• Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Glossary of Useful Words 10 & 11: ‘sycophantic’ & ‘calumniate’

January 30, 2017

What would English do without its Graeco-Roman patrimony?! Two words from that stratum of the lexicon swam into Y-H-B’s consciousness a few days ago when asked by the editor of a journal to write a piece about his dealings with his Doktorvater under the rubric of “unforgetting.” Here is the passage in which the pertinent items found their natural place:

There was a lot of acrimony on Jakobson’s side for a number of reasons, and my  dissertation went through four drafts before he signed off on it. But I aggravated my “sins” by publishing every one of the chapters he forced me to excise as journal articles. Then I got into a lot of hot water with Jak by writing a strongly critical book review in Language of one of his sycophantic former students. Jak went on the warpath (esp. in IJSLP) and tried to prevent me from getting tenure at UCLA. We eventually patched it up, but you can imagine the anguish of a young scholar to be calumniated in scholarly journals by a world-famous linguist!

The OED glosses them as follows:
           sycophantic, adj.
< Greek σῡκοϕαντικός, < σῡκοϕάντης sycophant n. and adj.

  1. Having the character of, or characteristic of, a sycophant; meanly flattering;  basely obsequious.
  2. Calumnious, slanderous.

         calumniate, v.
         Etymology: < Latin calumniāt- participial stem of calumniāri ; see
-ate suffix3. Compare 16th cent. French calomnier.

  1. a.
    trans. To asperse with calumny, utter calumny regarding; to accuse or        charge falsely and maliciously with something criminal or disreputable;to slander.
    b. intr. (absol.) To utter calumnies.
  2. To charge (a thing) calumniously against a person. Obs. rare.

The Russians have a saying, “Мeртвые сраму не имут,” literally “The dead take no shame,” which derives from the so-called Primary Chronicle and refers to words supposedly uttered by Prince Sviatoslav before sending his men into battle with the Byzantines in the tenth century. However, given the shameful circumstances chronicled in the passage above, here is one unforgettable instance where the paroemic is irrefragably beggared by the historical.


The Sense of Grammar (Mood and Number)

January 2, 2017

Given the balkanized state of the field of linguistics in the twenty-first century, it may be easy to forget that an à la mode view of grammar may not necessarily be the best or truest. Apropos, a book published by Y-H-B almost a quarter of a century ago, The Sense of Grammar: Language as Semeiotic, still shows the way toward an understanding of the coherence of grammatical facts by stressing the overriding importance of diagrammatic semeiosis, wherein diagrammaticity (diagrams = icons of relation) prevails over arbitrariness.

This truth can be demonstrated concisely by examining the relation between mood and number in contrary to fact statements in English. The traditional norm requires such statements (as in wishes) to utilize the plural instead of the singular with a singular agent (“I wish I were in Dixie,” etc.). The contemporary tendency away from the plural may seem to restore grammatical coherence, but this is a specious judgment based on a basic incomprehension of how grammar makes sense semeiotically.

More precisely, the use of the plural number with the subjunctive mood constitutes a supervening coherence based on iconicity. A diagram (as noted) being an icon of relation, and the marked number being the plural (vis-à-vis the singular), just as the subjunctive mood is marked vis-à-vis the indicative, the sense of the use here of the plural transpires from the coherence of the markedness values of the two relevant grammatical categories. The Sense of Grammar may be out of print, but its purport has not suffered desuetude withal.