• Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Semantico-Syntactic Portmanteau (Enjoy!)

December 28, 2014

Contemporary speakers of American English are used to hearing the imperative Enjoy! uttered by waiters and waitresses upon presentation of the food ordered, but they are doubtless unaware of the usage’s provenience (Russian via Yiddish, as detailed in an earlier post [December 3, 2011]). Be that as it may, the lack of a complement––a direct object or a reflexive pronoun––after what is in standard English a transitive verb, is here to be explained as what might be called a functional ambiguity. Not specifying a complement syntactically allows BOTH the meaning of the direct object (it, i. e., the food) AND of the reflexive (yourself) to be implied despite their absence. This useful semantic portmanteau, of two meanings only by adumbration and not by the explicit presence of either, is what accounts for the spread of Enjoy!

By way of explanation from the structural perspective provided by markedness theory and its semeiotic understanding, the absolute (= intransitive) use of an otherwise reflexive verb to denote a state can generally be seen as an instance of iconicity: the reflexive-less form diagrammatizes the nonspecific (broadly defined, unmarked) meaning of the verb, whereas the form with the reflexive pronoun diagrammatizes a specific (narrowly defined, marked) meaning. Hence the change in the syntactic properties of enjoy that allows for its absolute use is just a garden-variety case of synchrony being the (cumulative) result of a teleological process.


The Stress of Adverbialized Prepositional Phrases

December 24, 2014

When prepositions govern personal pronouns, as in stick to it, go with him, proud of it, etc., the primary stress falls on the preposition, and the prepositional phrase is adverbialized, i. e., functions as an adverb, hence the stress pattern, since adverbs normally bear the phrasal stress when immediately preceded by the verb they modify (e. g., go quickly, write slowly, breathe deeply, etc.). This also happens when the preposition is a compound, as in look up to him, the stress falling invariably on the first component of the compound.

With first or second person pronouns, stress on the preposition is facultative, whereas with the third person pronoun it, it is obligatory. This pattern is to be explained by the fact that as the neuter member of the category the third person is less central in the hierarchy of pronominal personhood compared to the first and second persons, hence less capable of bearing the stress in the prosodic structure of adverbialized prepositional phrases.


False Analogy (inherent[ly])

December 14, 2014

Languages develop largely along rational lines, and (proportional) analogy is often at the bottom of a particular development. However, as was noted here in recent posts, viz. on the pronunciation of the verb err and the government of the adjective courteous, the source of the analogy can be erroneous or false. This is what obtains in the common (all but exclusive) pronunciation of the adjective inherent (more frequently represented by the related adverb inherently), wherein the stressed vowel is made to rhyme with that of the much more frequent verb inherit rather than the actual deriving verb inhere, whose stressed vowel rhymes with here.

False analogy stems from imperfect learning and is a failure of thought. Requiescat in pace, oh, book learning of yore!



December 10, 2014

Three earlier posts have focused on the ubiquity in contemporary English of the adverb absolutely as an intensified version of the simple affirmatives yes, of course, etc. This speech habit has reached such a degree of pervasiveness as to constitute a verbal tic and a source of annoyance.

In order to counteract the tendency to absolutize affirmation in English, Y-H-B wishes to offer herewith a worthy substitute, viz. irrefragably, pronounced not as recommended in dictionaries with stress on the second syllable but with the more natural stress on the third syllable, the stressed vowel being the same as in ragged.

The word is based on the adjective irrefragable, characterized as follows in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary:

ir·ref·ra·ga·ble [i(r)ˈrefrəgəbəl]
1:  impossible to gainsay, deny, or refute <irrefragable arguments> <irrefragable data> <these irrefragable authorities>
2:  impossible to break or alter :  inviolable, indestructible <irrefragable rules> <an irrefragable cement>
ir·ref·ra·ga·bly [i(r)ˈrefrəgəblɪ]

Late Latin irrefragabilis, from Latin in- 1in- + refragari to resist, oppose (from re- + -fragari —as in suffragari to vote for, support) + -abilis -able
First Known Use: 1533 (sense 1)

Readers of this blog are urged to try irrefragably on for size whenever the urge to say absolutely comes over them.


Adjectival Government

December 1, 2014

Adjectives can govern other parts of speech in the syntactic construction of a sentence. In English the element that comes after an adjective is a postposition, e. g., in, of, to, from, with, etc. Adjectives rarely “take,” i. e., govern, more than one postposition. Typical of the stylistically more bookish or formal adjectives in –ive is their government of the postposition of; thus the constructions supportive of, derivative of, illustrative of, etc.; but cf. the appearance of to after conducive. When it comes to non-derived adjectives, the typical postposition governed by adjectives is to, toward, with or from. Hence one gets courteous to, patient with, etc.

When contemporary speakers of American English make errors with adjectival government, it is probably not only the result of imperfect learning but also of hypercorrection, i. e., trying to sound “hifalutin.” Thus the error in the public address announcement on New York MTA vehicles that comes on during the cold and flu season warning passengers not to sneeze into their neighbors’ faces. The well-modulated male voice utters a sentence that includes the ungrammatical phrase “be courteous of your fellow-passengers.” Evidently, the person who wrote the text of the announcement wanted to punctuate the content stylistically by giving it the bogus bookishness that comes with having the adjective courteous govern of rather than to.