• Category Archives: Language

Discontinuous Lexica

July 16, 2009

It is a truism of linguistics that the grammars of native speakers are discontinuous, by which is meant the principle of language competence which encompasses the idea that no two speakers have exactly the same grammar of the language they share as native speakers. To a very large extent, precisely what is discontinuous is their vocabularies, their command of the lexical stock of the language. They may also have a differential knowledge of syntax, but since syntax is the technique (rules) by which words are combined into phrases, sentences, and discourses, the focus is properly on the lexicon, hence the discontinuities between speakers’ grammars come down to the knowledge of words.

This whole topic constitutes a missing chapter from standard accounts of linguistic competence. Here is some material that might go into filling the lacuna.

Within one adult speaker’s grammar or knowledge of their native language, a profile of competence can be characterized variously by reference to such parameters as active vs. passive knowledge, knowledge of specialized (technical) vocabulary, acquaintance with foreign languages, etymological knowledge (i.e., knowledge of word origins, including historically earlier stages of the native language), dialectal material, and literary texts in the round, including but not limited to poetry and folkloric data (nursery rhymes, riddles, etc.). This may be taken as an exhaustive inventory of the diverse sources that constitute the lexical stock of a given individual’s idiolect.

To perhaps a greater extent than other idiolectal features, a speaker’s vocabulary is never completely fixed or static. Even beyond childhood and adolescence, when the greatest accretions to one’s lexical knowledge occur, there is always the possibility of adding to one’s vocabulary. This comes about naturally through contact with different linguistic milieux, geographical as well as social, and with written texts whose complete comprehension may demand looking in dictionaries and thereby acquiring new vocabulary items––a process that goes on ceaselessly as long as one remains open to new texts, fresh milieux, and heretofore unassimilated knowledge.

No matter how similar phonetically or grammatically the speech is of members of a relatively homogeneous speech community, there are always differences in style and discourse between individuals. These may be a function of education and family history as well as of idiosyncrasy (personality). One particularly interesting differentia specifica is the use of foreign words and phrases in one’s native speech (including writing). In contemporary English, the traditionally most likely items of this sort  are from Latin and French, followed in no particular order of frequency by Greek, German, and Italian. This  intrusion of foreign locutions may be conditioned by the speaker’s profession. Thus college professors of French quite often pepper their native English with French words, even where perfectly good English equivalents would do. Perhaps this is a kind of linguistic badge that is flashed to parade not only their special knowledge but their solidarity with their profession and the country whose language and literature they profess. In some cases, of course, the foreign locution may in fact supply a particular stylistic flavor that the native equivalent may lack.

A good illustration of the employment of foreign words and phrases, including literary citations, inserted in an otherwise perfectly English oral discourse can be found in that masterpiece of narrative, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four. Here are three such cases that issue from the mouth of Sherlock Holmes, in the latter two of which Holmes’s is actually a slightly inaccurate version:

[Latin] “Quite so. They are in a state of extreme contraction, far exceeding the usual rigor mortis. Coupled with this distortion of the face, this Hippocratic smile, or ‘risus sardonicus,’ as the old writers called it, what conclusion would it suggest to your mind?”

[French] “He can find something,” remarked Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “He has occasional glimmerings of reason. Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!”

[correct version: Il n’y a point de sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit.  — François de la Rochefoucauld, Maximes, no. 451. English translation: ‘There are no fools so troublesome as those who have some wit’.]

[German] “And I,” said Holmes, “shall see what I can learn from Mrs. Bernstone, and from the Indian servant, who, Mr. Thaddeus tells me, sleeps in the next garret. Then I shall study the great Jones’s methods and listen to his not too delicate sarcasms. ‘Wir sind gewohnt das die Menschen verhöhnen was sie nicht verstehen.’ Goethe is always pithy.”

[correct version: Wir sind gewohnt, daß die Menschen verhöhnen / Was sie nicht verstehn, (which continues) Daß sie vor dem Guten und Schönen, / Das ihnen oft beschwerlich ist, murren; / Will es der Hund, wie sie, beknurren? — Goethe, Faust, Part 1, ll. 1205-09. Munich: Beck, 2007, p. 43. Bayard Taylor’s English translation (New York: Collier Books, 1963, p. 113): ‘Of course we know that men despise / what they don’t comprehend; / the Good and Beautiful they vilipend, / finding it oft a burdensome measure. / Is the dog, like men, snarling displeasure?’]

(“Sherlock Holmes Gives a Demonstration,” The Sign of Four, ch. 6, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, I: The Novels, ed. Leslie S. Klinger. New York: Norton, 2006, pp. 278, 280, 282.)

The question of “flavor” is conjugate with another essentially emotive value of language, viz. what may be called the “semantic aureole” of a word (to borrow a phrase coined by Russian metricists for the study of verse forms). Each individual’s life experience includes certain language items that have a particular, singular, emotional resonance that is of idiosyncratic derivation. Here is an anecdote to illustrate this phenomenon.

While boarding an airplane for a recent flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, painted on the fuselage I noticed the words “Continental Airlines. The airline that flies to more international destinations than any other U. S. airline.” That made me think of the drink called the continental, which I had ordered at a restaurant in Vermont just days before, which segued into Fred Astaire and the song he sings called “The Continental” in the movie “Flying Down to Rio,” which I saw on television long ago. For some reason, this then triggered a chain of memories associated with the international word continental that occurs in all European languages, including Russian, particularly as a designation of certain buildings, like hotels.

More precisely, a true story came bobbing up from the backwater of my memory, which had been recounted to me many years before by my father about his cousin, a certain “Diadia Misha” (Russian for ‘Uncle Misha’), who ended up in Paris after the Russian Revolution, became an arms dealer there between the World Wars, and lived to be a centenarian. Uncle Misha was living in Kiev when the Revolution broke out and was arrested as a bourgeois––therefore, considered an enemy of the people––by the Communists when they seized control of the city, and was brought before a people’s tribunal to be tried. The penalty of death by firing squad in such cases was not out of the question, and it hovered over our poor Uncle Misha. However, after questioning him, the president of the tribunal suddenly announced that he was free to go. Uncle Misha’s relief and incredulity knew no bounds, of course. Then the president came over to him and, extending his hand, said (in Russian), “Ia iz Kontinentalia” (‘I’m from the Continental’). At first Uncle Misha was completely flummoxed. But then he recognized the president as a waiter from the restaurant at the Hotel Continental in Kiev, where he had eaten many times, and whom he had been in the habit of tipping generously. These munificent gratuities now turned out to be Uncle Misha’s salvation.

Such are the peripeteia that define the course of one’s life. One can understand why the word continental should have a special associative aura in my lexicon––and that of no other person outside my family.


Verbal Proprioception

July 10, 2009

Users of language, whether native or foreign, differ in the degree to which they are aware of what they say phonetically and grammatically. Thus non-native speakers are often unaware of making mistakes and do nothing to correct themselves even when exposed to repeated exemplars of the correct forms. But this is also true of native speakers, particularly when confronted with variation and the necessity to choose the correct variant.

An example of the latter phenomenon was heard this week from President Obama in connection with the G8 economic summit being held in L’Aquila, Italy. The latter town’s name in Italian is pronounced with the stress on the initial syllable. Mr. Obama must have heard this pronunciation numerous times, but he (and some others on the radio) mispronounced it, putting the stress on the medial syllable. It is perhaps not surprising to hear this from a speaker of English who speaks no foreign language and generally seems to be uncomfortable with foreign onomastic items. But in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, a speech habit that goes against such evidence can only be chalked up to a lack of verbal proprioception, a strange defect in someone who is (otiosely) praised for his rhetorical skills and does not lack for education.


Rhymes with Pomeranian

June 24, 2009

Since Iran is so much in the news these days, it is no wonder that one constantly hears, not only this proper noun, but its derived adjective (mis)pronounced by people in the media and those whose speech is influenced by such opinion makers, etc.

As in the case of Iraq, the pronunciation of Iran with a broad stressed vowel (as in the name Ron) is decidedly not in conformity with traditional English phonetics––British or American. It stems ultimately from the foreigner’s misplaced reproduction in English of the Persian vowel, which is then mimicked by native speakers who (unconsciously?) choose what they must imagine to be “authentic” over what would otherwise be dictated by native phonetics.

More to the point, the derived adjective Iranian, whose stressed vowel has always been [éi] (i. e., a diphthong) and not the monophthongal replica of the Farsi speaker’s un-English stressed vowel, is repeatedly heard from English speakers who have no knowledge of any foreign language, let alone Persian. This kind of phonetic solecism appears to be licensed by the very same desire for “authenticity” that manifests itself when speakers wish their interlocutors to evaluate them as being “in the know.”


At the End of the Day

In an interview aired on the BBC World Service (June 24, 2009), the English wife of the pastor of a church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was heard to utter the fatuously silly phrase “at the end of the day” no fewer than four times in the span of under forty seconds. She could easily have substituted synonymous phrases like “in the end,” “in the final analysis,” or “ultimately” and avoided needless repetition.

Aside from its presumed formulaic usefulness, there must be some reason why speakers cling so tenaciously to “at the end of the day” despite its rebarbativeness. (It has even been lampooned in cartoons.) If one resorts to the tried-and-true explanation that sound often trumps sense in such formulas of English, then there are two features that call for attention. First, there is the anapestic prosody of the bipartite structure: “at the énd” plus “of the dáy.” Second, there is the quasi-paronomastic recurrence of the lax obstruent [d] in the words (end, day) that bear the main stress. For all that, one can only wish that it would go away like all doggerel.


Syntactic Idioms and Imperfect Learning

June 23, 2009

Idioms have an interesting status. Every language is replete with them, and they are among the first items that the learner confronts, be it native speakers acquiring their own language or foreigners learning a new one. Proverbs constitute the longest idioms, and in some languages (like Russian), despite industrialization (most proverbs sprang historically from an agricultural setting), they are as prevalent as ever in speech and writing.

A subspecies of idioms is the syntactic kind. Typically, this sort of idiom involves the choice of a verb and its complement, i. e., the noun the verb governs. A measure of imperfect learning is the failure to learn what verb goes with what noun, and in this age of the internet and video games, such instances of misuse turn up constantly in the media and in ordinary speech.

Here is a fresh example from writers whose education would seem to protect them from such elementary mistakes. On The New York Times Op-Ed page for Tuesday, June 23, 2009, two doctoral candidates in economics at Harvard have the following first sentence in the second paragraph of their contribution, “A Fairer Credit Card? Priceless” (National Edition, p. A23): “But the example of cards issued by credit unions puts the lie to these claims.”

Now, it is part of the idiomatic syntax of English that one “gives the lie” not “puts the lie” to something. Neither the writers nor the editors evidently have a command of English syntax that extends to idiomatic structure.


Superfluous Syndeton

June 2, 2009

Some speakers, when pronouncing the numerals in the designation of years of the current first decade of the 21st century, place the conjunction and between the words thousand and nine (for instance). No such conjunction appears when speaking the dates of the 20th century (or earlier). One can hear this trait consistently on the radio in the speech of Garrison Keillor (The Writer’s Almanac), among his other verbal idiosyncrasies (which include––despite his excellent diction and dulcet voice––mispronunciations of common words and entirely contraindicated declamatory habits that do violence to the syntax of the “poems”). British speakers with this trait can also be heard on the BBC World Service.

Why? Is it some sort of superannuated folkway? Could it be the influence of the word thousand (two thousand and nine) instead of twenty (twenty-o-nine)? In any event, there is no need whatsoever for this superfluous syndeton.


Failures of Thought

June 1, 2009

When speakers make grammatical errors, linguists typically label them “slips” or “speech errors” and qualify them as episodic phenomena. However, repeated deviations from the linguistic norm, for example the dropping of postpositions, as in “Thanks for having me” instead of “Thanks for having me on”––the near-ubiquitous response of radio call-in guests––or “caving” instead of “caving in” and “bailing” instead of “bailing out” should not so insouciantly be ignored as merely aleatory.

Grammar is not just a set of rules characterizing linguistic behavior. It is the reflection of patterns of thought that have been codified as the received form of expression of grammatical relations. The coherence of these patterns is, naturally, not etched in stone, but innovations in grammar that are patently incoherent––such as the dropping of postpositions, or the mindlessly redundant generation of pleonasms––should be recognized for what they are, namely failures of thought, and rooted out as inimical to one’s mental health, as an instance of linguistic pathology.


Lenition, Not Voicing

May 18, 2009

President Barack Obama’s idiolect has a phonetic feature that hasn’t been noticed in the public press, viz. the non-standard pronunciation of the verb congratulate and its derived verbal noun congratulation(s) with a “voiced” [ǯ] for standard “voiceless” [č] corresponding to the intervocalic letter t. (One heard it yet again today [May 17, 2009] in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.) This is actually a fairly widespread (mis)pronunciation. In effect, this is the process by which intervocalic fricatives (hissing and hushing sounds) that are “voiceless” in other positions are rendered with their “voiced” counterparts between vowels; thus the well-known pronunciation of greasy in Southern American dialects as grea[z]y.

There is an explanation, but it’s one that necessitates disabusing oneself of the established characterization of English as a language with distinctive “voicing” in its obstruent (= true consonant) system and facing the fact that English (like German and Serbo-Croatian, for example––or Japanese, for that matter, pace the conventional view––and unlike Russian) is rather a language with distinctive “protensity,” i.e., with the opposition tense vs. lax. Thus the series p, t, k, etc. is to be understood as being opposed to the series b, d, g, etc. as tense vs. lax.

Two of the features by which obstruents are distinguished in the languages of the world are voicing and this so-called protensity feature. They correspond to the traditional distinction between fortis and lenis sounds. (The more familiar modern terms are voiced vs. voiceless and tense vs. lax.) There are several phonetic properties that accompany the distinction between fortis and lenis sounds, such as the presence vs. absence of the vibration of the vocal bands, aspiration, and so on. All of these phonetic properties are in fact relevant in a general sense but not important to the particular phenomenon at hand, which is the lenition of an intervocalic obstruent, namely [č],  resulting in President Obama’s [ǯ]. The reason why it is a matter of principal importance to call this process by its right name––lenition––rather than “voicing” is that only then can we understand why it happens at all. (Note that orthography is helpless here as an explanans, since the letter t is “voiceless.”)

Noted in an earlier post was the fact of the neutralization of phonological distinctions in so-called positions of neutralization, whereby only one of the opposed terms appears in such positions and “represents” the opposition. Here, the obstruent that occurs between vowels is in just such a position, and the representative of the opposition between [č]and [ǯ]––the very one that distinguishes between, say, batch and badge––is what is conventionally called the “voiced” one, i.e., the latter. But calling it “voiced” is wrong phonologically, no matter how right it is phonetically, for the following reason.

The most universal realization of an opposition in a position of neutralization––in phonology as in all of grammar––is the so-called “unmarked” member of the opposition, which is defined as the relatively general or unconstrained member, its “marked” counterpart being relatively specific or constrained for the feature at stake. One could say that positions of neutralization are diagnostic––for native learner and analyst alike––in that they conduce to the evaluative designation of members of oppositions in terms of markedness, a designation that imparts sense to form and without which phonology and grammar would cease to be a coherent structure.

As a general matter, in languages with distinctive voicing in their obstruent system, the marked member of the opposition is the voiced (lenis) member, and the voiceless (fortis) member is unmarked. Contrariwise, in languages with distinctive protensity, it is the tense (fortis) member that is marked and the lax (lenis) one that is unmarked.

Consequently, those speakers who, like President Obama, have a lenited obstruent in congratulations, where the norm has its unlenited counterpart, are (unwittingly, of course) simply realizing the natural drift inherent in the sign function of all positions of neutralization by pronouncing the unmarked lenis sound for t. It just so happens that the norm in this case overrides the drift, but some speakers (probably from childhood) are nonetheless impelled by what the Germans call Systemzwang (“the systemic force”) to innovate in their individual grammars along lines that have the inherent potential of becoming the norm in the long run.

Even in this minute respect, one could say that the new president is only being true to himself as an adherent of the innovating variety of contemporary American English.



‘Head for’ vs. ‘Head to’

May 17, 2009

For some time now in American English, there has been a strong tendency to replace the traditional complement––here a postposition––after the verb head, namely for, by the formerly non-normative to, resulting in a contemporary vacillation between the two constructions. This variation can be used to illustrate many aspects of the entire process of change, each of which merits separate treatment.

Leaving aside all but the raison d’être, we can first compare the meanings of the alternating postpositions. To generally means ‘in the direction of’ something after verbs of motion, as in the prototypical go to, without, however, precluding the attainment of the goal of the verb. Hence, in a command to a child such as go to your mother, both the directional and the telic meanings are present: going involves both starting out in some direction and having a possible goal, although reaching that goal may not be explicit (as it is in go to school, to work, etc.). For after verbs of motion reverses the hierarchical relationship between directionality and telicity: in a colloquial American expression such as go for it, the directional aspect of for is completely subordinated by the meaning of attaining a goal.

In head for the telic aspect also predominates: the phrase not only means setting out in a certain direction (which is presupposed) but makes the attainment of a goal its primary content. It is in this respect that the phrase differs from head toward: the meaning of toward is essentially the same as that of to when they function as verbal complements. The difference is rendered explicit when the object is a quintessentially directional substantive, as with a compass point. Hence the contrast between head for the hills and head toward the east, with *head for the east being unidiomatic (cf. the complement-less head east).

From the point of view of linguistic structure, one might infer from the foregoing analysis that there is something about the semantics of the two postpositions that is at stake, specifically a difference of rank in the semantic syntagms associated with each of them. An analysis that trades in competing semantic hierarchies may not seem to constitute an explanation of the change from one syntactic pattern to another, but this is not strictly so. The nature of grammar is such that what appears in speech or is expressed can always be traced to underlying grammatical relations, which are semantic in their essence, as its cause.

But in the syntactic change discussed above, one unsatisfied with this type of intrinsic explanation might wish to speculate about causes inherent in the larger communicative situation. Although hard evidence is unavailable, perhaps the change has its transcendent explanation in the larger tendency within contemporary American culture to neutralize social hierarchies, i.e., to scant hypotaxis in favor of parataxis. With the encompassing social structure and its flux as a reference point, the change in grammar would find its place as a piece of worldmaking.

This kind of explanation may be extrinsic to grammar proper, but there is also no gainsaying that syntax connects with reality in just this sort of way. In the change at hand, to repeat, we would seem to have a leveling of hierarchy––parataxis triumphing over hypotaxis. The constituents being leveled in meaning are the two complements in conjunction with the two derived (figurative) meanings of head. Head participates with for in creating a compound meaning involving telicity by imparting its meaning/function as the locus of cogitation (thought, planning) to the phrase. When head combines with to, however, its contribution to the compound is limited to the aspect of directionality: setting out in a certain direction means having the “head” go first.



May 9, 2009

Contemporary Anglo-American readers and critics (but––nota bene––not Russian ones) have somehow been cozened into believing that any sequence of words arrayed in more or less isosyllabic stretches are to be taken as lines of poetry. Meter and rhyme are not required. All it takes to write a “poem,” therefore, is to label or declare such species of language “poetry,” and voilà! Accordingly, even the following––by an anonymous “author” (nomina sunt odiosa)––has been accepted at face value:

America, circa 2008

Two Jews, brothers, mother tongue Russian,
The older born in China,
the younger in Japan,
Sit in an Italian restaurant,
In Hollywood, on Vermont,
One eating spaghetti
The other carbonara,
Debating in English whether
Japanese has an adequate equivalent
For “Pyrrhic victory.”

This is very much the sort of doggerel––intended here as a caricature––that is blithely passed off in all seriousness as “poetry” in the English-speaking world (cf. The Writer’s Almanac, a particularly rebarbative offender). What no hip-hop “artist,” singer-songwriter, or jingle writer would put out as “lyrics” is routinely spooned up in Anglo-American poetry books and magazines as verse. And the reading public swallows it!

By contrast, here are two sonnets (no comparison intended) written four hundred years apart, the first by Shakespeare, the second by a twelfth-grader for her school’s literary magazine:


Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;

You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.



The architect is ready to begin;
All plans are laid on tables in her mind.
A streak of crystal marks her tiny chin,
And wispy hair is blown back by the wind.
The small pink hands work quickly, stirring sand;
They shape the fragments of a day gone by
And make new forms the old can’t understand,
Although the past will never really die.
A castle of illusions quickly grows;
It towers high above the rippling sea.
But, though it is invincible for now,
Soon swirling eddies down it by degrees.
What once shone so intensely in the sun
Now with the somber shoreline becomes one.

Only where there is craft is there art.