When the Germans Take Ownership of Foreign Onomastics

July 15, 2023

In rereading a British biography of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky (spelled just this way in the title), Y-H-B realized the dominance of German spelling practices when it comes to many Russian names. Here, for example, there is no need for the initial letter T in the English spelling of the Russian name, since it would be pronounced the same in English without it. Its presence here stems from the German necessity to distinguish Ch- from Tch- because ch alone would be pronounced [x], i. e. the stronger version of English h, as in harbinger.
In the original Russian, of course, the initial letter of the composer’s name renders the same sound as the English churl, and the T- is utterly otiose.
By the bye, speaking of foreign renderings of onomastics, it might be noted here that in Japanese the high pitch in its version of our composer’s name falls on the final vowel rather than on the penult.


Anent Marianne Shapiro (1940-2003)

June 18, 2023

Of all the responses I received to my recent post about my late beloved wife, the most eloquent and touching was from my dear friend, Vincent Colapietro, as follows:

“The world was robbed, all too soon, of Marianne’s linguistic genius, literary gifts, exemplary scholarship, and radiant presence. That loss was felt widely and deeply. But there is no measure for what you experienced then and have every day since this incomparable woman was torn from our midst. Always, V”


Remembering Romka (alias Roman) Jakobson (1896-1986)

It may be of interest to readers of this blog that Y-H-B keeps receiving notifications from Academia regarding persons who have read my paper, “Roman Jakobson in Retrospect: Unvarnished Remembrances of a Stiff-Necked Student,” Chinese Semiotic Studies, 14 (2018), 41-56, available here under the rubric “PDFs of Papers by Michael Shapiro.” This paper recounts my experience with Jakobson as his student at Harvard and later as his opponent in a published dispute regarding Russian phonology, which includes a detailed discussion of Jakobson’s glaring errors.

I would hardly have expected this paper to have attracted so many readers. By contrast, I regard my most outstanding contribution (also available for reading here) to be “Sound and Meaning in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Language, 74 (1998), 81-103. Apropos, a recent survey conducted by the Linguistic Society of America shows that this item is among the 25 most-viewed/-downloaded articles in JSTOR covering volumes of Language from 1925 to 2000 (according to http://ideophone.org/language-anthology-citations/). It has also been downloaded over 200 times from this blog, which typically has ca. 30,000 visits/mo. (according to Webalizer) and over 200 subscribers (RSS feeds and e-mails).


Marianne Shapiro (1940-2003)

June 3, 2023

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my beloved wife, Marianne Shapiro, whose influnce on my work is profound, especially when it comes to commentary on the English language. She spoke French and Italian fluently, in addition to her native Hungarian and her flawless English.

Marianne was also the most versatile and accomplished American Italianist of the twentieth century. Here is a link to her publications: http://www.higherlearninganovel.com/?page_id=310

I think of Marianne with every breath I take.


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?