Roman Jakobson in Retrospect

April 23, 2023

For readers of this blog that have an interest in the history of linguistics, it is suggested that they log into the link entitled “PDFs of Papers by Michael Shapiro” and click on “Chinese Semiotic Studies: Roman Jakobson in Retrospect.” This article will prove revelatory.


The Power of the Written Word: Orthography Trumps Grammar

April 9, 2023

As has been chronicled here more than once, the current pronunciation of the words “short-lived” and “long-lived” has the second element of the compound {-lived} being uttered as if it were the past tense of the verb live rather than the adjectival form of the word life. The traditional pronunciation [laivd] to rhyme with “thrived” is quickly going by the boards in contemporary speech.

This development is yet another all-too-common example of spelling vanquishing derivational morphology in contemporary American English.


Redefining Arbitrariness in Language

April 3, 2023

The matter of arbitrariness in language is primarily associated with the work of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), whose book of lectures, Cours de linguistique Générale, is widely recognized to have laid the foundations of European structural linguistics in the twentieth century. One of Saussure’s most quoted positions points out that the meaning of words is arbitrary, in that, for instance, the word arbre in French and its equivalent tree in English have nothing to do “naturally” with the object they signify. Any other sequence of sounds could in theory designate the same object. These are just the words French and English happen to have inherited from their history.

However, Saussure’s observations about sound and meaning, which lie at the heart of what he called semiology, i. e., the science of signs (often erroneously thought to be the equivalent of Peirce’s sem[e]iotic), are fundamentally flawed by stressing the arbitrariness of words/linguistic signs. What is arbitrary are the RULES of language structure, not the relationship between words and what they mean in different languages.

This was brought home to Y-H-B while I watched the women’s finals of the Miami Tennis Open on TV this weekend and listened to the commentators consistently mispronouncing the name of the Czech winner, Petra Kvitová, namely by inserting a schwa (/ə/) between the initial consonant cluster (kv-) of her surname. Since the commentators were both native speakers of English, they only did what the phonetic rules of English permitted: there are no English words with an initial cluster [kv-], hence the natural insertion of a schwa between the two consonants. Czech, on the other hand, routinely permits such clusters.

This is where the notion of arbitrariness comes in. English arbitrarily does not tolerate such clusters, whereas Czech does. Hence it is in the phonetic rules that the arbitrariness resides, not in what the words containing such sound sequences mean.


Semantic Expansion: The Case of ‘guy’

March 19, 2023

The history of every language on earth is full of cases where the original meaning of a word is aggrandized and expands to designate more objects than the original. This has happened to the English word ‘guy’ deriving from the name of Guy Fawkes (as in the “Guy Fawkes Rebellion” of 1605).

Nowadays ‘guy’ in American English can refer not just to males but to females as well as animals. Also, where once it was used to refer to younger males, it can now refer to persons regardless of age, hence to geriatrics of both sexes. This was demonstrated for the umpteenth time to Y-H-B when I heard the bartender at a local eatery in Manchester Center, Vermont, repeatedly address customers of an advanced age as “guys.” Highly inappropriate in my opinion, but what’s a purist to do?


“For the Love of Language”

January 29, 2023

Thursday, May 18, 2023, 5:30 p.m.



The local author, Michael Shapiro, who has lived in Manchester for the past thirty-two years, will present a chronological aperçu of the past fifty-seven years (1965-2022) in his life as a working scholar and university teacher with a lasting record of achievement touching on many details and covering several humanistic disciplines. This presentation will provide short descriptions of the publication of his books from 1968 to 2022. The outlines of a professorial career provide a rare insight into the sociology of knowledge and are fleshed out by a real-life love story that is haunted by peripeteia, illness, and the death of one’s beloved.


Michael Shapiro was born in Yokohama in 1939 and grew up speaking Russian, Japanese, and English. He spent the war years in Japan before immigrating to Los Angeles with his parents in 1952. Through his father, Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992), he is a direct descendant of the founder of the yeshiva system of Jewish education, Hayyim of Volozhin (the “Volozhiner rebbe” [1749-1821]), and the last in a line of scholars that includes three eminent Russian-Jewish philologists: the verse theorist and comparatist Viktor Zhirmunsky (1891-1971), the belletrist and literary critic Yury Tynianov (1894-1943), and the Romance philologist Yakov Malkiel (1914-1998). In 1965-66 he was a postdoctoral fellow in linguistics at Tokyo University and spent the next forty-five years in the United States as a university professor of Slavic and semiotic studies. He is the co-author, with his late wife Marianne Shapiro, of Figuration in Verbal Art (1988) and The Sense of Form in Literature and Language (2nd ed., 2009). His 2007 book, Palimpsest of Consciousness, is a commentary on his only work of fiction, My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge.
Michael Shapiro is Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Semiotic Studies at Brown University and a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University. His website is at He writes a blog on American English at The expanded second edition of his book, The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage, was published by Springer in 2017. His newest book, The Logic of Language: A Semiotic Study of Speech, was published in 2022.


The Logic of Language: A Semiotic Study of Speech. Pp. xlviii, 308. New York and Berlin: Springer Nature, 2022.
On Language and Value in American Speech: With a Semeiotic Appendix. Pp. 139. Riga (Latvia): Lambert Academic Publishing, 2019.
The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage. 2nd, expanded ed. Springer Texts in Education. Pp. xxviii, 517. New York: Springer Nature, 2017.
The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage. Pp. xix, 303. Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2012
The Sense of Form in Literature and Language [coauthor, Marianne Shapiro]. 2nd, expanded ed. Pp. xxi, 373. Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2009.
Palimpsest of Consciousness: Authorial Annotations of My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge. Pp. 276. Charleston, S. C.: BookSurge Publishing, 2007.
My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge [fiction]. Pp. [x], 362. Charleston, S. C.: BookSurge Publishing, 2006.
The Sense of Form in Literature and Language [coauthor, Marianne Shapiro]. Semaphores and Signs. Pp. viii, 215. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
The Sense of Change: Language as History. Advances in Semiotics. Pp. xiv, 146. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Figuration in Verbal Art [coauthor, Marianne Shapiro]. Pp. xv, 286. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.
The Sense of Grammar: Language as Semeiotic. Advances in Semiotics. Pp. xiv, 236. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Structure and Content: Essays in Applied Semiotics [coauthor, Marianne Shapiro]. Monographs, Working Papers and Prepublications of the Toronto Semiotic Circle, 1979/No. 2. Pp. 69. Toronto: Victoria University, 1979.
Hierarchy and the Structure of Tropes [coauthor, Marianne Shapiro]. Studies in Semiotics, 8. Pp. v, 37. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1976.
Asymmetry: An Inquiry into the Linguistic Structure of Poetry. North-Holland Linguistic Series, 26. Pp. xiv, 231. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1976.
Aspects of Russian Morphology: A Semiotic Investigation. Pp. 62. Cambridge, Mass.: Slavica, 1969.
Russian Phonetic Variants and Phonostylistics. University of California Publications in Linguistics, 49. Pp. x, 55. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Raimo Aulis Anttila (1935-2023)

January 27, 2023

The overwhelmingly sad news of the passing in his sleep this morning in Turku, Finland of Raimo Anttila after a long illness came to me via e-mail from his loving partner, Anna-Maija Raanamo.

As I wrote in the Preface of my recent book, The Logic of Language: A Semiotic Study of Speech, “I would like to acknowledge the influence on my understanding of language as a product of history of my friend and former colleague at UCLA, Raimo Anttila, whose book Historical and Comparative Linguistics, with its semiotic orientation, remains the best introduction to the field and has been a beacon for me over the many years that its author and I have been friends.”

Raimo will be deeply missed by all who knew him as a friend and mentor.


Language, Literature, and Poetics

January 22, 2023

I began the serious study of language and literature some fifty years ago. In retrospect, I now realize that my early choice of Slavic linguistics as a home field equipped me with a special outlook which has determined the curve of my research ever since.

First, I am the beneficiary of a long and stable tradition of Slavic philological scholarship which regards the study of literature to be inseparable from the study of language. In the case of poetry, this orientation necessarily entails seeing verse as a structure, of which the building blocks are primarily linguistic; and taking the form of these building blocks to be part of the content. In the case of prose, it means paying close attention to levels of discourse, semantic stratification, and matters of style. Analysis of verse and analysis of prose fiction, while taking account of the differences in approach necessitated by differences in form and genre, join hands in the broader context of humanistic research because each must ultimately give its due to language as the only sure repository of meaning.

Second, as a practitioner of scholarship with Slavic as its focus, I have followed in the tradition of involving oneself immediately in research with a theoretical and universalizing significance while being simultaneously immersed in linguistic and literary analysis at its most practical microcosmic level. This kind of work routinely assumes a viable reconciliation between 1) languages and texts as general human phenomena to be studied without regard to time or place; and (2) the attitude that every language and every text are the unique product of human creativity, inseparable from its temporal and cultural locus. Criticism rises above its ancillary role when its object presents difficulties—linguistic, conceptual, cultural, ideological.

Because art belongs squarely to the aesthetic realm it is only partially amenable to rational analysis. A fundamental asymmetry obtains between aesthetic objects as they are experienced and our ability to talk about them intelligibly. There is (then) no automatic gain in understanding from analysis, quite irrespective of its quality. If interpretation wishes to be of service, it must acknowledge that its epistemological locus is somewhere in the void between art and knowledge, in a mental no-man’s-land where indeterminacy is the order of the day. Under these circumstances, the best a literary analysis aware of its inherent limitations can hope to achieve is to see texts in the round, using bits and pieces as evidence to form a representation of the work of verbal art that does justice to how the form shapes the content—and thereby our experience of it.


Language and Tradition

December 22, 2022

As everything in human culture, language is dominated by tradition, which is to say that there is a customary way of expressing oneself in any given language. However, tradition is always susceptible to change, and in language this is primarily due to ERROR.

Thus speakers who mispronounce words by breaking with tradition do so because of the IGNORANCE of tradition. For example, as has been documented on more than one occasion here, the pronunciation of the element -lived in the compounds “short-lived” and “long-lived” has undergone a change in contemporary speech such that the traditional vowel [ai] as in the pronoun “I” has been supplanted by the spelling-induced vowel [i] as in “icky.” This is simply the product of error.

Recently this deviation from tradition was brought to Y-H-B by hearing the phrase “in excelsis deo” in the Christmas carol performed by a local choir mispronounced such that the word “excelsis” was sung with the incorrect [ch] rather than [s]. This mispronunciation can often be heard nowadays in radio transmissions as well. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!