• Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 16: When Words Fail One

November 18, 2018

Y-H-B turned on his radio this morning to VPR Classical (as usual) and heard Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, being played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. This is a piece I often heard as a child growing up in Tokyo and later Los Angeles, when my mother of blessed memory (1905-1983), Lydia Ita Shapiro (née Chernetzky [Лидия Абрамовна Шапиро, ур. Чернецкая], practiced it in preparation for one of her solo concerts (including Hibiya Hall in Tokyo). It was also the last piece that my beloved wife, Marianne Shapiro (1940-2003 עליה השלום), was learning before she was no longer able to sit at the piano.

When one hears music that is so close to one’s heart, there are no words to describe the emotional power of the sounds.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 15: Two Russian Proverbs and a Poem in Prose

November 13, 2018

As instanced in these posts more than once, Y-H-B is prone to engage in silent autocommentary by repeating material from his fund of Russian lore. Today, under particularly onerous mental circumstances on a cold day in Vermont, the following two sayings/proverbs came to mind:

Не мытьем, так катаньем ‘By hook or by crook.’
Попытка не пытка, спрос не беда. ‘It can’t hurt to try.’

This paroemiac material was then mentally garnished with the following poem in prose by the great Russian writer, Ivan Turgenev:

Иван Тургенев (1818-1883)
Стихотворения в прозе: Русский язык
Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины, — ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык! Не будь тебя — как не впасть в отчаяние при виде всего, что совершается дома? Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!
Июнь, 1882
[Translation: THE RUSSIAN TONGUE [Constance Garnett]
In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!
June 1882.]

One’s thoughts do not necessarily have to be original to embody emotional force, especially in sad moments. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.


Syntactic Arbitrariness and Analogical Leveling in Language Change

November 7, 2018

When speakers of American English make grammatical mistakes like saying *play a factor (instead of be/constitute a factor) and *ask a question to (instead of ask a question of), they are relying on the analogy between similar constructions, viz. play a role and direct a question to. These two departures from normative grammar in present-day speech are frequently heard in media language and point to the arbitrariness of the traditional syntax involved.

The mistakes arise, of course, via the establishment of an implicit dominance relation between the newer (mistaken) form and the older traditional one. The postposition of in the verb phrase ask of represents a use of the postposition that is no longer felt by speakers to have the meaning of directionality, since its contemporary predominant meaning is possessive, i. e., “belonging to” and not “directed at/toward.” Similarly, the word factor has been reconstrued as being identical in meaning to role, hence to be governed by the verb play.

Analogical leveling of this sort in language change always has a structure that reposes on a reconstrual of the meaning of the constituents involved in governing their syntax.