Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How You Said It: Sneaky Verbal Attacks in English

(Reclaimed from Bubblews. Photo from Morguefile. Topic credit: the Bubbler known as Kitkatviolet posted www.bubblews.com/news/4966478-quotit039s-not-what-you-said-but-it039s-how-you-said-itquot .)

BubbleWS is a wonderful place to study English, and even to learn about foreign languages by observing the way some Bubblers overseas write English. However, one aspect of speaking English is hard to learn from a computer: the "intonation" pattern of words in a sentence.

Everyone can hear, and every book about English as a foreign language mentions, that in a spoken English sentence some words and parts of words receive more "stress" than others. Normally, if the sentence is a statement, the heaviest stress comes near the end of the sentence. English also has "emphatic stress" placed on a word that might be unfamiliar or unexpected or otherwise more important, and "contrastive stress" placed on a word in order to remind people of the opposite idea.

"I love you" means "Never mind about other people--I love you in a special way that's different from whatever I may feel for them."

"I love you" means "I'm not just another friend," or "I'm not sending you to school or the hospital as a punishment...I love you."

"I love you" means "Someone else doesn't love you, but I do." In some situations "I love you" could be considered verbal abuse.

Many books could be written about the ways contrastive stress can be used to turn an innocent-looking sentence into a sneaky verbal attack. More than a dozen of those books *have been* written by the retired blogger known as Ozarque ( ozarque.livejournal.com ), under the name of Suzette Haden Elgin. The "Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" series was a series of slow steady sellers, and used copies are seldom hard to find online.

These books discuss exactly why "A person who really wants to make maximum money on Bubblews will keep this site on his or her computer all day, check the notifications, read all the Connections' Bubbles, and post something approximately every two hours throughout the day" is a harmless description of how people use this system...while "A person who really wanted to make money on BubbleWS would at least visit this site every day," although also true, will be heard by almost all English-speaking people as "You didn't visit this site every day, therefore you don't really want to make money on BubbleWS and you were lying when you said you did."

Although she was a full professor of linguistics and her books have been helpful to many people, Ozarque never considered her understanding of "Verbal Self-Defense" to be completed and carved in stone. Before she became a blogger, she talked and wrote to hundreds of Americans (and some Canadians) about the way we speak English, and over the years the G.A.V.S.D. books reflect the observations of all those readers. So slight changes were made, the "updated editions" of some of the older books read like completely new books, and the discussions continued at the Ozarque Blog. At her Live Journal page, Elgin even collected a few bits of information about how sneaky verbal attacks work in other languages besides English. So, no matter how many of the books you already have, it's worth reading the others...and the blog, with its links and comments.