry, a new science if you like’).
While the speech practices of present-day Albion with regard to this phraseologism have alredy been instanced herein (“Fear of Linguistic Indirection: British ‘if you like’,” March 31, 2016), perhaps it would bear emphasis to say that speakers are evidently sensitive to the limits of credibility of their utterances and structure them with this awareness in mind, quite apart from their epistemic truthfulness or validity. The thoughts, attitudes, and value systems lying behind speech are always ready to be linguistically expressed––and are––when needed.


Ab und zu Exzellenz.’ (Repetition and the Lure of Excessive Metaphoricity)

December 17, 2017

Repetition is a necessary part of speech and discourse in every language.Clichés exist only through repetition. Contemporary American English, especially media language, however, has hypertrophied in recent years to such an extent as to risk stylistic opprobrium. To recall a fresh example, Y-H-B has a lifelong friend who prefaces almost every non-initial utterance with the phrase “having said that,” to the point where it has become a verbal tic.

Speaking of which, my father (who was fluent in five languages, including German) often told the joke of a subordinate in Germany who constantly added the word Exzellenz to every sentence he addressed to his superior. (Exzellenz ‘Excellency’ is a German form of address for certain high officials or dignitaries, as it is in English.) Finally, the superior said to his subordinate: “Ab und zu Exzellenz,” which means “[use] Excellency [only] from time to time!”

So it should be with excessive preference for metaphors over plainspokenness. There is no necessary gain in communicative force or stylistic excellence when speakers constantly resort to metaphorical expressions instead of direct speech. As with all aspects of linguistic choice, metaphoricity increases in stylistic aptness and communicative power only in the measure of its judicious deployment.


The Alogical Effacement of Meaning

December 5, 2017

The meaning of words is rarely stable throughout the history of a language, and English is no exception, witness the current change in the government of the verb to center, which has traditionally been used with the postposition on but is increasingly heard with around instead, especially in media speech.
Why is this occurring? The most straightforward explanation involves the effacement the core meaning of center in its verbal hypostasis. Speakers evidently no longer understand that the conceptual semantic integrity of center excludes the notion of “periphery” and is univocally bound up with the logical quiddity of the word. In other words, the postposition around is coming into use with the verb center because there has been an oblivion of the core meaning and a shift toward the erroneous meaning “association with.” This change-in-progress of contemporary American English speech has to be seen for what it is, viz. one of the many FAILURES OF THOUGHT confronted here in earlier posts.


“Patently Incorrect:” The Interplay of Grammar, Norm, and Habit in Speech

November 17, 2017

Last night Y-H-B was sitting in the audience of a classical music concert (four Brandenburg Concertos by Bach) when he overheard a man behind him (who looked to be in his sixties or seventies) say to a companion the phrase “patently incorrect.” What was significant about this utterance was the fact that he pronounced the first word in the British manner, i. e., [péɪtntli], with the stressed vowel of pate, not pat, as would be the case for the American pronunciation of patent. The British pronunciation has long been recommended by American dictionaries as the correct form for the meaning of patent, as defined in the OED Online as ‘Of a fact, quality, phenomenon, etc.: clear, evident, obvious’; cf. the Merriam-Webster Unabridged definition ‘readily visible or intelligible: evident, obvious’.

Now, it is true that contemporary American dictionaries qualify the pronunciation exhibited by my fellow concert-goer (an American, judging by his speech) as “Chiefly British,” whereas fifty years ago this form of the vowel would be the sole one codified for this meaning (as in “patently incorrect”). This whole matter brings up the interplay of grammar, norm, and habit in any living language. What is grammatically possible is always constrained at any stage of the language’s history by usage, dictated in the modern period (from the Enlightenment on in Europe and America) by academies and various other norm-setters. Norms are set not only by institutions but by speakers who adhere to them and thereby propagate a certain usage, especially where (what used to be called “free”) variation is possible. The prestige accruing to speakers by virtue of their status in society necessarily also enhances the prestige of their speech, such that learners and other speakers will adopt variants heard in the speech of such prestigious persons. This process over time results in speech habits, which are just like the whole ensemble of behavioral traits that define us as human beings in constituting (letzten Endes) part of the stylistic repertory that reaffirms the conception of style as a fundamentally cognitive category.


Teleology, Markedness, and Linguistic Change (Strong Verb Ablaut)

October 22, 2017

Markedness values are asymmetric. The value MARKED means relative narrowness of conceptual scope, whereas its counterpart UNMARKED means relative breadth of conceptual scope. These basic definitions are aligned respectively with greater and lesser complexity. When languages change, there is a general tendency to change from the more complex value (= marked) to the corresponding less complex value (= unmarked).

This teleology can explain the tendency in contemporary American English speech (and in American dialects) to collapse the three ablaut vowels of strong verb conjugation, as in sink/sank/sunk, drink/drank/drunk, etc. such that the simple past vowel is eliminated and replaced by the vowel of the past passive participle. Thus one constantly hears speakers saying things like “Honey, I shrunk [instead of the correct shrank] the dog,” etc.

The markedness values of the vowels involved underwrite this change in grammar. The [ae] of the simple past is marked, whereas the schwa [ə] of the past participle is unmarked, and thus the teleology is unmistakably from marked to unmarked, which corresponds to the empirical facts.


Stress Retraction and the Principle of Marked Beginnings

October 13, 2017

Contemporary American English has a peculiar device at its disposal for expressing emphasis, whereby the stress is retracted onto a preposition in a prepositional phrase, as in the following statement and response: “You need to tell him to dó it.” “Tó do it isn’t so easy.” The stressed preposition can only be explained as an implementation of the PRINCIPLE OF MARKED BEGINNINGS, which was first enunciated by Y-H-B as applying to metric structure in an article on verse theory (“The Meaning of Meter,” Russian Verse Theory [UCLA Slavic Studies, 18], ed. B. Scherr and D. S. Worth, 331-349. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989; revised version in Michael and Marianne Shapiro, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language, 2nd, expanded ed., 259-77. Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2009).

In a larger semiotic context going beyond verse and even language, beginnings, middles, and ends always have a value such that beginnings are marked, ends less marked by comparison––but still marked––and middles unmarked. These markedness values need to be taken into account whenever there is a stretch of semiotic space that has this fundamental tripartite structure.