• Monthly Archives: May 2011

Pauses between Words

May 28, 2011

If the face is the window of the soul (cf. L. vultus est index animi), then speech is the window of the mind. Pauses between words are also part of speech, and as such are to be reckoned as indices of mental states.

Pauses may be motivated by a number of performance factors, including indecision and habitual stammering. But nothing except some kind of deficiency explains pausing between “President” and “Komorowski,” as did President Barack Obama in his recorded remarks from Poland, broadcast over the radio today, addressing his Polish counterpart. Not only does this particular pause—i. e. between grammatically closely-bound words––signify a lack of fluency, it also betrays a lack of connection to the addressee and to the context on the utterer’s part.

The language of Mr. Obama’s public speaking, despite all the praise heaped on it by commentators for its putative rhetorical skill, is actually often less than fluent, which is to say that the words do not FLOW (L fluens, fluēnt-, present participle of fluere, ‘to flow’). When these commentators say—as did the one on the BBC World Service, whose words accompanied today’s clip—that Mr. Obama sounds “professorial,” the mind boggles (v. intrans.). Unnatural hesitation, pauses between words, elongated enunciation: are these the phonetic characteristics that make speech “professorial?” If this is an accurate judgment by the public, it can only reflect badly on the professoriate.


Clichés: Corpses from the Necropolis of Dead Metaphors

May 25, 2011

There once lived a woman who hated clichés. This post is intended to explicate her linguistic animus.

Clichés exist in every language. They are typically old, worn-out, fatigued figures of speech which have fossilized through constant use into words and phrases that have a rigid meaning and are repeated ad nauseam because they render complex semantic relations compactly.

Here is a contemporary example, in context, of a tired trope, perfect storm (meaning a confluence of events that drastically aggravates a situation):

“You had this perfect storm [emphasis added] where in his Middle East speech Obama didn’t explain very well what he meant by ‘land swaps,’ Netanyahu was so upset by the mention of 1967 borders that he basically mischaracterized the president’s proposal for four days, and as a result the whole visit became hyperpartisan at a time when Israel was looking for bipartisan support from the United States,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (James Kitfield, “Netanyahu’s ‘Unvarnished Truth’ Tour,” www.theatlantic.com, May 25, 2011)

Instead of saying “a confluence of events” the writer has resorted to this tired cliché. It may be more apt than usual, given the politically fraught context, but it is nonetheless a token of a mental slovenliness that elicits stylistic contempt. Perhaps only a deliberate revivification of the phrase via semantic disinterment (e. g., “the perfect storm didn’t have much wind at its back” ) could ever hope to rescue this freshly-laid corpse––along with all its lifeless congeners––from their tropological resting place. R. i. p. would be a fitter fate.


Homo figurans, not sapiens

May 23, 2011

Nothing could be more misleading than to taxonomize modern humans by the Latin phrase homo sapiens ‘wise or knowing man’. A more appropriate label would be homo figurans ‘figural or troping man’ because nothing defines the difference between humans and other bipedal primates more essentially than our ability and, more importantly, our propensity to simultaneously say one thing while meaning another. This tropism toward tropes is the differentia specifica of human beings.

If ever one needed further evidence of the quiddity of this existential truth, it was supplied obliquely in an interview heard today on the BBC World Service with a British soldier. Recalling his first meeting with his deceased fiancée, a medical doctor killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, he described her as having “ticked all the boxes” for him. One could, of course, easily fault the soldier for resorting to such an utterly flat and colorless figure of speech to limn what was evidently an emotionally freighted recollection. His mode of expression instantiated nonetheless just that essentially human cognitive capacity which separates us from the other hominidae.


Fragments of a Stylistic Auto-Commentary

May 22, 2011

Occasionally, when penning these posts (note the paronomasia), your humble blogger vacillates in his formulations and struggles to find the mot juste. Apropos, need it be said, for instance, that instead of “fragments” in the title of this post, I first thought of the German word Fragmente, echoing the frequent recurrence by my father (who studied with Husserl in Freiburg) to Diels’s Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker in our conversations about the pre-Socratic philosophers? (I used to tell my own students that the truth could only be spoken in German.)

It might be of more than passing interest that when composing the post preceding this one (“Idiosyncratic Pronunciations: Tone-Deafness?”), I first wrote “slavish” and then changed the adjective to “stubborn” before settling on “contrarian.” The first variant was rejected for obvious––apotropaic––reasons (given the speaker being characterized); the second for reasons of insecurity regarding psychological motivation. Hence emerged “contrarian,” with its appositely neutral descriptive tinge, as the published variant.


Idiosyncratic Pronunciations: Tone-Deafness?

The radio interview with President Barack Obama broadcast today on the BBC World Service showed yet again that as a speaker of contemporary American English Mr. Obama has certain idiosyncrasies. For instance, when speaking of the Taliban (ṭālibān, meaning ‘students’ in Arabic), his pronunciation deviates from that of the overwhelming majority of speakers in having the sound [i:] after the [l] preceding the unstressed medial vowel, making it sound like the second vowel of tally rather than that of tulip. This unwonted pronunciation can occasionally be heard from certain American generals when interviewed by the media as well.

The source and impulse behind this idiosyncrasy is clearly speech, mostly by non-natives, that is perceived by some speakers of American English to be “authentic,” namely the pronunciation of the word in Arabic, where the [l] is unvelarized and fronted, creating the impression that in order to reproduce it in English “authentically” one needs to render it like the second vowel of tally. Needless to say, neither Mr. Obama nor the American generals whom he may have heard this pronunciation from in the first place are known to have any authentic knowledge of Arabic phonetics.

In Mr. Obama’s speech this attempt at phonetic verisimilitude in the pronunciation of a foreign item is of a piece with another of his speech traits (already detailed in an earlier post), namely rendering the word Pakistan with the first and last vowels mimicking Pakistani English [a:], as in father, instead of general American English [æ], as in cat.

It’s an interesting question, pertaining to the cultural determinants of language use, exactly why certain speakers persist in deviating idiosyncratically from the overwhelming evidence of the norm that they are exposed to. In the case of foreign borrowings, contrarian adherence to what they perceive to be “authentic” seems to be the answer. Perhaps they feel (at some undeterminable psychological level––quién sabe?) that this phonetic proclivity makes them seem more knowledgeable about the subject of the discourse in which their speech is embedded.


“Was unterscheidet Götter von Menschen?”

May 20, 2011

Occasionally––as regular readers of this blog will have noted––I allow myself a post tinctured by my own life experiences. What follows is in that vein.

Recently, while on a trip to Uppsala via Frankfurt on Lufthansa, I was exposed to the sounds of German, which recalled my own family milieu, where German was spoken from time to time by my parents, both of whom spoke it fluently from childhood and were educated in Germany (Berlin, Freiburg, Leipzig) in the 1920s. Just before embarking on this trip, I had thought for the umpteenth time about the line from Goethe’s poem «Grenzen der Menschheit» («Limits of Mankind»), which is this post’s title («What distinguishes gods from men?») and which I had memorized as a schoolboy in Hollywood during my first year of German study. This reminiscence was prompted also by the fact that I had just used the line as a motto to the poem by my father that I’d distributed to my students in the Philosophy of the Russian Novel course I taught this past semester at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, and had declaimed to them as a sample of Russian verse by a twentieth-century Russian poet––a poem composed, nota bene, while the author was on a train traveling from Indianapolis to Los Angeles. Here it is (in a very rough translation by the blogger):

Константин Шапиро (1896 -1992) Constantine Shapiro

Направо и налево горы,                         To the right and left are mountains,
Кругом лишь кактусы растут.               Only cactuses grow all around.
Колючие то дети флоры,                        These are prickly children of flora,
Среди них люди не живут.                    Among them people do not live.

Но кое–где видны жилища,                 But here and there dwellings are visible,
Вот мельница, и колесо                         There’s a mill, and a wheel
От ветра крутится, есть пища––         Turns from the wind, and there’s food––
Хоть достается не легко.                        Even though it’s not easy to get it.

Я видел даже три коровы;                       I even saw three cows;
Наверно есть тут и трава.                        There’s probably grass here too.
Кондуктор с ликом из Кордовы            The conductor with a mien from Cordova
Со мной беседовал слегка.                      Conversed with me a bit.

Я ночью спал довольно крепко,            I slept quite soundly through the night,
Хоть жестко было и теснò.                      Even though it was hard and crowded.
Сосед в Париже был и метко                  My neighbor had been in Paris and aptly
Описывал свое житье.                               Described his life.

Мне с острым клювом снилась птица     I dreamt of a bird with a sharp beak,
И вот ко мне летит уж вкось,                     And it’s already flying at me at an angle,
В руке моей вдруг вижу––спица:             Suddenly I see a knitting needle in my hand:
Ее прогнать мне удалось.                            I was able to chase it away.

Омлет в вагоне–ресторане                          I ate an omelet in the dining car
Я скушал, кофеем запил,                             And drank it down with coffee,
Потом, рассевшись на диване,                   Then, relaxing on the divan,
Судьбу свою благословил.                           I blessed my fate.

Блажен, кто может вдохновенье                 Blessed is he who can know inspiration
Познать душой и отдохнуть.                        In his soul and rest.
Ему грехов его забвенье                                The oblivion of his sins
В нирвану открывает путь.                           Opens a path for him to Nirvana.

Блажен, кого небесным звоном                   Blessed is he whom the Angel
Наполнил Ангел с юных лет,                        Has filled with the heavenly peal,
Кому в глаза, как пред амвоном,                 Before whose eyes, as before the ambo,
Сияет философский свет.                               Shines forth the light of philosophy.
1954                                                                         1954


Memoirs (plurale tantum)

May 16, 2011

The traditional designation of an autobiographical account as a literary genre has always gone by the name memoirs, in the plural, not the singular. Recently, however, writers and readers have begun referring to it exclusively in the singular, viz. memoir. This change can in part be accounted for by the fact that of all contemporary literary genres memoirs was the only one whose designation occurred in the plural only, the singular being reserved for other kinds of written account such as a memorandum, notice, special study, monograph, or history. The change, therefore, can be seen as a lexical normalization.

A possibly covert other reason for the change is the simple fact that speakers and writers––particularly of American English––are ignorant of the original meaning of the word, namely ‘remembrances’ or ‘memories’. The (French) form that took root in English to mean the genre obscures its origin and its attendant meaning, hence facilitating the new recurrence to the singular and the oblivion of the traditional plural.


Iconism and Learnèd Plurals

May 3, 2011

In those languages of the world that are inflected, the plurals of nouns are routinely formed by adding a desinence (= inflectional suffix) to the stem of the singular. English is no exception. There is thus an iconic relation between the forms of the two grammatical numbers, viz. the plural is longer than the singular.

However, English also has a set of plurals which are shorter than their singular counterparts, namely the learnèd words of Latin and Greek origin such as medium, phenomenon, criterion, etc., whose plurals (media, phenomena, criteria, etc.) are formed by replacing the desinence of the singular with –a. This is admittedly a small lexical class, but its frequency has also conditioned a change in the history of English whereby the plural forms commonly supplant the singular for both numbers. Thus media is now generally construed as a collective singular––interestingly, with no plural (singulare tantum). There are even contemporary examples of scholarly writing where this change can be observed. Cf. the stylistic barbarism in the following sentence: ”Almost from the very beginning Sologub seemed to be a curious phenomena in Russian Symbolism, for reasons other than his background, profession or appearance.” (S. D. Cioran, “Introduction,” Fyodor Sologub: The Petty Demon [Woodstock: Ardis, 2006], p. 16. This may or may not be a genuinely native solecism, given the Romanian surname of the writer, but it was evidently not caught in proof and thus counts as such all the same).

The change at issue is unidirectional: the plural form always replaces the singular for both numbers. The fact that the normal English plural desinences fails to be attached in such words as media can be ascribed to the residual strength of the original meaning of the plural as the marked number. Be that as it may, ultimately the change can be construed as a consequence of the principle of iconism, here dictating that the shorter of the two variants be used as the form of the singular.


DO, v., trans.

May 1, 2011

Do is undoubtedly the most protean verb in the English language. All one has to do to be convinced of this fact is to look under the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A man and a woman, both of a certain age, come into a Vermontian tavern and sit down at the bar. They each order a glass of wine. When the bartender pours the drinks, there is some confusion as to which patron wishes the white, which the red, so the female customer says: “He does the white, and I do the red” [emphasis added––MS]. A strange utterance under the circumstances, no?

Whatever could she have meant? That her male companion habitually drinks white wine, and she red, implying that this distribution is at odds with the norm for the two sexes? It’s impossible to interpret the woman’s utterance with certainty.

One is reminded of the fact that just as characters in novels don’t always know their own motives, so with people in real life.


[Addendum on a personal note: I was sitting in a restaurant cogitating over what this post would contain when a well-known poem by that splendid Russian nineteenth-century lyric poet, A. A. Fet, hove into mental view. For those readers who have Russian, here it is (NB the last line and the preceding enjambment):

* * *

Я пришел к тебе с приветом,
Рассказать, что солнце встало,
Что оно горячим светом
По листам затрепетало;

Рассказать, что лес проснулся,
Весь проснулся, веткой каждой,
Каждой птицей встрепенулся
И весенней полон жаждой;

Рассказать, что с той же страстью,
Как вчера, пришел я снова,
Что душа все так же счастью
И тебе служить готова;

Рассказать, что отовсюду
На меня весельем веет,
Что не знаю сам, что буду
Петь – но только песня зреет.