• Category Archives: Language

“Wow!” and Other Linguistic Detritus

June 17, 2020

Every language if full of clichés, and American English is no exception. As a matter of fact, in its contemporary state as driven by media gobbledygook, American English ranks as the most cliché-ridden language known to Y-H-B.

Some speakers seem to thrive on clichés and other such linguistic detritus. For instance, there is one person, whose speech I regularly overhear, who cannot respond to any interlocutor’s utterances without saying “Wow!” It seems not to matter that there is nothing remarkable in the utterance to which this person is responding with this vocable. Perhaps this sort of speech trait is to be attributed to a species of anosognosia, however non-clinical.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Ignorantia linguae non excusat

June 6, 2020

There is no doubt that error born of ignorance is one of the acknowledged causes of language change. However, from a purist’s point of view––which happens to be that of Y-H-B––ignorance of the law (alias code = language norm) should not be an excuse in this age of mass literacy.
Notwithstanding, errors are rife. For instance, in the American media it is common to hear the erroneous phrase “under someone’s watch” for the normative “on someone’s watch.” Such errors are testimony not only to the difficulty language users encounter in sorting out the variety of prepositional phrase abounding in English but to plain ignorance as to which preposition governs which noun. Sic transit gloria linguae americanae!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Anosognosic Speech Habits: Just an Idiosyncrasy?

May 27, 2020

Y-H-B has been listening regularly to the thrice weekly press briefings of the Vermont Governor, Phil Scott (a Republican), who has been speaking at great length about the COVID-19 virus as it applies to the plague in Vermont and neighboring states. Mr. Scott is not a particularly articulate or eloquent speaker, but he does answer questions extemporaneously with considerable ease.

One particularity of Gov. Scott’s speech is the phrase “turn the spigot,” which he repeats whenever asked how soon and at what rate he will ease the restrictions imposed on citizens of Vermont as a result of the plague. The interesting point linguistically in this connection is Gov. Scott’s pronunciation of the word ‘spigot’, which he pronounces without fail with a tense medial obstruent [k] rather than its normative lax counterpart [g]. Moreover, he does not seem to be aware of his anosognosic pronunciation and does not veer from it no matter how many times his questioners repeat the word correctly when addressing the matter of “turning the spigot” a little more, i. e., easing the restrictions imposed by the Vermont state government on its citizens.

The question arises in Y-H-B’s mind: where does this anomalous pronunciation come from? It does not appear in any of the American dialect dictionaries and, therefore, seems to be an idiolectal item in Gov. Scott’s version of Northeast American English.

This idiosyncrasy is a good example of what occurs quite often in the speech of persons who are in every other respect bearers of the linguistic norm. The only question that arises is whether this is simply the quotidian product of a lack of sufficient self-awareness or an instance of speech pathology. If it is the latter, then this is not a perfectly benign behavioral trait to experience on the part of Gov. Scott’s listeners, no matter how anodyne the error.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 16: ‘garrulous’

May 22, 2020

That speakers differ by how talkative they are is well known but rarely taken into consideration by professional (socio)linguists. In that connection, a useful word is ‘garrulous’, defined in the OED Online as follows:

“Given to much talking; fond of indulging in talk or chatter; loquacious, talkative.
“Of speech or talk: Characterized by garrulity; full of long rambling statements, wordy.”

Apropos, ‘loquacious’ is also useful, except that ‘garrulous’ is more appropriate when describing a person pejoratively, i. e.,  as being overly talkative.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Intimate (Hypocoristic) Word Play in the Time of the Plague

May 20, 2020

There is a linguistic aspect to the current pandemic that has not been highlighted in the media’s tedious and tortuous reporting on how ordinary people are coping with the plague, to wit: “private language” in the family, i. e., how members of a family address and speak with each other in moments of intimacy. As a widower living alone, Y-H-B has become quintessentially aware of the importance of being able to converse on intimate terms––specifically, hypocoristically–– with another human being.

That such private languages exist is well known but seldom taken into account by professional linguists when describing speakers’ disparate/discontinuous lexica. Here is an example of such items in discourse as recreated by Y-H-B from typical exchanges by the three members of his immediate family when they lived together thirty years ago:

Conversation between A, daughter of Ma and Mi, and her parents (circa 1990, i.e., when A was 22). NB: A and Mi both speak Japanese (but not Ma).

A: “Moomar [one of A’s hypocorisms (pet names) for her mother], where’s my pencil? Did you see my pencil?”
Ma: “No, I dilbet [= “didn’t”] see it. Pooyin [Mi’s pet name], did you see Gebu’s [A’s pet name] pencil?”
Mi: “Wasn’t that George’s [Ma’s brother’s] joke about Ramaz [a Hebrew day school in Manhattan] students asking each other for pencils in class? ‘Do you have a pencil? No, I don’t have a pencil’ [spoken with a Heder-ish intonation]?”
A: “But I really do need a pencil. Calbet you see that, Mooyin [Ma’s other pet name]?”
Ma: “Of course, I do, Gebufin [variant of Gebu]. I’ll help you find one. Puffin [= Pooyin] will, too, wolbet [= “won’t”] you, Puffin?”
Mi: “Mochiron [Japanese for ‘certainly’], Mumpkin [yet another pet name for Ma].
A: Ooops, I have to go now. Gutentio [invented word based on “goodbye”].
Ma: Booves [totally invented word].
Mi: Booviator [totally invented word].
(und so weiter)

One cannot overestimate the psychic value of such linguistically intimate exchanges when considering the maintenance of one’s mental health, particularly during times of extreme crisis such as one is experiencing globally in 2020.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

British English ‘if you like’: An Apotropaism?

May 18, 2020

Some British English speakers are exceedingly fond of the phrase ‘if you like’, either preceding or following words or phrases they seem to find somewhat figurative or simply unusual in the context. Often such items in the utterance to an American ear sound entirely anodyne and in no need of qualification. For instance, just last night Y-H-B was listening to the BBC (as is his wont) when a British interviewee used the participle “jockeying” (as in ‘jockeying for position’) and immediately followed it with “if you like,” as if to signal something unusual about this verb form in this context.

This sort of immediate qualification, as if the speaker were transgressing some kind of unspoken semantic boundary, is clearly an APOTROPAISM, which is defined more strictly by the OED Online as “The use of magic or ritual to avert evil influences or bad luck. Also: a magic charm or incantation used for such purposes.” Interpreted more broadly for its linguistic purport, a phrase such as British “if you like” is uttered to avert/forestall any danger (a weak variant of the meaning of “evil”) that the speaker might incur if one’s auditor were to take its occurrence literally rather than figuratively. Why such an apotropaic case of language use is necessary in cases where no danger is even possible is anyone’s guess.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Aesthetic Criterion in Evaluations of Ordinary Speech: Deviations from the Standard, Foreign and Domestic

May 17, 2020

Because English is now the global lingua franca and is spoken as such by non-native speakers of all stripes and levels of education, one constantly hears foreign accents that present distortions of accepted linguistic standards (for instance, on the BBC). Moreover, even when spoken by natives, English comes in a variety of dialects, some of which are more blatantly non-normative than others.

The impression made by foreign accents and dialectal speech is largely a matter of aesthetics, and one’s evaluative perception of such accents depends largely on the variable sensitivity of the auditor to deviations from what one knows to be standard speech. Much as in the reception of musical performance, the auditor’s recognition of speech as deviating from the established norm comes with at least an implicit aesthetic judgment of it.

The upshot of this idea is yet another confirmation of the principle applicable to all human behavior, viz. that FORM IS NECESSARILY A PART OF CONTENT. Put another way, the way something is said cannot be divorced from what is said. As applied to English uttered with an accent, there will always be an inevitable evaluative dimension to how such speech is perceived, and thereby of the speaker.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Repetition Is the Mother of Learning

May 10, 2020

On this Mother’s Day 2020, as Y-H-B remembered his mother of blessed memory, Lydia Ita Shapiro (née Chernetzky = R Чернецкая), the following Russian proverb came to mind: Повторение мать учения, which translated literally means “Repetition is the mother of learning.” Notice that this apothegm differs fundamentally from the English “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In Russian the two words for ‘repetition’ and ‘learning’ rhyme, which contributes significantly to the fundamentality of the difference. Why? Because rhyme is a species of paronomasia, and this linguistic feature of poetry and paroemiology (proverbs) makes all the difference in the world to the semantic force of the rhetorical use of language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Speaker’s Vocal Timbre as an Inspirer of Auditor’s Confidence

April 16, 2020

Speech is always produced with a particular variety of the speaker’s vocal timbre, the latter varying with age and sex. Acoustically, this variety is largely a function of the size of the speaker’s larynx and vocal cavity. Children up to and through the age of puberty have a smaller larynx than do adults. Women have smaller larynxes than men throughout their lives. Thus the vocal timbre of female speech can often be the same as that of children. When adult women’s speech is not full-timbred, it produces the effect of some childishness.

From the point of view of cultural norms, deeper voices generally inspire greater confidence in auditors. Since men have deeper voices than women in virtue of their larger larynxes, their utterances ceteris paribus tend to inspire greater confidence than do those of women. The upshot of these timbre variations is that women’s voices are ill-suited in contexts where what they say needs to be believed or taken as authoritative. That is why it has traditionally been the case in the media for women with deeper voices having been preferred to those with weaker or more child-like voices.

Lately, however, one hears more and more women announcers on National Public Radio and elsewhere that sound child-like. This development can only be explained culturally, perhaps as one upshot of the women’s movement. Thus sounding less like a man has come to be valued as a sign of femininity, not of immaturity or childishness. As long as there are listeners who are used to the older norm defined by deeper vocal timbre as a token of authoritativeness, higher-timbred vocal delivery from women will tend to be taken as undermining the veracity or the authority of their utterances.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Whatever Happened to ‘splendid’?

April 7, 2020

In current American English media speech, not to mention the exchange of quotidian utterances between ordinary interlocutors, there has been a precipitous decline in the use of the word ‘splendid’, a particularly apposite item that bears resurrection from its current oblivion in common parlance.

The OED Online defines the word thus (NOT “thusly!”):

1. a. Marked by much grandeur or display; sumptuous, grand, gorgeous.
b. Of persons: Maintaining, or living in, great style or grandeur.
2. a. Resplendent, brilliant, extremely bright, in respect of light or colour. rare.
b. Magnificent in material respects; made or adorned in a grand or sumptuous manner
c. Having or embodying some element of material grandeur or beauty.
3 . a. Imposing or impressive by greatness, grandeur, or some similar excellence.
b. Dignified, haughty, lordly.
4. Of persons: Illustrious, distinguished.
5. Excellent; very good or fine.
6. Used, by way of contrast, to qualify nouns having an opposite or different connotation. splendid isolation: used with reference to the political and commercial uniqueness or isolation of Great Britain; also transferred.

We would all do well to resuscitate this splendid word and consign to desuetude ‘fantastic’, ‘incredible’. ‘tremendous’, and all the other fatigued synonyms that are heard ad nauseam in today’s media speech.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO