Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Down with emphasis

I have decided I am seriously fed up with language reference works' indiscriminate use of the word "emphasis" (and related forms). The thing is that the term is essentially without meaning, except insofar as it seems to indicate that something is happening that the author lacks the sophistication, patience or intelligence to explore or describe adequately.

It tends to come up a whole lot in discussions of syntactic structures: in a Latin clause, for instance, any arrangement of S, O and V is theoretically possible; and according to all my textbooks, the choice of order is largely one of emphasis. Which means what, exactly? Are we talking about topicalization? Focus? Or some other kind of pragmatic consideration? Hell, as far as we know all kinds of factors might conceivably be involved in a fluent speaker's choices, including, for instance, how she feels personally about the constituent in question. How can a learner possibly know, or even guess, how to start using this "emphasis" correctly?

In the case of Polish, for example, although SVO is typically the least marked order, VS is statistically very likely to show up unmarkedly in intransitive clauses. This simple fact would be likely to remain completely mystifying and opaque to anyone other than a trained linguist examining a large amount of data, yet would be easy at least to mention in passing rather than allowing it to be subsumed within that abyss of "emphasis."

So...what "emphasis" means is, apparently, "when you are fluent someday, you will understand." And I know that, to some extent, there is a lot about language that works this way, as much as we try to quantify and explain everything; but I feel certain that we could be doing a better job than this.

Turkish provides some particularly egregious examples, such as the fact that any word can be repeated, ostensibly to "emphasize" it. On this Edip Akbayram CD, four of the twelve track names have a repeated word:

* İnce ince bir kar yağar (adjective: a fine/graceful snowflake falls)
* Yakar inceden inceden (adverb/prepositional phrase: it burns intensely)
* Dumanlı dumanlı oy bizim eller (derived adjective: our village is full-of-smoke)
* Sev beni beni (pronoun: love me)

This clearly extremely productive process extends to verbs as well. From Elementary Turkish by Lewis V. Thomas:

baktım "I looked (stared)"
baktım baktım "I looked hard (stared and stared)"

There is obviously a lot going on here -- the repetition seems to have different effects with different parts of speech, and in different contexts. In some cases verbal aspect may be involved ("stared and stared?" isn't that perseverative or iterative or something?); sometimes there may be semantic effects; in sev beni beni in seems like it may be a pragmatic issue, showing topicalization or contrast. Yet none of my books mention it with more than a sentence; nor do they dig deeper than to call it a matter of "emphasis." Yet I am convinced that, given its frequency, even an intermediate learner would need to understand how to interpret and produce this structure appropriately -- and that it is much more important than, say, the (rarely used) past subjunctive, which gets a full treatment spanning pages in one of these textbooks.

Perhaps the worst ever use of this concept I have encountered in the world of linguistics is not in syntax or morphology, but in phonology, in reference to the so-called "emphatic" consonants of the Semitic language family. When I first dabbled with Arabic, I struggled mightily to understand what to do with these "emphatic" coronals. Should I say them more clearly? With more air pressure? At longer duration? This is usually what is meant by "emphasis" in this language of ours when it refers to sounds. But no, no. Arabic "emphatics" are not louder, harsher, stronger, etc.; they are simply pharyngealized. To my ear they actually sound less emphatic than their "normal" counterparts. Here more than ever "emphatic" means nothing more than "somehow different, with the footnote that I cannot articulate to you what I am talking about."

The real shame in all this is not just that the authors of our language reference works lack scholastic rigor -- it's that this vast area of "emphasis" is actually incredibly fascinating, and important, but gets all but ignored by our theory of language instruction, displaced by mountains of charts and paradigms. I want to know what is going on when Turks repeat words! But how will I find out? Maybe I will have time to live in Turkey and become fluent so that I can learn through osmosis, but there are so many other things I want to do with my life; I am sad that I may never know.

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