• Monthly Archives: January 2018

Violations of Well-Formedness

January 22, 2018

While blatant violations of English grammar are common in media language, one can also observe the utterance of speech that seems to be grammatical but on closer analysis violates what is called “well-formedness.” This happened on today’s NPR program “Morning Edition,” when one of the hosts (David Greene––a graduate of Harvard, no less!) uttered the phrase “both sides blamed the other” instead of the correct “each side blamed the other” in speaking of the current government shut down. Of course, it is not clear whether Mr. Greene was reading from a script or offering an ex tempore description, but in either case the breach of well-formedness stands.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 13: Hypertrophic Noses Everywhere

January 18, 2018

It seems that anywhere one looks these days, one is confronted by the faces of the growing crowd of geriatrics, and what stands out is their noses––bulbous, pock-marked proboscides––that tend to mar the visages of these ancients (whether they realize it or not).

It is a scene involving four such unhandsome snouts that confronted Y-H-B as he sat at his usual table for lunch today at a neighborhood French restaurant (Le Moulin à Café) on York Avenue in Manhattan. Four senior citizens with outsize schnozzes had just sat down (evidently, two pairs of husband and wife) and started chattering, when the word ‘nose’ from Goethe’s Faust (Pt. 1, opening scene, “Night”), uttered by the protagonist, came suddenly to mind:

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;
Heiße Magister, heiße Doktor gar
Und ziehe schon an die zehen Jahr
Herauf, herab und quer und krumm
Meine Schüler an der Nase herum –
Und sehe, daß wir nichts wissen können!

I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine,—
And even, alas! Theology,—
From end to end, with labor keen;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before:
I’m Magister—yea, Doctor—hight,
And straight or cross-wise, wrong or right,
These ten years long, with many woes,
I’ve led my scholars by the nose,—
And see, that nothing can be known!
[translated by Bayard Taylor]

“Leading [somebody] by the nose” has a fixed meaning: to cause to obey submissively. Given the deflated look of the geriatrics in question, their unsightly noses only conjured up submissiveness and worse.

Cf. Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac:

Ah… your nose… hem!…
Your nose is… rather large!
CYRANO (gravely)
VALVERT (simpering)
Oh well—
CYRANO (coolly)
Is that all?
VALVERT (turns away with a shrug)
Well, of course—
Ah, no, young sir!
You are too simple. Why, you might have said—
Oh, a great many things? Mon dieu, why waste
Your opportunity? For example, thus:—
AGGRESSIVE: I, sir, if that nose were mine,
I’d have it amputated—on the spot!

Such are the literary loci that drifted into Y-H-B’s mind when confronted by the ubiquitous schnozzolas of today.


Is the So-Called ‘Vocal Fry’ an Apotropaism?

January 14, 2018

One feature of contemporary female speech in American English of the last few decades is the so-called ‘vocal fry’, defined as a vocal register “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency.” Words uttered by mostly younger women at the end of clauses in this register have been characterized variously––and contradictorily–– as (1) producing greater credibility; or (2) making female speakers sound less confident, thereby undermining the effectiveness of their communication.

In light of several other cases (such as uptalk) that have been instanced in previous posts as characteristic of the speech of young women and girls in the 21st century, and explained as APOTROPAISMS, perhaps vocal fry should be categorized similarly, i. e., as a strategy used by speakers to avoid or forestall danger. More specifically, vocal fry could be likened to the behavior of an animal confronted by danger, including baring its teeth and/or claws, bristling, etc. The meaning communicated to her interlocutor(s) by a female speaker who resorts to the vocal fry is something like ‘don’t mess with me’. At a time when sexual harassment has become a staple of media discussions detailing the perils confronting American women in the 21st century, an explanation of vocal fry as an apotropaism gains special credence.


Adjectivization of Verb Phrases and Its Contemporary Vogue

January 4, 2018

Contemporary media language (but not only) constantly reverts to compound adjectives like jaw-dropping and game-changing to spice up the discourse. Such items are the product of adjectivizing verb phrases, hence “drop [one’s] jaw” is the source of jaw-dropping and “change [the] game” the source of game-changing. These neologisms draw on a time-tested morphological pattern in the history of English, which has given us back-breaking and nit-picking et al. along the way.

What is it about this derivational pattern that contributes to its current productivity? There is always the possibility of using a non-compound deverbal adjective like astounding (instead of jaw-dropping) and revolutionary (instead of game-changing). Naturally, the connotations of these simple adjectives are not identical, there being no such thing as perfect synonymy. But the most salient difference is the presence of the semantic category of PROCESS in the compounds, derived from the fact that the objective complement of the verb is specified in the derived adjective. It is this necessary presence of the verbal complement in these new deverbal adjectives that gives rise to their popularity as a matter of linguistic iconicity. More specifically, PROCESS rather than RESULT being the distinctive feature of 21st-century American culture, this adjectivization of a verb phrase can be assessed as a diagrammatization in language of an overarching societal value.