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» Wednesday Linguistics: Expressivity


Wednesday Linguistics: Expressivity

2006-04-26 @ 9:54

Two recent posts at Invented Usage (on like usage and Yoda grammar) got me thinking about expressivity, which can be defined as the use of different constituent ordering, omission of words, stress, etc., to give an added dimension to the utterance.

These manipulations can become instituted in the language, as with the imperative form of the verb whereby the verb stem (in IE languages) is invoked, without any trapping, to express volition. Another example is the use of single word sentences, like “Coffee?” or “Lights!” It has to be understood that the speaker of these holophrastic expressions did not construct a ‘full’ sentence (“Would you like some coffee?”, “Turn on the lights!”) and then chopped off the constituents he felt were superfluous. In Psychomechanics, these utterances are construed as is in order to enhance an idea, to convey it in a different, somewhat more forceful way.

Conversely, we can actually add to a verb to give more zing. One example I like to give is the French verb dormir (“sleep”) which is not supposed to take complements. Still I could easily say “Ce cours, je te le dors!” (lit.: “This course, I sleeping it to you,” meaning “I tell you this: I’m gonna sleep this course through”).

By playing with this usual requirements of words, we give them enhanced capability, enhanced meaning, enhanced force. And we elicit a reaction. In a way, this is what happens when we ask a question: by inverting the subject-verb order, we are playing with their relation to one another; we are saying: something is not habitual here, this sentences needs input, an answer.

I realize that this is somewhat sketchy. Actually, a whole book could be written on the use of expressivity in grammar. But I think that the main point I want to get across is that letting go of constituents, adding them or moving them around is not just a question of moving parts in a syntactic tree according to preset rules and with no regard to meaning; it is a creative process that should be looked at whole.

What do you think?