• Monthly Archives: January 2013

Hic Sunt Leones

January 30, 2013

All thought is in language. Plato says (in a number of his dialogues, for instance, in the Cratylus) that thought is the conversation of the soul with (phases of) itself. What comes into thought when this conversation takes place is another matter. In the first instance, the dialogic aspect is determined in large part by the memory of past experiences as these are brought to the forefront of one’s consciousness; secondarily, by external stimuli.

Here is a contemporary example. Standing outside the New York Public Library at the entrance to the Research Library on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street in Manhattan and waiting to be allowed in, I turn around to see the two sculptured lions on their pedestals that guard the building on the Fifth Avenue side. This immediately summons forth the Latin phrase my beloved wife Marianne (a Latinist and medievalist) taught me long ago, Hic sunt leones ‘here are lions’, which was to be found on ancient maps to signify that the cartographer did not have knowledge of what lay beyond the boundary at that point (and assumed that wild beasts lurked).

Clearly, the Latin phrase was triggered by the stone lions outside the Library. But it could not have been part of my thought in an immediately summonable linguistic form without the cherished memory of the person who taught the phrase to me.


Cultural Cachinnation as a Paralinguistic Phenomenon

January 27, 2013

Laughter is a cultural phenomenon. A Japanese, for instance, has a different laugh from an American. Moreover, laughter differs by age and sex in all cultures. When high-pitched, the kind of laughter that is designated by the intransitive verb cachinnate ‘to laugh loudly or immoderately; guffaw’ is a particular feature of the contemporary behavior of middle-aged and older American women and is typically paralinguistic (during and after speech). Besides being high-pitched, this species of laughter is usually drawn out and aesthetically unappealing. It is not to be heard from American males (partly because of the structural differences between the larynxes of men and women) and is largely absent as a concomitant of the speech behavior of either sex in other cultures.

Given the marked presence of apotropaic features in the speech of females (noted in earlier posts), it is tempting to seek an explanation of this kind of laughter in the ever-present possibility that women’s behavior, more than that of men, includes apotropaism as an unconscious goal at the very least. However, precisely how cachinnation achieves that goal is unclear. By a woman speaker’s resort to it, perhaps high-pitched laughter is a way of signaling––as pre-, inter-, or postlude––that whatever is said need not be taken at full value. Cachinnation would thereby be of a piece with other behavioral characteristics that distinguish men from women in American culture.


“It’s OK by Me” as a Syntactic Calque

January 25, 2013

Yiddish has provided American English with a number of borrowings, typically loan words, but there is one syntactic borrowing that may not be recognized as such by ordinary speakers, namely the use of the preposition by instead of with in the phrase “it’s OK (alright, fine) by me.” The construction using by stems from Yiddish bei and probably came into the language from the Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (Yiddish: ‫בײַ מיר ביסטו שיין‬, “To Me You’re Beautiful;” German “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”)), which started life in a 1930s Broadway musical and became a worldwide hit with its recording by the Andrews Sisters in 1937.

Another possible syntactic borrowing in American English from a Germanic language––specifically, German––may be the compound verb sleep in ‘sleep late, past the normal time’, which makes no sense on its face in terms of English semantics but can be traced as an adaptation to the German verb einschlafen ‘fall asleep’, where English in is the equivalent of German ein-.

These two syntactic borrowings are but a rivulet in the much bigger stream of latter-day German influence on American English syntax (especially in the language of advertising and the media), typified by the use of adjectival compounds with a past passive participle as the second element and with instrumental meaning, as in doctor-tested, etc.


Semeiotic Neostructuralism and Language

January 20, 2013

Readers of this blog who have an interest in the conceptual underpinnings of its posts may benefit from being reminded of some of the main points in which the doctrine christened “semeiotic neostructuralism” (in the spirit of C. S. Peirce’s pragmaticism) by the author differs fundamentally from the dominant paradigm of contemporary linguistics, which is nominally identified with Chomsky and his followers––regardless, nota bene, whether these latter-day practitioners have renamed their particular enterprise (e. g., “Optimality Theory” or “Cognitive Linguistics;” ALL linguistics is necessarily ‘cognitive’, hence CL is a pleonasm) so as to differentiate it from what was originally called “tranformational” or “generative” grammar.

Chomsky has a rather mechanistic view of language, for all that he understands that the freedom to compose  sentences that are original, unpredictable, and yet intelligible is different from the unoriginal, predictable products of strictly mechanical  action. His view is mechanistic nonetheless because he simply posits underlying structures by which sentences are to be generated. Possibly in a wider perspective, Chomsky is no more reductively mechanistic than a semeiotic neostructuralist, in a wider perspective, is a phenomenalist. For he no doubt admits (or would admit) that the linguistic universals in our brains are not just there, period, but evolved, with the brain’s evolution, as chance variants that were ‘selected’ by the principle of reproductive success. Similarly, the intentions or needs or felt urgencies to speak or to achieve certain outcomes might explain––but only in a context wider than Chomskyan linguistics––why language’s generative mechanisms are used in this way rather than in that.

But if we focus simply on the linguist’s study, as diversely conceived by Chomsky and the semeiotic neostructuralist, then there is this difference: for the one, the teleology of language is excluded from linguistic explanation, while for the other it is the very stuff of explanation. For the one, linguistic phenomena conform to a describable structure of highly abstract laws, while for the other linguistic phenomena exhibit an intelligible if less abstract, more complicated structure. For the one, the system is a given, and any changes in it are accidental, while for the other development is essential to language––development is more the reality than is any one system of  rules––and that development is also intelligible and not merely given.

That is the conflict. The reason the semeiotic neostructuralist approach is, if it is successful, superior is that it can be used to explain the very evolution of the brain-mechanism or linguistic capacities and universals that Chomsky can at best describe. That is, given creatures somewhat sociable, exchanging  signs as their way of life, then the survival value of their communicating more elaborate and precise diagrams would explain the retention of those fortuitous variations, say, in brain structure that promote exactly such powers of expressible diagrammatization. That is, the principle of this evolution will be itself linguistic, and continuous with the principles of postbiotic, strictly linguistic evolution.

The thought here is not unlike that which refuses to postulate linguistic intentions separate from the capacity to exercise those intentions. Just as there could be no desire to speak without an ability to speak, so also there could be no evolution of linguistic capacities––even, or especially, at the physiological level––except among those who, already speaking to one another, will more likely survive as a species if they speak more effectively. Thus, instead of a neurophysiological explanation of language, we have a linguistic explanation of the higher cortex––and probably not just the speech centers either, since so many of our capacities for sensation and action would be bootless without our capacities for speech.


The Metrical Substrate of a Phraseological Cliché II (“At the End of the Day”)

January 12, 2013

One of the fundamental problems confronting (historical) linguists is that of explaining why certain innovations arise and become full-fledged changes in natural languages, while other innovations die aborning. Not all innovations have the power of survival as part of the norm, and it is their raison d’être that needs to be addressed in any explanatory theory of language structure.

In that connection, following a line of reasoning that has been explored several times in earlier posts, one must keep prosody (“the metrical substrate”) in mind as a possible explanans––without, however, falling into the fallacy of the single cause.

A good candidate for such an explanation is the phraseological cliché “at the end of the day” that is constantly bleated about in contemporary media-speak (as elsewhere). Its prosodic structure is straightforwardly anapestic, i. e., with a metrical foot consisting of three syllables and stress on the ultima. This fact alone seems to have induced both its rise and its ultimate tenacity in contemporary speech.


The Power of Prosody (“Please exit through the rear door.”)

January 7, 2013

Three little children, none older than four, get on a Manhattan bus (the 86th Street Crosstown) and sit down. Soon the usual recorded announcement comes over the PA system: “Please exit through the rear door.” The children immediately start repeating the sentence, bouncing it back and forth to each other like volleys on the tennis court. One child even alters it slightly by substituting /l/ for /r/ in the penultimate word so that the sentence comes out, “Please exit through the real door.” The children have a good laugh over this innovation but then go right back to bandying the original.

Why are these juvenile speakers of American English so enamored of the language of the announcement? Because of its prosodic structure, to wit: the sentence consists of a perfectly good trochaic line, with a stressed anacrusis and a spondee in the last foot.

From such perfectly prosaic material is poetry born on the lips of a child.