• Monthly Archives: April 2013

Secondary Stress and Constituent Structure

April 28, 2013

English is a language with primary and secondary stress, which means that words typically have one and only one syllable with a strongly individuated stress (primary stress) but may also have syllables with weaker stress (secondary stress). The longer the word, the more likely is the incidence of secondary stress. Thus a word like disestablishmentarianism (which The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines as ‘advocacy of disestablishment’ and qualifies by noting “usu. only as a factitious long word”) is pronounced with one primary stress (on the sixth syllable) and one secondary stress (on the third syllable) sensu stricto, the remaining eight syllables being unstressed.

Whether a word has constituent structure (= has more than one identifiable semantic or morphological element) may play a role in assigning a secondary stress to one of the syllables, but need not. Thus agentives in {-er/-or} like writer, prestidigitator, etc.––regardless of length––all treat this derivational suffix as being unstressed, i. e., bearing no secondary stress. On the other hand, in the contemporary speech of American adolescents––and of younger speakers of American English generally––a common word like student is increasingly to be heard with a clear secondary stress on the element [-ent], which is completely at variance with the traditional norm. This change may be due to the conceivable reconstrual of this element as a suffix, since the base [stud-] also occurs in study and studious, thereby lending plausibility to the analysis of student as having a constituent structure. Note, moreover, that no other interpretation can explain the emergence of secondary stress in this word as a change in contemporary American English pronunciation.

Why such a secondary stress does not also emerge in agentives in {-er/-or} may be due to the fact of the difference in length between post-tonic elements. If we regard {-ent} as an emergent morphological constituent (suffix) as a result of, or concomitant with, its being assigned secondary stress by younger speakers, then the fact of its having three sounds rather than two (by comparison with {-er/-or}) may be the threshold for such a change. This analysis would be wholly consistent with the general situation in English (and language in general), whereby suprasegmental (prosodic) features like stress are invariably dependent on the segmental structure, including the derivational morphology of words.


Sound-Sense Alignment of Word Class (Interjections)

The sounds of contemporary American English (as of all Englishes) fall into five classes: obstruents (= “true” consonants), vowels, liquids, nasals, and glides. The latter four are called sonorants. By contrast to the obstruents, they are “vowel-like” in virtue  of having significantly greater sonority. The glides (sometimes called “semi-vowels”) are comprised by the sounds /w, j, h/ and are of special interest in English because these sounds are defined as being neither consonantal nor vocalic. They behave more like consonants than vowels but are not “true” consonants because of their definition phonologically as non-consonantal. They are thus outliers in the system of English sounds.

This marginal phonological status is mirrored iconically by their preponderance in the sound structure of the word class where they typically occur, viz. interjections. An interjection––unlike verbs, nouns, and generally words proper, which have a referential function––has only a phatic and/or a conative function. It is thus at the functionally restricted end of the scale of word classes, just as are the glides phonologically. Here we have a case of linguistic iconicity that affects the entire system of sound-sense alignments that makes language a coherent structure and not merely an aggregate.


Misuse of the Word gentleman

April 22, 2013

Media reporters, particularly of the broadcast stripe, often misuse the word gentleman, in referring to criminals or terrorists. A man who is EVIDENTLY the perpetrator of a crime, as is the case of the brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombings and related murders––whether the crime has already been proven at trial or not––ought not to be named in speech or writing by a designation necessarily comporting a measure of politeness, elevation, or deference toward the referent. The stylistically appropriate word in such instances is man, not gentleman.


The Rise of multiple as a Substitute for many

April 16, 2013

For more than a decade or two, contemporary American English speakers have gotten into the habit of substituting the bookish adjective multiple for the simple count adjective many, as in the followings usages (adapted from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary online):

1. ‘many, manifold, several’ <multiple achievements in politics and public life––<multiple minds functioning together>––<multiple copies of a speech>
2. ‘occurring more than once or in higher degree than the first; repeated’ <multiple roots>

In all of the cited examples, the more direct way of denoting ‘more than few’ would be with the word many. Why, then, is there a trend in recent years to replace it with multiple?

The answer may be the principle of ICONICITY AS THE TELOS OF LINGUISTIC CHANGE. The word many has only two syllables, whereas multiple, while seeming orthographically to have two as well, is actually pronounced with a schwa vowel between the consonants at the end of the word, making it tri- and not disyllabic. A trisyllabic word is more adequate iconically to the meaning of multiplicity than is a disyllabic one. QED.


Terms of Affection and Their Gradience

April 14, 2013

Languages differ in their capacity to grade words according to the emotional set of the utterer or writer toward the person or thing named by the word. In this respect, Russian (like the other Slavic languages) is incomparably richer than English or any other European language, let alone an East Asian one like Japanese, which is almost totally lacking in affective vocabulary (or profanity, for that matter) . Whereas an English name like Robert can only be diminutized (thus rendered the affectionate instantiation of the full name) univerbally as Rob, Robbie, Bobbie, and Bob, a Russian forename like Avdót’ya (as in the name of Raskol’nikov’s sister in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), which is the demotic form of Evdokíya = Евдокия (< Classical and ecclesiastical Greek Εὐδοκία), can be turned into Dúnya, Dunyásha, Dunyáshen’ka, Dúnechka, Dúnen’ka, Dunyáshechka, etc. (A full registry of the pet names in Cyrillic could include Доня [Дона], Дося, Доша, Дуся, Авдоня, Авдоха, Авдоша, Авдуля, Авдуся.) Beyond the dropping of all but the medial consonant –d- (preceding the stressed syllable of Avdót’ya) in this case, each addition of a diminutive suffix to the remaining consonantal stem comports a further grade of affection, so that the speaker or writer can vary the emotional investment in the person so addressed by the build-up of affective suffixes. (This is not to touch upon the ramified means at a Russian speaker’s disposal when going in the opposite direction affectively by adding pejorative or augmentative suffixes to nominal stems, to those of common as well as proper nouns.)

While other aspects of the language of the original may cross over easily into a translation without appreciable loss of meaning in the round, the force of affective vocabulary––as the Russian case demonstrates––is  liable to be lost completely when trying to convey the nuances of affect the characters in a novel like Crime and Punishment feel when speaking, especially when its author evidently places so much stress on their variable forms.

No wonder one of the older (now obsolete) meanings of traduce was ‘translate’! Or as they say in Italian, “Traduttore, traditore.”



Generational Slippage in the Retention of Obsolescent Vocabulary

April 9, 2013

Dictionaries of a major language like English are full of obsolete and obsolescent vocabulary, words that are recorded in written repositories but circumscribed by historical periodization and rarely uttered in everyday speech. Knowledge of such vocabulary is subject to inter-generational slippage. Older speakers may have it as part of their education, experience, or passive knowledge. But younger speakers, who have no living access to words and phrases belonging to past manners and morals, typically encounter them only as part of book learning at best, as when exposed to knights-errant in reading Don Quixote.

The gradual but inexorable oblivion of the lexical riches of a language becomes apparent, for instance, when one teaches a class of twenty eighteen-year-olds in a course on Masterpieces of European Literature at an Ivy League university. All are native speakers of contemporary American English, but in discussing the so-called marriage plot in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one quickly discovers that words and phrases such as go-between, marriage portion, portionless, chattel, etc. are not even part of the students’ passive word stock (although dowry is) and have to be glossed ad hoc. One could take the view, of course, that it is fortunate for the current generation that the mores of twenty-first-century American mating and marriage rituals dispense with all the baggage that used to be the ineluctable burden of young women (in particular) seeking to make their way in a man’s world. Sic transeunt onera mundi.


The Telos of Linguistic Change

April 7, 2013

The antepenultimate post below invokes the foundational semeiotic concepts of the greatest intellect the Americas have ever produced, the philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), but leaves some of his most pertinent formulations uncited. The following is meant to remedy this lacuna.

For instance, take the following passage from his Collected Papers (cited by volume and paragraph number):

“[U]nderlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits….  In so far as evolution follows a law, the law or habit, instead of being a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity, is growth from difformity to uniformity. But the chance divergences from laws are perpetually acting to increase the variety of the world, and are checked by a sort of natural selection and otherwise…, so that the general result may be described as ‘organized heterogeneity,’ or, better, rationalized variety” (6.101; emphasis added).

The idea of a “rationalized variety” is supported by Peirce’s comments about the foundational role of diagrams: “A concept is the living influence upon us of a diagram, or icon, with whose several parts are connected in thought an equal number of feelings and ideas. The law of mind is that feelings and ideas attach themselves in thought so as to form systems” (7.467; emphasis added).

Given enough time to work itself out, even an apparently arbitrary system (such as an orthography) will tend toward diagrammatization. Its drift is, in other words, determined by a movement with an explicit telos. As the linguist Edward Sapir famously put it: “Language moves down time in a current of its own making. It has a drift…. The linguistic drift has direction. In other words, only those individual variations embody it or carry it which move in a certain direction, just as only certain wave movements in the bay outline the tide.”


Further Thoughts on Disfluent like

In an earlier post (March 24, 2012), I floated an ad hoc typology of the contemporary use among younger American speakers (under the age of 25?) of the disfluent filler or discourse marker like, as follows:

(1) TICASTIC: for many speakers, the word is a verbal tic (whence the nonce adjective “ticastic”), replacing “you know” and its congeners, and having no other function than as a meaningless filler;
(2) PHATIC (perhaps as a sub-species of the ticastic): keeping the channel of communication open, sometimes for no other reason than to forestall a response from one’s interlocutor(s);
(3) QUOTATIVE: as a prefatory marker before the report of someone else’s utterance(s) or inner speech;
(4) APPROXIMATIVE: as a means of qualifying the extent or validity of the word or phrase immediately following, including its literal meaning;
(5) ANAESTHETIC: as a way of deflecting the assertory force of anything following, usually as an apotropaism.

Prompted by new specimens of raw speech overheard viva voce into thinking further about the distribution of approximative and quotative like, I now suspect that the latter may be derivative of the former. The logic behind this relation resides in the implied judgment that no report of direct or indirect speech can ever be precise because only the speech act itself––and not its retelling––can ever authentically stand for itself. By this logic, no statement of anything that contains figurative expressions can ever be considered verisimilar. With respect to the use of the word like, this would then have the advantage of accounting as well for the currently ticastic British qualifying phrase (pre- or post-posed), if you like.


Diagrams and Diagrammatization in Language

April 5, 2013

Apropos of the preceding post, a theoretical aperçu is in order by way of explication for those readers who have an appetite for such things.

A diagram is AN ICON OF RELATION. Diagrammatic correspondences between form (expression) and meaning (content) are instantiations of the principle of ISOMORPHISM. There is a fundamental sense in which isomorphism can be said to pervade the structure of language, namely, the sense in which rules at the core of grammar are not merely statements of regularities but are coherent. The notions associated with the terms ‘rule’ and ‘coherence’ need to be discussed separately.

Although the concept of rule was not prominent among the theoretical advances of the early European structuralists, it is nonetheless clear that its ubiquitousness today owes much to an understanding of grammatical relations as patterning and regularity that goes back to pre-war discussions (principally in Prague and Copenhagen) of the foundations of linguistic theory. What is missing from both pre- and post-war theorizing, however, is the notion of the coherence of linguistic relations, and as a corollary, the precise means whereby coherence is to be expressed in the practice of linguistic description.

All along, the potential for making coherence an explicit principle in the understanding of language structure existed unexploited among the many overt achievements of early structuralism, specifically in the idea of MARKEDNESS. Coherence obtains when rule relations signify the mirroring of markedness values across content and expression levels, or between different aspects of expression (as in the case of some morphophonemic congruences). The latter case––an automorphism––is the focus here. Since patterning is present at all levels of grammar, to the extent that the rules of language structure expressing this patterning reflect congruences of markedness values, we can attribute their coherence (their raison d’être) to such cohesions. What is more, we can do this uniformly in virtue of the isomorphism of grammar as a whole. Nothing proves the validity of this universal notion of coherence better than the evidence of linguistic  change. The drift  of a language involves the actualization of patterns that are coherent in just this sense, and the rejection of those that are not.

Rules are more than mere generalized formulas of patterns when they embody specifications of coherence between linguistic elements, namely, cohesions between units and contexts. This criterion of rule coherence remains true and valid but practically vague without the necessary involvement of markedness, because it is markedness that provides the explicit means of expressing coherence. While there may be several goals of language change, the overarching telos of linguistic change is the establishment of a pattern––not just any pattern but specifically the semeiotic kind Peirce called a diagram. Since diagrams are panchronic signs, it is not surprising that they subtend both linguistic synchrony and linguistic  diachrony. Diagrammatization can be seen as one species of the process by which unconformities in language are reduced or eliminated over time. These dynamic tendencies can be couched in structuralist terms: system is brought into conformity with type, while norms are brought into conformity with system.

Diagrams and diagrammatization in language are states, resp. processes, whereby relations mirror relations, as between form and content (isomorphism) or between form and form (automorphism). They are states in synchrony and real tendencies in diachrony. As a corollary, all language states are the cumulative results of preceding states (ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny). Moreover, there is no telos in language “beyond” diagrammatization: (1) conformity to a pattern is diagrammatic in itself; and (2) language conforms to nature by diagrammatizing content in form. (These two positions effectively put an end-­stop to the Cratylistic debate.)


Iconicity in Action (Singulative Deverbal Nouns)

April 4, 2013

Occasionally, matters usually reserved for treatment in professional linguistic journals spill over into the mass media. This was illustrated by Henry Hitchings’ recent essay, “Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns” (The New York Times, Sunday Review, March 31, 2013), which is rich in illustrative detail but fails to explain the difference between what he calls Type A nominalization (i. e., with suffixes, as in investigate/investigation, read/read-ing, etc.) and Type B nominalization (i. e., without suffixes, alias “zero-derivation,” like launch, call, etc.). The second type encompasses SINGULATIVE DEVERBAL NOUNS, since the meaning involves a single completed action rather than a process.

The explanation lies in the category of VERBAL ASPECT. In English, verbs are distinguished by what is called PERFECTIVE vs. IMPERFECTIVE aspect. The perfective necessarily signifies the completion of the action, whereas the imperfective is noncommittal as to its completion. This categorical distinction also pertains to nominalizations. A suffixal nominalization like investigation or reading makes no overt reference to the completion of the action but does contain a suffix signifying a process, whereas unsuffixed nominalizations like read (“it was a good read”) or take (“what’s your take on it?”) necessarily signify a completed act but not a process. Crucially for their history in English, in both types THE FORM IS AN ICON OF THE MEANING: a “zero suffix” coheres with the absence of a processual meaning, whereas a “real suffix” coheres with its presence. This explains the difference.