Thursday, June 19, 2014

Synonymy and “Elegant Variation”

By all accounts, classical Arabic has an extraordinary wealth of vocabulary.   But a better term might be:  a huge heap of words.   Quantity does not qualify as ‘wealth’ in this area, unless it translates to quality.  Only then does a Worthaufen become a Wortschatz.

Accordingly, while writing my dissertation at Berkeley (in linguistics, not Near Eastern studies; a necessary distinction), I endeavored to examine specific areas (Wortfelder) of CA lexical semantics in the spirit of Jost Trier’s classic Der deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes.   The results, alas, were disappointing.
Now, I had not then (and have not since) read widely or deeply enough in Classical Arabic literature, to have any real Sprachgefühl in the matter.   But even an algebraist would be struck by the frequency of cases in which, in that literature, subjects (X, Y, Z ) are given attributes (a, b, c, …) in the following pattern:

<X is a, b, and c;   X is b, c and d;  X is a, c, and e;  Y is a, b, and d;  Z is a, b, c, and e; …>

without intervening material distinguishing the nuances of the predicates.  Such procedures do not enrich the language, but impoverish it:  much as the supernumerary letters appended by medieval copyists who were paid by the line  did much to complicate, but little to improve, orthography. 

European philologists have similarly complained of Middle French historical texts, which only at first blush appear to offer a rich characterology of their actors, but the purportedly psychosocial portrayals turn out to be boilerplate.

In my book The Semantics of Form in Arabic, I treated this matter in the chapter titled “Accumulation”.  The word is here a sort of learnèd pun:  accumulation in the (diachronic) sense of heaping up and retaining vocabularly over the course of the pre-Islamic, Koranic, and later Islamic centuries, and in the (synchronic) sense of Latin accumulatio (ah-koo-moo-LAH-tee-oh), a term of rhetorical analysis referring to the piling-on of descriptors in parataxis.   Deftly done (by writers like Gunther Grass), it can be exquisite.  If done in lazy pseudo-synonymy, the device serves only as a preventive against misprints or misspeakings  (“I do hereby solemnly swear, affirm, and attest, that I do leave, devise and bequeath…”).


Contiguous/paratactic Häufung (accumulatio) is only one category of a more general phenomenon, which  since Fowler  has been known as elegant variation.  (Wikipedia has a brief but informative article on the subject here.)     It is the process whereby the student drafts out something like

Animal Farm was an interesting book.  It interested me very much.  It says many interesting things about many interesting animals, in a way that holds the reader's interest.

and then, having been admonished not to keep repeating and repeating and repeating the same words over and over  again and again, reaches for the trusty thesaurus (a.k.a. dictionary of synonyms a.k.a. semantic lexicon) and revises as follows:

Animal Farm was an interesting book.  It fascinated me very much.  It says many intriguing things about a plethora of gripping animals, in a way that holds the reader's fascination.

Mr Roget, you have much to answer for.


These reflections from grad-school days (indeed, from high school, when I read Fowler’s Modern English Usage religiously  devoutly  with intensely fascinated gripping interest) returned earlier today  as I listened to “Morning Edition”.  The anchor announced that Russia had “rejected” the new U.N. report alleging Bad Things Happening in eastern Ukraine.   The verb struck me as comical.   Such a report consists of a sequence of allegations and attributions -- sourced propositions assessable as to truth value, warrantability of assertion, etc.   You can refute a statement (proving it untrue), or deplore it (conceding its likely truth but denouncing the circumstances of publically stating it), or pooh-pooh it (conceding that it might be true, but is too unimportant to warrant your attention);  but reject sounds as though it has some official and effective status, as when you reject a suitor or reject an invitation (in which case the original proposal is null and void).  Russia can certainly veto a proposal in the Security Council, but what does it mean to “reject” an entire report (and does that mean: in part, or in toto)?

That is to say:  If the court accuses you of having carnally interfered with Mrs O’Leary’s cow, and of murdering her eleven children, you are not in a position to simply “reject” the accusation, like writing “Return to sender” or “Not at this address” on an unopened envelope.  If summoned to appear in court, you might plead Not Guilty; you might point out that, being but four years old, you are not legally answerable to such a charge; but you do not really have the Bartleby Option of replying “I would prefer not to.”
But the broadcast segued into the segment from a reporter, who, covering the identical facts, used a different verb for the Russian response to the report:  dismiss, if memory serves.  [Note:  Both the NPR and WAMU web sites are seriously deficient in listing and/or indexing major stories -- this was after all the lead item this morning.   Searching those sites, I could not find it.   So I might have misremembered one of the three or four verbs that were used pseudo-synonymously on that broadcast this morning-- discount was one of them, I believe -- , but structurally the point being made here remains intact.]
Dismiss is marginally weaker;  as, a judge may dismiss a case in the sense of declining to hear the appeal or sending it back to a lower court,  which is a weaker result than explicitly finding against the appellant.
Shortly after that, a different reporter used yet a different verb to describe the Russian response, one with yet slightly weaker connotation.
That sort of thing cannot be as easily explained as the case of the interest of our interested reader of an interesting book, since the texts in question were not contiguous, and were uttered in each case by someone different.  Still, it may be significant that the strongest -- and least justifiable -- term  came at the outset, from the anchor.   That strategy -- draw the listener in from the beginning, then gradually let him down  (“We don’t have that particular item you saw in the window  available for sale today, but perhaps we can interest you in…”) -- is widely abused in journalism;  we dissected one such case from this morning’s Washington Post here.

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