The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 10: Mother’s Day 2017

May 14, 2017

The goal of every human being’s life is to make others happy, especially those whom we love and who love us. That is what my mother, Lydia Shapiro (1905-1983), did for her five sons every day of her life. My father, Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992), wrote a poem in 1943 addressed to her (“К Лидии» [“To Lydia”]), whose iambic lines read as follows:


Ланиты розами покрылись,
Вы пополнели, расцвели,
Вы поумнели, оперились,
Совсем как дама стали Вы.

А все ж в глазах огонь играет
И детской шалости мечты,
Годов следы с лица стирает
Волна сердечной теплоты.
Поэт Вам счастия желает,
Он жизнь спокойную сулит
Тому, в душе чьей обитает
Любовь и правды верный щит.

A loose prose translation goes like this:

To Lydia

Your cheeks have become covered with roses,
You’ve filled out, blossomed,
You’ve gotten smarter, full-fledged,
You’ve become just like a lady.

And all the same a fire plays in your eyes
And thoughts of childhood pranks,
[And] traces of the years have been removed
By a wave of cordial warmth.
The poet wishes you happiness,
He prophesies a peaceful life
To one in whose heart abide
Love and the faithful shield of truth.

The last two lines are the key to my mother’s being and essence. She and I played the entire piano/clarinet duo repertoire together when I was a child (just as Marianne and I did our whole married life together). I think of Mama every day of my life.


Idiosyncrasies in Lexica (Tea with/without Sugar in Russian)

May 12, 2017

Languages always differ to some extent in the diapason of their word stock. One language may have a name for an item of vocabulary that corresponds to real-life differences lacking in another. Such is the case, for instance, of English finger and toe to name digits on human hands and feet, respectively, which is lacking in Russian. The latter uses the word palec (палец) for both. Although the word without further specification refers to hands, when a differentiation is required a clarificatory phrase is used to designate the anatomical item, namely пальцы на руках ‘fingers’ and пальцы на ногах ‘toes’.

A unique case of lexical specificity is to be observed with a triplet of compound adverbs (preposition + verbal stem + feminine accusative desinence) in Russian that designate whether one puts the sugar in the cup/glass of tea or drinks it with the (piece of) sugar between one’s teeth. (Tea drinking is an activity Russians are traditionally very fond of.) Thus, when sugar is used in one’s tea, the appropriate phrase is внакладку (vnakládku) ‘placing in’. When the sugar is held between the teeth while drinking tea, the word is вприкуску (vprikúsku) ‘biting in’. And finally, in jocular use, when no sugar is taken at all with one’s cup of tea, the word is вприглядку (vprigljádku), which means something like ‘while eyeing [it]’. This three-way differentiation between drinking tea with or without sugar amply testifies to the wide-spread idiosyncrasies of word usage observed across languages.


The Glossary of Useful Words 12: punctilious

May 9, 2017

Sometimes Jacobus Primus (moniker of Y-H-B’s older brother Jacob [b. 1928]) comes up with a word in conversation that is eminently apposite but rarely heard these days in ordinary speech. Such is the adjective punctilious, defined by the OED as follows:

Strictly observant of or insistent on fine points of procedure, etiquette, or conduct; extremely or excessively particular or correct. Also: characterized by such scrupulous attention to detail or formality.

Here is its pedigree:

Origin: A borrowing from French, combined with English elements; modelled on a French lexical item. Etymons: punctilio, n., -ous suffix, French pontilleux.
Etymology: pointilleux (a1608; c1580 in Middle French as pontilleux). Compare Italian puntiglioso (1618)

Jacobus mentioned this word the other day (inter alia) because he can be said to embody its meaning in his own attitude and behavior. Once again, Aristotle was right when he averred that action is the overt embodiment of character. Q. E. D.


Self-Irony and the Linguistic Fashioning of Personality

May 8, 2017

It is a commonplace of the analysis of personality that language is the main ingredient in the self-fashioning of a persona. Gestures, clothing, mannerisms of all kinds contribute to this process but are ancillary to the cumulative result. “You are what you say”––or so one can safely maintain, although a distinguished Colombian philosopher of mathematics, when recently exposed to this statement, responded by countering, “You are what you are” (a notably vacuous formulation all the same).

Humor at one’s own expense (self-irony included) can be characteristic of one’s personality, and those who lack this trait often stand out in contemporary American culture––negatively, one must say, although it need not prevent such persons from succeeding in life. A total absence of the ability to ironize on oneself is part of the general lack of self-awareness (clinically: anosognosia) that is more typically characteristic of the male members of the species, but not only.

One such person in Y-H-B’s early academic experience stands out, namely a former colleague (a male Slavist), who as a young man exhibited a total absence of self-irony linguistically and of self-awareness behaviorally, then came out of the closet publicly after two failed marriages to women (N.B.!), and ended up with an endowed chair at one of America’s elite universities–– despite remaining unchanged as to personality all the while.


The Groves of Academe (Not Academia)

May 7, 2017

The phrase “groves of academe” has been in English since at least the eighteenth century. The OED cites it as deriving from Horace’s Odes:

groves of Academe [translating classical Latin silvās Acadēmī in Horace: see the etymology] (literary): a place of studious seclusion; the academic world, viewed as sheltered from the demands of everyday life.

In post-war America the phrase came into common use due largely to Mary McCarthy’s eponymous 1952 novel, whence the word academe as a frequent designation for the academic world or academic life. Lately, however, it is being supplanted by the hypertrophic variant academia, often mispronounced to rhyme with macadamia (as in “macadamia nuts”). This variant is on the cusp of consigning the correct form to oblivion and is even to be heard emanating from the lips of academics, who should know better.


When Only a Foreign Locution Will Serve (German erblich belastet)

April 29, 2017

English is a magnificent instrument of linguistic expression, arguably the richest and most adaptable language in the human firmament. However, occasionally it lacks a specific word or phrase that can only be found in another language, and the use of this heterolingual means in an English utterance conveniently fills the gap that happens to exist in the native lexicon.

     Y-H-B was reminded today of this fact while sitting in a fish restaurant on Third Avenue in Manhattan and enjoying a rare treat of caviar and wine. His waitress happened to turn her back as she made her way from the table after taking the order, thereby revealing a derrière characteristic of a certain human female type, and immediately the German participial compound phrase erblich belastet (from das Erbe ‘inheritance’ + die Last ‘load’) hove into Y-H-B’s consciousness, a phrase he had acquired in childhood from his mother (who spoke five languages fluently, including German). The meaning is something like “encumbered by heredity,” i. e. inescapably part of one’s biological inheritance. That was the most apposite description of the waitress’s lower anatomy, for which there is no idiomatic equivalent in English.


Meaning and the Trirelative Semiotic Orientation of Language

April 28, 2017

Linguistics is axiomatically an observational science. It pays attention to and analyzes the ontology and the use of language in a triad of respects: (1) language as code, i. e., a set of norms that every speaker inherits when they become members of the community of learners and users; (2) language as inner/personal speech, i. e., the internal communication that occurs between phases of the thinking self; and (3) language as social/external speech, i. e., vocalized communication with interlocutors. In all three of these respects language at any given stage of its development is the cumulative result of its history, i. e., the teleological outcome of past stages.

Expanding these postulates with respect to linguistic meaning, Plato says that “thought and speech are the same; only the former, which is a silent inner conversation of the soul with itself, has been given the special name of thought” (Sophist 263E). Peirce goes one step further and says that “all thought is in signs.” Synthesizing these ideas, we can say that LANGUAGE IS THE INSTRUMENT OF THOUGHT AND OF SPEECH, both, and consists of semeiotic units––SIGNS––that are, furthermore, to be defined as THE PATTERNED COLLIGATION OF SOUND AND MEANING. The epitomical units of language, words, are units of meaning consisting of a sequence of sounds (called PHONEMES) that are associated in the minds of speakers with one or more meanings. A sign is defined, in language more particularly, as (1) anything that is capable of signifying something else (called its OBJECT) and (2) anything capable of being interpreted as signifying the particular meaning(s) intended by the speaker or language user (called its INTERPRETANT).

Philosophers have agonized from time immemorial about the nature of meaning and how to define it. When it comes to language, there is no difficulty because meaning is the object of linguistic signs, alias words. If I utter the sounds “dog” and intend by this sequence to mean the English word for “a small- to medium-sized carnivorous mammal (Canis familiaris synonym Canis lupus familiaris) of the family Canidae,” any interlocutor with a knowledge of English will know what I am referring to. Saying French chien, German Hund, Russian sobaka, or Japanese inu changes nothing as far as the object signified is concerned: they all mean ‘dog’, differing only in linguistic means of expression.

Meaning is often localized as being “in the head” of speakers, but Peirce had a much more profound idea of meaning’s locus: it is everywhere in the universe around us. From this postulate he draws the conclusion that WE ARE IN MEANING, rather than meaning being in us. Since all thought is in signs, the universe is therefore “perfused” by signs, and we are creatures so constructed by evolutionary biology to make sense of our environment and to communicate to ourselves and to our fellow humans what that sense is. Language is, to repeat, both the instrument of thought and the means by which thoughts are communicated through speech (oral and written).

For those readers of this blog who have enough French, much of what is stated apodeictically above can be discerned experientially to be in harmony with the present approach to language in the splendid, path-breaking new book by Nils B. Thelin, L’aspect, le temps et la taxis en français contemporain: Vers une sémantique de la perspective temporelle (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Studia Romanica Upsaliensia 83. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2016), to whom this post is dedicated in token of friendship and esteem.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 9 (Variations on the Speaking Self)

April 9, 2017

Riding on the SBSM15 bus down Second Avenue in Manhattan and talking to a recent acquaintance, we were joined in conversation by a woman sitting in front of us who overheard us and wanted to contribute to our discussion of a social topic, so we let her have her say.

The animated character of her words and gestures made me think of the piece of historical information my former teacher Roman Jakobson had imparted to me about the variety of linguistic expression as taught by the great Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, namely his use in acting classes of the last lines uttered by its hero Chatsky in the Russian classic play “Gore ot uma” (“Woe from Wit”) by Alexander Griboedov, “Karetu mne, karetu” (“My carriage, my carriage”). The exercise for students was to say these lines in as many variations as possible, including a whisper. The point was to habituate actors to the near-infinite expressive possibilities of language, where linguistic nuances based on enunciation, emphasis, and intonation embody emotive meaning and thereby necessarily differentiate a whole range of variants.

Especially through such chance encounters (as with the lady on the bus) one becomes more convinced than ever that the dictum “You are what you say” (my formulation) is exemplified not only by trained actors on the stage but by all of us when we speak. Whatever else we do with our bodies when we use language (gesticulate with our hands, turn our lips this way or that, etc.), it is more than anything the nuances of our speech that carve out those parts of the matrix of meaning in which all semiosis is embedded, and hence characterize our selves as speaking beings unlike any other species.


For Emphasis (absolútely)

March 19, 2017

Languages have several means at their disposal whereby part or a whole utterance can be emphasized and thereby distinguished from a neutral stretch of speech. Relative loudness is one such means: something shouted at an interlocutor when the distance between speakers does not require raising one’s voice signifies emphasis (both emotive and referential). Another means, when it comes to English in particular, is elongation of the syllabic structure of words, i. e., pronouncing the vowels with unusual length. A related instance of elongation is what one observes in the word please, when a schwa is inserted between the first two consonants for emphasis.

As in the case of the amphibrachic structure of treméndous, to which appeal was made in an earlier post, prosody can also provide the means for realizing––or cooperating in the realization of––emphatic meaning. The currently ubiquitous answer to an interlocutor’s statement, instead of just agreeing by saying right or yes or certainly, is the emphatic absolútely, with high pitch on the stressed vowel. Aside from the intrinsic meaning of the word, its anapestic prosody (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable) is what has particularly contributed to this word’s being preferred nowadays as the emphatic riposte-in-agreement par excellence. The fact of the anapest having two unstressed syllables preceding the stress lends extra force by contrast to the stressed syllable, thereby heightening the emphatic meaning.


Capturing the Love Object in Words

March 12, 2017

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s well-known Sonnet 43 goes like this:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Compare it to Shakespeare’s immortal Sonnet 81:

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

When considering a fitting epigraph for the second edition of our book, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language (2009), I chose the Shakespeare to commemorate my Marianne (עליה השלום). It puts all other poems in the shade in capturing both the haecceity and the quiddity of the romance of our love, where romance is defined as embodying the triumph of spirit over flesh, in life as in death.

While sitting this afternoon in a neighborhood restaurant and savoring my caviar and oysters in Marianne’s honor, only the Russian adjective бесподобная (literally, ‘without + similar’ [fem.]) floated into my consciousness, to capture my love and her essence. The European languages have nothing to match this Slavic compositum, with the possible exception of French nonpareille, which is, of course, not strictly synonymous in either structure or meaning.

Poets from time immemorial have been trying to capture linguistically the multidimensionality of love. Perhaps the Old Provençal troubadours succeeded, but only in part. No words, no matter how well-turned, can do love justice.