In the American media––particularly the audio and video––there has been a marked overuse of certain words, namely the adjectives denoting something emotionally negative such as dire, heart-breaking, devastating, etc. This is amply illustrated by the reporting in the last few days on the torndaos in the south that have wreaked such horrendous damage.
What the media correspondents fail to realize is that by ceaselessly resorting to the same adjectives they are significantly weakening the emotional power of these words. These news sources would be better served if their producers would take the time and the effort to search for alternative lexical means in describing the effects that the terrible disasters have on the victims and on the public at large.
Among the most imbecilic innovations in contemporary American speech is the retort “No worry/worries” as a substitute for “You’re welcome” in response to the words “Thank you.” This new phrase can be heard emanating from the mouths of younger speakers such as servers in the hospitality trades.
“No worries” can now be added to “No problem.” Why “You’re welcome” is going out of use can only be ascribed to the general tendency in American English to increase the store of clichés of all stripes.
As has been documented in full on this blog before, contemporary speakers of American English vacillate a great deal in their pronunciation of broad and flat [a] in items of foreign provenience. This is due largely to a kind of inferiority complex stemming from a lack of acquaintance with foreign languages, which results in speakers routinely favoring the broad vowel (as in swap) over the flat vowel (as in flat).
With the current prominence of Afghanistan and the Taliban in the broadcast media, the latter name for the dominant Afghan regime can be heard pronounced in several ways as far as the [a] vowels are concerned, not to speak of the variation in rendering the [l] and the [i]. Perhaps this vacillation has its origin in former President Barack Obama’s constant pronunciation of Taliban with broad [a] vowels and a palatalized [l], the latter resulting in the same [i] as in leave rather than that in live.
The normal––i. e., unfatuous, unself-consciously “foreign-sounding”––pronunciation is clearly the one that does not mimic Obama’s.
Every language has idioms that appear repeatedly in speech and writing. From the strictly grammatical viewpoint, however, they don’t always make sense. Such is the American English idiom “You know what?,” which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as:
1 —used to emphasize the statement that comes after it You know what? I never trusted her. She lied to me again, but you know what? I really just don’t care anymore.
2 —used to get someone’s attention Hey, you know what? I’m hungry.
Senseless idioms are a good example of the arbitrariness of language.
All languages of the world involve accompanying gesticulations by speakers, but not all such actions are meaningful (convey meaning). When a speaker or hearer raises his/her eyebrows to signify incredulity or lack of comprehension, this is widely understood as a paralinguistic sign that may substitute for a speech act such as an expression of doubt in words. But such meaningful gestures are very much in the minority.
Contemporary American English is widely utilized by its native speakers with a mesmerizing assortment of gestures––mostly hand gestures–– that are not meant to convey any meaning at all and must be deemed silently senseless to their producers as well as to their interpreters/interlocutors. Whereas women are traditionally viewed as being more “expressive” or “emotional” than men during acts of speech, in twenty-first-century America both sexes produce these meaningless paralinguistic signs in great profusion. Why they do so is anybody’s guess. Perhaps senselessness is just a sign of our times.
Meaning is a very interesting category, existing in the shared mental space between humans and the languages they use to communicate with each other. As something intangible except in its consequences, linguistic meaning is always something liable to misunderstanding, reinterpretation, and even perversion.
One current example of perversion is the meaning of the word ‘caveat’ in American English, which comes from the Latin phrase caveat emptor, used originally by lawyers to mean ‘let the buyer beware’. Nowadays, the first word of the phrase is commonly used to mean something like ‘exception’, when it normatively and traditionally has meant the following:
1. A warning, admonition, caution. (OED)
2 a: a modifying or cautionary detail to be considered when evaluating, interpreting, or doing something;
b. a warning enjoining one from certain acts or practices;
c. a cautionary explanation to prevent misinterpretation.
(all three of the latter meanings from Merriam-Webster’s Online)
Even when it comes to language use, dear readers, remember: caveat emptor!
My late wife Marianne Shapiro, demonstrably the most versatile and accomplished American Italianist of the 20th century, taught me a word which she herself used quite frequently, viz. ‘rebarbative’, meaning ‘Repellent; unattractive; objectionable (OED); ‘serving or tending to repel or irritate : crabbed, repellent’ (Merriam- Webster).
Unfortunately, in Marianne’s experience this word’s usefulness came up frequently because she worked in a field replete with epitomically rebarbative academic types.
In our own day, this word retains more than a routine usefulness for everyday speech, given the sorts of people (and not only academics) one tends to encounter in everyday life.
In a telephone conversation with my old friend and loyal subscriber to this blog, the nonpareil prosthodontist Dr. Simon Gamer (known in Russian by his name and patronymic, Семён Максимович), a book on Lenin came up, and Dr. Gamer remarked that the book (which I had given him) contained numerous corrections by me of typographical errors. I then retorted that this behavior was in line with my “punctilious self,” and the good doctor agreed with me.
The word ‘punctilious’ is very useful: it means ‘showing great attention to detail or correct behavior’, a punctilio being (according to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary online “a nice detail of conduct in a ceremony, a procedure, or in the observance of a social or moral code : a point of behavior about which one is fastidious.”
An astute reader of and long-time subscriber to this blog, Lone Coleman, who is a native speaker of Danish and speaks English perfectly well, alerted me to the fact that not all accents are the same, hence this addendum.
It is true that certain accents are harsher than others. The closer a non-native speaker’s accented English approaches standard English, the better the “music” of the outcome. Occasionally, a typical accent (like the French) can even seem charming and easy on the ear. C’est le ton qui fait la musique!
The likening of language to music has a long history. No further evidence is needed than the phrase in English of speech being “music to one’s ears,” etc. Since English is now the world’s lingua franca, many people are heard speaking the language who are not native speakers or who have learned to speak it imperfectly and do so badly. One is tempted to call this kind of speech cacolalia, a nonce word combining the Greek element for ‘bad, evil’ with the Latin for ‘speech’.
When one hears such cacolalia constantly on the BBC World Service (as does Y-H-B in the middle of the night), as a musician one is left with the impression that this is speech produced by a human instrument played badly, as one would hear emanating from a musical instrument played badly. This phenomenon actually brings up a genuine linguistic mystery: why is it that human beings who use language as non-native speakers routinely do it so badly? In other words, why is cacolalia the norm? What is it about the human linguistic capacity that prevents speakers from learning to speak a foreign language well?
Interestingly, this phenomenon concerns the phonic aspect of speech and not the grammar. There are innumerable people, for instance, who speak English with perfect grammar despite their cacolalia, and next to none who do so with an impeccable English accent. ¿Quién sabe?