Michael Shapiro

As readers will see, this blog is written by someone who is a professional linguist and semiotician (specialist in sign theory) with a uniquely wide range of knowledge and experience in the humanities and social sciences. Since retiring from active university service in 2005, I have devoted myself to writing of all kinds, including fiction, and to public lectures at a variety of venues in the USA and abroad. In October 2017 I will be lecturing in China on language and linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University and at Mongolia Technology University (Hohhut, Inner Mongolia).

For readers who are interested in availing themselves of my expertise and experience as a teacher and lecturer, I am available to tutor students who are preparing for various examinations (including the SAT, GRE, and LSAT) that test proficiency in the language arts. Initial contact with me can be established by e-mailing me (mms33@columbia.edu). Students wishing to get my help in preparing papers, theses, and dissertations are also welcome to contact me. I have a wealth of experience in this kind of work with students, including guidance in turning drafts of books into finished publications.

The Glossary of Useful Words 7: ‘meretricious’

September 6, 2016

One consequence of living in The Age of Depravity in America is the falling away of rational thought when it comes to appraising aspects of contemporary culture (esp. popular culture and the arts, but not only). What is ubiquitously proffered by avatars of all stripes as excellent or meritorious more often than not turns out to be counterfeit but continues the life of all false coins long beyond their minting.

The word that best captures this state of affairs is the adjective ‘meretricious’, glossed as follows by the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

“Origin: A borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element.

Etymons: Latin meretrīcius + -ous suffix.

Etymology: < classical Latin meretrīcius ( < meretrīc- , meretrīx meretrix n. + -ius , suffix forming adjectives) + -ous suffix. Compare Italian †meretricioso (14th cent.).

  1. Of, relating to, or befitting a prostitute; having the character of a prostitute. Obs. (arch. in later use).
  1. Alluring by false show; showily or superficially attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.”

Noting the surprising (now obsolete and archaic) first meaning of the word, one is reminded of the axiom that true love is never for sale.


Language as the Laissez-Passer Par Excellence

September 4, 2016

As an immigrant and the son of refugees, Y-H-B often heard the phrase “Nansen passport” uttered by his parents, who were stateless until immigrating to the United States in 1952 and were able to travel between the wars only because they held this document, a laissez-passer (from the French ‘let pass’) issued to Russian refugees by Fridtjof Nansen in 1922 in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations.

Given today’s world situation, with its high incidence of forced migration due to wars, it might be apposite to remind readers that the key to acceptance of migrants in their new countries is their command of the language of the communities they join. Nothing is as powerful a warrant of their bona fides as speech that conforms in every possible respect to the linguistic norms of their adoptive countries.


Flashing One’s Ethnic Badge Linguistically

August 29, 2016

As another contemporary example supporting the veracity of the apothegm, “You are what you say,” speakers of Hispanic (Latino) extraction who are in every respect native speakers of American English often deliberately pronounce Spanish words that are part of English utterances, including their own surnames, “authentically,” i. e., using Spanish phonetics rather than English. This can regularly be heard, for instance, in the reports of two WNYC radio correspondents, Sarah Gonzalez and Cindy Rodriguez, who pronounce their forenames in conformity with American phonetic norms but not their surnames.

It is evident from this trait alone that Mmes. Gonzalez and Rodriguez are thereby bent on affirming and signaling their ethnic membership to the listening public, which will strike a non-Latino listener sensitive to phonetic distinctions between foreign and native vocabulary as both fatuous and odious.


[ADDENDUM: My fellow New Metaphysical Club member, Benjamin Udell, informs me that “I suspect that it’s a newsroom policy aimed at maximizing viewership. Peter Jennings (from Canada) on ABC Nightly News used to pronounce “Nicaragua” as if he were speaking Spanish. He did not pronounce “Quebec” or “France” French-style. The point seems to be to catch the interest of listeners who speak Spanish as their first language, hear Spanish more clearly than English, and tend to identify with reporters with Hispanic family names.” Apropos, I used to have a friend, an Englishman who spoke no Spanish, but habitually pronounced Nicaragua like Peter Jennings, which annoyed my wife and me no end.]

The Glossary of Useful Words 6: ‘internecine’

August 27, 2016

My old school friend, the eminent prosthodontist Dr. Simon Gamer (of Canadian birth), brought up a useful word in a recent telephone conversation, viz. internecine, which Merriam-Webster glosses as follows:

[¦intər¦ne|ˌsēn, -nē|, |ˌsīn, |sən, |sə̇n; ¦intərnə̇¦sēn; ə̇n‧ˈtərnəˌsēn, -nəsə̇n, -nəˌsīn]

1 a :  marked by great slaughter :  deadly <the alternatives only of internecine war or absolute surrender — W. E. Gladstone> b :  involving or accompanied by mutual slaughter :  mutually destructive <zealots who stabbed each other in internecine massacre — F. W. Farrar>
2:  of, relating to, or involving conflict within a group; broadly :  internal <absorbed in incurable, rancorous internecine feuds — Barbara Ward> <a bitter internecine struggle among artists — Roger Fry>

Latin internecinus, from internecare to destroy, kill (from inter- + necare to kill, from nec-, nex violent death) + -inus -ine — more at noxious
First Known Use: 1663 (sense 1a)

Note the swarm of extant pronunciations, betokening a confusion among speakers, who are typically unused to hearing the word spoken (as is so often the case with bookish words in contemporary American English). The preferred pronunciation (nota bene) is [in(t)ərˈnēsīn].




Prolegomenon to a New Primer on Language

August 23, 2016

Readers of this blog may be interested to know that a new book by its author is in preparation, a primer on language entitled The Logic of Language: A Semiotic Introduction to the Study of Speech. Herewith the Preface:

This book is intended as a companion volume to my most recent book, The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage (2012; second, expanded ed. 2016), which incorporates revised versions of posts on my blog, www.languagelore.net. It is hoped that this new volume will serve as a basis for the exploration of language in a more systematic way. A college instructor wishing to use it as a textbook may consider assigning excerpts from The Speaking Self by way of exemplification of basic points and approaches to analysis. I believe that the two volumes used in tandem will provide a solid grounding in the observational science of linguistics, linking theory with practice in a way that will expand a student’s understanding of language as a global phenomenon.

My own conception of language is tinctured by my polyglot background and by my more than half-century experience as a research scholar and college teacher. I was born in Yokohama (Japan) before World War II and grew up speaking three languages simultaneously, Russian, Japanese, and English, in a family of Russian-Jewish émigrés who spent twenty-five years in Japan. My parents’ habitual languages were Russian, English, German, French, and Japanese, all of which they spoke fluently. Although my mother tongue is Russian, almost all my formal education was in schools in which English was the language of instruction. Having spent the war years in Japan, I immigrated to Los Angeles at the age of twelve and attended high school, college, and graduate school in America. The only exception was a postdoctoral year (1965-66) spent at Tokyo University, where I brushed up on my written Japanese and did some research on the contemporary language. After that I specialized in Slavic linguistics and poetics, in the first instance, and in semiotics (the theory of signs) thereafter, applying the whole philosophy of the American logician and scientist, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), as a framework for the analysis of language and literature.

Readers who are familiar with the history of linguistics in the twentieth century will recognize that the title of this book has been influenced by my namesake Edward Sapir’s classic book Language (1921)––with two important modifications: the insertion of the words Logic and Semiotic. (Shapiro and Sapir are variants of the surname Shpira, the Hebrew/Yiddish version of Spira [Hebrew: שפירא‎, pronounced Shpira], the medieval name of the city Speyer in Germany.) Here the reason may not be clear. It is in fact a nod in C. S. Peirce’s direction, whose conception of logic as a normative science amounts to regarding it as a theory of knowledge. The phrase ‘logic of language’ is, therefore, meant to show how I conceive the patterned relationships constituting the structure and history of language. The analyses of linguistic phenomena offered in this book will accordingly strive to make this conception clear in all of language’s aspects, but most notably in its variegated uses as the instrument of thought and speaking.

This book also systematically examines the facts of language as a semiotic structure––as a system of signs–– and as the passkey to all other human sign systems. By surveying the several major divisions of language (phonology, morphology, syntax, lexis, tropology) and explicating the way in which sound and meaning cohere in them, the book will guide students to an understanding of what makes language the sign system par excellence in the service of its most important function as the instrument of cognition and of communication.

I have also followed Sapir in keeping the technical paraphernalia of contemporary linguistic description to a minimum, without, however, utterly eschewing (as does Sapir) diacritics and other symbols needed for a thorough discussion of linguistic phenomena. Most of the examples in the book are from English, although a sprinkling from other languages will be cited when appropriate. References to “Further Reading” will be supplied at the close of each chapter for students wishing to pursue the subject in greater detail. This obviates the need for footnotes, which means that any controversies surrounding the examples discussed are silently elided in the interests of clarity and coherence of presentation.

Apropos, and given the dauntingly balkanized state of linguistics as a discipline today, it may be useful for readers to be given some clues in advance regarding the theoretical outlook that has influenced me in shaping my book’s orientation. Some biographical data are germane in this respect. I started my serious study of linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the tutelage of the late Anglicist Robert P. Stockwell (1925-2012), the best classroom teacher I ever had, bar none, who introduced me to the methods of American structural linguistics in his year-long course on the structure and history of English. I followed this by study at Harvard under Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), one of the founders of the Prague School of linguistic theory and arguably the most important linguist of the twentieth century, who directed my doctoral dissertation. Whatever else it may be, I consider my way of doing linguistics to be Jakobsonian at its root (even though he and I fell out publicly before we reconciled at the end of his life).

Perhaps an even more profound and lasting influence on my conception of linguistic analysis has been the work of Henning Andersen, who was my fellow-student at Harvard in the early 1960s. Although Jakobson is widely recognized as the first person to reveal the importance of Peirce for linguists, it was actually Andersen who pointed me in the direction of Peirce as the modern founder of sign theory whose semeiotic insights (I use the spelling semeiotic advisedly) I should explore in my investigations of linguistic theory. Despite the absence among his prolific oeuvre of a synoptic book summarizing his conception of language, Andersen’s own work over many years, principally in Slavic historical linguistics, has had an indelible influence on my thinking about language and on the conduct of my own investigations. When it comes to meticulousness and analytical acuity, Andersen has no peers among contemporary linguists and surpasses even our teacher’s accomplishments in this regard.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the influence on my understanding of language as a product of history of my friend and former colleague at UCLA, Raimo Anttila, whose book Historical and Comparative Linguistics, with its semiotic orientation, remains the best introduction to the field and has been a beacon for me over the many years that its author and I have been friends.

This book is dedicated to the loving memory of my wife, Marianne Shapiro.


New York, NY
September 3, 2015


Self-Awareness and Its Linguistic Dimension

August 3, 2016

As part of the self-control that characterizes human behavior we all have what is called self-awareness, i. e., awareness of our own thoughts and actions, including our speech, both actual and virtual (silent). Different persons at different times and moments of their sentient existence exhibit self-awareness in varying degree, spanning the range from what seems to others as a total lack, at one end, to a hyper-state, at the other.

Since language as used is a structured system of linguistic habits, we are more often than not unaware of precisely how we go about negotiating the universe of discourse when confronted by actual interlocutors or an audience exposed to our utterances. The most immediate consequence of the variability attendant upon speaking is, of course, the content of what we say, which is tantamount to a choice of vocabulary items and the way we utter them in sustained speech. Given the intention to speak, we select words and ways of arranging them that answer to the rules of grammar in a given language and to what we gauge to be the expectations of our interlocutors.

Although there is always the possibility of not being understood for a number of diverse reasons, rational speakers habitually tailor their utterances to their interlocutors’ perceived level of linguistic knowledge. Only someone who is perversely oblivious to this parameter will choose vocabulary items, for instance, that are so specialized as not to be known by one’s interlocutor. One can be ignorant of this constraint, but generally the context of speech includes enough information to make miscommunication avoidable.

A particularly troublesome aspect of speaking effectively is gauging the stylistic knowledge of language at one’s interlocutors’ command. Typically, this involves sensitivity to stylistic variation, where sensitivity necessarily equals self-awareness. A person listening to an interlocutor who constantly repeats the same phrase––e. g., “that said”/”having said that”––to introduce a sentence may develop a negative assessment of the utterer’s speech because this piece of language use is evaluated as a verbal tic and found annoying. The speaker is evidently not aware of the phrase’s repetition, and, what is more, unaware of the negative effect it is producing on the hearer.

Another typical case of lack of self-awareness in speech comes down to a failure to assess accurately the degree to which one’s interlocutor shares the universe of discourse (knowledge of the world) in which the conversation is embedded. This failure may be inadvertent, of course, owing to a simple lack of information, but it rises to an absence of self-awareness when one speaker habitually ignores the (pre)existence of shared knowledge and continues to gloss vocabulary items as interpolations in speech nevertheless.


The Glossary of Useful Words 5: ‘captious’

July 22, 2016

A slightly judgmental or emotionally-tinged adjective meaning “quick to find fault” is the word ‘captious’, which one does not encounter these days in either speech or writing but is useful withal when intending to go beyond the simple word ‘punctilious’. Its origin (according to the OED Online) and definitions are as follows:

Etymology: < French captieux or Latin captiōsus fallacious, sophistical, < captiōn-em (see caption n.).

  1. Apt to catch or take one in; fitted to ensnare or perplex in argument; designed to entrap or entangle by subtlety; fallacious, sophistical.
  2. Apt to catch at faults or take exception to actions; disposed to find fault, cavil, or raise objections; fault-finding, cavilling, carping.

In the Age of Irrationality, perhaps it is not altogether blameworthy to be captious, when the polar alternative is never to criticize despite having good reasons to do so.


The Mispronunciation of Wimbledon

July 10, 2016

The All England Lawn Tennis Championships are played every year around this time at Wimbledon, a district of southwest London. Since the broadcast media are constantly giving updates on the scores, the word Wimbledon is unavoidably in the air, often mispronounced by speakers of American English with a [t] instead of the correct [d] for the orthographic d. The cause of this frequent mispronunciation is as follows.

Intervocalic /d/ and /t/ in American English are typically indistinguishable, being rendered phonetically as the alveolar flap [ɾ], which makes minimal pairs like bitter and bidder sound the same. In an unstressed syllable the /d/ of Wimbledon––even though not intervocalic––can sound indistinguishable from an alveolar flap to an American ear and hence identified with [t] rather than [d] despite the clear evidence of orthography. This is the origin of the mistake.


The Gossary of Useful Words 4: ‘perfervid’

June 19, 2016

While the word fervid is known to every literate speaker of English, its prefixed congener perfervid is not part of many speakers’ vocabulary––but should be withal. The intensity of meaning added by the prefix per- results in the definition ‘very fervid; ardent, impassioned’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online), annotated as follows:

Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin perfervidus.

Etymology: < post-classical Latin perfervidus (chiefly in the phrase perfervidum ingenium Scotorum the impassioned genius of the Scots, founded on G. Buchanan’s Scotorum praefervida ingenia ( Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582) xvi. li.)) < classical Latin per- per- prefix + fervidus fervid adj. Compare earlier praefervid adj.

The prefix per– is glossed by the OED in the following manner:

  1. Forming words with the sense ‘thoroughly, perfectly, extremely, very’: with adjectives and adverbs, as classical Latin peracūtus very sharp, peracute adj., perdīligēns very diligent, perdiligent adj., post-classical Latin perfervidus, perfervid adj., etc. Formerly also in English with derived nouns (or their analogues), in sense ‘very great’, ‘extreme’: see e.g. perdiligence n., peradvertence n.

Notionally, the utility of this word can be reckoned to be heightened by the digital revolution and a popular culture that regards anything lacking perfervidity in its espousal (alas!) as less than authentic.


Structuralism as a Theory of Language in the Light of Peircean Pragmaticism

Many of the posts on this blog are written from the perspective of a non-philosopher interested in developing a Peircean theory of language for the twenty-first century. For readers who share an appetite for this sort of thing, perhaps it would be apposite at this point to flesh out some of the suppositions that underly this perspective, as follows.

The essential concept of structuralism, whether applied to physics or linguistics or anthropology, is that of invariance under transformation. This makes theory, following Peirce’s whole philosophy and his pragmaticism in particular, the rationalized explication of  variety: “[U]nderlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits …. In so far as evolution follows a law, the law or habit, instead of being a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity, is growth from difformity to uniformity. But the chance divergences from laws are perpetually acting to increase the variety of the world, and are checked by a sort of natural selection and otherwise … , so that the general result may be described as ‘organized heterogeneity,’ or, better, rationalized variety” (Collected Papers, 6.101). Or, translating law and habit into the appropriate phenomenological category: “Thirdness … is an essential ingredient of reality” (The Essential Peirce,  2:345).

Once we properly understand structuralism not as the putatively debunked epistemology that originated in Geneva with Saussure, but rather as the revised, essentially correct version originating with Jakobson in Prague and Hjelmslev in Copenhagen, we can recognize the patterning of Thirdness and Secondness in language––the so-called “passkey semiotic”––for what it is. Consequently, the fundamental notion of alternation between basic form and contextual variant becomes understandable as immanent in theory, and not merely a construct or an artifact of description. The importance of this notion cannot be overestimated.

A child learning its native language, for instance, is exactly in the same position as an analyst. It has to determine which linguistic form is basic, and which is a contextual variant. Take a simple example from English, that of the voiceless stops.

English voiceless (actually, tense) stops are aspirated when they are word-initial or begin a stressed syllable, as in pen, ten, Ken. They are unaspirated when immediately following word-initial s, as in spun, stun, skunk. After an s elsewhere in a word they are normally unaspirated as well, except when the cluster is heteromorphemic and the stop belongs to an unbound morpheme; cf. dis[t]end vs. dis[t]aste. Word-final voiceless stops are optionally aspirate.

This variation makes aspiration non-distinctive (non-phonemic) in English, unlike, say, in Ancient Greek or Hindi, where aspirated stops change the meaning of words by comparison with items that have their unaspirated counterparts ceteris paribus.

It is only by taking such variation for what it is, i. e., the working out of Thirdness in the context of Secondness,  that we can we understand what Peirce had in mind with his version of Pragmatism.

The use by Peirce of the form “rationalized” (rather than “rational”) as a modifier of “variety” in the quotation above should be taken advisedly. This use of the participial form, with its adversion to process, should serve as a caveat that when Peirce talks about “objective idealism,” what he ought to have said is “objectified idealism.” This slight grammatical change puts the meaning of the phrase (and the doctrine!) in a whole new––and completely acceptable––light.

Because he was a practicing scientist in the modern sense, Peirce is the one great philosopher who escapes my definition of a philosopher as someone who only solves problems of his own devising. This also makes him a proto-structuralist (a structuralist avant la lettre).