• Category Archives: Language

*Magnimonious Poster Childs

January 24, 2011

As is well known, even adults speaking their native language occasionally make grammatical mistakes. These can be slips of the tongue, which may then be corrected in the same breath. But they may also be out and out errors which go uncorrected for one or another reason, including lack of awareness on the utterer’s part that an error has been committed.

Errors are not uniformly of the same kind. Roughly speaking, they fall into two main categories, motivated and unmotivated. The first category subsumes those that lend themselves to some kind of reasoned explication; the second, those that are catachrestic pure and simple.

On the National Public Radio program “Morning Edition” (VPR, January 24, 2011), the host, Renee Montagne, was interviewing the economics editor of The Wall Street Journal, David Wessel, who uttered the phrase “one of the poster childs,” i. e., failed to say the grammatically correct form of the plural, children. This mistake allows for a quasi-explanation, in that there exists at least one precedent for a deviation from the normal plural, namely in the phrase still lifes (when speaking of an art object). Here a distinction is being made between the plural of life in the ordinary sense (lives) and its special transferred sense in the case of a genre of pictorial representation.

No such explication of motivatedness in the grammatically strict sense is available, however, for the blunder the same host made in the interview a few minutes later, when she uttered (without self-correction) the mangled form *magnimonious instead of the correct magnanimous. This instance of catachresis was evidently the simple product of contamination between adjectives that sound vaguely alike (sanctimonious? parsimonious?).


Morphophonemics of Nominal Derivation: British vs. American English

January 23, 2011

With Tunisia being so much in the news of late, one constantly hears (on the BBC Word Service, for instance) the British variants of the adjective and substantive derived from the toponym Tunis, namely Tunisia and Tunisian. In British English, s (stem-final z being rare) before a derivational suffix beginning in a front vowel––like –ia or –ian––remains unpalatalized while optionally undergoing “voicing” (actually, laxing) intervocalically, hence the pronunciations [tunɪziə] and [tunɪziə], where American English changes the stem-final consonant to a palatal [ʒ], hence [tuníʒə] and [tuníʒən] (note also the tense stressed vowel in the American version, where British has a lax vowel). The same differences (mutatis mutandis) hold for words like Parisian and Asian.

The systematic upshot is a semiotic one. British English does not mark nominal derivation here beyond adding a suffix, whereas American English does, in the form of the marked obstruent {ʒ} < [z] and the marked tense vowel [í]. This is a good illustration of a widespread phenomenon in language, particularly frequent in dialectology, whereby identical contexts allow of diverging morphophonemic treatments and produce variation across languages and language families as well as dialects. In this particular case, one could adjudge British English to be (expectedly) more conservative than American, since the former chooses to preserve the phonetic identity of the final obstruent and the stressed vowel of the deriving base in the derivative, whereas the latter changes them to their marked counterparts, thereby choosing to underscore the derivative’s semiotic status––its hierarchical value––at the expense of phonetic uniformity between base and derivative.


Discourse-Introductory so in Geek

January 16, 2011

The word so is grammatically protean: it can be an adverb, an adjective, a conjunction, a pronoun, or an interjection. Its definition in standard dictionaries, including the online Oxford English Dictionary, stretches over many pages. But as to its  semantic range as an interjection, standard sources like The American Heritage Dictionary are incomplete, not having caught up with current usage, specifically in Geek (not to be confused with Greek), the language of computer geeks.

It has been remarked that geeks often begin discourses with so, typically in answer to a question but not only. In the latter case, the question is virtual and implied. This virtuality is rooted in the nature of computer science, where the interrogative mode reigns supreme: the milieu is suffused with an atmosphere of problems to be solved, i.e., with questions suspended in the air that geeks breathe (“How? Why? What if?,” etc.).

It is in this light that one can see why the discourse-introductory so has come to be a characteristic of the geek argot. It is a grammatical manifestation of what the French call déformation professionnelle.

The origin of this usage may be Yiddish. Considering the ethnic makeup of the mathematicians and scientists who played a role in the computer revolution’s intellectual history, this is not altogether unexpected. Here is some evidence for this claim from the online OED.

Consider one of the subsidiary entries for so:

10. a. For that reason, on that account, accordingly, consequently, therefore.
The causative force is sometimes very slight, the use approximating to that in b.

b. (a) As an introductory particle, without a preceding statement (but freq. implying one). 1710 SWIFT Jrnl. to Stella 21 Sept., So you have got into Presto’s lodgings; very fine, truly! 1777 SHERIDAN Sch. Scandal II. iii, Well, so one of my nephews is a wild rogue, hey? 1809 BYRON in R. C. Dallas Corr. of B. (1825) I. 95 So Lord G* is married to a rustic! Well done! 1881 JOWETT Thucyd. I. 42 And so we have met at last, but with what difficulty!

(b) [Reflecting Yiddish idioms.] Without implication of a preceding statement, or with concessive force: = well then, in that case, very well; also (introducing interrogative clauses) with adversative force: = but then, anyway. 1950 B. MALAMUD in Partisan Rev. XVII. 666 Miriam returned after 11.30… ‘So where did you go?’ Feld asked pleasantly. 1952 M. PEI Story of English 182 The adverb so at the beginning of a sentence (‘So I’ll pay for it!’), probably of Yiddish origin, occurs frequently in conversation. 1960 ‘E. MCBAIN Give Boys Great Big Hand i. 4 ‘I warn you..I ain’t got no wine.’ ‘So who wants wine?’ 1977 F. BRANSTON Up & Coming Man v. 49 ‘How much profit..?’ ‘Impossible to do more than make a wild guess.’ ‘So make a wild guess.’”

The trajectory from (Yiddish-)American “So where did you go?” and “So make a wild guess” to discourse-introductory Geek “So the program needs to be downloaded . . ., etc.” is a short and plausible one.


Derived Compound Adjectives: gesunkenes Kulturgut?

January 14, 2011

Compound adjectives of the type user-friendly and print-ready are common in everyday speech and writing and form a productive derivational category. They are the product of inversions of phrases which have the second element of the compound originally first and the first second, separated by a preposition; thus friendly to/for (the) user(s) and ready to print are what is presupposed in the hyphenated compound adjective.

The productivity of this derivational type was demonstrated by the nonce coinage in dialogue by the British executive of a pharmaceutical company, being interviewed on the BBC World Service (“Global Business,” January, 14, 2011), of the neologisms blockbuster-capable and blockbuster-dependent in speaking about the business outlook for the production of high-selling drugs.

This kind of neologism is perhaps to be viewed as the nascent exploitation of the proto-Germanic patrimony in English. Whereas this derivational pattern has long been common in German, the structural typology undergirding both languages remained unexploited in English in this respect until the last thirty or forty years when––under the evident influence of advertising formulas striving for compactness like doctor-tested––it has become part of the productive core of contemporary word formation.


[Postscript, January 16, 2011: After writing this post I received an e-mail message from the trumpet virtuoso, composer, and conductor Jason Gamer, in which he used the (nonce) word conversation-ready –– M.S.]

“My Language Is the Sum Total of Myself.” (C. S. Peirce)

January 9, 2011

It is often insufficiently appreciated by linguists who concentrate on formal grammar in analyzing language structure that the root of human thought and action lies in language USE. Thus it is the SPEAKING SELF (secondarily, the WRITING self) that ought to constitute the basis for theory. The speaking/writing self provides the analyst with evidence of individual human beings’ world view, which underlies their self-perceptions and attitudes/behavior toward others.

The locus of linguistic reality is then the act, the creative moment of speech––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.

In this connection, and in order to provide a detailed illustration of the aptness of Peirce’s famous characterization of the relation between selfhood and language, consider below the longitudinal linguistic profile of one speaker (identified hereinafter as J) together with  specimens of his language use.


Male, born Harbin (China), 1928. Mother tongue, Russian. Moved to Japan at age 3, then back to China at age 5, and finally Yokohama at age 8. British and American schools in Yokohama and Tokyo; Waseda International School in Tokyo during war years. Some school Latin and Spanish. Graduate of Tokyo American School in Japan. Two years’ post-war Spanish study in Sophia Univ., Tokyo (classes taught by Jesuits from Spain). Political Economy (= Law) graduate of Gakushûin University, Tokyo. Business career in Japan and USA, incl. extensive use of Japanese at all levels over many years. Appearances on Japanese TV as memory expert. Regular Spanish use during 3-year residence in Puerto Rico. Married to a Japanese. Retired, living in Los Angeles. Habitual  languages: English, Japanese, Spanish. Completely Japanized in outlook, value system, and habits.

LANGUAGES: Russian (native speaker), English (native fluency), Japanese (native fluency, incl. complete command of written language and immense  knowledge of proverbs), Spanish (near-native fluency).

READING: belles lettres (drama, fiction, poetry), history, and biography in  Russian through adolescence and in English throughout life; history and political science texts, also daily newspapers, in Japanese throughout adolescence and adulthood.

II. DISCOURSE SPECIMEN: telephone conversation of January 25, 2010, between J and the author (reproduced from memory)

M: “Moshi-moshi” [Japanese phatic opening phrase of all telephone conversations; rough translation: ‘hello, there’]

J: “Aa, moshi-moshi, Mikaeru-kun desu ka?” [‘Hello, there. Is that friend Michael?’]

M: “Sayoo de gozaimasu.” [in faux humble style: ‘It is so (Sir).’]

J: “I’ve been tracking you. Did your plane leave Albany on time?”

M: “Actually, it left five minutes early.”

J: “What time is your flight from Cleveland?”

M: “Four fifty-five.”

J: “I’m still planning on meeting you.”

M: “That’s good. Thanks.”

J: “Incidentally [endlessly repeated declarative sentence opener in J’s English idiolect, evidently derived from the much more frequent Japanese conversational equivalent tokoro de], you shouldn’t drive a car after taking medicine. Lekarstvo menia usypilo [‘The medicine made me  sleepy/put me to sleep’, referring to an episode a few days earlier when J took Robitussin for a cold and drove his much-coveted ’83 Chrysler Imperial into a metal stanchion], i ia tolknul zheleznyi stolb [‘and I knocked into an iron post’]. Usypilo––that’s correct, isn’t it?”

M: “What did you say?”

J: “Usypilo. Is that the right verb?” [J always apprehensive about his Russian not being grammatically correct.]

M: “Yes, it is.”

J: “I learned it from Papa. You see, I can still remember my Russian, even though I don’t speak it with anyone any more.” [A stock tag in J’s discourse whenever he utters something even slightly out of the ordinary in Russian.]

M:[to himself] “Grechnevaiia kasha sama sebia khvalit.” [literally: ‘The groats (buckwheat) porridge is praising itself’, meaning something like ‘blowing one’s own horn.’]

M: “Yah, yah. You always say that.”

J: “Anyway, have a good flight.”

M: “Thanks, see you at the airport.”

III. Sampling of J’s favorite kotowaza ‘Japanese proverbs/sayings’ (with rough translations)

1. setchin-mushi mo tokorobiiki ‘even the dung beetle loves its own bailiwick’


2. saru mo ki kara ochiru ‘even the monkey falls from a tree’


3. saru no shiri-warai ‘a monkey laughing at another’s rear end [= ‘the pot calling the kettle black’]


4. sumeba miyako ‘wherever I live is the capital’


5. akka wa ryooka o kuchiku suru ‘bad money drives out good’



The Pronunciation of Beijing

January 7, 2011

Many speakers of American English––for instance, the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton––pronounce the name of the capital of China with a medial fricative [ʒ] despite the fact that it is written with a j, which in native words like judge and adjudicate, etc., is uniformly (i.e., regardless of position) an affricate [dʒ], as it is, for that matter, in the donor language (Chinese) as well. Why, then, the fricative?

The answer lies in the spread of Italian dialectal––viz., Sicilian and Neapolitan––pronunciation in American English, which was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants speaking non-standard Italian, in which a word like parmigian(o) (the cheese) has a medial fricative instead of the standard Italian affricate. Americans who pronounce the fricative rather than the affricate in Beijing are thus unwittingly generalizing what they take to be the appropriate foreign––viz. Sicilian/Neapolitan––pronunciation and extending it to any borrowing with orthographic j, evidently taking the fricative to be “authentic” in such words.

This is akin to the mistaken generalization that results in all foreign disyllabic names regardless of origin having final stress on the model of French, which accounts for the occasional mispronunciation by Americans of Russian names like Lenin and Stalin.


Variation in the Stress of Quadrisyllables

January 5, 2011

English stress rules deal with quadrisyllables in a variety of ways, including the distribution of reduced vowels in post-tonic syllables, and in some cases, moreover, exploiting differences between American and British English. A word like saxophonist in British English is pronounced with stress on the second syllable and a reduced vowel (schwa) in the third, but never in American, where the primary stress invariably falls on the initial, and a secondary stress is heard on the third syllable. Cf. the stress contróversy, at least as one of two contemporary variants in British but never in American English. The frequent word innovative has primary stress on the initial and secondary stress on the third syllable in American English, whereas in British English there is no secondary stress, all unstressed syllables being reduced, i.e., with a schwa for orthographic o and a where American English has the diphthongs [oʋ] and [eɪ], respectively. [Personal Note: The potential stress pattern in this word corresponding to that of saxóphonist has not been exploited in any variety of English known to me––with the exception of idiosyncratic usage, namely in the speech of my late wife, Marianne Shapiro. עליו השלום aleha ha-shalom.]


The Genius of the Mot Juste

December 26, 2010

While the first two members of the holy trinity of post-classical Western  literature, Shakespeare and Dante, either need no translation or are well-served by several, its third member, Pushkin, alas, can only be honored in the breach by those who have no Russian.

One does not have to be Nabokov to discountenance all attempts to translate into English the most famous love poem in the Russian language, Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven’e” (“I remember the miraculous moment”), published in 1827 and learned by heart––to this day!––by every Russian schoolchild. Here it is untranslated (the truncated title, with asterisks standing for the remainder of her surname, hides its dedicatee, Pushkin’s “whore of Babylon,” Anna Kern):

Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безмятежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный,
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.

What is never mentioned in any of the learned commentaries on this poem is the marked status of the word гений (genij ‘genius’), which occurs in the last line of the opening stanza and recurs in the last line of the penultimate. This word, in every European language, has as one of its sub-meanings the definition found in Webster’s Third, viz. “a personification or embodiment esp. of a quality or condition: INCARNATION.” As a borrowing into Russian from Latin via French, the lexeme by the first quarter of the nineteenth century has admittedly achieved the status of a cliché of the diction of romantic poetry. Nonetheless, to a twenty-first century reader this word––in the context of Pushkin’s love lyric––has a special resonance undiminished by its other senses. This is indirectly substantiated by the citation, as the sole example under the fourth and final meaning of the word in the authoritative four-volume Academy dictionary (Словарь русского языка в четырех томах [Moscow, 1981], I: 305: “олицетворение, высшее проявление чего-л.” ‘personification, highest manifestation of something’), of Pushkin’s line from the opening stanza.

Any lover of Russian poetry who does not savor this word in Pushkin’s poem at its first occurrence will automatically run the risk of succumbing to the vulgar judgment that routinely consigns the familiar to the dust bin of the banal. To be convinced of this one need only listen to the music of the verse as SPOKEN––not as sung in the many romansy ‘art songs’ composed to the poem’s words (from Glinka on). Perhaps this is too much to ask of us moderns, saturated as we are by the beat of the humdrum. As Pushkin has Mozart say to Salieri in his nonpareil masterpiece, the closet drama Mozart and Salieri:

Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному исскуству.
Нас мало избранных, счастливцев праздных,
Пренебрегающих презренной пользой,
Единого прекрасного жрецов.
Не правда ль?


Tinkering with Idioms through Contamination

December 20, 2010

One characteristic of idioms is their fixity, which is to say that they are not subject to alteration at the whim of the speaker/writer. When a radio announcer with good diction who is otherwise articulate says “cut him a break” (as did Steve Inskeep, “Morning Edition,” NPR, December 20, 2010) instead of the idiomatic “give him a break,” one can easily trace the source of the mistake (“cut him some slack”) and recognize it as an instance of contamination. All the same, it is a catachresis nonetheless, stylistically offensive and bordering on the ungrammatical.


If You Like

December 4, 2010

In British English­­––but never in American––one constantly hears the phrase if you like, equivalent in American English to if you will (or, less typically, so to speak and as it were). British speakers resort to this phrase to qualify the word or clause that is immediately contiguous to it, specifically to blunt their assertory or metaphorical force. As with American if you will, the literal meaning of the phrase is not what is meant; rather, the meaning is “if I may say so,” “if I may be allowed to put it this way.” (A particularly extreme use of if you like, rising to the status of a verbal tic, can be heard, for example, in the speech of the BBC reporter, Nick Childs.) Alongside other apotropaic expressions heard more and more frequently on both sides of the Atlantic, this exclusively British one is PLACATORY BEFORE THE FACT, uttered not only to defang the purport of whatever is being asserted but to forestall any possible objection. This has the collateral effect of keeping the channel of communication open, specifically by allowing the speaker to control the general tenor of the discourse.

As a contemporary discourse strategy, British if you like is much more frequent than its American equivalent if you will, which has waned markedly since its heyday in the latter part of the preceding century. One can infer that the cultural and social exigencies under which speakers of British English operate still require anodizing their assertory or metaphorical discourse to a higher degree than do their American counterparts.