It is well-known that politicians––especially American members of the species––have an annoying habit of repeating themselves endlessly. One of the phrases that they utter redundantly for emphasis is “Let me be clear” as a way of introducing their brand of political speak. President Joe Biden is particularly guilty of this infelicity.
But the question arises: when is an American politician ever “clear?” Obfuscation is in their blood. So is anosognosia (= lack of self-awareness).
Since the 2nd edition of The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage appeared in print under the Springer Nature imprimatur, Y-H-B has often wondered whether his very expensive book has reached the wide audience it deserves by its sui generis character as a usage manual. The blog on which the book is based (languagelore.net) currently has over three hundred subscribers (including 292 RSS feeds), which constitutes palpable testimony of its global spread, but the typical lack of comments on its posts does not furnish any assurance as to its impact.
All the same, I remain proud of what I have accomplished in print and remain hopeful that the high price of the published book will not remain an insuperable obstacle to its assuming its rightful place among specimens of its genre.
In contemporary English of all stripes, one constantly hears speakers using the phrase “in terms of” instead of “with regard to” (or equivalent items) whenever they wish to indicate the reference of whatever vocables precede this phrase, e.g. “We think (that) in terms of Jim we should hold off.”
To a purist like Y-H-B, such utterances seem ungrammatical, but the current norm in statu nascendi not only allows them but welcomes them. Whatever floats your boat!
In an interview just heard on CNN, the former Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, uttered the buzzword “mind-set” at least three times in the same sentence. He did not know, one must presume, that this compound is actually a loan translation of the Latin forma mentis ‘form of mind/mentality’. The word forma is important because it is not to be translated by the English ‘set’ but by ‘form’. Nevertheless, this buzzword has established itself irrefragably in current speech and is to be heard emanating from the mouths of the most variegated speakers ad nauseam.
While chance or “spontaneous variation” has a role to play in Darwinian theory, we can safely say that there is none in language change. Whenever languages change, they do so because something in the context is accountable for the change.
It is another matter when it comes to timing. A context may be conducible to a change, yet no change need occur, which means that changes are spontaneous when first introduced. Whether such spontaneous variations are propagated and continue to exist over time is another matter. Every change must be taken up by the language community en gros in order to perdure.
Very often, language being figurative at its core, something linguistic comes into being because of metaphorical innovation but need not be taken up by speakers at large. Such, for instance, is the currently popular compound in English, game-changer. This word is applied in popular speech to just about every situation that can be described as a fundamental change in circumstances. The transferred use of the component game testifies to the conceptualization by its users of every possible situation as something resembling a game. The fundamental meaning of this word necessarily involves the concept of “play,” which then means that speakers who resort to this compound are inherently taking every life-situation as a game. In the case of American speakers this is further evidence that we/they construe everything in life as being (at least potentially) less than serious.
In an item posted here eight years ago, “The Tension between Grammar and Praxis,” Y-H-B pointed to the increasing tendency in public speech to replace the inanimate demonstrative which with the animate who when referring to entities behind which stood human actors or collectives.
In a TV clip on CNN today, this tendency was once again demonstrated when the current AID Administrator, Samantha Power, was recorded as saying “the countries who” during an interview in Africa.
Coming from a sometime college professor with advanced degrees, this strikes Y-H-B as a particularly flagrant example of the mistake’s current expansion throughout contemporary speech. Errare humanum est.
In rereading a British biography of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky (spelled just this way in the title), Y-H-B realized the dominance of German spelling practices when it comes to many Russian names. Here, for example, there is no need for the initial letter T in the English spelling of the Russian name, since it would be pronounced the same in English without it. Its presence here stems from the German necessity to distinguish Ch- from Tch- because ch alone would be pronounced [x], i. e. the stronger version of English h, as in harbinger.
In the original Russian, of course, the initial letter of the composer’s name renders the same sound as the English churl, and the T- is utterly otiose.
By the bye, speaking of foreign renderings of onomastics, it might be noted here that in Japanese the high pitch in its version of our composer’s name falls on the final vowel rather than on the penult.
Of all the responses I received to my recent post about my late beloved wife, the most eloquent and touching was from my dear friend, Vincent Colapietro, as follows:
“The world was robbed, all too soon, of Marianne’s linguistic genius, literary gifts, exemplary scholarship, and radiant presence. That loss was felt widely and deeply. But there is no measure for what you experienced then and have every day since this incomparable woman was torn from our midst. Always, V”
It may be of interest to readers of this blog that Y-H-B keeps receiving notifications from Academia regarding persons who have read my paper, “Roman Jakobson in Retrospect: Unvarnished Remembrances of a Stiff-Necked Student,” Chinese Semiotic Studies, 14 (2018), 41-56, available here under the rubric “PDFs of Papers by Michael Shapiro.” This paper recounts my experience with Jakobson as his student at Harvard and later as his opponent in a published dispute regarding Russian phonology, which includes a detailed discussion of Jakobson’s glaring errors.
I would hardly have expected this paper to have attracted so many readers. By contrast, I regard my most outstanding contribution (also available for reading here) to be “Sound and Meaning in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Language, 74 (1998), 81-103. Apropos, a recent survey conducted by the Linguistic Society of America shows that this item is among the 25 most-viewed/-downloaded articles in JSTOR covering volumes of Language from 1925 to 2000 (according to http://ideophone.org/language-anthology-citations/). It has also been downloaded over 200 times from this blog, which typically has ca. 30,000 visits/mo. (according to Webalizer) and over 200 subscribers (RSS feeds and e-mails).
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my beloved wife, Marianne Shapiro, whose influnce on my work is profound, especially when it comes to commentary on the English language. She spoke French and Italian fluently, in addition to her native Hungarian and her flawless English.
Marianne was also the most versatile and accomplished American Italianist of the twentieth century. Here is a link to her publications: http://www.higherlearninganovel.com/?page_id=310
I think of Marianne with every breath I take.