Derived Compound Adjectives: gesunkenes Kulturgut?

January 14, 2011

Compound adjectives of the type user-friendly and print-ready are common in everyday speech and writing and form a productive derivational category. They are the product of inversions of phrases which have the second element of the compound originally first and the first second, separated by a preposition; thus friendly to/for (the) user(s) and ready to print are what is presupposed in the hyphenated compound adjective.

The productivity of this derivational type was demonstrated by the nonce coinage in dialogue by the British executive of a pharmaceutical company, being interviewed on the BBC World Service (“Global Business,” January, 14, 2011), of the neologisms blockbuster-capable and blockbuster-dependent in speaking about the business outlook for the production of high-selling drugs.

This kind of neologism is perhaps to be viewed as the nascent exploitation of the proto-Germanic patrimony in English. Whereas this derivational pattern has long been common in German, the structural typology undergirding both languages remained unexploited in English in this respect until the last thirty or forty years when––under the evident influence of advertising formulas striving for compactness like doctor-tested––it has become part of the productive core of contemporary word formation.


[Postscript, January 16, 2011: After writing this post I received an e-mail message from the trumpet virtuoso, composer, and conductor Jason Gamer, in which he used the (nonce) word conversation-ready –– M.S.]

“My Language Is the Sum Total of Myself.” (C. S. Peirce)

January 9, 2011

It is often insufficiently appreciated by linguists who concentrate on formal grammar in analyzing language structure that the root of human thought and action lies in language USE. Thus it is the SPEAKING SELF (secondarily, the WRITING self) that ought to constitute the basis for theory. The speaking/writing self provides the analyst with evidence of individual human beings’ world view, which underlies their self-perceptions and attitudes/behavior toward others.

The locus of linguistic reality is then the act, the creative moment of speech––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.

In this connection, and in order to provide a detailed illustration of the aptness of Peirce’s famous characterization of the relation between selfhood and language, consider below the longitudinal linguistic profile of one speaker (identified hereinafter as J) together with  specimens of his language use.


Male, born Harbin (China), 1928. Mother tongue, Russian. Moved to Japan at age 3, then back to China at age 5, and finally Yokohama at age 8. British and American schools in Yokohama and Tokyo; Waseda International School in Tokyo during war years. Some school Latin and Spanish. Graduate of Tokyo American School in Japan. Two years’ post-war Spanish study in Sophia Univ., Tokyo (classes taught by Jesuits from Spain). Political Economy (= Law) graduate of Gakushûin University, Tokyo. Business career in Japan and USA, incl. extensive use of Japanese at all levels over many years. Appearances on Japanese TV as memory expert. Regular Spanish use during 3-year residence in Puerto Rico. Married to a Japanese. Retired, living in Los Angeles. Habitual  languages: English, Japanese, Spanish. Completely Japanized in outlook, value system, and habits.

LANGUAGES: Russian (native speaker), English (native fluency), Japanese (native fluency, incl. complete command of written language and immense  knowledge of proverbs), Spanish (near-native fluency).

READING: belles lettres (drama, fiction, poetry), history, and biography in  Russian through adolescence and in English throughout life; history and political science texts, also daily newspapers, in Japanese throughout adolescence and adulthood.

II. DISCOURSE SPECIMEN: telephone conversation of January 25, 2010, between J and the author (reproduced from memory)

M: “Moshi-moshi” [Japanese phatic opening phrase of all telephone conversations; rough translation: ‘hello, there’]

J: “Aa, moshi-moshi, Mikaeru-kun desu ka?” [‘Hello, there. Is that friend Michael?’]

M: “Sayoo de gozaimasu.” [in faux humble style: ‘It is so (Sir).’]

J: “I’ve been tracking you. Did your plane leave Albany on time?”

M: “Actually, it left five minutes early.”

J: “What time is your flight from Cleveland?”

M: “Four fifty-five.”

J: “I’m still planning on meeting you.”

M: “That’s good. Thanks.”

J: “Incidentally [endlessly repeated declarative sentence opener in J’s English idiolect, evidently derived from the much more frequent Japanese conversational equivalent tokoro de], you shouldn’t drive a car after taking medicine. Lekarstvo menia usypilo [‘The medicine made me  sleepy/put me to sleep’, referring to an episode a few days earlier when J took Robitussin for a cold and drove his much-coveted ’83 Chrysler Imperial into a metal stanchion], i ia tolknul zheleznyi stolb [‘and I knocked into an iron post’]. Usypilo––that’s correct, isn’t it?”

M: “What did you say?”

J: “Usypilo. Is that the right verb?” [J always apprehensive about his Russian not being grammatically correct.]

M: “Yes, it is.”

J: “I learned it from Papa. You see, I can still remember my Russian, even though I don’t speak it with anyone any more.” [A stock tag in J’s discourse whenever he utters something even slightly out of the ordinary in Russian.]

M:[to himself] “Grechnevaiia kasha sama sebia khvalit.” [literally: ‘The groats (buckwheat) porridge is praising itself’, meaning something like ‘blowing one’s own horn.’]

M: “Yah, yah. You always say that.”

J: “Anyway, have a good flight.”

M: “Thanks, see you at the airport.”

III. Sampling of J’s favorite kotowaza ‘Japanese proverbs/sayings’ (with rough translations)

1. setchin-mushi mo tokorobiiki ‘even the dung beetle loves its own bailiwick’


2. saru mo ki kara ochiru ‘even the monkey falls from a tree’


3. saru no shiri-warai ‘a monkey laughing at another’s rear end [= ‘the pot calling the kettle black’]


4. sumeba miyako ‘wherever I live is the capital’


5. akka wa ryooka o kuchiku suru ‘bad money drives out good’



The Pronunciation of Beijing

January 7, 2011

Many speakers of American English––for instance, the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton––pronounce the name of the capital of China with a medial fricative [ʒ] despite the fact that it is written with a j, which in native words like judge and adjudicate, etc., is uniformly (i.e., regardless of position) an affricate [dʒ], as it is, for that matter, in the donor language (Chinese) as well. Why, then, the fricative?

The answer lies in the spread of Italian dialectal––viz., Sicilian and Neapolitan––pronunciation in American English, which was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants speaking non-standard Italian, in which a word like parmigian(o) (the cheese) has a medial fricative instead of the standard Italian affricate. Americans who pronounce the fricative rather than the affricate in Beijing are thus unwittingly generalizing what they take to be the appropriate foreign––viz. Sicilian/Neapolitan––pronunciation and extending it to any borrowing with orthographic j, evidently taking the fricative to be “authentic” in such words.

This is akin to the mistaken generalization that results in all foreign disyllabic names regardless of origin having final stress on the model of French, which accounts for the occasional mispronunciation by Americans of Russian names like Lenin and Stalin.


Variation in the Stress of Quadrisyllables

January 5, 2011

English stress rules deal with quadrisyllables in a variety of ways, including the distribution of reduced vowels in post-tonic syllables, and in some cases, moreover, exploiting differences between American and British English. A word like saxophonist in British English is pronounced with stress on the second syllable and a reduced vowel (schwa) in the third, but never in American, where the primary stress invariably falls on the initial, and a secondary stress is heard on the third syllable. Cf. the stress contróversy, at least as one of two contemporary variants in British but never in American English. The frequent word innovative has primary stress on the initial and secondary stress on the third syllable in American English, whereas in British English there is no secondary stress, all unstressed syllables being reduced, i.e., with a schwa for orthographic o and a where American English has the diphthongs [oʋ] and [eɪ], respectively. [Personal Note: The potential stress pattern in this word corresponding to that of saxóphonist has not been exploited in any variety of English known to me––with the exception of idiosyncratic usage, namely in the speech of my late wife, Marianne Shapiro. עליו השלום aleha ha-shalom.]


The Genius of the Mot Juste

December 26, 2010

While the first two members of the holy trinity of post-classical Western  literature, Shakespeare and Dante, either need no translation or are well-served by several, its third member, Pushkin, alas, can only be honored in the breach by those who have no Russian.

One does not have to be Nabokov to discountenance all attempts to translate into English the most famous love poem in the Russian language, Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven’e” (“I remember the miraculous moment”), published in 1827 and learned by heart––to this day!––by every Russian schoolchild. Here it is untranslated (the truncated title, with asterisks standing for the remainder of her surname, hides its dedicatee, Pushkin’s “whore of Babylon,” Anna Kern):

Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безмятежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный,
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.

What is never mentioned in any of the learned commentaries on this poem is the marked status of the word гений (genij ‘genius’), which occurs in the last line of the opening stanza and recurs in the last line of the penultimate. This word, in every European language, has as one of its sub-meanings the definition found in Webster’s Third, viz. “a personification or embodiment esp. of a quality or condition: INCARNATION.” As a borrowing into Russian from Latin via French, the lexeme by the first quarter of the nineteenth century has admittedly achieved the status of a cliché of the diction of romantic poetry. Nonetheless, to a twenty-first century reader this word––in the context of Pushkin’s love lyric––has a special resonance undiminished by its other senses. This is indirectly substantiated by the citation, as the sole example under the fourth and final meaning of the word in the authoritative four-volume Academy dictionary (Словарь русского языка в четырех томах [Moscow, 1981], I: 305: “олицетворение, высшее проявление чего-л.” ‘personification, highest manifestation of something’), of Pushkin’s line from the opening stanza.

Any lover of Russian poetry who does not savor this word in Pushkin’s poem at its first occurrence will automatically run the risk of succumbing to the vulgar judgment that routinely consigns the familiar to the dust bin of the banal. To be convinced of this one need only listen to the music of the verse as SPOKEN––not as sung in the many romansy ‘art songs’ composed to the poem’s words (from Glinka on). Perhaps this is too much to ask of us moderns, saturated as we are by the beat of the humdrum. As Pushkin has Mozart say to Salieri in his nonpareil masterpiece, the closet drama Mozart and Salieri:

Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному исскуству.
Нас мало избранных, счастливцев праздных,
Пренебрегающих презренной пользой,
Единого прекрасного жрецов.
Не правда ль?


Tinkering with Idioms through Contamination

December 20, 2010

One characteristic of idioms is their fixity, which is to say that they are not subject to alteration at the whim of the speaker/writer. When a radio announcer with good diction who is otherwise articulate says “cut him a break” (as did Steve Inskeep, “Morning Edition,” NPR, December 20, 2010) instead of the idiomatic “give him a break,” one can easily trace the source of the mistake (“cut him some slack”) and recognize it as an instance of contamination. All the same, it is a catachresis nonetheless, stylistically offensive and bordering on the ungrammatical.


If You Like

December 4, 2010

In British English­­––but never in American––one constantly hears the phrase if you like, equivalent in American English to if you will (or, less typically, so to speak and as it were). British speakers resort to this phrase to qualify the word or clause that is immediately contiguous to it, specifically to blunt their assertory or metaphorical force. As with American if you will, the literal meaning of the phrase is not what is meant; rather, the meaning is “if I may say so,” “if I may be allowed to put it this way.” (A particularly extreme use of if you like, rising to the status of a verbal tic, can be heard, for example, in the speech of the BBC reporter, Nick Childs.) Alongside other apotropaic expressions heard more and more frequently on both sides of the Atlantic, this exclusively British one is PLACATORY BEFORE THE FACT, uttered not only to defang the purport of whatever is being asserted but to forestall any possible objection. This has the collateral effect of keeping the channel of communication open, specifically by allowing the speaker to control the general tenor of the discourse.

As a contemporary discourse strategy, British if you like is much more frequent than its American equivalent if you will, which has waned markedly since its heyday in the latter part of the preceding century. One can infer that the cultural and social exigencies under which speakers of British English operate still require anodizing their assertory or metaphorical discourse to a higher degree than do their American counterparts.


Sosal Sicurity (alias Social Security)

December 2, 2010

Many speakers of American English have long mispronounced the phrase social security by assimilating the medial hushing sound /ʃ/of the first word to the initial hissing sound /s/of both. This change––for it is a change––can straightforwardly be reckoned a case of (so-called) assimilation at a distance, but this would be a unique instance of /ʃ/ > /s/ in any context, let alone a non-contiguous one, in English, hence suspect as an assimilation. Typologically, as is true of /s/ before /i/ in the phrase at issue, the directionality is rather from /s/ to /ʃ/ and not the reverse, i. e., a garden-variety case of palatalization, observable in the histories of many languages, where a dental (here the hiss-sibilant) becomes a palatal (here the hush-sibilant) before a front vowel (here /i/).

The replacement of /ʃ/ by /s/ in non-normative speech is to be explained otherwise, specifically as an UNMARKING. The palatal /ʃ/ is marked for compactness, whereas the dental /s/ is unmarked for this feature. Additionally, it is important to keep firmly in mind that the unique change at issue occurs only in this fixed phrase, where the context is a compound (consisting of an adjective plus a substantive). Now, it is a fact that the process of composition (as, for that matter, derivational morphology generally) is often accompanied by an unmarking of the individual constituents that go to make up the compositum. What this means is that some marked aspect of an individual constituent is replaced by its unmarked counterpart when that constituent enters into a compound.

Taking the same process in a non-Indo-European language like Japanese for comparison, one sees that compounding regularly involves the replacement of a phonetically voiceless (actually, a phonemically tense) obstruent at the beginning of the second constituent of the compound by its phonetically voiced (resp. phonemically lax) counterpart, e.g., fuufu ‘husband and wife’ + kenka ‘quarrel’ > fuufugenka ‘marital strife’—and never the other way around. Tenseness being marked and laxness unmarked for obstruents in languages with phonemic protensity (like English or Japanese or Serbo-Croatian or French), the replacement of the initial /k/ of the second constituent kenka by /g/ is clearly an unmarking, completely parallel to the replacement in the phrase social security of the medial /ʃ/ by /s/. This phrase, moreover, has a superordinate meaning that is not the simple product of social + security. Thus the replacement of the hushing by the hissing sibilant is completely consistent with the nature of composition, namely the subordination of individual constituents to the resultant compound both formally and semantically. The normative pronunciation of the first constituent does not, of course, undermine the status of the phrase as a compound. But compared to the non-normative pronunciation, it has simply not exploited the semiotic potential attendant on compounding that the latter has.


Backformation of Compound Verbs

November 29, 2010

Back-formation (ept < inept, enthuse < enthusiasm, etc.) is a frequent process in the history of English and the source of interesting neologisms. One  subset of the process that is particularly typical of trade jargons (but not only) is a kind of univerbation, whereby a phrase consisting of verb + direct object is transformed into a compound verb containing the object as the first constituent, viz. fundraise (< raise funds), schoolteach (< teach school), bartend (< tend bar), bikeride (< ride a bike), etc.

It may seem as if there is no semantic difference between the verb phrase and its univerbative back-formation, but there is, namely the meaning of habitual action, as in a trade. Thus someone who bikerides does so habitually, and explicitly so, whereas someone who rides a bike is non-committal as to habitual action. Similarly, someone who bartends does so for a livelihood, and so on.

This situation is akin to the verbal category of aspect, perfective and imperfective, in languages like the Slavic family––or English, for that matter––where habituality is associated exclusively with (one of the meanings of) the imperfective.


Basically the Attenuation of Assertory Force

November 23, 2010

There are several ways speakers have of blunting the assertory force of an utterance, including fillers (like, you know, know what I’m saying, etc.). When they edge over the line and start polluting speech, these linguistic elements are called disfluencies. One such filler that has been growing in frequency in American English is the adverb basically. More than ample recorded evidence of this word’s prominence is available in an interview with the American-Indian (Sikh) internet executive Gurbaksh Chahal (conducted on the BBC World Service by Mike Williams, November 19, 2010). Mr. Chahal, who is now 28 and speaks standard American without an accent, came to the USA at the age of four from Punjab and grew up in Northern California. Though lacking a precise count of the number of times that basically cropped up in his responses (the interview lasted 28 minutes), suffice it to say that it could not have been less that 20-30.

The frequent insertion of this word in one’s speech serves an EMOTIVE, not a referential function. The speaker is moved to attenuate the assertory force of his utterances, and in this respect the word’s appearance serves exactly the same function as one of those fulfilled by that other frequent speech pollutant, like. Whatever their primary semantic load, these words now function to qualify or deflect the force of anything being (nominally) asserted. They are thus analogous in effect segmentally to the near-ubiquitous suprasegmental feature of contemporary female speech, viz. an interrogative intonational contour on clauses that are not questions.

Like the apotropaic smile (of females in particular), any gratuitous attenuation or deflection of assertory force can be seen as an APOTROPAISM, an atavistic survival mechanism that likely has deep evolutionary roots. The emergence of a linguistic apotropaism in present-day circumstances means only that the evil being warded off need not be confined to mastodons or saber-toothed tigers: evil lurks as well in the jungles of modern life, albeit not in the form of wild beasts but in the form of fellow humans.