JOST A MON

The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 22, 2008

Shades of Meaning

In English, as in many other languages, the meaning of a sentence can be manipulated by the insertion of a word. Depending on the location of the insertion, the meaning can vary widely. 

Consider, for instance, the sentence "I want a punch on the nose." Look at what happens when the word 'only' is inserted at various locations:

Only I want a punch on the nose (- and nobody else wants the punch)

I only want a punch on the nose (- and I want nothing else)

I want a punch only on the nose (- and nowhere else)

I want a punch on the only nose (- if I had several noses)

I want a punch on the nose only (- and nowhere else)

One of the glorious contributions to English is from Yiddish, where stress and intonation radically changes the interpretation of a sentence. In the words of Leo Rosten, one obtains manoeuvres of matchless versatility. Take a look at this series of stresses.

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- I'm having enough trouble deciding if it's worth one.)

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- You mean to say she isn't distributing free passes? The hall will be empty!)

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- Did she buy tickets to my daughter's recital?)

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- You mean to say they call what she calls a 'concert'?)

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- After what she did to me?)

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- Are you giving me lessons in ethics?)

Two tickets for her concert I should buy? (- I wouldn't go even if she gave me a complimentary!)

... And if all emphasis is removed from the sentence, which is then uttered with mock neutrality, the very unstressedness becomes sardonic, and - if accompanied by a sigh, snort, cluck, or frown - lethal.

3 comments:

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Hey!
I keep coming here, lurk , read and go.
Great going.

I feel like reading Eats,Shoots and Leaves again.

-Nikhil

cris said...

This was quite nice! Things one doesnt really think about. Thanks!

Fëanor said...

Nikhil: welcome to the blog. Glad you like it. Feel free to stop by anytime!

Cris: welcome as well. I've poured out quite a bit on languages and things: perhaps you might find something interesting. Feedback always welcome!

Post a Comment