The Last Straw

December 3, 2009

The growing power of linguistic hypertrophy in present-day American English (in particular) can be measured inter alia by the incorrect rendering of fixed phrases, wherein the traditional form is replaced by a longer one. This is happening to the normative version of the expression the last straw, which is increasingly heard as the final straw (for instance, in a report by my namesake Ari Shapiro on today’s installment of the NPR program “All Things Considered”).

Recently I was waiting to pick up some laundry early in the morning at a cleaning establishment in Westwood, Calif. when an elderly gentleman came in and said to me “the early bird gathers the worm.” I couldn’t restrain myself and corrected him: “You mean ‘gets’ the worm.” He said nothing and looked at me with incredulity.

Note the greater length of gathers vis-à-vis gets.


Triumph of the Ungrammatical

October 29, 2009

The rise of mass communications and the concomitant spread of literacy to previously marginalized users of a national language present a problem to language historians who have heretofore had the luxury of dismissing variation attributable to imperfect learning and outright grammatical error. That is to say, what would have been ignored as a nondatum in the past must now be taken into account, especially if it becomes a constant presence in the written language. A prominent contemporary example in American English is the reinterpretation of the plurale tantum troops––strictly a collective or mass noun in traditional usage––as a count noun permitting the back-formation of a singular, troop.

Before the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the troops referred to a mass of soldiers, and the singular troop was blocked in this meaning. But with the prominent participation of the Marines along with the Army in these wars, the media followed the participants in discriminating between soldiers and marines, necessitating the use of a word that made no reference to whether the combatants belonged to a specific branch of the armed services. Herein lies the origin of the back-formed singular troop, with its status as a countable noun allowing locutions with numerals like “The insurgents killed 5 troops,” which remain ungrammatical for those speakers who adhere to the traditional norm.


Absolutely the All-Purpose Emphatic

October 2, 2009

In contemporary spoken Englishes all over the world––i. e., not just the British and American variety of English, but the Canadian, Australian, Pakistani, South African, etc.––the word absolutely, typically prefixed, occurs as an emphatic or intensifier of the word it precedes, so that “He’ll absolutely do it” is uttered when the speaker wishes to communicate a high level of assertory force. This absolutely is also often heard as a retort instead of the simple affirmative “Yes,” even when the most mundane request (e.g., “Please pull up Claudia’s voucher” directed at the staff of a gym where a client is requesting that his trainer Claudia’s voucher be presented for his signature so that she can be paid) should have elicited only something as denatured as “Yes, certainly,” “Yes, of course,” etc. In fact, for younger adult speakers one can even go so far as to say that “Yes” has practically been replaced by “Absolutely” as the automatic affirmative response when nothing more emphatic is meant than simple acquiescence.

The kind of aggrandizement of the force of an utterance conveyed by absolutely used to connote intensification can be seen as a proxy for intonational emphasis, although the word clearly does not exclude being uttered with emphatic intonation when the situation calls for extra assertory force.

But the evaluation of the process described extends beyond the matter of the emasculation of this particular word, beyond its contemporary slippage into the inventory of simple affirmatives lacking emphatic force. It is to be seen as yet another instance of a type of linguistic pathology––namely grammatical hypertrophy––which is a failure of thought. This type of failure is normally coextensive with the pleonasms, redundancies, and tautologies of all sorts that are rapidly pervading the language without being recognized as such by their users––in other words, varieties of overdetermination by repetition. However, absolutely uttered without emphatic intonation as a lexical item of maximal assertory force utilized to signify mere agreement should also be understood as an overdetermination. Here this category is exemplified by a word voided of its lexical meaning and relegated to a mere token of discourse accompanying a recurring speech act.


Ten Thousand Untruths

September 9, 2009

One of the possible unpredictable paths that language development can take is exemplified by the assimilation of loan words, wherein something that is at variance with the linguistic patterns of the donor language is adopted by the borrowing speech community anyway, and only owing to the imputed prestige of the first transmitter(s) of the mistaken form.

One is reminded here of the popular Japanese proverb––Ikken kyo ni hoete banken jitsu o tsutau––which loosely translated means ‘One dog barks out a lie and ten thousand dogs take it up as the truth’.

This sort of situation must be what explains the consistent misstressing one hears in the Anglophone media of the Slavic surnames of tennis players, particularly of the swarm of Russian women that inhabit the current ranks of tennis professionals. Take the names of two prominent women, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who are (again) among the many playing at this year’s U. S. Open Championships. The monolingual TV announcers who have to struggle with the pronunciation of their surnames follow what is now the established norm in tennis parlance, with penultimate stress in the first name and antepenultimate stress in the second, i. e., Sharapóva and Kuznétsova. Note that both surnames have four syllables and end in –a (the Russian feminine ending). Accordingly, following the native English stress pattern for such quadrisyllabic items, they should both be pronounced with main stress on the penultimate syllable, i. e., as in bossanova or, for that matter, panegyric.

Now, it so happens that both of the English adaptations are wrong from the point of view of their authentic form in Russian. In these women’s native language it is Sharápova, which like all Russian family names in –ov/-ova goes back to a possessive adjective derived from a nominal base (here the dialectal sharáp ‘theft’) and mimics the fixed stress on the second syllable of the stem throughout its paradigm (Nom sharáp, Gen sharápa, etc.); and it is Kuznetsóva (< kuznéts ‘blacksmith’), because it follows the stress pattern Nom kuznéts, Gen kuznetsá, etc., with stress on the first syllable of the suffix (= ending) in the oblique cases, which corresponds to the penult in the derived feminine surname in the nominative case.

By rights, if one is going to pronounce both names according to English stress rules, then both Sharapova and Kuznetsova should have stress on the penult. This would be at odds with the authentic Russian stress in the first case but would coincide with it in the second. It would, of course, take only a very small effort to pronounce them both “correctly,” since Sharápova would fit the model of unfláppable (which is quadrisyllabic in English despite its trisyllabic orthography, the final vowel being silent but a reduced vowel being pronounced between the final two consonants) and Kuznetsóva would conform to the type Manitóba.

Consequently, the two mistaken stresses––from the point of view of Russian––of Sharapóva and Kuznétsova––are of an unequal degree of inauthenticity or falsity from the point of view of English. The first comes about simply by the application of normal English stressing rules to quadrisyllabic names of foreign origin. But the second is only explicable as a mistake pure and simple, one that was first made by an American or British speaker––doubtless a TV commentator––but whose prestige licensed its endless repetition as the accepted form by the myriad listeners who took it at face value.


Pronominal Prosopopoeia

July 28, 2009

A recent development in spoken American English is the supersedure of what used to be reserved for non-human antecedents in the reference of the relative pronoun which by its human counterpart who. In listening to radio transmissions one discovers the increasing use of who where only which previously obtained as grammatically correct, e.g. “the companies who” or “the financial corporation who” instead of “the companies which” and “the financial corporation which,” as a recognition of the plurality of the collectivity’s members. Cf. this example from a recent New York Times column (quoting Judith Kipper): “‘Do you have confidence that the banks, who helped to create the problem . . .'” (Joe Nocera, “‘Nice’ Wasn’t Part of the Deal,” The New York Times, National Edition, August 1, 2009, p. B1).

This widespread phenomenon could be analyzed simply as a change of focus in relative pronominal reference from the inanimate grammatical property of the collective noun to the human agents that constitute the actors making the abstract noun come to life, so to speak. This is akin to the British usage whereby grammatically singular collectives like family or team are referred to by plural pronouns and plural number in verb conjugation (cf. American “the family is coming to dinner” vs. British “the family are coming to dinner,” etc.). It is further supported by the neutralization of the opposition between human and non-human in the possessive pronoun whose; thus both “the people whose faces” and “the faces whose outlines” are both normative.

But a more comprehensive analysis that trades in axiological (value) considerations can also be essayed, providing a possibly deeper understanding of the linguistic change. Since referring to an inanimate (specifically: non-human) object with the relative pronoun reserved for human antecedents is a kind of personification, one could just as well say that words like company or corporation which induce the phenomenon at issue have come to be regarded grammatically as human, making this a reflection of the underlying change in their value status. They are no longer impersonal agents denoted by abstract nouns but simulacra of human actors with the power over real human beings, construed heretofore as wielded only by the latter. Accordingly, this shift in pronominal usage in the twenty-first century would ultimately be seen as the sign of a nascent reinterpretation––both ideologically and in the grammar of American English (at least)––of the speech community’s evaluation of the notional structure of social reality.


Semantic Contamination

July 22, 2009

When words or phrases occupy adjacent or overlapping semantic fields, they may begin to interfere with each other in the sense that one contaminates the other, thereby changing usage such that the contaminated version supplants the earlier one.

This has happened recently in the American English catachrestic construction “good-paying job,” which has all but replaced the traditional “well-paying job” (with or without the hyphen). It is a further instance of the usurpation of the adjective/adverb “well” by “good.”

In analyzing how and why this has happened, one must start by comparing the constructions “good job” and “well paid.” The compound adjective “well-paying” is the result of adjectivizing “well paid.” Note that one can say “The job/John is well paid” but not “*The job/John is good paid.” The component “well” is then supplanted by “good,” a result of contamination by “good job.” A good job is now preeminently taken to be a well-paying job: whatever else it may entail, the level of remuneration is primary and is reflected in the change to “good-paying.” So there is an underlying value change that undergirds and motivates the change.

The same may be said of the now ubiquitous “I’m good” for “I’m well” in the speech of persons under a certain age (45?). As possibly in the previous case, “well” is all but avoided when juxtaposed with a human agent because it has been relegated to the meaning field associated with health (cf. the neologism “wellness”). “Feeling good” is evidently not the same as “feeling well” (cf. the difference between “I [don’t]/feel good” and “I [don’t]/feel well). A fillip comes from the extancy of “I don’t feel good about it” but not “*I don’t feel well about it.” Cf. the standard “She paid him well” with the dialectal/nonstandard “She paid him good.”


Discontinuous Lexica

July 16, 2009

It is a truism of linguistics that the grammars of native speakers are discontinuous, by which is meant the principle of language competence which encompasses the idea that no two speakers have exactly the same grammar of the language they share as native speakers. To a very large extent, precisely what is discontinuous is their vocabularies, their command of the lexical stock of the language. They may also have a differential knowledge of syntax, but since syntax is the technique (rules) by which words are combined into phrases, sentences, and discourses, the focus is properly on the lexicon, hence the discontinuities between speakers’ grammars come down to the knowledge of words.

This whole topic constitutes a missing chapter from standard accounts of linguistic competence. Here is some material that might go into filling the lacuna.

Within one adult speaker’s grammar or knowledge of their native language, a profile of competence can be characterized variously by reference to such parameters as active vs. passive knowledge, knowledge of specialized (technical) vocabulary, acquaintance with foreign languages, etymological knowledge (i.e., knowledge of word origins, including historically earlier stages of the native language), dialectal material, and literary texts in the round, including but not limited to poetry and folkloric data (nursery rhymes, riddles, etc.). This may be taken as an exhaustive inventory of the diverse sources that constitute the lexical stock of a given individual’s idiolect.

To perhaps a greater extent than other idiolectal features, a speaker’s vocabulary is never completely fixed or static. Even beyond childhood and adolescence, when the greatest accretions to one’s lexical knowledge occur, there is always the possibility of adding to one’s vocabulary. This comes about naturally through contact with different linguistic milieux, geographical as well as social, and with written texts whose complete comprehension may demand looking in dictionaries and thereby acquiring new vocabulary items––a process that goes on ceaselessly as long as one remains open to new texts, fresh milieux, and heretofore unassimilated knowledge.

No matter how similar phonetically or grammatically the speech is of members of a relatively homogeneous speech community, there are always differences in style and discourse between individuals. These may be a function of education and family history as well as of idiosyncrasy (personality). One particularly interesting differentia specifica is the use of foreign words and phrases in one’s native speech (including writing). In contemporary English, the traditionally most likely items of this sort  are from Latin and French, followed in no particular order of frequency by Greek, German, and Italian. This  intrusion of foreign locutions may be conditioned by the speaker’s profession. Thus college professors of French quite often pepper their native English with French words, even where perfectly good English equivalents would do. Perhaps this is a kind of linguistic badge that is flashed to parade not only their special knowledge but their solidarity with their profession and the country whose language and literature they profess. In some cases, of course, the foreign locution may in fact supply a particular stylistic flavor that the native equivalent may lack.

A good illustration of the employment of foreign words and phrases, including literary citations, inserted in an otherwise perfectly English oral discourse can be found in that masterpiece of narrative, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four. Here are three such cases that issue from the mouth of Sherlock Holmes, in the latter two of which Holmes’s is actually a slightly inaccurate version:

[Latin] “Quite so. They are in a state of extreme contraction, far exceeding the usual rigor mortis. Coupled with this distortion of the face, this Hippocratic smile, or ‘risus sardonicus,’ as the old writers called it, what conclusion would it suggest to your mind?”

[French] “He can find something,” remarked Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “He has occasional glimmerings of reason. Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!”

[correct version: Il n’y a point de sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit.  — François de la Rochefoucauld, Maximes, no. 451. English translation: ‘There are no fools so troublesome as those who have some wit’.]

[German] “And I,” said Holmes, “shall see what I can learn from Mrs. Bernstone, and from the Indian servant, who, Mr. Thaddeus tells me, sleeps in the next garret. Then I shall study the great Jones’s methods and listen to his not too delicate sarcasms. ‘Wir sind gewohnt das die Menschen verhöhnen was sie nicht verstehen.’ Goethe is always pithy.”

[correct version: Wir sind gewohnt, daß die Menschen verhöhnen / Was sie nicht verstehn, (which continues) Daß sie vor dem Guten und Schönen, / Das ihnen oft beschwerlich ist, murren; / Will es der Hund, wie sie, beknurren? — Goethe, Faust, Part 1, ll. 1205-09. Munich: Beck, 2007, p. 43. Bayard Taylor’s English translation (New York: Collier Books, 1963, p. 113): ‘Of course we know that men despise / what they don’t comprehend; / the Good and Beautiful they vilipend, / finding it oft a burdensome measure. / Is the dog, like men, snarling displeasure?’]

(“Sherlock Holmes Gives a Demonstration,” The Sign of Four, ch. 6, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, I: The Novels, ed. Leslie S. Klinger. New York: Norton, 2006, pp. 278, 280, 282.)

The question of “flavor” is conjugate with another essentially emotive value of language, viz. what may be called the “semantic aureole” of a word (to borrow a phrase coined by Russian metricists for the study of verse forms). Each individual’s life experience includes certain language items that have a particular, singular, emotional resonance that is of idiosyncratic derivation. Here is an anecdote to illustrate this phenomenon.

While boarding an airplane for a recent flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, painted on the fuselage I noticed the words “Continental Airlines. The airline that flies to more international destinations than any other U. S. airline.” That made me think of the drink called the continental, which I had ordered at a restaurant in Vermont just days before, which segued into Fred Astaire and the song he sings called “The Continental” in the movie “Flying Down to Rio,” which I saw on television long ago. For some reason, this then triggered a chain of memories associated with the international word continental that occurs in all European languages, including Russian, particularly as a designation of certain buildings, like hotels.

More precisely, a true story came bobbing up from the backwater of my memory, which had been recounted to me many years before by my father about his cousin, a certain “Diadia Misha” (Russian for ‘Uncle Misha’), who ended up in Paris after the Russian Revolution, became an arms dealer there between the World Wars, and lived to be a centenarian. Uncle Misha was living in Kiev when the Revolution broke out and was arrested as a bourgeois––therefore, considered an enemy of the people––by the Communists when they seized control of the city, and was brought before a people’s tribunal to be tried. The penalty of death by firing squad in such cases was not out of the question, and it hovered over our poor Uncle Misha. However, after questioning him, the president of the tribunal suddenly announced that he was free to go. Uncle Misha’s relief and incredulity knew no bounds, of course. Then the president came over to him and, extending his hand, said (in Russian), “Ia iz Kontinentalia” (‘I’m from the Continental’). At first Uncle Misha was completely flummoxed. But then he recognized the president as a waiter from the restaurant at the Hotel Continental in Kiev, where he had eaten many times, and whom he had been in the habit of tipping generously. These munificent gratuities now turned out to be Uncle Misha’s salvation.

Such are the peripeteia that define the course of one’s life. One can understand why the word continental should have a special associative aura in my lexicon––and that of no other person outside my family.


Verbal Proprioception

July 10, 2009

Users of language, whether native or foreign, differ in the degree to which they are aware of what they say phonetically and grammatically. Thus non-native speakers are often unaware of making mistakes and do nothing to correct themselves even when exposed to repeated exemplars of the correct forms. But this is also true of native speakers, particularly when confronted with variation and the necessity to choose the correct variant.

An example of the latter phenomenon was heard this week from President Obama in connection with the G8 economic summit being held in L’Aquila, Italy. The latter town’s name in Italian is pronounced with the stress on the initial syllable. Mr. Obama must have heard this pronunciation numerous times, but he (and some others on the radio) mispronounced it, putting the stress on the medial syllable. It is perhaps not surprising to hear this from a speaker of English who speaks no foreign language and generally seems to be uncomfortable with foreign onomastic items. But in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, a speech habit that goes against such evidence can only be chalked up to a lack of verbal proprioception, a strange defect in someone who is (otiosely) praised for his rhetorical skills and does not lack for education.


Rhymes with Pomeranian

June 24, 2009

Since Iran is so much in the news these days, it is no wonder that one constantly hears, not only this proper noun, but its derived adjective (mis)pronounced by people in the media and those whose speech is influenced by such opinion makers, etc.

As in the case of Iraq, the pronunciation of Iran with a broad stressed vowel (as in the name Ron) is decidedly not in conformity with traditional English phonetics––British or American. It stems ultimately from the foreigner’s misplaced reproduction in English of the Persian vowel, which is then mimicked by native speakers who (unconsciously?) choose what they must imagine to be “authentic” over what would otherwise be dictated by native phonetics.

More to the point, the derived adjective Iranian, whose stressed vowel has always been [éi] (i. e., a diphthong) and not the monophthongal replica of the Farsi speaker’s un-English stressed vowel, is repeatedly heard from English speakers who have no knowledge of any foreign language, let alone Persian. This kind of phonetic solecism appears to be licensed by the very same desire for “authenticity” that manifests itself when speakers wish their interlocutors to evaluate them as being “in the know.”


At the End of the Day

In an interview aired on the BBC World Service (June 24, 2009), the English wife of the pastor of a church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was heard to utter the fatuously silly phrase “at the end of the day” no fewer than four times in the span of under forty seconds. She could easily have substituted synonymous phrases like “in the end,” “in the final analysis,” or “ultimately” and avoided needless repetition.

Aside from its presumed formulaic usefulness, there must be some reason why speakers cling so tenaciously to “at the end of the day” despite its rebarbativeness. (It has even been lampooned in cartoons.) If one resorts to the tried-and-true explanation that sound often trumps sense in such formulas of English, then there are two features that call for attention. First, there is the anapestic prosody of the bipartite structure: “at the énd” plus “of the dáy.” Second, there is the quasi-paronomastic recurrence of the lax obstruent [d] in the words (end, day) that bear the main stress. For all that, one can only wish that it would go away like all doggerel.