• Monthly Archives: August 2013

Grades of Well-Formedness in Language (Cacoglossia)

August 30, 2013

With globalization has come the rise of English as the world language and the concomitant development of various Englishes, i. e., versions of what started as the language of England and then spread throughout the globe as a lingua franca. In the twenty-first century this development has involved the use of English with varying degrees of grammatical well-formedness, quite apart from the matter of different regional accents characterizing the language of native speakers and second-language learners alike.

When one listens to the BBC World Service over the radio, one sometimes encounters a peculiar version of English that can only be called ‘cacoglossia’. This is speech that is identfiably English, spoken at a fluid rate of delivery but with many grammatical mistakes. Psycholinguistically, the interesting thing about this phenomenon is the realization on the hearer’s part––but evidently not on the speaker’s––that the person uttering string upon string of cacoglossic language is not speaking grammatically well-formed English while communicating a completely understandable meaning. One recent example of such speech heard on the BBC was that of a Syrian national born in Syria but raised in the United States, who spoke with what passed for an American accent but whose utterances constituted some kind of idiosyncratic grammatical pidgin that the speaker had internalized as an ersatz form of English with its own wayward structure.


An Alternate Intonational Contour in Sentences with the Vocative

August 21, 2013

Every linguistic utterance takes place in a communicative context defined by the speaker’s orientation and the latter’s associated function. When the orientation is toward establishing contact, the function is called PHATIC; when toward the content, REFERENTIAL; when toward the code, METALINGUISTIC; when toward the addressee, CONATIVE; when toward the addresser, EMOTIVE; when toward the message, POETIC. In English the conative function is illustrated by sentences utilizing a verb in the imperative mode or where the addressee is addressed directly in the vocative.

The structural relatedness in language of the imperative and the vocative categories can be seen in the recent emergence in English (on both sides of the Atlantic) of an unusual intonational pattern for the vocative as an alternate to the traditional one, namely a pattern involving a dropping of the voice on the word for the person named rather than before it. Thus, instead of saying “Good morning, Mark” with an intonation involving a drop of the voice at the end of “morning,” this new version postpones the drop until after “Mark.” Conation is the only factor that binds the two categories and explains the assimilation of vocative to imperative in this case of linguistic change.



Persistence of the Irrational in Everyday Speech

August 14, 2013

In an earlier post (“Superfluous Syndeton,” June 2, 2009), I called attention to the use in current British English of the word and before the last numeral in the designation of the year of the twenty-first century; thus “two thousand and thirteen” instead of the expected “two thousand thirteen.” This insertion of the conjunction is utterly senseless and is not to be observed in designating earlier centuries.

That this usage has inexplicably penetrated American English was demonstrated this morning in the otherwise admirable diction of the NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn (“Morning Edition”), who pronounced the dates 2008 and 2010 with the offending and before eight and ten.

Ratio tacet.


The Perils of Propitiation in Female Speech

August 11, 2013

Amid the recurrent media chatter concerning the obstacles encountered by women attempting to make their way in what remains a man’s world, it is remarkable how little mention is ever made of the paramount role of language. Importantly, whatever else is true of one’s persona, nothing has both the immediate and the lasting impact of one’s speech on one’s interlocutors.

In this respect, girls whose native language is American English, from early childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, now acquire two speech habits that can only have the goal of propitiating their (specifically male) interlocutors but do so at the expense of having their utterances taken as less than serious or negligible: (1) paralinguistic laughter (often to the point of cachinnation); and (2) uptalk (uttering clauses and even whole sentences with interrogative rather than declarative intonation). As noted in earlier posts, these typical features of female speech are both apotropaic (meant to forestall danger or censure), but they are an atavism that should have no place in twenty-first century America.

Girls and women need explicitly to be made aware of the perils of propitiation and trained to avoid it in speech, by parents in the first instance and by teachers thereafter. Eliminating uptalk is now perhaps nigh on impossible, but the habitual laughter accompanying speech is assuredly a trait that can be extirpated from the utterances of women who wish to be taken seriously.