• Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Frisson of Etymological Discovery

January 31, 2015

Every word has a history. But the history of most words in a speaker’s vocabulary is obscured from view until discovered, often serendipitously and rarely by dint of inquiry. For ordinary language use the etymology of a word need not be known to speakers in order for them to have a command of the lexical stock of a language. Words are tokens absorbed unreflectively in the process of acquiring a language’s lexis, and whose meaning seems largely to have been established by convention along with the habits of their proper usage.

Occasionally, however, even a professional linguist can experience the thrill of etymological discovery. This is what happened today to Y-H-B while reading a history of music and learning that the word conservatory, which now means a music school in all the European languages, goes back to the Italian conservatorio and its original meaning ‘orphanage’ (= a hospital or school for orphans and foundlings). It seems that orphans were “conserved” in institutions that, besides giving them housing and sustenance, trained them in music so as to enable them to make their way in the world when they left the orphanage.

For someone who loves language, the experience of learning the etymology of a word for the first time is akin to hearing a passage of music performed with great skill by a virtuoso. Closer to home, the linguistic experience akin to the musical one can only be realized, for instance, by hearing the inexhaustibly rich explanations of such an expert as Y-H-B’s lifelong friend, the great Finnish-American Indo-Europeanist and Fennicist Raimo Anttila, whose knowledge of word origins can only be called miraculous.


Latin as the Verbal Weapon of Choice in English

January 30, 2015

Latin is the fons et origo of much of English literary phraseology and has been deployed to good rhetorical effect for centuries. Contemporary speakers are not as prone to utilize it as were language users in the past, due to the decline of Latin as a required school subject, but it is still available to be summoned up when the discourse invites it.

This was illustrated in today’s broadcast on NPR of “Morning Edition,” when the presenter used the phrase “one hand washes the other” in describing the scandalous situation currently embroiling politicians in Albany, the state capital of New York. From the strictly linguistic standpoint, this was precisely the moment to use the Latin original, manus manum lavat, and, moreover, to greater effect because of the paronomasia informing the phrase––a value lost in the English equivalent. Paronomasia is not only the stuff of poetry but the consummate implementation of the poetic function in language––the only self-reflexive of the six functions in verbal communication, i. e., the one foregrounded when words call attention to their own structure.


The Drift toward Linguistic Hypertrophy in American English

January 29, 2015

Among different types of language change, American English has had a long history of what has come to be called back-formation, that is “the creation of a new word by removing an affix from an already existing word, as vacuum clean from vacuum cleaner, or by removing what is mistakenly thought to be an affix, as pea from the earlier English plural pease.“(American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.). But this reduction of words is now being counter-balanced by engorged versions, in line with an opposite tendency, viz. toward hypertrophy, instanced here on several previous occasions.

Besides the verb commentate (< commentator) instead of comment, we now often have cohabitate (< cohabitation) instead of cohabit. This enlargement of the verb is given impetus by the relative frequency of its morphologically affiliated noun. In the case of cohabitate, ignorance of the normative verb is also doubtless a factor.

What may now seem like an isolated instance can be reevaluated as the instantiation of what the pioneering American linguist Edward Sapir called “drift”––alias the principle of final causation in language––and characterized as follows: “Wherever the human mind has worked collectively and unconsciously, it has striven for and attained unique form. The important point is that the evolution of form has a drift in one direction, that it seeks poise, and that it rests, relatively speaking, when it has found this poise.”

Present possibilities with greater or lesser powers of actualization exist at any given historical stage of a language. Innovations that come to be full-fledged social facts, i. e., changes, must have something about their form that enables them to survive. The aggregate of such innovations-become-changes is what constitutes the drift of a language. Items such as commentate and cohabitate are thus an early change of what can rightfully be reckoned a drift toward hypertrophy in American English.


Desyllabication of /n/ in Consonant Clusters

January 19, 2015

American English in the last decade or more has manifested a phonetic change whereby what was previously a syllabic /n/ in the clusters /dnt/ and /tnt/ at the end of words has instead developed an epenthetic [ɛ] preceding it. Accordingly, whereas the older normative pronunciation of words like student, hadn’t, didn’t, and patent typically had no vowel before [n], now the younger generation of speakers inserts an unstressed open mid-vowel [ɛ] before it.

The explanation for this change has to do with the kind of language English is typologically, namely a consonantal language, and not a vocalic language. All languages of the world are divided into these two basic types. The vocalic languages have evolved through a series of phonological changes which seem to manifest general tendencies to change consonants to vowels, to use consonants as syllabics, to develop new syllables by vowel insertion, to simplify consonant sequences, etc. By contrast, the consonantal languages have maintained complex consonant clusters but have manifested a tendency to suppress the sonority of liquids and nasals. Vocalic languages evince a tendency to vocalize consonants, whereas the consonantal languages suppress the natural sonority of consonants.

Contemporary American English, as a consonantal language, by desyllabicating the nasal sonorant /n/ in the clusters /tnt/ and /dnt/, is thus just fulfilling its typological Bauplan. This is its teleological fate, as the long-term goal of change in language, as in evolution generally, is determined ultimately by the conformity of any individual change to the type of outcome that it implements.


Hypermetrical Stress for Emphasis in Adverbs

January 13, 2015

All languages have prosodic (supersegmental) systems that encompass different ways of giving prominence to certain syllables in the word via stress (loudness), pitch (high or low), or length (long or short). English is a stress language, in which the position of stress is mobile and can fall on any syllable (unlike, for instance, Czech, which has fixed stress on the initial syllable; or French, with stress on the final syllable). Occasionally word classes in English can be differentiated solely by stress, as in noun/verb pairs like pérmit/permít, cómbat/combát, etc.

Stress is also used to give emphasis to words. This can be accomplished by increasing the loudness of the stressed syllable beyond its normal degree; or by stressing syllables that are normally unstressed or bear secondary rather than primary stress.

Emphatic stress of the latter sort in particular can be called “hypermetrical” (adopting the term from verse analysis), by which is meant a stress on a syllable over and above the normal distribution. This is evidently what has happened in the recent history of American English as regards certain adverbs in {-ly} such as apparently, supposedly, etc., wherein some speakers are putting a hypermetrical stress on the final syllable for emphasis in addition to the normal primary stress on a medial syllable.


Of Eths and Thorns

January 3, 2015

The word “eth” is the name of a letter used in earlier versions of English orthography (among other Germanic writing systems) for the so-called voiced (inter)dental fricative, this grapheme being pronounced with the same voiced sound, viz. [ɛð]. (The proper phonological designation is “lax,” not “voiced,” since English is a protensity language, not a voicing language.) The symbol inherited from Old English resembles a reversed numeral 6 with a stroke through the stem. While contemporary English orthography has dropped this item from its inventory, its phonetic/phonological counterpart, the voiceless (inter)dental fricative called “thorn” and represented in transcription by the Greek theta, i.e., [θ], survives as the digraph th.

The pronunciation of orthographic th in present-day English varies in large part with its position in the word (initial, medial/intervocalic, final), and secondarily with the word class to which a given item belongs. Taking the latter first, the deictics (demonstrative pronouns) this, that, there, thus, and thither, along with the personal pronoun they, all have initial eth, whereas non-pronominals have thorn, e. g., thistle, thatch, thorn, etc. Intervocalic th is exceptionlessly pronounced with eth, as in blather, hither, lather, etc. The directional deictic thither can be pronounced either with a medial eth or a thorn.

In the case of plural forms of items ending in th in the singular, there is a regular assimilation such that eth appears before the {-s} desinence realized phonetically as [z], e. g., path is sg. [paθ] but pl. [paðz], etc.

The distribution of eth and thorn in the immediate vicinity of a liquid (l and r) depends on which liquid it is and on their position in the word. In initial position before /r/, the pronunciation is regularly “voiceless” (throne, thrust, etc.), but medially it is “voiced” before r (e.g., brethren) and “voiceless” after r (e.g., arthritis), as it is after l (e. g., wealth).

An interesting case of distribution is that of the noun/verb pair with final th, viz. bath/bathe. Instead of the correlation expected from markedness theory of the marked sound (here, the tense thorn) obtaining in the marked category (the verb), we have an instance of complementation rather than replication, the markedness values being reversed (the marked sound appearing in the unmarked category and vice versa). Perhaps this distribution is to be explained as a garden-variety case of markedness DOMINANCE, since the two interdental sounds eth and thorn already constitute a marked (restricted) class in the phonology of English to begin with.