• Monthly Archives: May 2018

An Amuse-Bouche from My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge

May 25, 2018

For readers of this blog (and there are now over 1,000/day according to Webalizer) who might appreciate some linguistic byplay from Y-H-B’s novel, here is an excerpt:

“2. Why Did I Say Devilishly And Not Fiendishly?

Why did I say devilishly and not fiendishly, or demonically or diabolically? Why tricky, not intricate or difficult? Why does Nabokov write phocine instead of seal-like? Knee-jerk predilection for the highfalutin Graeco-Roman, avoidance of the geminately hinged Germanic? Parading his command of English, reaching sideways for recondite vocabulary like the wall-eyed Harvard professor who instructs the fair-haired grad student on how to get buzzed into his aerie on Mass Ave with his aporetic “Ring the bell, I open, and you penetrate.” The Russian exiles who war with each other in their prerevolutionary idiolects but know their adopted language better than the aborigenes.”

I trust this snippet will impel some of you to delve into the entire fiction for other exempla of language used playfully.


Social Values and the Stiff Upper Lip as Reflected in Language

May 15, 2018

As has been emphasized many times in earlier posts the supposed dichotomy between language and society is non-existent in two respects. For one thing, language is an entirely social phenomenon and cannot be separated from its social functions. For another, when linguistic rules make reference to social categories such as age, gender, or class, these categories are also themselves linguistic categories. They can and should be strictly distinguished from such parameters as chronological age, biological sex, or socioeconomic status, which can be defined prior to––and without regard to––the investigation of any language. What linguistic expressions index are culture-specific categories such as ‘youthfulness’, ‘femininity’, or ‘upper class’, not as defined in universal, naturalistic terms, but as conventionally encoded and understood by speakers of the language in question at the given time. Far from being “sociological factors” or “social factors bear[ing] upon linguistic features” these are in fact linguistic features. They are language-particular categories of content, indexed by linguistic elements of expression, that are selected for expression in discourse by speakers in accordance with their communicative intentions and with the same degree of freedom (and responsibility) as other categories of linguistic content. While it is a commonplace that language is totally embedded in society (linguistic facts are social facts), what is important to understand is that through the sociolinguistic categories of content indexed by linguistic expressions, the categories of a society are embedded in its language “unevenly”.
When a language changes, it is not only the strictly phonic features that undergo change. In contemporary American English, the paralinguistic features betokening emotional content have changed most radically to encompass bodily and facial movements accompanying speech that were kept to a minimum in the past. Speakers––especially women, but not only––typically use gestures of all kinds to express the emotions animating them, and these gestures extend to facial expressions such as twists of the mouth, eyebrow raising, etc. Whereas British speakers of an earlier era were particularly noted for their “stiff upper lip” as a linguistic characteristic extending beyond character traits, this is only rarely to be witnessed today, the American format having taken over in language as in so many other expressions of social values. This development in the general history of English is probably to be understood as owing its impetus to the rampant dissolution of community solidarity, which then eventuates in a greater need to exhibit one’s emotional state through the use of paralinguistic features beyond words.