• Monthly Archives: October 2011

Intrusive R (A Sandhi Phenomenon)

October 29, 2011

At a recent academic conference on “Thinking through Drawing,” two British rapporteurs addressed the audience in tandem, and both pronounced the word drawing with an epenthetic [r] between [aw] and [ing], so that the word consistently came out as [dráwring]. To contemporary American ears this pronunciation––called the “intrusive r–– sounded utterly alien, although it is common in British English as well as in the dialects of eastern Massachusetts (recall the speech of President John F. Kennedy) and is of a piece with the so-called “linking r” of I saw[r] it, etc.

The intrusive r, being unjustified orthographically and hence etymologically inauthentic, is not considered to be orthoepic, i. e., not part of the so-called Received Pronunciation (RP = “The King’s/Queen’s English”), and has in fact traditionally been regarded as a vulgarism, its use (but not that of linking /r/) banished by prescriptivists in England since the nineteenth century.

This phenomenon, traditionally subsumed under allophonic variation or automatic alternation, also goes by the name of sandhi, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘joining’ imported into general linguistics about a century ago. Phonological sandhi rules, as in the case of intrusive [r], beside their secondary binding function (“textual cohesion”) have two primary functions, systemic and (what has been called) “metaphonological.” When such rules produce distributions of distinctive feature values that are diagrammatic of the distinctive or allophonic value of the feature at issue, as well as of the markedness relations that obtain between different values of the same feature, they fulfill a systemic function, which is semiotically iconic. But beyond reflecting the structure of a distinctive feature system iconically, the distributional facts also constitute the raw material for language acquisition, since they are the data from which learners infer their phonology. It is in this latter sense that the sandhi rules may also be said to fulfill a metaphonological function.


Rhyme and Its Impact

October 28, 2011

Anglo-American verse––the kind, anyway, that aspires to high art––has lamentably turned its back on rhyme in the last century, but rhyme continues to flourish in popular song genres, latterly most notably in hip-hop, which would be nothing without its couplets (its musical content being nil). But poets working in the more conservative traditions of European verse––like Russian––continue to adhere to the norm of rhymed poetry.

One salient impact of rhyme that often goes unnoticed but contributes to the poetic content is the interpenetration of rhyme-fellows, which is to say that words or phrases in rhyme position influence each other’s meaning. As an ensemble they form a semantic amalgam, the first rhyme-fellow in particular affecting the meaning of the second. This effect is particularly noticeable in doggerel, satire, and other forms of humorous verse.

Take, for instance, the fifth stanza of the famous burlesque, “Son Popova” (‘Popov’s Dream’), by A. K. Tolstoy (cousin of Leo), in which a minor civil servant dreams that he has arrived at his superior’s (a minister’s) name day celebration sans his pants:

Вошел министр. Он видный был мужчина,
Изящных форм, с приветливым лицом,
Одет в визитку: своего, мол, чина
Не ставлю я пред публикой ребром.
Внушается гражданством дисциплина,
А не мундиром, шитым серебром,
Всё зло у нас от глупых форм избытка,
Я ж века сын –– так вот на мне визитка!

[Rough translation:

The minister entered. He was an imposing man
Of elegant forms, with a friendly face.
He was dressed in a morning coat: as if to say, my rank
I’m not overpowering the public with [‘not placing rib-like before’].
Discipline is impressed by civic duty
And not by a uniform embroidered with silver.
All our evils stem from the surfeit of stupid forms,
But I’m a son of the age––so that’s why I’ve got a morning coat on!]

The rhyme pattern throughout this poem is abababcc. In this particular stanza the a position is filled by the words muzhchina ‘man’, china ‘rank [gen.]’, and distsiplina ‘discipline’; the b position by three substantives in the instrumental case: litsom ‘face’, rebrom ‘rib’, and serebrom ‘silver’. The series ‘man’, ‘rank’, and ‘discipline’ forms a semantic amalgam in that the latter two items qualify the first, and the third qualifies the second. Moreover, the qualification is reciprocal, strengthening the cumulative purport of the rhyme-fellows as a group. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the series ‘face’, ‘rib’, and ‘silver’.

In a lesser vein but applicable all the same, here is a piece of doggerel confected in German by Constantine Shapiro (a poet with a lyric palette that included friendly caricatures; see his Selected Writings, 2nd ed., 2008) about a fellow musician, a Viennese refugee violinist, Josef Schlesinger, in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, who was known for being ill-tempered but who softened up after receiving an invitation to visit his sister in Australia:

Saison beendet das Orchester,
Und Josef eilt schon zu der Schwester.
Mit Auslandspass und neuem Hut,
Kennt er nur Liebe, keine Wut.

The orchestra finished its season,
And Josef is hurrying to his sister.
With a passport and a new hat
He knows only love, no rage.


Mit neuem Hut und Auslandspass,
Kennt er nur Liebe, keinen Hass.

With a new hat and a passport
He knows only love, no hate.

What is jocose about the rhymes Hut ‘hat’/Wut ‘rage’ and Auslandspass ‘passport’/Hass ‘hate’ is the juxtaposition of utterly prosaic concrete nouns with emotionally charged abstract ones. Thus doth rhyme work its charm in e’en the most humble of poetic precincts.


[Addendum: What triggered this post was the following. I was sitting in a New York subway going downtown when I noticed that the woman sitting opposite me had a shopping bag on her lap festooned with sayings and slogans, one of which was “Friendship Is More Important Than Money.” I immediately thought of the corresponding Russian proverb, “Не имей сто рублей, но имей сто друзей,” which means “Don’t have a hundred rubles but have a hundred friends,” and where the words rubles and friends rhyme. What apothegmatic force in the Russian proverb, with its meter and rhyme, compared to its utterly flat English equivalent!]


October 22, 2011

In rhetoric, anaphora (Greek ἀναφορά ‘carrying back’) is a device that consists of repeating one or a sequence of words at the beginning of neighboring clauses, thereby lending the repeated item(s) emphasis, as in the following Russian poem:


Отчего, когда блещет сияние дня,
Я тоскую, как будто на сердце змея?

Отчего, когда плещет в саду ручеек,
Я все слышу, как будто в тех звуках упрек?

Отчего, когда хочешь обнять ты меня,
Я жестокой рукой отстраняю тебя?

Отчего? . . .

Here is an approximate translation:


Why, when the day’s radiance beams,
Do I feel miserable, as if there were a snake on my heart?

Why, when a little brook splashes in the garden,
Do I keep hearing a seeming reproach in those sounds?

Why, when you want to embrace me,
Do I push you aside with a cruel hand?

Why? . . .

The repetition of the word otchego ‘why’ intensifies its meaning and betokens the absence of an answer, thereby heightening the pathos of the entire poem’s (emotional) purport.


[Authorial gloss: C. S.’s anapests were brought to mind when I looked out the twelfth-floor window of my apartment and saw the resplendency of the day.]

Just Semantics

The endocrinologist wore a white coat to match the thatch of white hair surmounting his pate and wrote my anamnesis down hurriedly without looking up, occasionally repeating his questions because he hadn’t heard my answers. (The doctor was hard of hearing but, typical of his profession, obviously hadn’t bothered to remedy the condition.) When my narrative came to benign prostatic hyperplasia, I interrupted to ask about the difference between ‘hyperplasia’ and ‘hypertrophy’, since the condition is vernacularly known as ‘enlargement’. His answer, pronounced with what passed for a smile, was: “That’s just semantics.” Then, evidently embarrassed, he backed up and gave a short definition of each of the terms.

This common denigration of the science of meaning is particularly unfortunate coming from a physician, who of all professionals should be sensitive to the profound bond between words and feelings, hence to the prominent role language and its precise use play in the healing arts.


Poetic Consciousness and the Language of Thought

October 18, 2011

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). (My hero, C. S. Peirce, agrees.) What flows from this is that there is no thought worth the name apart from language.

However, the form that inner speech takes may vary almost without limit. In those for whom poetry is second nature, verse often serves as a mnemonic. Thus the poems of my father, Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992), are firmly embedded in my memory and can be disinterred therefrom by random occurrences, as was the case with the following lyric this morning:

Она, как ветерок, легка,
И голос нежный,
И черный локон с милого чела
На лик спадает белоснежный.

Откуда прилетела
Ты, дуновение полей?
Мне милы рощи потемнелы
И соловей.

Я им в младенчестве внимал,
То так далёко!
Но этот голос вновь все рассказал
В мгновенье ока.

Here is a rough prose translation of the Russian original:

She is as light as a breath of wind,
And her voice is gentle,
And a black lock of hair from her lovely forehead
Falls onto her snow-white face.

Whence did you fly in,
You, whiff of fields?
I love the darkened groves
And the nightingale.

I beheld them in my youth,
‘Twas so long ago!
But this voice told me all anew
In the twinkling of an eye.

Readers sensitive to the notion of idées fixes will have no difficulty divining the object in my mind associated with this poem.


[Analytical addendum (“lost in translation”): The poem in the above post is lexically nuanced in a way that enhances its stylistic subtlety but that cannot be rendered into English. The vocabulary of classical Russian poetry includes items that are traditional high-style equivalents, drawn from the language’s Church Slavonic stratum, of ordinary (demotic) words. Here, in the last two lines of the first stanza (И черный локон с милого чела/На лик спадает белоснежный ‘And a black lock of hair from her lovely forehead/Falls onto her snow-white face’) this pertains to chelo ‘forehead’ for lob (also ‘forehead’) and lik ‘visage’ for litso ‘face’. These grandiloquent words serve to elevate the person described. MS]


‘Virtuous’ Redefined

October 16, 2011

Further to the concluding thoughts expressed in the authorial note appended to the preceding post, the second entry under the word virtuous in The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2006) defines it as ‘possessing or characterized by chastity; pure: a virtuous woman. The example cited is straight out of the King James version of the Old Testament (Proverbs 31: 10). This version is closer to the Hebrew tradition than any previous English translation when it comes to the non-Christological portions of the Old Testament; cf. the following translations of the word in question in its fuller Proverbial context:

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. (King James Version)

10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. (New International Version)

10 aleph mulierem fortem quis inveniet procul et de ultimis finibus pretium eius
11 beth confidit in ea cor viri sui et spoliis non indigebit
12 gimel reddet ei bonum et non malum omnibus diebus vitae suae (Vulgate)

י אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל, מִי יִמְצָא;    וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ. 10 A woman of valor who can find? for her price is far above rubies.
יא בָּטַח בָּהּ, לֵב בַּעְלָהּ;    וְשָׁלָל, לֹא יֶחְסָר. 11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, and he hath no lack of gain.
יב גְּמָלַתְהוּ טוֹב וְלֹא-רָע–    כֹּל, יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ. 12 She doeth him good and not evil all the days of her life. (The Masoretic Text, i. e., the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible)

The latter text is traditionally glossed as follows:

1. She is a virtuous woman––a woman of power and strength. אשת חיל esheth chayil, a strong or virtuous wife, full of mental energy.
2. She is invaluable; her price is far above rubies––no quantity of precious stones can be equal to her worth.

The deriving base of the adjective in question is Latin virtus; cf. Greek ἀρετή, both of which mean something like ‘moral excellence’. In turn, Latin virtus is derived from vir ‘man, hero’. This last meaning was doubtless what the translators who rendered the King James version must have had in mind, since they followed the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. Hence the meaning ‘a woman of valor’, which is precisely the definition answering to the purport of the relevant portion of my authorial note.


Rescued from Banality: The Miraculous Word

Poems written many years or centuries ago routinely reflect the diction and the rhetorical values of their own time, no matter how up-to-date the language may sound. (Russian is much more conservative in this respect than is English.) Occasionally, what was a poetic cliché at the time of writing can be refurbished in a contemporary reading simply because its banality has faded in the interim. This is the case with one word in particular––viz. the second word, гений ‘genius’, in the last line of the opening stanza––in what is undoubtedly Pushkin’s most famous lyric poem (the full phrase is гений чистой красоты ‘genius of pure beauty’):

К ***
Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.

(NB: all English translations typically change or omit ‘genius’, by which they unwittingly destroy the meaning not only of the line but of the whole poem.)

The use of the word genius by Pushkin in the meaning (as given in the Oxford English Dictionary Online) of “the quasi-mythologic personification of something immaterial (e.g. of a virtue, a custom, an institution), esp. as portrayed in painting or sculpture. Hence transf. a person or thing fit to be taken as an embodied type of (some abstract idea)” was taken over from French génie into the quotidian poetic vocabulary of Russian in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the nomenclature of Russian Romanticism, this word lost its freshness through repeated use but is here rescued from banality, recovering a semantic miraculousness via its very obsolescence.


[Author’s note: After writing this post I discovered that I had duplicated an earlier one, but so what? Pushkin’s verse is never far from my consciousness. Some readers of this blog have occasionally asked me how I get my ideas for posts, and in this case I am especially happy to oblige. As I was walking up Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after exiting a restaurant where I normally have pancakes early Sunday morning, for some reason I started declaiming this poem out loud, there being no one else in my vicinity. As I reached the word and the phrase in question, I once again realized their special poetic value and thought immediately of my late wife, Marianne, whom they invariably resurrect, and of whom I think every day of my life. MS]


Female Nasalization: An Apotropaism?

Nasalization is the production of a sound while the velum is lowered, allowing the breath stream to pass through the nose instead of the mouth during the sound’s production. There are nasal consonants and nasal vowels, but beyond this characterization one notes that some speakers have a strong nasalization of their entire utterances, whether they contain nasal sounds or not (= “talking through one’s nose”). This observation pertains especially to the speech of contemporary American females of the younger generation (adolescents, college students, and beyond).

Anything, including phonetic features, which serves to mitigate or attenuate the directness of an utterance, can be interpreted as a means of forestalling disagreement or deflecting potential risk. Could this phenomenon, therefore, qualify as an apotropaism? Given the several other ways that the latter has been chronicled in earlier posts, it is at least an educated guess, hence a valid abductive inference and amenable to testing.




October 11, 2011

Word histories are often characterized by twists and turns. A good example is router, which is derived from the word route (of Anglo-Norman provenience, i.e., Middle English < Old French < Latin). In contemporary American English the alternate form of the deriving base [raʊd], rhyming with rout instead of root, clearly stems from a reading (= spelling) pronunciation and is still typically listed second in the dictionaries.

Of course, anyone who knows the song “Route 66” (lyrics by Bobby Troup) will not fail to give the word route in the refrain its proper “British” pronunciation, as in:

If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

The persistence of [ruːt] (and the total inappropriateness of [raʊd]) here is to be explained by the poetic design in its phonic aspect: the internal rhyme kicks/sixty-six utilizes the high unrounded vowel /i/, which dictates the presence of the corresponding high rounded vowel /u/ in route.

By contrast, the new meaning of router (it has several older ones) connected with internet technology is unexceptionally pronounced [ˈraʊdər] on this side of the Atlantic. Here is its complete entry from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

router, n.
Brit. /ˈruːtə/ , U.S. /ˈraʊdər/
< route v. + -er suffix1.
and Computing.

A device, circuit, algorithm, etc., which serves to determine the destinations of individual incoming signals; esp. a device which receives data packets and forwards them to the appropriate computer network or part of a network.

1968    Nucl. Physics A. 116 549   A router circuit sent the coincidences from the first unit to be stored in the first 200 channels of the pulse-height analyser and those from the second to the last 200 channels.
1970    Nucl. Instruments & Methods 85 64/2   A ‘router’ switched the output of the detector to each of the subgroup in succession.
1986    Science 28 Feb. 976/2   The router can pick a component of the node address that is not zero and send the message in a direction in which that component of the node address is one.
1990    Pract. Computing Sept. 85/3   This enables printers with Apple’s built-in network, Localtalk, to be connected to Ethernet‥without the need for an expensive gateway or router.
2006    Hi Life No. 5. 34/1   If you add a Wi-Fi router to your broadband link you’ll be able to access the internet via Wi-Fi-equipped laptop from any room in your home.

The explanation in the case of the derived word is its MARKED STATUS, i. e., an agentive in –er that is an object, not a person, hence conducing to the iconic pronunciation (= word and meaning forming a diagram in the semiotic sense) with the marked vowel /aw/. This is a good illustration of markedness agreement (between sound and sense) being a definitive––if only potential–– telos of language change, not a necessary one. British English, by contrast with American, has not yet exploited the semiotic potential inherent in this particular case of lexical development.


Error Magnified and Exacerbated

October 4, 2011

There is always a kind of figure-ground relation between linguistic errors and the grammatically correct context in which they are embedded. Consequently, when a native speaker who is otherwise articulate and speaks the standard language makes an error, it tends to create an outsized effect.

This phenomenon was recently demonstrated in an NPR report broadcast by the Middle East and Africa correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, a speaker of standard American English (despite the Hispanic name) educated in the U. K. and the U. S. A. Her speech generally makes the impression of a carefully cultivated preciosity bordering on prissiness, so that when she mispronounced the word cache to rhyme with cachet, it had a jarringly percussive effect on this listener. Quod erat demonstrandum.