• Monthly Archives: March 2013

Variable Forms of Address as an Indicator of Social Instability

March 30, 2013

Forms of address in every language are always a reliable indicator of the norms of interpersonal behavior in any given society. The American situation in the twenty-first century as it pertains to this matter is a picture of instability and of a marked disintegration of traditional norms. Here is some interesting evidence as contained in a contemporary set of data.

While grading a total of 19 papers turned in by 18 freshmen and 1 sophomore in a Masterpieces of European Literature course at an Ivy League university, I noticed a lack of uniformity in the notation of my name on the first page, to wit: (1) no designation whatever– 5; (2) “Professor Shapiro”–7; (3) “Professor Michael Shapiro”–1; (4) “Mr. Shapiro”–1; (5) “Prof Michael Shapiro”–1; (6) “Michael S[c]hapiro”–3; (7) “Shapiro”–1.

Summing up the distribution, one notes the predominance (14 out of 19 cases) of some form of the instructor’s name, with the word “Professor” (abbreviated or not) prefixed in 9 cases, and 4 cases lacking it. Curiously, 4 papers include the instructor’s forename as well as the surname.

Whatever the upshot of this distribution, it is patently clear that the problem of deciding on a proper form of address in contemporary American society is a vexed one. When speaking with strangers answering queries over the telephone, for instance, one is routinely addressed by one’s first name whether one has licensed such informality or not, and attempts to right this incivility are only to be met with incredulity. Another increasingly common example: in some so-called progressive schools, students are encouraged to address their teachers by their first names, a situation that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

An anecdote to conclude. Three years ago I taught a course as a visiting adjunct professor on “The Philosophy of the Russian Novel” at a small private college in Vermont, where students are in the habit of addressing their instructors by their first names [sic!]. On the first day of class, just before I was about to start lecturing, and sensing the awkwardness of such a practice to a newcomer, a (clearly sophisticated) student raised his hand and asked me how I would like to be addressed, to which I answered (taking a leaf from my father’s book), “You may call me Your Excellency.” I said this with a smile, but its purport was not lost on the group, and from that moment on the students all addressed me in accordance with the traditional norm.


Annoying Speech Mannerisms

March 25, 2013

Every speaker of a language has their own individual manner of speaking, and this extends beyond pronunciation to include word choice and syntax. Some features of an individual’s speech habits may be considered annoying to one’s interlocutors or audience, thus coming under the compass of what are called mannerisms. Of course, what one person regards as an annoying mannerism in another’s speech may be highly subjective and therefore not shared by all interlocutors or hearers. The frequency with which a mannerism tends to occur obviously has an impact on its assessment as annoying. In fact, any feature of speech that is highly repetitious is in itself liable to be perceived as a mannerism and evaluated accordingly as an annoying habit.

An example of the latter is the constant introduction at the beginning of practically every other utterance of the word look, which has the force of peremptoriness and condescension toward one’s interlocutor. This annoying habit can be heard with unfailing regularity in the responses of the NPR commentator Cokie Roberts on Monday broadcasts of the program “Morning Edition.” The fact that what follows this interjection is a string of commonplaces being paraded as insights does nothing to allay its noisome effect.


A Variation on Free Variation

March 20, 2013

When linguists speak of “free variation,” they have instances like the variable pronunciation of economics in mind, where the initial vowel can be pronounced in two ways––[ekəˈnämiks, ˌēk-]––without there being any change in the stylistic or normative purport, some speakers habitually preferring one or the other of the variants.

A slight departure from this pattern is the case where one and the same speaker pronounces one of the two variants on one occasion and the other on another occasion, even as close to each other as in two parts of the same sentence.

This kind of inconsistency was heard this morning from the American humorist Garrison Keillor on NPR during his daily segment “The Writer’s Almanac,” in which he pronounced the initial vowel of the title word al·ma·nac [ˈȯl-mə-ˌnak, ˈal-] in both of the ways attested in current American English. Anyone familiar with this speaker’s quirky personality (at least on the air) would likely not be surprised to be apprised of this speech datum, since it clearly is of a piece with his persona.


The Dictionary Errs (Rhymes with Purrs)

March 10, 2013

In the Merriam-Webster Unabridged (2013), under the definition of the verb err one finds the following information:

Usage Discussion of ERR

The sound of the letter r often colors a preceding vowel in English, so that the originally distinct vowels of curt, word, bird, and were are now pronounced the same. Originally err and error had the same first vowel, but over time err developed the pronunciation \ˈər\ as well. Commentators have expressed a visceral dislike for the original pronunciation \ˈer\; perhaps they believe that once usage has established a new pronunciation for a word there can be no going back. By this reasoning, though, we should embrace the once established innovative pronunciations of gold \ˈgüld\ and Rome \ˈrüm\ (as seen in Shakespeare’s pun on Rome and room in Julius Caesar I.ii.156). For these two words the English language has returned to the older forms, and no sound reason prevents us from accepting again the \ˈer\ pronunciation of err, which is today also the more common variant in American speech.

In defending the modern mispronunciation of this word, what the contributors to this dictionary have failed to take into account are the markedness relations that support the traditional norm. The verb is the marked grammatical category (due to its obligatorily explicit reference to time, lacking in the nominal categories of substantive and adjective). Hence we should expect the vowel implemented in the verb to be the marked vowel (here schwa), as opposed to the unmarked /e/ of the noun error and the adjective errant. And that is exactly what we get.

This particular distribution of vowels, as between the two opposed grammatical categories, is what is semeiotically called an ICON OF RELATION, i. e., a DIAGRAM. Language over time (teleologically) always tends toward a patent diagrammatization of sound and sense, as the case of err demonstrates.


The Frenchification of Spanish Words in English (Chávez)

With the recent death of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, there has been a fatuous flurry of stories in the media about his life and times. In the broadcast media this has involved saying his surname in English countless times. In that connection, one hears frequent instances of a known mispronunciation of the name, viz. the substitution of the fricative [š] for the affricate [č] as the initial consonant, which is at complete odds with Spanish phonetics. The reason for this mistake has an interesting history.

First, it should be noted that American English in particular has a marked tendency to Frenchify loan words, i. e., to apply quasi-French phonetic patterns to borrowings regardless of source language. This is what accounts not only for pronunciations like Stalín and Lenín, where the stress mistakenly makes a Russian surname into a borrowing from French, with its obligatory stress on the ultima, but for the resort to [š] instead of [č] for orthographic ch– (as in French) as well.

As for Chavez et al., it is relevant to note that a distinctly American word like chaparral, which the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) glosses: “A thicket of low evergreen oaks; hence gen. Dense tangled brushwood, composed of low thorny shrubs, brambles, briars, etc., such as abounds on poor soil in Mexico and Texas. (The word came into use in U.S. during the Mexican War, c1846.),” is pronounced with the French-style initial fricative consonant in American English, pace the phonetic misinformation given in the OED definition (“Pronunciation:/ˌtʃæpəˈræl/ Etymology:  < Spanish chaparral, < chaparra, -arro evergreen oak + -al a common ending for a grove, plantation, or collection of trees, as in almendral, cafetal, etc.”).

The historical account of this sort of phonetic Frenchification in general can be verified by the change in pronunciation of a word like chivalry, which in contemporary American English is pronounced only à la française, i. e., with an initial [š], even though in British English it can be pronounced alternately with a [č], witness the OED entry:

Pronunciation:/ˈʃɪvəlrɪ/ /ˈtʃɪvəlrɪ/ Etymology: Middle English, < Old French chevalerie (11th cent.), chivalerie = Provençal cavalaria, Spanish caballería, Portuguese cavallería, Italian    cavalleria knighthood, horse-soldiery, cavalry, a Romanic derivative of late Latin caballerius (Capitularies 807) < Latin caballāri-us rider, horseman, cavalier n. and adj.: see -ery suffix, -ry suffix. (The same word has in later times come anew from Italian into French and English, as cavalerie, cavalry n.) As a Middle English word the proper historical pronunciation is with /tʃ/;  but the more frequent pronunciation at present is with /ʃ-/, as if the word had been received from modern French [emphasis added – MS].

Q. E. D.


Vocal Timbre and Authoritative Speech

March 9, 2013

While language has its own, strictly autonomous linguistic norms, it is also a cultural phenomenon and therefore dependent on broader cultural norms. When it comes to vocal timbre and vocal register, speakers of American English generally display a fairly wide spectrum of loudness and quality along the high/low axis. In the latter respect, male speakers (whose larynxes are larger than that of females) typically utilize the lower vocal range, as contrasted with females, who favor the higher one. In some cultures, like the Japanese, it is considered unseemly for a female voice to be low, just as it is for a male voice to be high. No such rigid criteria of seemliness or appropriateness apply to the contemporary American situation.

However, there is no gainsaying the fact that high voices in American males and low ones in females are perceived differently. Any person who speaks American English is perceived to have greater authority when their habitual vocal timbre and vocal register are at the lower end of the scale. Thus males who speak with a squeaky voice run the risk of being identified as effeminate––with all the properties that designation connotes. Similarly, female voices that are inordinately high tend to be identified with immaturity and lack of authority. Conversely, a female who speaks in a low vocal register is automatically judged to have greater authoritativeness. Her voice alone already associates her more closely with male speech, with its default perception as authoritative vis-à-vis female speech.

It should be pointed out that the high-low scale with respect to vocal timbre and register is not culturally arbitrary and is semeiotically natural, i. e., diagrammatic. There is a natural relation, on the one hand, between the substantiality of the acoustic signal on the physical side and the substantiality––alias authoritativeness––of the linguistic content (words) carried by that signal, on the other. The lower register, when used for speech, is acoustically more robust in every way in comparison to the higher one. The association between the timbre of the spoken word and the authoritativeness of what is said is thus semeiotically sealed regardless of the content, with all this implies for the relation between gender and power.


Hidden in Plain Sight (Allegoresis)

March 3, 2013

The act of interpreting a story as if each object in it had an allegorical meaning is called allegoresis. Naturally, if the subject warrants it, such an interpretation can apply to pictorial as well as to verbal art. With both kinds of art, however, the surface content need not be taken allegorically, no matter how obvious its purport, since interest in and/or awareness or knowledge of the subcutaneous content may be lacking in the percipient subject.

The latter situation seems to have carried the day when it comes to the front cover of the book based on earlier blog posts, viz. The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage. Of all the persons who have commented on it to the author, only one has mentioned the Rembrandt painting (Balaam’s Ass, 1626) reproduced thereon (and then only in order to warn of the danger of its being
misinterpreted). This painting has both an indexical and a symbolic function, since it points to one of the essays (2.30) in the book while explicating the title indirectly.

C. S. Peirce says somewhere that just as we talk of a body being in motion, rather than motion being in a body, so we should consider ourselves to be in meaning (semeiosis) rather than meaning to be in us. But being located in semeiosis is not the same thing as locating ourselves in relation to the semeiotic universe at any given point. Balaam’s Ass may finally have spoken in the Bible story, but her voice has yet to be heard as far as The Speaking Self is concerned.


A Case of Linguistic Atavism (“kick the can down the road”)

March 1, 2013

The utterly fatuous and stylistically odious phrase “kick the can down the road,” to which the American media cling as a phraseological cliché with such tenacity, might be explained as a case of linguistic atavism, specifically as an infantilistic predilection for the alliteration of the two /k/’s of kick and can. Additionally, with the metrical substrate of phraseologisms always a potential motivation for their preservation, the one at issue falls into a trochaic pattern, namely a bipartite structure consisting of two feet each, with the second foot in each case being truncated by one syllable. Given the general lack of sophistication in media speech, the lure of an infantile variety of paronomasia is evidently difficult to keep at bay.