All posts by Michael Shapiro

New Uses for Function Words: Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

December 30, 2021

When making secondary references to items with a complex sentence, American English (but not only; cf. BBC World Service reporters’ speech) now regularly uses the preposition around  and the prepositional phrase in terms of instead of resorting to locutions like “with regard to” in referencing material that is subordinate to the main content. This regularly results in sentences like “The prospect of development around/in terms of  the unification of the parties.” This syntactic development in the history of the English language is a good example of how linguistic means are always subject to refashioning historically, esp. when it comes to media language.


Overuse of Words and Concomitant Loss of Semantic Power

December 12, 2021

In the American media––particularly the audio and video––there has been a marked overuse of certain words, namely the adjectives denoting something emotionally negative such as dire, heart-breaking, devastating, etc. This is amply illustrated by the reporting in the last few days on the torndaos in the south that have wreaked such horrendous damage.

What the media correspondents fail to realize is that by ceaselessly resorting to the same adjectives they are significantly weakening the emotional power of these words. These news sources would be better served if their producers would take the time and the effort to search for alternative lexical means in describing the effects that the terrible disasters have on the victims and on the public at large.


What, Me Worry?

October 16, 2021

Among the most imbecilic innovations in contemporary American speech is the retort “No worry/worries” as a substitute for “You’re welcome” in response to the words “Thank you.” This new phrase can be heard emanating from the mouths of younger speakers such as servers in the hospitality trades.
“No worries” can now be added to “No problem.” Why “You’re welcome” is going out of use can only be ascribed to the general tendency in American English to increase the store of clichés of all stripes.

Phonetic Fatuity: The Pronunciation of Taliban

September 18, 2021

As has been documented in full on this blog before, contemporary speakers of American English vacillate a great deal in their pronunciation of broad and flat [a] in items of foreign provenience. This is due largely to a kind of inferiority complex stemming from a lack of acquaintance with foreign languages, which results in speakers routinely favoring the broad vowel (as in swap) over the flat vowel (as in flat).
With the current prominence of Afghanistan and the Taliban in the broadcast media, the latter name for the dominant Afghan regime can be heard pronounced in several ways as far as the [a] vowels are concerned, not to speak of the variation in rendering the [l] and the [i]. Perhaps this vacillation has its origin in former President Barack Obama’s constant pronunciation of Taliban with broad [a] vowels and a palatalized [l], the latter resulting in the same [i] as in leave rather than that in live.
The normal––i. e., unfatuous, unself-consciously “foreign-sounding”––pronunciation is clearly the one that does not mimic Obama’s.


Senseless Idioms

August 14, 2021

Every language has idioms that appear repeatedly in speech and writing. From the strictly grammatical viewpoint, however, they don’t always make sense. Such is the American English idiom “You know what?,” which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as:

1 —used to emphasize the statement that comes after it You know what? I never trusted her. She lied to me again, but you know what? I really just don’t care anymore.
2 —used to get someone’s attention Hey, you know what? I’m hungry.

Senseless idioms are a good example of the arbitrariness of language.


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!