All posts by Michael Shapiro

The Meaninglessness of Gestures Accompanying Speech

June 20, 2021


All languages of the world involve accompanying gesticulations by speakers, but not all such actions are meaningful (convey meaning). When a speaker or hearer raises his/her eyebrows to signify incredulity or lack of comprehension, this is widely understood as a paralinguistic sign that may substitute for a speech act such as an expression of doubt in words. But such meaningful gestures are very much in the minority.

Contemporary American English is widely utilized by its native speakers with a mesmerizing assortment of gestures––mostly hand gestures–– that are not meant to convey any meaning at all and must be deemed silently senseless to their producers as well as to their interpreters/interlocutors. Whereas women are traditionally viewed as being more “expressive” or “emotional” than men during acts of speech, in twenty-first-century America both sexes produce these meaningless paralinguistic signs in great profusion. Why they do so is anybody’s guess. Perhaps senselessness is just a sign of our times.


Perversion of Meaning (‘caveat’)

May 22, 2021

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!


The Glossary of Useful Words 22: ‘rebarbative’

May 18, 2021

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.


The Glossary of Useful Words 21: ‘punctilious’

May 16, 2021

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.”


Addendum re “Language as Music”

May 9, 2021

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!


Further Thoughts on the Analogy of Language to Music

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?


The Persistence of Linguistic Change (str > shtr)

April 22, 2021

On today’s NPR program, “Morning Edition,” the reporter Brendan Byrne kept saying [ashtronaut] instead of [astronaut], exemplifying the change in the speech of some speakers of American English that Y-H-B has written about in American Speech. Here is the article:


MISCELLANY A CASE OF DISTANT ASSIMILATION: /str/ -> /ftr/ lW ATHEN SOUND CHANGE INVOLVES ASSIMILATION, the typical case is one of contact assimilation: the sound that becomes similar to its neighbor is immediately contiguous to the latter. Assimilation at a distance does occur but is a relatively rarer phenomenon when it involves consonants; vowels assimilating to each other in neighboring syllables are quite com- mon, a typical example being that of umlaut (cf. Hock 1986, 64). The recent history of American English includes a sound change that seems to have gone unattested in the scholarly literature.’ This is the change of /s/ to /fl before /tr/ (i.e., a PHONEMIC CHANGE), which involves a palatalization of the initial sound in the cluster /str/, typically in initial position but not exclusively. Thus, for instance, speakers who regularly manifest this pronunciation replace the Standard American English [s] of strong, strategy, strength, Australia(n), restrictive, interest rate, industry, extra, and even history (when pronounced with syncope of the medial vowel) with [I]. The degree of palatalization is not uniform, so that the phonetic realiza- tion can stop short of the full-fledged “phonetic power” of the American [f] found in words like short, shape, ash, etc. (More about the phonetic details later.) This phonemic change seems to be neither dialectal nor regional.2 Over many months of listening to radio and television broadcasts and observing the pronunciation of speakers in the New York area, I have noted it as a regular trait in the speech of the following persons during their television appearances: Richard Nixon (miscellaneous sound bites); Howard P. (“Pete”) Colhoun (panelist on the PBS program Wall Street Week, 9 July 1993); Tracy Austin, Mary Carillo, John McEnroe (USA and CBS broad- casts of the US Open Tennis Championships, Aug.-Sept. 1993); Rick Barry, Hubie Brown (TNT broadcasts of NBA games, 1990-93 seasons); Dick Vitale (ESPN broadcasts of NCAA basketball games); and Cokie Roberts (regular panelist on ABC program This Week with David Brinkley) .3 Based on their overall speech and what can be ascertained about their origins, these speakers are from California (Nixon and Austin), Flushing, Queens, New York (Carillo and McEnroe), New Jersey (Barry, Brown, Calhoun, and Vitale), and Washington, DC, by way of Louisiana (Roberts)-which sug- gests no obvious geographical pattern. Admittedly, this is a highly limited sample, but I have deliberately singled out public figures whose pronuncia- tion is continuously open to observation by others who might wish to confirm for themselves the existence of this trait. I have also registered it among many other (nameless) speakers as a more or less regular phenom- 101

AMERICAN SPEECH 70.1 (1995) enon, and my southern correspondents in places like Birmingham, Ala- bama, have confirmed its incidence in that part of the country. Taking all this into account, I would venture to say that it is a general American innovation, and that it is gaining ground. Such are the facts, to the extent that I am able to present them. What makes this case more interesting than the mere registration of a phonetic peculiarity is its phonological significance. But in order to understand the innovation from the point of view of the sound pattern of American English, we need to back up one step and ask several questions. Is the pronunciation of strong, for example, with [I] instead of [s] properly an assimilation, let alone an assimilation “at a distance”? If so, what is being assimilated to what and in what phonological respect? Finally, in deciding these matters, are there special acoustic data concerning the phonetic realizations of /s/ and /t/ when these phonemes occur before Irl that need to be taken into account? The questions are intertwined; consequently, my discussion will have to do a bit of zigging and zagging between them. First some phonetic details. Judging by the evidence in Olive, Green- wood, and Coleman (1993, 279, 281), the cluster [str] seems to have a peculiar acoustic character. The center frequency of the frication noise of the /s/ moves down rapidly from the high value expected for /s/ (ca. 5 kHz) to a very low value (ca. 2 kHz or even less) right before the onset of voicing for /r/. And what is even more remarkable, there is often no abrupt cessation of the fricative noise (or none long enough to count as a stop), that is, it appears as if there really is no stop. Nevertheless, the uncharacter- istically gradual amplitude change in the noise is apparently enough to cue to the listener the presence of the stop /t/. The spectrogram in Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993, 281) shows this-but without any com- mentary in the accompanying text that recognizes the oddness of the realization of /t/. This acoustic evidence suggests that the initial fricative-phonetically- could be a retroflex [f], just as the voiced fricative noted above (n3) is probably the retroflex [zj. The spectrogram in Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993, 94, fig. 4.8), where the center portions of the voiced fricatives are shown, also makes it clear that retroflex [zj and the sound [3] are practically identical; this would presumably apply to their “voiceless” counterparts. In fact, judging by the spectrograms in Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993, 173, fig. 6.26; 180, fig. 6.31), the retroflex realizations of/s/ are acoustically similar enough to be judged as fronted realizations of I/f. In my own auditory perception of the speakers I heard, I can testify that I consistently heard varieties of [f] and not retroflex [a]. More importantly, none of this disturbs the status of [9] as a realization of /Jf and [zj as a realization of /3/. 102


The Glossary of Useful Words 20: ‘ebullient’

April 11, 2021

When Y-H-B commented on a woman server’s behavior in addressing him recently while he waited to be served at his Stammtisch at The Dorset Inn, he used the word “ebullient,” but the woman’s look of incomprehension revealed that the word was unknown to her, so he switched to “effervescent.” The server, nota bene, was an elementary school teacher who should have known better, but such is the state of the knowledge of the English language among its American practitioners that often useful words are not within their ken.
In any event, here is what ‘ebullient’ means according to the OED Online:
1. That boils; boiling; agitated, as if boiling.
2a. Of the humours of the body: Agitated, hot, effervescent.
b. Of drugs and diseases: Causing heat and agitation.
3. figurative. Of energy, feelings, influences: Gushing forth like boiling water;bubbling over,   overflowing, enthusiastic. Constr. with.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 17: Molière Redivivus Redivivus

March 25, 2021

As I was musing over the effects of the pandemic on my life today, I thought of the several entries on my blog in the series “The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life” and decided to revive one from twelve years ago, as follows:

Molière redivivus

I had taken my shirt and jacket off in expectation of having the sutures removed from my back. There was a knock on the door, and a young woman of the usual plumpish bespectacled type wearing a white smock entered and introduced herself as a fourth-year medical student. We shook hands.

She glanced at my file and announced that the result of the biopsy was negative: the tissue sample they had taken two weeks before was benign. When I inquired about the abrasion on my right cheek that had impelled me to visit the dermatology clinic in the first place, she informed me that it was a lentigo, which she mispronounced with stress on the first syllable. I realized, of course, on the model of impetigo, known to me through acquaintance with my grandchildren’s occasional skin problems, that the stress was on the penult and that it rhymed with Sligo, which I had visited once upon a time.

“The team will be in shortly,” added the fourth-year medical student and exited the roomicule. I was left to cool my heels shirtless, in the usual fashion of such momenta medica.

Soon there was another knock on the door, and a woman doctor, a resident who had originally taken the biopsy and sutured the wound, entered, likewise dressed in a white smock, followed by the fourth-year medical student and two male doctors in civvies. This was evidently the aforementioned “team,” and they were making their rounds. Having taken up positions behind me, they all inspected my back simultaneously.

The woman doctor looked cursorily at the file and confirmed the original diagnosis. Then she announced that the “team” would go out to confer about what they had observed. “This is what they used to call a consilium,” I remarked to the fourth-year medical student, who was bringing up the rear as the group exited. That flotsam of Russian vocabulary had suddenly swum up into my cortex and produced the Latin term. Her opaque smile signaled total incomprehension.
Soon the resident and the fourth-year student reentered the room, without the male doctors. “It’s a morphea scleroderma,” intoned the  resident, “and if you want to have it removed you can come back in two weeks.” I declined but pursued the matter of my cheek. “What about the lentigo,” said I,” putting the stress on the proper syllable with its Sligo rhyme. “How did it come about?”

“The lentigo,” she said, repeating the incorrect initial stress, “is probably the cumulative result of exposure to the sun.” “I see,” said I. She then deftly removed my sutures.

“Would you object if I took a photograph of your back?,” asked the dermatologist. “I’d like to have it for the record and to show my colleagues.” “No, I wouldn’t object,” I answered, whereupon she took out a digital camera and snapped it. I saw the flash out of the corner of my eye. Exeunt the two female medicos.

Putting my shirt and jacket back on, I exited the clinic and entered the hall with its quaternion of elevators. One of the male doctors who had examined me, a youngish man in a sports coat, sporting the right sort of Hollywoodian chevelure, entered the elevator with me. “It was like a scene out of Molière,” I said, smiling. Of course, I had misremembered L’Amour Médecin, with its squadron of doctors, conflating it with Le Malade Imaginaire, where a doctor explains that opium is a soporific due to its virtus dormitiva (‘dormitive virtue’). Molière’s doctor was subsequently made the target of derision in the philosophy of science as the utterer of a fallacy but was defended by my hero Charles Peirce, who pointed out the pragmatistic validity of his definition. My memory of Peirce’s discussion had doubtless conjured up the allusion to Molière.

The doctor said nothing. His look of total incomprehension as we descended punctured the afflatus I was feeling at my literary mot juste. My shoulders slumped. We both got off the elevator on the ground floor and walked toward the exit.


The Glossary of Useful Words 19: ‘quixotic’

February 25, 2021

Listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning, I heard a song from the musical “Man of La Mancha,” which immediately put me in mind of Don Quixote and the adjective derived therefrom, i. e. ‘quixotic’, pronounced [(ˈ)kwik-¦sä-tik] (unlike the pronunciation of the eponymous hero’s name). This word has fallen into desuetude but deserves to be resurrected in current speech.
Here are the meanings as registered in the OED Online:

  1. Of an action, attribute, idea, etc.: characteristic of or appropriate to Don Quixote; demonstrating or motivated by exaggerated notions of chivalry and romanticism; naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable; (also) unpredictable, capricious, whimsical.
  2. Of a person: resembling Don Quixote; visionary; enthusiastically chivalrous or romantic; naively idealistic; impractical, capricious.

    In our days of the terrible pandemic––which also deserves to be called “pandemonic”––the adjective deriving from Cervantes’ great hero ought to be of great utility.