ozarque (ozarque) wrote,

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Linguistics; verbal self-defense; English Verbal Attack Patterns

I've had two e-mails asking me for a post explaining what I mean by "the American English Verbal Attack Patterns." I'm willing; here's the shortest explanation I can manage. I apologize for all the capital letters in the various examples -- they're just there to indicate words or parts of words that the speaker is saying with extra emphasis, and I don't know any other way to make that clear in written language.

VAPs aren't just hostile utterances, smart cracks, insults, et cetera. They're very specific, rigorously defined, productive patterns -- "templates" into which American English speakers drop items from an infinite set of possibilities. All examples of VAPs are hostile utterances, but only a small number of hostile utterances are examples of VAPs.

One basic VAP:
"If you REALLY [X], YOU would/wouldn't [Y]!"

This is one of the first VAPs children learn, and it's very simple and clearcut; it's just a matter of filling in [X] -- which will always be an attack sheltered in a presupposition -- and filling in [Y], which will be the open insult called the "bait" and is the item designed to get the target's attention. [It also occurs with variations in its tune, based on what the speaker wants to call most attention to.] For example...

"If you REALLY loved me, YOU wouldn't waste MONEY the way you do!"
[Or -- a variation, as mentioned -- "If you really LOVED me, YOU wouldn't waste MONEY the way you do!"]

The bait in this example is "You waste money." The sheltered attack is "You don't really love me." [That is, "if you really loved me" presupposes "you don't really love me."]

An infinite number of examples of this VAP are possible ... the speaker just fills X and Y differently. "If you REALLY cared about your job, YOU'D get to work on TIME once in a while!" "If you REALLY wanted to lose weight, YOU wouldn't CHEAT on your DIet!" "If you REALLY wanted to pass this class, YOU'D turn in your HOMEwork!" From a child: "If you REALLY loved me, YOU wouldn't MAKE me eat broccoli!" And so on.

All English VAPs have two parts -- at least one insult sheltered in a presupposition, and at least one open insult that constitutes the bait. (Sometimes the two parts are clearly separated as in the example, but not always.) In all English VAPs, hostility is signalled by extra emphasis on words and parts of words. For all English VAPs, the speaker isn't interested in the utterance that would be the typical response, but is trying to start a fight. For all English VAPs, there is an analogous neutral utterance containing the identical words but lacking the extra emphatic stresses. [What we usually see in offline written language, even in quoted speech, is that neutral utterance.]

The point of defining VAPs rigorously is of course to do linguistics, but also to persuade other linguists to do the same thing for other languages. So far, so far as I know, that hasn't happened. If you're a native speaker of a language other than English and would be willing to identify some of its VAPs for me, I'd be very interested.

[Note: For linguists and mathematicians, the way I write VAPs isn't nearly rigorous enough. I'm trying to introduce enough rigor to be scientifically respectable, without using so many squiggles and doodads that the result is incomprehensible for people who aren't accustomed to dealing with formalisms. I'm aware of the shortcomings of this compromise, and I'm always willing to have additional shortcomings pointed out to me. ]

Tags: verbal self-defense

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