Meaning is a very interesting category, existing in the shared mental space between humans and the languages they use to communicate with each other. As something intangible except in its consequences, linguistic meaning is always something liable to misunderstanding, reinterpretation, and even perversion.
One current example of perversion is the meaning of the word ‘caveat’ in American English, which comes from the Latin phrase caveat emptor, used originally by lawyers to mean ‘let the buyer beware’. Nowadays, the first word of the phrase is commonly used to mean something like ‘exception’, when it normatively and traditionally has meant the following:
1. A warning, admonition, caution. (OED)
2 a: a modifying or cautionary detail to be considered when evaluating, interpreting, or doing something;
b. a warning enjoining one from certain acts or practices;
c. a cautionary explanation to prevent misinterpretation.
(all three of the latter meanings from Merriam-Webster’s Online)
Even when it comes to language use, dear readers, remember: caveat emptor!
My late wife Marianne Shapiro, demonstrably the most versatile and accomplished American Italianist of the 20th century, taught me a word which she herself used quite frequently, viz. ‘rebarbative’, meaning ‘Repellent; unattractive; objectionable (OED); ‘serving or tending to repel or irritate : crabbed, repellent’ (Merriam- Webster).
Unfortunately, in Marianne’s experience this word’s usefulness came up frequently because she worked in a field replete with epitomically rebarbative academic types.
In our own day, this word retains more than a routine usefulness for everyday speech, given the sorts of people (and not only academics) one tends to encounter in everyday life.
In a telephone conversation with my old friend and loyal subscriber to this blog, the nonpareil prosthodontist Dr. Simon Gamer (known in Russian by his name and patronymic, Семён Максимович), a book on Lenin came up, and Dr. Gamer remarked that the book (which I had given him) contained numerous corrections by me of typographical errors. I then retorted that this behavior was in line with my “punctilious self,” and the good doctor agreed with me.
The word ‘punctilious’ is very useful: it means ‘showing great attention to detail or correct behavior’, a punctilio being (according to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary online “a nice detail of conduct in a ceremony, a procedure, or in the observance of a social or moral code : a point of behavior about which one is fastidious.”
An astute reader of and long-time subscriber to this blog, Lone Coleman, who is a native speaker of Danish and speaks English perfectly well, alerted me to the fact that not all accents are the same, hence this addendum.
It is true that certain accents are harsher than others. The closer a non-native speaker’s accented English approaches standard English, the better the “music” of the outcome. Occasionally, a typical accent (like the French) can even seem charming and easy on the ear. C’est le ton qui fait la musique!
The likening of language to music has a long history. No further evidence is needed than the phrase in English of speech being “music to one’s ears,” etc. Since English is now the world’s lingua franca, many people are heard speaking the language who are not native speakers or who have learned to speak it imperfectly and do so badly. One is tempted to call this kind of speech cacolalia, a nonce word combining the Greek element for ‘bad, evil’ with the Latin for ‘speech’.
When one hears such cacolalia constantly on the BBC World Service (as does Y-H-B in the middle of the night), as a musician one is left with the impression that this is speech produced by a human instrument played badly, as one would hear emanating from a musical instrument played badly. This phenomenon actually brings up a genuine linguistic mystery: why is it that human beings who use language as non-native speakers routinely do it so badly? In other words, why is cacolalia the norm? What is it about the human linguistic capacity that prevents speakers from learning to speak a foreign language well?
Interestingly, this phenomenon concerns the phonic aspect of speech and not the grammar. There are innumerable people, for instance, who speak English with perfect grammar despite their cacolalia, and next to none who do so with an impeccable English accent. ¿Quién sabe?