Opaqueness vs opacity – derivational confusion

In an interview this morning a rabbi referred to ’opaqueness’ rather than ’opacity’. Given his educational background, one would expect a knowledge of and use of the usual noun formed from the adjective. I guess the adjective is the base form, opaque.

OTOH, the rabbi had an unusual background: he had been a con man; so perhaps his early education was not one in which language use at a high level predominated – well, wait a minute. Con artists have excellent verbal skills, so let’s say at a high cultural level or high literary level.

But this points to an area of indecision and variability seldom remarked on – the attachment of more common derivational affixes. The most famous I know is the story of how a president, Harding, uttered the word ’normalcy’ where ’normality’ would have been expected, and it caught on.

Of interest to me would be people offering comments as to usage they’ve heard, their opinions on what are often referred to as malapropisms, including the notorious Amos ’n Andy scripts wherein Black persons produce strange combinations of prefixes and suffixes meant to highlight their supposed ignorance. The wise head among them, a light-skinned taxi driver named Amos, spoke more standard English. To criticize such practices in the entertainment industry was a staple of the Liberal repertoire.

What a shock it was when I entered the Black community about 1961 and discovered that many people did talk like that. Being of linguistic bent, I looked at works on Black English and discovered many keys to this language. For one thing, a stress-on-first-syllable rule often resulted in unstressed initial syllables being deleted. My wife’s and my favorite example is when her dad came back from visiting another daughter who had a cuzzi. It took us a minute to realize he was referring to that tub-like thing filled with hot water that swirls around: a jacuzzi. It was a perfect example of an unfamiliar word is made to fit the phonetic norms of the language.

This also may be why many people pronounce T.V. and Detroit as TEE vee and DEtroit, to preserve that initial syllable.

Putting on the wrong prefix is fairly common. I’m constantly doing the same thing in Russian. This might lead some people to think that African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) might be a dialect of English rather than simply the product of confusion. I would use the word ’ignorance’ here b/c these usages are characteristic of uneducated persons. However, I want to stress that AAVE is a system of its own, self-contained pretty much as all dialects are. As a non-standard dialect it mostly aspires to the acrolect, i.e. standard English (SE). People may fall short out of ignorance, i.e. lack of education, but quite often they simply code-switch. That latter tactic upsets some people e.g. school teachers, who expect everyone to speak SE at all times. This absolutely silly favoring of one dialect over another is defended as “just wanting the children to speak properly” and avoid forming “bad habits”. To a lot us, it is a clear class bias, perhaps ethnic bias, favoring one speech form over another. In an evil way, some of us like to get one of these people to imagine the Great Job Interview as being with a Black record producer of hip-hop music and ask what dialect would be appropriate. And I wonder how many Black people have lost out on a job interview BECAUSE they spoke SE, thus confounding the expectations of the White interviewer and thus discomfitting him.

My grandmother, who spoke a brand of Appalachian English and who had only a 7th grade education, had some interesting past tense forms as well as lexical items not shared with SE. My mom spoke that way as a child, I discovered from her later, but worked on losing it once she moved north.

My wife has retained her AAVE despite speaking SE with absolutely no “Black accent”, so that she has often tripped up people on the phone. The latest example was when she was making campaign calls for Obama and a prospective voter said, “We don’t vote for niggers!” Most Whites are reluctant to use that word with a Black person. But…… maybe not. Anyway, it’s fun to listen to her on the phone and guess whether the person she is talking with is White or Black. She just took off for Dallas this a.m. and so will probably return with a good dose of AAVE. The older relatives and lots of the very young ones speak the basilect or “deep” Black dialect.

Back to the topic of derivational forms, I would love for people to share with me their observations of variation in such forms from other languages. The classic confusion among SE speakers is ’disinterested’ vs ’uninterested’. the former is said to mean unbiased or without prejudice in a matter, the latter meaning the matter has no attraction for the person uninterested.

There’s another word frequently affixed in a non-standard way by educated speakers but I can’t remember it just now. I’m starting to blog daily now and one project is to put my observations of overheard speech on the blog and I’m sure this thing I can’t remember is in there somewhere.

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