• Monthly Archives: February 2018

“Awesome” and “Fantastic” (The Triumph of the Phatic)

February 15, 2018

To continue one sub-genre among these posts, whose motto might be, “Linguista sum: linguistici nihil a me alienum puto” (echoing the late but unlamented Roman Jakobson’s paraphrase of Terence; vide Y-H-B’s article, “Roman Jakobson in Retrospect: Unvarnished Remembrances of a Stiff-Necked Student,” Chinese Semiotic Studies, 14 [2018], 41-56), my waiter at one of my Stammlokale (a young man in his twenties, and irrefragably a native speaker of American English) uttered the words “awesome,” when first taking my order, and “fantastic,” when I ordered a double espresso at the end. The communicative function of these two words was clearly and exclusively PHATIC,i. e., linguistic tokens meant purely as acknowledgments of my utterances in continuance of the act of communication––and, nota bene, utterly divorced from the meaning of their stems, viz. “awe” and “fantasy.” Needless to say, young speakers nowadays use these phatic words constantly and habitually without any intention of alluding to their literal meaning.

This account of one limited aspect of a miscellaneous prandial exchange is worth rehearsing in the service of asserting (yet again) that the locus of linguistic reality is the ACT, the CREATIVE MOMENT OF SPEECH––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.


Archaisms and Gravitas: A Cross-Linguistic Example from the New Testament

February 9, 2018

In today’s broadcast of the NPR program, “Marketplace Morning Report,” the host David Brancaccio (a native English speaker with exemplary vocal timbre, diction, and stylistic acumen), used the phrase “like a thief in the night,” with the contemporary meaning ‘secretly or unexpectedly and without being seen’, which anyone with a smattering of biblical knowledge would recognize as coming from the New Testament. The exact locus is 1 Thessalonians 5, to wit: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” In all English versions of this passage, including the King James, the relevant phrase is in perfectly contemporary language.

By contrast, the contemporary Russian phrase maintains an archaic (Church Slavonic) wording throughout: “яко (or как) тать в нощи» (transliterated: “iako tat’ v noshchi”). The meaning and usage remain the same as in English, but stylistically the force of the phrase has gravitas because of the archaisms, which the English lacks. Any Russian speaker uttering the phrase will automatically associate it with something ancient––hence, weightier––than will an English speaker using the same idiom, irrespective of any knowledge of the phrase’s origin.