Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Zeugma and Syllepsis

Since the word “zeugma” finds its place in various lists of rhetorical devices, in the appendices to textbooks on Latin, and toward the ends of most dictionaries, you might think it would be pretty easy to figure out what it means. When I went to look it up, however, I found that there are hardly two books that agree on the meaning of this seemingly simple term. I therefore undertook a comprehensive investigation of this little word, and wrote up what I found.

The sources I used to investigate the meanings of the word “zeugma” were: Smyth’s Greek Grammar (a Greek grammar), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (a quirky book about various topics relating to the English language), Pharr’s edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition), and two online lists of rhetorical devices, the first called Silva Rhetoricae (The Forest of Rhetoric), the second found on the website of Brown University (, there given the title “English 31”, but which I henceforth shall simply call “Brown”. (The site no longer exists.)

The word zeugma means “yoking”. A yoke is a thing you use to tie two oxen together (so that they will work together); so too zeugma in all its various definitions has the idea of putting two (or more) words together in common subordination to one governing word.

In Latin class, we are taught that the term “zeugma” refers to a construction whereby one word governs or modifies two others, but is in one case to be taken in a literal, in the other in a metaphorical, sense, as in the phrase, “He lost his car-keys and his mind.” The two words “car-keys” and “mind” are both direct objects of the verb “lost”. But obviously one does not lose car-keys in the same sense that one loses one’s mind; the verb has two different meanings with its two different objects.

This meaning for “zeugma” is supported only by Webster’s dictionary, of all the sources abovce. The example there given is, “She opened the door and her heart to the homeless boy.” However the definition is much broader, and could take in sentences of very different types. According to Webster’s, zeugma is “the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense or makes sense with only one”. Owing to the words “usually” and “or”, this is the broadest definition of all that I found; the others merely restrict zeugma to this or that part of it.

Smyth, Fowler, and Pharr all insist that the word zeugma is appropriate only if the governing (or yoking) word makes sense with only one of the words it governs. Fowler gives the example from Pope: “See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned” (at the entry, “syllepsis and zeugma”). Pan cannot be crowned with flocks, although he may be, for example, surrounded by them. Pharr’s example comes from Virgil: Danaos et laxat claustra, “He opens the Greeks and the barriers”. He opened the barriers, but not the Greeks: the Greeks he set free. In all these examples, the yoking verb has two direct objects, but only makes sense with one of them, although it suggests the verb that must be supplied with the other.

But if the governing word makes sense with both the words its governs, taken once literally, once figuratively, then, Smyth and Fowler insist, it must be named syllepsis (or “taking together”). (Pharr does not mention syllepsis.) Fowler gives an example from Dickens: “Miss Bolo went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair.” This is what in Latin class we learn as “zeugma”. Fowler notes that syllepsis and zeugma “are two figures of speech distinguished by scholars, but sometimes confused in use, the second and more familiar word being applied to both.”

Incidentally, I just looked up syllepsis and zeugma in the Peguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Its definitions are the exact opposite of Smyth’s. It in fact gives two of the exact same examples as Fowler, but applies them to the opposite devices; so that Miss Bolo is considered an example of zeugma, which vindicates our Latin class usage.

As to Webster’s, the definition there is sufficiently broad to take in Smyth’s zeugma and his syllepsis too. For the word syllepsis, it has two definitions of its own. One of them agrees with Smyth’s (so that syllepsis may be considered a subset of zeugma, according to Webster’s); the other is as follows: “the use of a word to modify or govern syntactically two or sometimes more words with only one of which it formally agrees in gender, number, or case.” This other definition will come up again later.

Consider as a contrary example the sentence “You’ve lost your car-keys and you’ve lost your mind, but you’ll never lose my love!” The word “lost” is taken in a different sense each time, but it is also repeated each time. We have a similar play on words, but not a zeugma/syllepsis.

Silva Rhetoricae and Brown have a rather different definition of zeugma. Here the word refers to a yoking-together of several clauses onto only one verb, as in “Some people love cats, and others, dogs.” The verb is taken in its literal sense both times. This is fundamentally different from a sentence of the type, “He lost his car-keys and his mind,” and not just because here the verb has two different senses. I might change the sentence to “He lost his car-keys and his wallet,” and here, though we have the same sense of the verb both times, the sentence would still not make an example of what Silva Rhetoricae calls zeugma. The car-keys example has two objects but only one subject; it is only one clause, there is no yoking. In the cat-dog example, however, there are in effect two clauses; I might have said instead, “Some people love cats, and others love dogs,” but instead I left out the repeated “love”, letting it be understood twice though it appears only once. Zeugma under this definition is thus somewhat similar to Fowler’s “zeugma” (though not our Latin class “zeugma”), in that one verb spreads out its force over two clauses, with the difference that here the verb makes good sense the whole time.

This sort of zeugma is especially frequent with the verb to be, as in “The grass was warm, the air soft and humid.” I might also have said, “The grass was warm, and the air WAS soft and humid,” but instead I left out the repeated “was” (and the word “and”). This omission is pretty regular. I also include an example to the contrary, where the verb is repeated. In “modern plays”: “... probability is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved” (Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare). If Johnson had instead written, “probabilty is violated, life misrepresented, and language depraved” we would have an example of Silva Rhetoricae’s zeugma.

Silva Rhetoricae and Brown further subdivide this sort of zeugma into three types: prozeugma, mesozeugma, and hypozeugma, according to where the yoking word is placed in relation to the words it yokes. The sentences above have all been examples of prozeugma, with the yoking word coming in the first clause. Another example of prozeugma: “In all probability, I’ll lose my virility, and you your fertility and desirability” (Tom Lehrer, in the song When You Are Old and Gray).

Hypozeugma is when the yoking word comes at the end. Two examples: (Aeneas speaking of Italy) hic amor, haec patria est (Virgil, Aeneid IV.347) “This my love, this my fatherland is,” i.e. “This IS my love, this is my fatherland.” And from Pope: “Now Leaves the Trees, now Flow’rs adorn the Ground” (Pastorals: Spring 43), i.e. “Now leaves adorn the trees, now flowers adorn the ground.”

Mesozeugma is when the yoking word comes in the middle, with some yoked elements preceding, and others following. “Some people, cats, others love dogs, and still others, canaries (though I don’t know why).” An example from Horace (of his own poetry):

quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.

“What not even the devouring rain, not even the powerless north-wind is able destroy, or the countless series of the years and the flight of time.”

If the verb agrees with only one of the subjects, then Brown calls this construction syllepsis (which agrees with the other definition in Webster’s of that word: I promised you you would see it again). If we went through each clause and supplied the missing verb, it would have a different form in each one. So Virgil: hic illius arma, hic currus fuit (Aeneid 1.16-17), “Here her arms, here her chariot was”. The expanded form would read “Here her arms WERE, here her chariot was.” An example from Pope:

These swell their Prospects and exalt their Pride,
When Offers are disdain’d, and Love deny’d. (The Rape of the Lock, I.81-2)

When love IS denied.

Silva Rhetoricae, however, does not make this distinction, giving syllepsis the same definition as does Smyth. It does, however, provide a note that seems to agree with Brown: “Originally, syllepsis named that grammatical incongruity resulting when a word governing two or more others could not agree with both or all of them; for example, when a singular verb serves as the predicate to two subjects, singular and plural ("His boat and his riches is sinking").” But, I suppose, if the sentence had been, “The boat and the island is sinking,” we would have called it zeugma; and if it had been, “The boat and the island are sinking,” there would have been no trick at all, just a compound subject. Carrying the distinctions to so fine a point becomes absurd. If the sentence had been “The boat and his dream are sinking” we would have what Fowler calls syllepsis (but what all our Latin classes have called zeugma); in “The boat and his dream is sinking,” the two zeugmas of Latin class and of Silva Rhetoricae meet; in “The boat and his dreams is sinking,” we have one example of Fowler’s syllepsis, and one of Silva Rhetoricae’s! In the sentence “The boats and his dreams are sinking,” we have without a doubt Fowler’s syllepsis (Latin class zeugma); but is there a Silva Rhetoricae-style zeugma, or merely a compound subject? That is, does the sentence stand for The boats ARE SINKING and his dreams are sinking, or not?

A related figure is diazeugma, where several clauses are yoked by a common subject. E.g. (of the spirits that fly around Belinda):

These, though unseen, are ever on the Wing,
Hang o’er the Box, and hover round the Ring. (Pope, The Rape of the Lock, I.43-4)

The three verbs “are”, “hang”, and “hover”, all share the same subject “these”.

Another figure, called “hypozeuxis”, may be regarded as the opposite of zeugma. Here, in a chain of several parallel clauses, each clause has its own subject and verb. There is no yoking at all. An example from Pope:

When kind Occasion prompts their warm Desires,
When Music softens, and when Dancing fires (The Rape of the Lock, I. 75-6)

I have put the parallel subjects in bold, and the parallel verbs in italics.

This latest definition of zeugma, with all its subclasses, is very different from that found in Smyth, Fowler, and Pharr, who, meanwhile, have their own terms to describe this “yoking," such as "brachylogy" and "ellipsis". But that is material for another day.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why do French nasalized vowels take a "u" in English?

In my last post I noticed that English words borrowed from such French words as are now pronounced with nasalized vowels often add or added a "u" to their spelling. So "enchaunt" and "romaunt" had "u"s although we now spell them without: "enchant", "romance". The "u" has dropped out after the "a" in the spelling.

But after "o" this "u" has remained, and the vowel is pronounced /au/: Compare "round" with French "rond", "counsel" with "counseil", "soun[d]" with "son". This is the same pattern that Katherine seems to have noticed when she blanched at the pseudo-English "coun" (for "gown") because it sounded like French "con".

But Katherine was not noticing a pattern: she was put off by an audible similarity in the pronunciation of the two words. Obviously /ko˜/ and /kaun/ have very little phonetic similarity nowadays. So how did they sound in the past? And does the past pronunciation explain why these words have a "u" in English? I have no idea.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

De foot and de coun

Yesterday, Mark Liberman wrote a post at Language Log about "interlingual taboos", that is, words avoided in one language because they sound like a naughty word in another. He wrote about Thai people who, when speaking Thai around English people, avoid the Thai word khán "to crush, squeeze out" (because it sounds like the English word "cunt"), or Nootka Indian girls in Vancouver who avoid using the English word "such" because it sounds like the Nootka word sač "vāgīna ūmens" (a word whose use could not make them feel sicca).

This last example reminded me of the scene from Henry V, when Katharine is having an English lesson. She gladly learns various English words like "de nails, de arm, de ilbow" but blanches at the equivalents for "le pied" and "la robe", namely "de foot" and "de coun", exclaiming in a kind of French that itself seems to have been calqued directly from the English:

De foot et de coun! O Seigneur Dieu! ce sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user: je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France pour tout le monde. Foh! le foot et le coun!

"De foot" and "de coun"! O Lord God! These are words of bad, corruptible, gross and immodest sound, and not for women of honor to use; I would not want to pronounce these words before the lords of France for all the world. Faugh! the "foot" and the "coun"!

Apparently Katharine dislikes our word "foot" because it sounds like the French "foutre", which used to mean "to fuck" (but now means "to do"). I have never quite understood what Katharine dislikes about the "English" word "coun", which is apparently her mispronunciation of the word "gown" (as it is to translate "la robe"). Perhaps it reminds her of the French word "con" which now means something like a "jerk" or an "idiot" (but may in the past have meant "cunt", I surmise?).

It is hard to see how the French "con" /kɔ˜/ could have sounded anything like the english "gown" /gaʊn/, even if it was pronounced "coun" /kaʊn/. Probably those two words were, at that time, pronounced more similarly than they are now. This is a mystery I would very much like to elucidate, but right now I have as my only clue the fact that, once upon a time, French words that today have nasalized vowels were, when borrowed into English, spelled with a mysterious "u", which they have since lost, as in "romaunt" "enchaunt", etc. Coleridge seems to remember this lost "u" when he writes:

And lo! the deep, romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover,
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Even if "slanted" and "enchanted" are pronounced /'slɑ:ntɪd/ and /ɪn'tʃɑ:ntɪd/ after the English fashion, they still do not rhyme with "haunted" /'hɔ:ntɪd/.

If the French "con" were subjected to this rule, it would indeed come out written as "coun", but just what pronunciation this spelling is meant to represent, I do not know.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Oh I Just Can't Wait to See King

Why is the advertising slogan 'I just can't wait to see King' so inferior in its text-setting to the original 'I just can't wait to be king'? Is it merely because we are accustomed to the latter?

Both are set to the same musical rhythm. But clearly, this rhythm suits the original lyric better than the slogan. Is this distinction due to the difference in phonemes -- is /b/ better suited to the scotch snap rhythm than /s/ ? or is therea lexically determined prosodic difference -- does 'be' always scan differently from 'see'?

I do not think thedistinction depends on the phonemes involved. Any monosyllabic content-word verb will in this position sound equally awkward -- I tried 'buy' and 'free'.

It must be, then, that 'be', alone among monosyllabic verbs, has a different sort of stress from the others. Specifically, it seems to have the same sort of stress as a monosyllabic prefix such as 're-', or at least a similar sort of stress. If an invented verb such as 'to re-king' (perhaps, 'to become king again') were inserted in the proper place, the rhythm would be much improved and strongly resemble that of the original lyric:

"Oh I just can't wait to re-king"

What is the difference in the stress-pattern of 'to be king' and 'to see king'? For we may take the difference in prosodic felicity between the slogan and the original lyric as evidence of such a difference.

Putting aside theoretical considerations and consulting the ear, we can sense instinctively that in 'to see king' 'see' has a higher degree of stress than 'be' in 'to be king'. 'See', with its strong stress, seems to resist being set in a weaker part of the beat than 'to'. The rhythm would improve if we changed the rhythm of "wait to see" from quarter, sixteenth, dotted eighth, to dotted eighth, sixteenth, quarter, because then 'see' would be in a metrically stronger position in the measure than 'to'. (I mean that the rhythm would improve in its relation to the prosody of the words -- though the loss of the scotch snap rhythm seems to lessen the effectiveness of the passage considered from a purely musical point of view.) That the setting fo the line with 'be' would not similarly improve after such alteration suggests that 'be' has a lesser degree of stress than 'see'.

If we were to arrange the monosyllables in order of degree of stress, we would probably come up with the following: 'be', 're-','see'-- with 're-' occupying perhaps an intermediate position, if it is not indeed identical to 'be'.

How to account theoretically for this observed distinction? The best way might be to say that 'see' and 'king' are separate prosodic words, each with its own full stress; while 'be' leans enclitically on the following word, and has no prosodic independence in this context. I do not know if anyone has yet observed that 'be' is incorporated into the following prosodic word -- if so this observation might constitute evidence for that claim.

A final problem remains with 're-'. Should we regard this prefix as a full prosodic word like 'see', or as an enclitic like 'be'? or if we grant it an intermediate status, how can that be captured in the framework outlined in the preceding paragraph?

Relying on my ear alone, I cannot tell whether 'be' and 're-' should be placed in the same category. Sometimes I think I hear a distinction, and sometimes I don't. It might be easier if we could compare 'to re-king' with a word of similar sound but consisting of only one morpheme. Allowing the old Wade-Giles transcription of the capital of China to stand for a moment as a verb (perhaps with the meaning 'to indulge in chinoiseries'), we have:

"Oh i just can't wait to Peking"

This seems intermediate in felicity between 'be king' and 're-king', producing the ranking 'be', 're-', 'Peking', 'see'. Sometimes these distinctions seem clear to me; at other times, they transmute themselves, chimaera-like, into shiftingforms thatresist apprehension, orvanish entirely in a phonological fog. Since I cannot tell whether I have created too many levels int he ranking, or where to draw the lines, I will just stop and hope someone else figures it out.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Glottal stops and definite articles: The real secret of Hizbullah

In a recent post, Mr. Anymore has discussed the pronunciation of the name of the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizbullah. I would like to discuss its morphology.

The name means "Party of God" and is made up of two parts: "Hizb", meaning "party", and "Allah", meaning "God". These two can be put together to make a compound: "Hizb-Allah", which is how the name is spelled on

But the word "Allah" begins with a special sound known as hamzat ul-waSl, or a droppable glottal stop. When a word beginning with a droppable glottal stop is preceded by another word, the glottal stop along with its following vowel are both dropped. In such a case, "Allah" would become "-llah". In addition, the word "hizb" can have an extra "u" tacked on, as, I think, the sign of the Nominative, making the whole thing "Hizb ullah", or "Hizbullah". The word is even sometimes spelled with a "-" or an apostrophe between "hizb" and "ullah" to mark the divide between the two elements. (The vowel "u" is for some reason always stuck with the second part of such compounds.) But most of the time the newspapers have decided to write the whole thing as one word, although they have not agreed on what letters to use to represent the Arabic vowels: "Hezbollah" (New York Times), "Hizbollah" (Financial Times), "Hizbullah", or what?

The hamzat ul-waSl occurs in another common word, the definite article "al". The peculiar elision that occurs when the article follows another word can make transcription difficult. For example, should the name "Abdul Qader" be spelled like that, or like this: "Abd ul-Qader"?

The definite article, though, poses another special problem: if it precedes a consonant made with the tip of the tongue, then the "l" is assimilated to that consonant. (The consonants that provoke this assimilation are called the "sun letters" and are as follows: t, th, d, dh, r, z, s, sh, S, T, D, TH, l and n.) This assimilation can occur along with the aforementioned elision to make the definite article all but unrecognizable.

For example, the New York Times had a story today about a radical Islamic group in Britain called "Hizb ut-Tahrir". This "hizb" is the same, I think, as the "hizb" of "Hizbullah". "Ut" is none other than our definite article "al", with the glottal stop and the "a" elided by the preceding nominative marker "u", and the "l" assimilated to the following "t". It is a mystery whose clue is known only to the editors of the New York Times, why they chose to transcribe the two names according to two different principles, not only deciding to write a compound as two words in one case ("hizb ut-tahrir"), and as one in the other ("hezbollah"), but even transcribing the same word "hizb-u" with completely different vowels in the two different cases: "hezbo" in "hezbollah", but "hizbu" in "hizb ut-tahrir". Probably no one even noticed the discrepancy, or else "Hezbollah" was deliberately allowed an anomalous transcription in deference to common usage. Or perhaps there is in the disparity of transcriptions a hidden political message! Only time will tell.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What should we call Pluto?

According to an article in the Washington Post recently discussed on the American Dialect Society mailing list, the "Planet Definition Committee" met in Prague in early August and proposed that Pluto should no longer be considered a planet. Instead, we should recognize a new "category of subplanets" of which Pluto will be a member, and which will be called Plutons.

Now I am not opposed to naming the new category after Pluto, but "Pluton" is too similar to the original word. In fact, it just another form of the same stem: in Latin, the "n" would be present in every form of the word "Pluto" except in the nominative singular (and therefore the vocative singular). It seems odd to refer to one individual subplanet by the nominative of a word, and to the whole class of subplanets by the oblique stem of the same word. It would have been courteous to supply at least a suffix.

Besides, the proposed name seems likely to be untranslatable. Ben Zimmer has already noted that the French form of Pluto is nothing other than Pluton -- French forms of Latin names tend to be based off the accusative form of the name, in this case "Plutonem". Will the French just call Plutos and Plutons by the same word? The language seems sufficiently plagued by homonyms already.

Par le bois du jinn où s'entasse de l'effroi,
Parle! bois du gin ou cent tasses de lait froid.

We also have Plutón in Spanish and Plutone in Italian.

Resti dunque quel birbon
Tra Proserpina e Pluton.
What is to be done to avoid this confusion?

The only solution, it seems to me, is to give a suffix to the little Plutons. Why has this not been done already? Do their enemies begrudge them even this small favor? Surely some hostile forces must be at work, saying, "If we must finally concede to the hated Plutons the honor of a name, let us at least be sure that they shall not have a proper one!" There is no need to be so stingy with our jots and tittles. We can spare a few letters for our neighbors, the subplanets. If necessary, thousands could probably be culled from the articles in academic journals with no recognizable loss of clarity.

But if the Plutons are given a suffix, what suffix should it be? I am partial to the diminutives, but it would be hard to choose between the contending charms of Plutitos, Plütchen, and Plutoncini; the last has a certain gastronomic appeal. Or we could give up the Roman gods, and name them "Planettes". But to please the sober tastes of the Scientists, I suggest "Plutonoids" (Pluto-like), which has a learned air, and is not too badly formed either.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More Widom from How to Write a Freestyle Rap

"This was my first freestyle rap, which I spit when I was 11 months old:

I am funny,
I like bunnies,
touch my tummy,

Ah! He lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.