Backing into the Past

April 30, 2009

Over the last decade or more, what used to be the standard manner of referring to events in the past by designating their dates in a prepositional phrase is being replaced by a longer form whereby the word back is inserted before the preposition regardless of the proximity of the past event to the speech event. Here are some recent examples:

(1) “There was a moment back in 2002 when . . . [opening sentence]” (Caryn James, “Aniston Agonistes: Good Girl, Bad Choices,” The New York Times [henceforth NYT], 6/5/06, p. B1);

(2) “The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea back in 2001, on 9/11″ (Patricia Cohen, NYT, 2/14/08, p. B9);

(3) “back in January” – said in February (unidentified man, viva voce; cf. [way] back [when]).

(4) “Back in the seventeenth century, the original text had been registered for publication as” (Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age (New York: Random House, 2009], p. 341)

The last is a particularly telling example. The context is entirely localized temporally in the seventeenth century, i. e., all the events are dated to that time, making the use of the word back utterly otiose. Moreover, it is from a contemporary British author (a university professor at that), showing that this linguistic feature has taken hold cisatlantically.

One hears such examples constantly on the radio and from ordinary speakers; moreover, the preposition in question can be on or during as well as in (back on Thursday, back during the war). And whereas the appearance of back was formerly conditioned strictly by the remoteness of the past event relative to the speech event––a form of emphasis––now the emphatic meaning is apparently being neutralized: the appearance of back is becoming obligatory regardless of the degree of proximity of the past event.

How to explain this development? One more or less speculative explanation comes to mind.

This new––habitual but redundant––use of the locative adverb back with designators of time could be motivated by what might be labeled the avoidance of placeless existence. A past event is by definition no longer existent in the same sense as a present event. This fundamental “non-is-ness” of a past event makes its designation unstable, and thereby in need of extra temporal determination. The most routine way in which all languages fix or anchor time expressions, with their quintessential instability, is by localizing them through the use of words denoting space. Accordingly, the near-obligatory extension to non-emphatic contexts of the emphatic word back before prepositional phrases as a designator of remoteness in time in contemporary American speech may be yet another example of what is clearly a general grammatical tendency.

Michael Shapiro

Fatuity and the Phatic

April 6, 2009

If one is a regular listener to NPR News and the BBC World Service, for all the Americanization of the British source one is still struck by the differences in the way that the readers/hosts on the BBC deal linguistically with reporters by way of their closing acknowledgement of the latter’s reports. Unlike their American counterparts, who trip all over themselves to thank each other, the BBC hosts either say nothing or limit themselves to repeating the name and location of the reporter, occasionally thanking them ex parte (i.e. without waiting for or expecting a response). This is as it should be. After all, courtesy is totally out of place in such exchanges. The reporters are only doing their job, and thanks are not in order. This utterly fatuous misemployment of the phatic function is tantamount to a worker on an assembly line thanking a fellow-worker for passing along an item.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines phatic as “Of, relating to, or being speech used to share feelings or to establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas.” The habit of NPR on-the-air personnel’s exchanging the phatic tokens “Thanks,” “You’re welcome,” “My pleasure,” etc. is a kind of linguistic perversion of the speakers’ status and roles. This kind of aporetic speech reaches grotesque proportions when, for instance––as was heard recently––an NPR reporter is thanked by the host for a report on the death of victims of a mass murder and responds “My pleasure.”


The (We)evil of Banality

April 1, 2009

34. Particularly Odious Locutions

On the same page; at the end of the day; give back, reach out, step up, step down, move on; out there, in place; the bottom line is, the fact is, the reality is is that; the whole nine yards, the whole ball of wax; do the math, pay the price, connect the dots, bite the bullet, stay the course; twenty-four seven; blessed, driven; quality time, bad guys, tipping point, poster child, level playing field, slippery slope; on board; going forward; best/worst-case scenario; wake-up call, skill set; from the get go; comfort zone, learning experience, learning curve; (I have) issues; on board, in harm’s way; quite simply; closure, put it behind me, get on with my life; if you will, if you like; speak truth to power; empower, empowerment, empowered; gender, gendered; that said, having said that; you’re correct; absolutely; exactly right; thanks for taking my call, thanks for having me, thanks for asking.

35. Fatuity Is The Bane Of One’s Existence

Fatuity is the bane of one’s existence. Pure posh-lust suppurates from the mouths of the publicum. Their skill set includes connecting the dots before getting on board and staying out of harm’s way. The tipping point comes when they are about to step up or step down––going forward, of course. It is very important to have closure and get on with your life––put it behind you, if you will. That said, at the end of the day, quite simply, the reality is is that they’ve done the math––which is always a good learning experience––so they can move on. Empowerment––especially the gendered kind––is a slippery slope, but if you can get into your comfort zone and stay the course, you’ll end up being the poster child for all those who’ve heard the wake-up call. They have no issues.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO (excerpted from the author’s book, My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge, pp. 83-84)

In a Shambles

March 1, 2009

The investor Warren Buffett is famous for his financial acumen, but this astuteness does not seem to extend to his command of English phraseology. In this respect, his omission of the indefinite article from the phrase in a shambles repeats a ubiquitous error, as in the following excerpt from Mr. Buffet’s recent letter to his company’s shareholders:

“We’re certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 –and, for that matter, probably well beyond – but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall [emphasis added].” Warren E. Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: Shareholder Letters, 2008 (February 27, 2009, p. 4).

It is instructive to be made aware of the origin of the phrase in question. Here is the relevant entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2004):

pl. n. (used with a sing. verb)
a. A scene or condition of complete disorder or ruin: “The economy was in a shambles” (W. Bruce Lincoln).
b. Great clutter or jumble; a total mess: made dinner and left the kitchen a shambles.
a. A place or scene of bloodshed or carnage.
b. A scene or condition of great devastation.
3. A slaughterhouse.
4. Archaic A meat market or butcher shop.
[From Middle English shamel, shambil, place where meat is butchered and sold, from Old English sceamol, table, from Latin scabillum, scamillum, diminutive of scamnum, bench, stool.]
Word History: A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, “a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example.” The diminutive scamillum, “low stool,” was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, “stool, bench, table.” Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of “a place where meat is butchered and sold.” The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant “slaughterhouse,” a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense “a place or scene of bloodshed” (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, “a scene or condition of disorder,” is first recorded in 1926 [emphasis added].

Considering the existence of phrases like in disarray and in decline––NB the abstract substantives!––it is clear that the myriad speakers (and writers) who drop the article from in a shambles are simply allowing the analogy of such phrases to hold sway over the entire class of phrases denoting the condition, including ones involving the figurative use of a concrete substantive where the indefinite article is de rigueur. But the innovation remains an error nonetheless. Catachresis? Yes. Imperfect learning? Yes, of course.



February 5, 2009

As a pendant to the last post (“Imperfect Learning”), this one will emphasize the failure of thought involved in the error called CATACHRESIS, a term usually reserved for rhetoric rather than grammar. Thus the one-volume American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives an abbreviated definition, as follows: 1. The misapplication of a word or phrase, as the use of blatant to mean “flagrant.” 2. The use of a strained figure of speech, such as a mixed metaphor.
A much more informative definition is displayed in that nonpareil multivolume lexicographic source, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (vol. 1, p. 853): 1. In rhet.: (a) A figure by which a word is used to designate an object, idea, or act to which it can be applied only by an exceptional or undue extension of its proper sphere of meaning: as, to stone (pelt) a person with bricks; a palatable tone; to display one’s horsemanship in riding a mule; to drink from a horn of ivory. Catachresis differs from metaphor in that it does not replace one word with another properly belonging to a different act or object, but extends the use of a word in order to apply it to something for which the language supplies no separate word. (b) A violent or inconsistent metaphor: as, to bend the knee of one’s heart; to take arms against a sea of troubles. (c) In general, a violent or forced use of a word.––. In philol., the employment of a word under a false form through misapprehension in regard to its origin: thus, causeway and crawfish or crayfish have their forms by catachresis [emphasis added].
It is this last definition that characterizes a grammatical error in the strict sense. Two such flagrant mistakes that can be heard constantly are the misuse of the phrase “beg the question” (cf. petitio principii, i.e., circular reasoning, circular argument, begging the question; in general, the fallacy of assuming as a premiss a statement which has the same meaning as the conclusion.), when the speaker wishes simply to say “raise the question;” and “vicious cycle” for “vicious circle” (circulus vitiōsus, i.e., a circular or flawed argument).


Imperfect Learning

January 7, 2009

Unlike the genetic code, language is a learned code, and in this arena of human activity, as in all other human endeavor, errare humanum est. Error, moreover, is exclusively within the human realm, having no direct counterpart in nature despite having a natural history. Part of that history, when it comes to language, as with all social codes, is imperfect learning.
Children routinely make mistakes when learning their native language, and the degree to which their mistakes are rooted out by parents and other adults (and older children) in part determines the lineaments of linguistic change. Adult native speakers with the requisite amount of education can be reckoned to have a more or less complete command of their language, the range of completeness varying with factors such as book learning or technical knowledge, by which syntax–– and particularly vocabulary–– can continue to be expanded over the span of one’s entire life.
But even adult speakers make mistakes that are the product of imperfect learning. This is evident to anyone who makes a special point of observing how people speak (and write).
The opportunity to observe imperfect learning has been considerably expanded by modern media. One hears many voices on the radio using English either as a native language or a lingua franca, and one need not listen long before hearing a mistake.
Frank Deford, whose commentaries on sports are heard weekly on National Public Radio, is described as a writer with many books and essays to his credit. Nevertheless, in commenting on college football (“Morning Edition,” KPCC 89.3, Pasadena, Jan. 7, 2009) he uttered the solecism “strange duck” instead of “odd duck;” (odd is apt here not simply because it is the traditional epithet but because of the repeated [d] that led to these two words being juxtaposed in the set phrase odd duck). One cannot blithely ascribe this error to a writer’s penchant for creative idiosyncrasy: it’s a mistake tout court.
Foreigners who resort to English as a lingua franca, no matter how fluent, are especially prone to mistakes that arise from imperfect learning. Thus the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, whose thick accent belies a near-perfect command of English syntax and vocabulary, when interviewed on National Public Radio (“Morning Edition,” KPCC 89.3, Pasadena, Jan. 7, 2009) used the solecism “uprise” (obviously but nonetheless erroneously back-formed from the noun uprising) as if it were a verb of English. Such instances of imperfect learning can even encompass the most hackneyed items: Mr. Oz also changed at the end of the day to “in the end of the day.” Interestingly, he closed his side of the interview by demonstrating a tacit solidarity with contemporary American English grammar by uttering the erroneous “Thanks for having me,” i. e. omitting the postposition on––a linguistic phenomenon that has reached near ubiquity in the cloyingly unctuous etiquette of radio interviewees.


Fatuous Bookishness (“That said,” etc.)

December 8, 2008

With the global rise of literacy and the spread of mass communication in the modern period has come the well-known phenomenon of what might be called the “bookification” of spoken language. What is meant by this is the migration of bookish expressions from the written domicile they previously inhabited exclusively into the sphere of spoken language.

In American English a relatively recent example of this phenomenon is the penetration into public speech of the written-language expressions “that (being) said” and “having said that” as sentence-introductory clauses. Instead of sticking with the tried-and-true, stylistically neutral “nevertheless,” “all the same,” and “at the same time” to qualify what they had just said, persons who speak publicly (but not only) frequently resort to these rebarbative expressions involving the past passive participle “said” in what can be evaluated as an unconscious (?) bid to sound more authoritative or well-informed. This is yet another instance of the widespread and powerful influence of media language on changes in the stylistic norms defining the boundaries between written and oral speech. The cumulative result of such changes is a general growth in the pretentiousness and fatuousness of spoken discourse––evaluated, moreover, as being stylistically neutral––where plain-spokenness would have been normative heretofore. Ultimately, such changes can only serve to undermine the truth-seeking impulse of the human animal in its linguistic aspect.


Pleonastically Extruded Adjectives

October 16, 2008

Adjectival phrases like small handful and young kid keep being uttered and written in contemporary American English, evidently without their producers being aware of the fact that they are pleonastic, i.e. the adjective is redundant: the meaning of the adjective is already contained in the semantic makeup of the noun it modifies. Handful, meaning ‘the amount that can fit in one’s hand’, is ‘small’ by definition. Likewise, kid, whether the referent is the young of a goat (its original sense) or of a human being, is just that: ‘young’.
Why “extruded?” Because the meaning of the adjective is already included in that of the noun it modifies but is linearized as a word that is an excrescence.
These constructions are further evidence––if one needed any––of the fact that American speech is teeming with pleonasms (redundancies, tautologies) of all sorts (fresh example: “Through the debate, he [Obama] was reassuring and self-composed.” David Brooks, “Thinking About Obama,” The New York Times, October 17, 2008, A27). Some have become so firmly ensconced in the language––like safe haven, prior experience, and advance planning––that we use them without giving them a second thought. But they are pleonastic nonetheless.
This sort of grammatical and lexical hypertrophy (a word used here advisedly, with allusion to its medical sense) is to be rooted out not just because of its stylistic demerits but because it is a manifestation of something ultimately much more important: it is a FAILURE OF THOUGHT. (More about this in future posts.)


P. S., January 2010: This particular failure of thought is proliferating exponentially; cf. an example heard from an otherwise good writer, Sidney Blumenthal: “external trappings” (interviewed by Guy Raz, “All Things Considered,” NPR, Jan. 24, 2010, KPCC-FM).

It’s Chinese to Me

Many languages have a phrase corresponding to It’s Greek to me to signify that something is incomprehensible or makes no sense to the utterer/writer. The English version may have started in the Middle Ages as a translation of the Latin phrase, Graecum est, non legitur ‘It’s Greek, [hence] not readable’, at a time when knowledge of Greek among scribes was on the wane.
When it comes to other languages (Arabic, French, Hebrew, Russian, among others) however, it is Chinese that is most commonly  referred to, and what is meant specifically is the writing system rather than the spoken language. This is confirmed by the Japanese version, sanbun kanbun ‘gibberish’,” where the literal meaning of the two components is ‘prose’ (sanbun) + ‘Chinese script’ (kanbun). Russian kitajskaja gramota (китайская грамота) ‘Chinese charter/alphabet’ also makes explicit reference to the script.
All the Slavic languages have in fact incorporated what can be interpreted as the ultimate degree of unintelligibility of speech by likening the speakers of one foreign language in particular––German––to those who cannot speak at all, namely mutes: R nemeckij [jazyk] (немецкий язык) ‘German [language]’, etc., takes its formal and semantic designation from the Common Slavic adjectival base nem– ‘mute’.
In English, when we want to single out speech or writing as crabbed, miscegenated, or full of incomprehensible words––and, therefore, evaluated as a degraded form of language–– we typically resort to words like jargon, lingo, pidgin, patois, and argot; or to compounds utilizing the suffix –ese, as in bureaucratese, legalese, etc.––doubtless derived from an extension of the suffix in Chinese.
Speaking of jargon (which is probably of French––at any rate, of Romance––provenience), it is interesting to note that in pre-revolutionary Russian (the language of my parents), the word жаргóн also was in common use to mean Yiddish, specifically by Jews themselves. Speakers of Yiddish evidently felt no pejorative taint in resorting to a label in Russian that reflects their rich mother tongue’s hybrid (German, Hebrew, Slavic) grammatico-lexical makeup.


The “Pin/Pen Merger”: An Example of Neutralization

October 15, 2008

One of the most recognizable traits of American speech in the South and Southwest is the so-called “pin/pen merger,” a shorthand phrase meant to designate the non-distinction of the front vowels /i/ and /e/ before the nasal consonants /m, n, ŋ/. The vowel that appears in this position is identified with the realization of the high front vowel in pin, whim, and sing. Speakers who have this trait do not distinguish between the pronunciation not only of minimal pairs like pin and pen or fin and fen but of any word that has a front vowel before a nasal consonant (whatever the spelling), so that one hears m[ɪ]mber for Standard American English m[ɛ]mber, m[ɪ]ntality for SAE m[ɛ]ntality, etc.
People who have this trait need not be speaking in an identifiable dialect. In fact, it may be the only remnant of a regionalism in what is otherwise SAE speech. For instance, just this morning I heard three announcers/reporters on NPR (Renée Montagne, Deborah Byrd, Richard Harris) who display this trait but are otherwise speakers of the standard.
Thus, despite the constant migration of people from place to place over their lifetimes, the impact of education and the media typically results in an American standard that is largely free of dialectal or regional traits––with the prominent exception of this one, which is properly to be labeled a NEUTRALIZATION. A neutralization is the reduction (G Aufhebung) of an opposition to one of its two terms. Technically, one speaks here of the realization of an opposition in a position of neutralization (= context). Typically, an opposition that is neutralized in a certain context is realized as (identified with) one of its two terms––to the exclusion of the other, but also of any third term: tertium non datur (there is no third term).
Despite the familiarity of the “pin/pen merger” to linguists as a fact of dialect geography, its status and attendant meaning specifically as a neutralization have not become part of language lore. Neutralizations throughout grammar (i.e. not only in phonology) have an interesting sign function. In positions of neutralization it is normal for the realization of the opposition to be identified with the unmarked (generic) term. Thus, for instance, when the sex of the referent is immaterial one finds words of the unmarked masculine gender referring to both sexes (“Man is an animal.”). In the case of the two front vowels in question, /ɪ/ as a high vowel is unmarked vis-à-vis the marked non-high /ɛ/ in the opposition high/non-high. Hence this phonological case conforms in sign function to the general principle that it is the unmarked member of the opposition that appears as the representative of the opposition in a position of neutralization.
In language, the sign function of neutralization is unitary––whatever the concrete realization depending on context, to which it is uniformly sensitive. Neutralization is a fundamental means by which both users (initially, qua learners) and analysts––unconsciously in the first case, consciously in the second––are provided with the material evidence that linguistic variation is not haphazard but structurally coherent, where coherence is measured by the systematic, patterned cooccurrence of units and contexts in tandem.