April 4th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; VAPs in languages other than English...

pgdudda commented:
"Are you aware of any work or research into VAPs in other languages? I'm having a suspicion that one source of communications stress in my family is due to foreign-language VAPs being used. Specifically, I'm interested in German, but would be curious about other languages, as well."

When I do medical seminars, one of the most frequent requests I get from doctors (especially those practicing in urban hospitals) is for examples of Verbal Attack Patterns (VAPs) from other languages. I get the same requests when I do inservice training for teachers.

That information is badly needed, but I don't have it, and I don't know anywhere that it can be found. I've pleaded with linguists whose native language is something other than English, asking them to provide a set of VAPs for their languages; so far, I've always been turned down. Every once in a while a non-linguist sends me an example that is alleged to be a VAP in a language other than English, but I'm not qualified to judge the accuracy of the claim because I'm not a native speaker of that language. It's complicated, and frustrating.

When I did a colloquium on the English VAPs at UCSD some years ago, the linguists present whose native languages were not English all assured me that they were certain that their languages also had VAPs -- something that's certainly plausible, and that I would assume is the case, but that has never to my knowledge been formally tested -- but not one of them was willing to give me an example.

It sounds as if it would be an easy task for a linguist to gather examples of VAPs from all over the world. How hard could it be? Why not just start with ten of the English VAPs, find consultants who have native-speaker competence in English and at least one other language, and ask them for the equivalent utterances in those other languages? [That is: Ask for the utterances that would be used in the other language in the identical context and situation, not for translations.] It sounds as if I don't have the information just because I'm too lazy to do the necessary work. I give you my word: It's not that simple.

Take the English "If you REALLY...." VAP, one that children learn very early and that has a reasonably transparent structure. As in "If you REALLY loved me, YOU wouldn't always be so MEAN!" If I were just to ask a non-English speaker for a translation of an example of that pattern, the response would be a translation of the neutral non-attack counterpart of the utterance. [I know that's LinguistSpeak; I'll try to clarify it. It means that if I asked for a translation of "If you REALLY wanted to be on the team, YOU'D stop missing PRACtice!" I'd get a translation of its non-attack counterpart -- "If you really wanted to be on the team, you'd stop missing practice." Which is not an attack, but is a sentence that a mother might say to a child to demonstrate her awareness that the child is only pretending to want to be on the team in order to please the child's sports-loving father.]

To set up a context, I might say (and in fact have said) -- to young men whose native languages are something other than English:

"Suppose you come home after a long hard day at work, and your wife is sitting in the living room watching television. You're hungry, but there's no sign that she has even thought about fixing dinner. You're hungry, and your kids are hungry, and her behavior makes you angry. In a situation like that, one thing an angry native speaker of English might say is 'If you REALLY loved me, you'd have DINNER on the TABLE by now!' In that same situation, could you tell me what you would say to your own wife in your language?"

And the answers I've gotten have been like these:

"I would never speak to my wife that way."
"I wouldn't say anything to my wife, I'd go talk to her mother."
"In my country, wives always have dinner on the table by the time the husband gets home from work."
"Why is it that Anglo husbands are so bad-tempered?"
"A woman who does a thing like that is probably sick. Her husband should be very patient with her and take time to find out what her problem is."
"I would say, 'Please go fix dinner.' "
And so on.

To get the VAPs from other languages, what's required is for linguists who speak those other languages natively to sit down and do the same sort of work I did for English, analyzing a database of actual verbal altercations in the language and extracting the patterns. I'm ready for that to happen any time, and will cheer it on. There's a large literature in linguistics on "politeness" in many languages, with "politeness" serving as a technical term rather than a general one, and that might be useful; for example, pgdudda might find articles on politeness in German helpful. There's also quite a lot of material on the expression of anger in other languages. But so far as I know, there aren't any articles that specifically address the question of VAPs in other languages. If I'm wrong, and there are some articles of that kind, I'd be delighted to know about them.

[There are posts with some basic information about the English VAPs at http://ozarque.livejournal.com/32994.html and http://ozarque.livejournal.com/47829.html .]