• Monthly Archives: July 2011

Paronomastic Interference in Language Change

July 31, 2011

While alliteration has a very old pedigree in English and is the source of innovation in phraseology (despite blatant redundancies, cf. the odious binomials skill set and price point, to name only two contemporary cases), paronomasia has been neglected as a source of false analogy that gives rise to variant pronunciations. The American English rendering of the word machination(s) with the sound [ʃ] instead of [k] for –ch-, while manifestly produced by analogy with machine, should probably not be attributed solely to the influence of the latter, as will be made clear below.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online has the following entry for this word:

machination, n. An instance of plotting or (usually malicious) contrivance; an intrigue, plot, or scheme. Now usu. in pl.
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˌmakᵻˈneɪʃn/, /ˌmaʃᵻˈneɪʃn/, U.S. /ˌmækəˈneɪʃən/, /ˌmæʃəˈneɪʃən/. Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman and Middle French machination plotting, wicked contrivance or stratagem (13th cent. in Old French) and its etymon classical Latin māchinātiōn-, māchinātiō machine-making, piece of machinery, stratagem (rare in this sense in classical Latin, although attested in post-classical Latin in British sources from 960) < māchināt-, past participial stem of māchinārī + -iō. Compare Italian macchinazione plot, machine, siege engine (14th cent.), Catalan maquinació plot (late 14th cent.). The pronunciation with /ʃ/, due to the influence of machine n., was recorded in Webster (1961); the presence of an entry in the B.B.C.’s Recommendations for Pronouncing Difficult Words (S.P.E. Tract No. XXXII, 1931), p. 28, recommending the traditional pronunciation, may be indirect earlier evidence for the existence of the pronunciation with /ʃ/.”

Besides the influence of machine, one should also consider the same sort of paronomastic interference that has produced a derived meaning, in American English, for the verb meld, namely ‘mixing together’, even though the original meaning was ‘announce’ and had nothing to do with ‘mixing’. The new meaning is the product of conflating meld with weld, i. e., where only the initial consonant need be interchanged for the new sense to ensue. In the case of machination(s), the false analogy stems from the sound-alikes mesh (cf. enmesh) and (much less-likely) mash. The original sound of the Anglo-Norman word is undercut by its etymologically inauthentic association with a verb that suggests something like what takes place in and results from a plot, intrigue, or malicious contrivance.


Goslings in Oslo (Medial s before Liquids)

July 26, 2011

Aside from the suffixes for plural number and possessive case in substantives, the English dental fricatives s and z are not in regular alternation in native words, the exception being a rare singleton, goose [gu:s] ~ gosling [gózli?], where an s in medial position before the liquid l is pronounced as its lax counterpart z. This position of neutralization encompasses loan words with medial s before r as well, e.g., Israel [ízr?èl].

What is being neutralized here is the distinction between tense and lax obstruents, and the predictable outcome is the unmarked (lax) member of the opposition, namely z. Note that this suspension of distinctiveness applies to non-medial clusters of dental fricative + liquid as well––but with reversed values. Thus in the far more frequent case of s + l in initial position, only the marked s is possible, as in slip, slide, etc. This reversal occurs in marked contexts, which individuates initial position vis-à-vis other positions.

The medial [s] as a variant instead of [z] in the name for the capital of Norway is a spelling pronunciation evidently supported by its foreign provenience, hence exhibiting no alternation between s and z (as in goose ~ gosling). But note withal the sole normative pronunciation of the Norwegian borrowing quisling with a [z], i. e., in conformity with native English phonetics.


Incorrect Rection

July 23, 2011

Rection is the older term for grammatical government, as in what postposition a word takes. In the anglophone world, Americans are particularly  prone to making mistakes in this sphere of grammar. For instance, a common error is replacing of with to after the verb ask. This is due to interference between two semantically similar cases involving the same action, viz. “putting a question to” and “asking a question of” someone. The result is a contamination, leading to the oft-heard but unequivocally erroneous *asking a question to, particularly in the language of the media .

Similarly, the postpositions of and for are frequently interchanged erroneously. One is “desirous of” a change but “prepared for” it, just as one “consents to” a strategy but “acquiesces in” it, although the latter verb formerly allowed both to and with as complements, which are now obsolescent.

It is just such grammatical nuances of rection that most often trip up non-native speakers who are otherwise fluent in English.


An Embarrassment of Onomastic Riches

July 15, 2011

Listening to the radio this afternoon and hearing my namesake, Jeff Schapiro (never mind the German variant orthography) of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, expatiating on the vagaries of Virginia politics, I was reminded yet again of the seeming perfusion in America of the surname that derives from that of the Jewish residents of the medieval German city of Speyer who eventually migrated to Eastern Europe, including Lithuania. In fact (according to my father, whose ancestors came from Radoshkovichi in what is now called Belarus), there were so many Shapiros in Vil’na (the Russianized name of the capital, Vilnius) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that some of them changed their name to Vilenkin, a Yiddish-Russian hybrid deriving from their patrial.

Not all Shapiros are created equal. When in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jews immigrated to America from the Pale of Settlement in their thousands, many of them arrived at Ellis Island in New York bearing unpronounceable Polish, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Bessarabian names. This apparently didn’t sit well with immigration officials, so in order to simplify matters, they frequently assigned the name Shapiro ex parte to these onomastically-impaired newcomers, Cohen and Levy not being suitable because of tribal restrictions.

As they used to say in the Soviet Union before it krepiered, Dva mira––dva Shapiro (“Два мира––два Шапиро” [rhymes in Russian]) ‘Two worlds––two Shapiros’.


ex parte
: from or on one side only, with the other side absent or unrepresented (Latin)
, v.: to die (Yiddish)
, adj.: of, relating to, or explaining a name or names
, n.: (correct) spelling
perfusion, n.: a great quantity
, n.: the word for the name of a country or place and used to denote a native or              inhabitant of it
vagary, n.: an extravagant or erratic motion or action

“I Could Care Less:” A Conundrum Answered

The long-standing mystery as to how the idiomatic phrase in American English, “I could care less,” could mean the same thing as its negation, “I couldn’t care less,” is to be explained as an ELLIPSIS. The full version underlying it is: “I could care (even) less, if I cared to (care).”


The Hidden Homophony in ‘Icon(ic)’

No one exposed to contemporary media language can have missed the gross overuse of the words ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’ in American English. The grotesque surfeit of their occurrence has now reached the point where the Los Angeles Times has reportedly banned them from its pages (along with legend and legendary as applied to persons).

How to explain their rise in ubiquity? The terminologization of icon in computer-speak could be a contributory factor, but a more proximate cause may lurk in something virtual, viz. the homophony of the initial vowel with the words I and eye. Nothing is more important to the notional content of the contemporary meanings of icon and iconic than their epitomic connotations of SELFHOOD (as embodied in the first person singular pronoun) and of SEEING (as embodied in name of the organ of sight). This explanation rises in plausibility when seen as a variation on Euclid’s pons asinorum as applied to language.


Déjà vu––Not!

July 11, 2011

When it comes to mispronunciations of foreign phrases in American English, the French locution déjà vu takes the gâteau. This phrase’s popularity rose with the jocund twist it received in the winged variant, “It’s deja vu all over again,” excogitated by Yogi Berra, the erstwhile New York Yankee catcher with a penchant for malapropism.

Americans habitually garble the second word of this phrase, making it sound like the French word vous ‘you [pl.]’, despite the fact that a passable simulacrum of the French pronunciation is easily rendered by pronouncing it like English view (without the diphthongal offglide, of course).

One is yet again reminded here of the popular Japanese proverb, Ikken kyo ni hoete banken jitsu o tsutau (一犬嘘に吠えて万犬実お伝う), which loosely translated means ‘One dog barks out a lie and ten thousand dogs take it up as the truth’ and must surely figure as a principle of cultural change, including language.


The Temperature in February (Dejotation)

July 9, 2011

The common words temperature and February are often pronounced with vowel elision and/or dejotation, by which latter is meant here the elision of a liquid or glide following a consonant and preceding the medial vowel, resulting in phonetic variation, viz. [témpəchur] and [fébyueri], alongside the pronunciations that are guided by orthography. In the case of February the dropping of r after b does not alter the fact that the glide (transcribed by the letter y here) remains regardless of which variant is heard in contemporary (American) English.

Someone unfamiliar with the arcana of structural linguistics may wonder why such an elision takes place despite the orthography. The reason lies in the nature of the relation between speech sounds and their implementation. Every speech sound has a content that is manifested in actual utterances in such a way as to reveal––to both learner and user––just what that content is. In semiotic terms, this is to say that there is an iconic relation between the sounds and the rules of their implementation. The rules of a language’s phonology are a map of its distinctive features. In other words, the rules of combination of linguistic units (here: sounds) are a function of the units’ makeup.

In the case of the two words at issue, one needs also to realize that speech sounds do not occur in isolation but are grouped together in syllables, which are the basic gestalt domains of speech. A syllable is defined by three POSITIONS : the nucleus––usually a vowel––and two margins, namely the onset and the coda, which are resp. the initial and the final sounds in the syllable, preceding and following the vocalic nucleus. Taking a monosyllable like sprat as a handy example, the onset consists of spr- and the coda of t.

Returning to temperature and February, in each case there is an extant pronunciation that is at variance with the orthography whereby the liquid r in onset position following an obstruent (= true consonant) is elided before the vowel. The sound change that is constituted by this elision falls under the compass of a general process called DEJOTATION, defined as the dropping of a liquid or glide in onset position. The function of such changes is to produce an icon of the relation between UNIT and CONTEXT, here between sound and syllable. It is through processes of this kind that all languages remain true to their nature as structures (patterns) and are not merely agglomerations of facts. This is, indeed, the logic governing all linguistic variation.


“You’re Correct:”Hyperurbanism as Hypertrophy

July 6, 2011

The contemporary surge of hyperurbanisms into the mainstream of American English discourse is part and parcel of the hypertrophying of lexis that has been detailed here before. This development in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century English is of a piece with the spread of literacy and the written word into previously marginalized sectors of the speech community.

One such case ––a particularly grating one––is the substitution of correct for right as an adjective applied to persons, correct having two syllables where right has only one. Consulting the Oxford English Dictionary Online one finds––leaving aside the new meaning ‘Conforming to a dominant political or ideological orthodoxy’––the following definitions of correct as an ordinary adjective applied to things:  (1) ‘In accordance with an acknowledged or conventional standard, esp. of literary or artistic style, or of manners or behaviour; proper;’ (2) ‘In accordance with fact, truth, or reason; free from error; exact, true, accurate; right. Said also of persons, in reference to their statements, scholarship, acquirements, etc.’ When it comes to persons, the definition further reads ‘Adhering exactly to an acknowledged standard’ which subdivides depending on whether it applies to (a) ‘literary or artistic style’; and (b) ‘manners and behaviour’.

In light of these definitions there is no avoiding the interpretation of the penetration of “You’re correct” as anything other than an instance of hypertrophy. The latter term is used here advisedly, by analogy with its clinical sense, to designate an abnormal growth that is in need of amelioration by means of excision.