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On Conveying Strong Judgments in Conversational English (Book Review)

 

Milada Walková

2008-05-15

The article reviews the work On Conveying Strong Judgments in Conversational English by Alena Kačmárová, a study on accentuation phenomena as manifested in the language of internet chat.

Alena Kačmárová. Prešov: Prešovská univerzita v Prešove. Fakulta humanitných a prírodných vied, 2006. 153 pp. ISBN 80-8068-505-3

Linguistic literature has paid attention to how speakers increase or decrease the illocutionary force of their utterances, that is to say, it has focused on the subject’s various aspects and termed it variously as linguistic intensification or boosting on one hand, and mitigation, attenuation, or hedging on the other. A bold yet successful attempt to cover practically all such language phenomena in conversation has been made by Alena Kačmárová in her study On Conveying Strong Judgments in Conversational English.

The number of attitudes a speaker can incorporate into his utterance, as well as the number of strategies for doing so, is vast; greatest possibilities are offered by informal speech. To show how and by what means speakers accentuate (see below on the term) their utterances, Kačmárová analyses internet chatting. This proves to be a lucky choice; internet chat attracts attention of linguistic research due to its specific properties of a “third mode” besides the spoken and the written mode.

The analysed corpus is presented in Chapter 1. It comprises texts of chats provided by www.lycos.com. The list of analysed chats can be found in Appendix I; however, Kačmárová does not provide the exact url address of the transcript archive. The analysed chat is moderated by a moderator who controls the session but not the language of other participants. The second party is a famous interviewee announced beforehand. The last party are anonymous interviewers who join the chatgroup. The conversation in question is informal and emotive.

In Chapter 2, Kačmárová comments on the lack of consistency in terminology regarding the issue of her study. Therefore, she proposes a thorough nomenclature of her own. Accentuation is a superordinate term designating accenting an utterance, giving prominence to a sentence element by means of focus, emphasis, or intensification. These are close yet distinct terms. Focus highlights a sentence element. Emphasis reinforces meaning and provides information on the truth value of an utterance. Intensification is scalar; it expresses a degree of intensity of a particular semantic property. What is important here is that Kačmárová’s intensification is not restricted to upward scaling, i.e. amplification, but includes also downward scaling, i.e. diminution. These and other terms are compiled in the glossary of the book.

In speech, accentuation is realized both vocally and non-vocally. Of course, the mode plays a role here; Kačmárová, albeit dealing with written mode, does not neglect the area of prosodic accentuation and dedicates to it Chapter 3. Prosodic means of accentuation cover both linguistic (lexical stress, linguistic pitch-range) and paralinguistic features (emphatic stress, paralinguistic pitch-range, sound length). Nevertheless, prosodic means are not just aural but also visual (kinesics, graphics). In writing, kinesics and vocal means are absent and it is only graphic out of paralinguistic devices which can be used for accentuation. These have traditionally been capitals, italics and bold font. New communication systems, however, introduce and establish new ways of graphic accentuation, e.g. use of asterisks and multiple graphemes or punctuation marks, e.g. we are *really* thankful, WELCOME!!!!!!, I SOOOoooOOoo miss it!!

Kačmárová even aptly parallels intonational and graphic means of accentuation. In her view, just as there are paralinguistic prosodic means besides linguistic prosodic means, there are also accent-guaranteeing graphic means besides neutral graphic means of accentuation. What is in speech accented by paralinguistic stress, pitch, and length, is in written mode accented by asterisks or multiple punctuation marks, capitalization, and successive recurrent graphemes, respectively.

Apart from graphic paralinguistic means, Kačmárová distinguishes the following non-prosodic accentuation devices (Chapter 4):

  • accentuation figures,
  • word order alterations,
  • highly emotive lexical units,
  • emotive modification of head,
  • emotive modification of clause.

They are further subcategorized and amply illustrated with examples from Kačmárová’s corpus. An outline of non-prosodic accentuation devices can be found in Appendix II of the book.

By accentuation figures Kačmárová understands “particular sentence patterns that add to the dramatic atmosphere; the patterns opposed to neutral sentence patterns and designed to influence people” (p.8). These include:

  • unconventional accentuation devices, i.e. deviations from standard serving to emphasize the utterance, e.g. the baddest of the bad-asses;
  • exclamation with the effect of amplification, e.g. Oh my gosh! ;
  • contrast achieved by means of contrastive conjuncts (e.g. in other words, rather, yet, etc.) or by a juxtaposition, e.g. “a truth” not “the truth”, a good villain; it brings a particular element into focus;
  • pseudo-coordination that is used for the purpose of amplification or emphasis and of which there are several types, e.g. each and every;
  • reduplication of lexical units. According to Kačmárová, its effect on utterance is “amplification since in such cases the degree is denoted; It’s very very awkward, i.e. extremely […]” (p.37). This is arguable, however, as we can doubt whether in cases such as It’s a ’98 black on black on black Mustang! or I wish! I truly wish! we can talk about a degree. The effect achieved might therefore as well be that of emphasis.
  • gradation with the function of amplification. Although it may seem that this subcategory partly overlaps with that of pseudo-coordination, Kačmárová here adduces only patterns using two or more different lexical units, e.g. my terrible handwriting, my lousy spelling and my awful grammar;
  • hyperbole which is used to amplify, e.g. tons of colors;
  • conversational code-switching by which speakers emphasize their utterances, e.g. It’s top quality, numero uno.

Word order alterations can be used to bring sentence elements into focus. In Kačmárová’s view, they include:

  • clefting and pseudo-clefting, e.g. It’s organizations like this that make me wish I was a millionaire and That’s what I want right now, respectively;
  • fronting, e.g. For that, I am very grateful!
  • inversion, obligatory as well as optional. Besides focus, its function is also that of emphasis, e.g. Only 2000 years ago was it first put into writing.
  • the passive voice, which shifts focus in a sentence, e.g. His death has been covered up.

Another of Kačmárová’s categories is that of highly emotive lexical units. Under these she understands adjectives, nouns and full verbs charged with strong or extreme emotiveness, e.g. exhausted, hungry for news; angels (about people); you rock. These expressions appear towards the end of a scale of lexical units with the same basic meaning, constitute the head of a phrase, do not allow further grading, and their function is that of amplification.

Another category is the emotive modification of head, including several types of pre-modification and post-modification, classified according to the word class of the modifier. Examples include a razor sharp wit, absolutely phenomenal, the very origins, you and me both, what ever happened.

The last category is the emotive modification of clause, or the use of disjuncts (without a question, undoubtedly) and pleonastic modals (I would certainly) for the purpose of emphasis.

Kačmárová proceeds to show how the accentuation devices from her inventory combine within utterances and documents several types of double, triple, and even quadruple accentuation.

Chapter 5 zeroes in on -ly adverbs; it offers their morphological, syntactic and semantic description and delineates how different grammars treat -ly adverbs. An analysis of accentuation -ly adverbs as found in Kačmárová’s corpus, with focus on their semantics and grammatical functions, is presented in Chapter 6.

Chapter 7 briefly comments on accentuation in negative contexts, collocability of some accentuation expressions, and wordiness as an unwanted but possible side effect of accentuation.

The greatest value of Kačmárová’s study probably lies in the comprehensive terminological apparatus and inventory of accentuation means. Nevertheless, it is not just an exhaustive overview, but also an impetus for further research; it will benefit linguists as well as inquisitive students eager to know how English conveys “strong judgments”.

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