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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Language as Semeiotic: The Peircean Underpinnings

April 5, 2020

Since so many of the posts on this blog refer to Peirce’s theory of signs––either explicitly or ex silentio––perhaps a synoptic view of what he called semeiotic would be of use to readers. What follows has been adapted from the seminal work of the late dean of Peirce studies, Max H. Fisch, Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 324-326). (The key to the abbreviations of the volumes of Peirce’s writings can be found at the end of this post.)

The first published sketch of Peirce’s semeiotic was in a paper “On a New List of Categories,” which he presented to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on May 14, 1867. Forty years later he described this paper as the outcome of “the hardest two years’ mental work that I have ever done in my life” (CP 1.561). He first establishes, in place of Aristotle’s ten categories and Kant’s twelve, a new list of three: Quality, Relation, Representation. He then uses these categories to distinguish: (i) three kinds of representations [i.e., SIGNS]––likenesses (which he will later call icons), indices, and symbols; (2) a trivium of conceivable sciences—formal grammar, logic, and formal rhetoric; (3) a general division of symbols, common to all three of these sciences—terms, propositions, and arguments; and (4) three kinds of argument, distinguished by their three relations between premisses and conclusion—deduction (symbol), hypothesis (likeness), induction (index) (W 2:491-59; CP 1.545-59).
Peirce is a logician, and he concerns himself with semeiotic only so far as is necessary to place logic within the larger framework of that one of the three most general kinds of science that Locke, following the ancient Greeks, had distinguished. To that objection, however, it may fairly be replied that at no time of his life did Peirce set any limit to the intensity of cultivation of the larger field of semeiotic that would be advantageous for purposes of logic, even if the cultivating had to be done by logicians themselves because, for the time being, they were the only semeioticians.
In any case, it was not enough in Peirce’s eyes for semeiotic to provide a pigeonhole for logic in the classification of the sciences. This became fully apparent in 1868-69 in a series of three articles in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy: “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” and “Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities” (W 2:193-272; CP 5.213-357).
The first two papers are there for the sake of the third. The upshot of the series is a theory of the validity of the laws of logic, including those of’ the logic of science (that is, of hypothesis and induction) as well as those of the logic of mathematics (that is, of deduction). Yet the first paper is in the form of a medieval quaestio, a disputed question, and the second begins with a four-point statement of “the spirit of Cartesianism,” followed by an opposed four-point statement of the spirit of the scholasticism that it displaced. In respect of these four antitheses, “modern science and modern logic” are closer to the spirit of scholasticism. The first paper was “written in this spirit of opposition to Cartesianism.” It was meant to illustrate as well as to commend the “multiform argumentation of the Middle Ages.” It resulted in four denials:
1. We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts.
2. We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognitions.
3. We have no power of thinking without signs.
4. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable. (CP 5.265)
These propositions cannot be regarded as certain, Peirce says; and the second paper puts them to the further test of tracing out some of their consequences. The third paper then constructs a theory of the validity of the laws of logic in the form of “further consequences” of these “four incapacities.”
The central positive doctrine of the whole series is that “all thought is in signs” (5.253). Every thought continues another and is continued by still another. There are no uninferred premisses and no inference-terminating conclusions. Inferring is the sole act of cognitive mind. No cognition is adequately or accurately described as a two-term or dyadic relation between a knowing mind and an object known, whether that be an intuited first principle or a sense-datum, a “first impression of sense” (5.291). Cognition is a minimally three-termed or triadic relation (5.283). The sign-theory of cognition thus entails rejection not only of Cartesian rationalism but also of British empiricism.
The sign-theory of cognition leads into a semeiotic theory of the human self, “the
man-sign” (5.313), and thence into a social theory of logic. “When we think, then, we ourselves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign” (5.383); “the word or sign which man uses is the man himself” (5.314). “Finally, no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual” (5.289). “Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body, we ought to say that we are in thought and not that thoughts are in us” (5.289n1).
“The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and capable of an indefinite increase of knowledge” (5.311). “So the social principle is rooted intrinsically in logic” (5.354).
Along the way, with the help of his three categories, Peirce’s doctrine of signs is worked out in greater detail in these three papers, and especially in the second of them.
The semeiotic thus founded was semeiotic as viewed from the standpoint of logic and studied for the purposes of logic, and more particularly for those of the logic of science rather than for those of the logic of mathematics. But it was a semeiotic that included logic.

PEIRCE, Charles Sanders.
1931-1958. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1-8, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (vols. 1-6) and Paul Weiss (vols. 7-8). (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press). Abbreviated CP [references by volume and paragraph number]
1982-2009. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, ed. Max H. Fisch et al., vols. 1-6, 8. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Abbreviated W [references by volume and page number]
1992-1998. The Essential Peirce, vols. 1-2., ed Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (vol. 1) and Peirce Edition Project (vol. 2). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Abbreviated EP [references by volume and page number]