The Persuasive Power of Repetition 1

I can clearly remember asking my English master, “When are we going to start studying English Grammar?” I recall the fellow as young, small and slight, with a mop of curly, dark brown hair, and substantial sideburns. All in all, his 70s-fashion sense made him look like an elf. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said. And when I asked how I was going to learn it, he replied, “Read a lot”. Repeat

So I read a lot. I read The Glass Bead Game on the train from Tehran to Istanbul.

Yambuya_RDC_congo_1890 by By Th. Weber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Congo, the venue for Heart of Darkness

I read Heart of Darkness in the wee hours working in the biscuit factory.

I read anything and everything: all of Hardy, most of Dickens; Austin and Auden, Bryson and Byron, Keats and Cummings, Dawkins and Darwin, James and Joyce, Lawrences T.E and D.H, Orwell and Orton, Pynchon and Pratchett, Shakespeare and Sheridan, and “Even Cowgirls get the Blues”.

So, I should have been well prepared to teach English in Japan, ne?

Nope, not at all. There is a reason French classes include grammaire française, or in German classes there is Deutsches Grammatik, and this was true for other language classes too: Especially Japanese learning English, and 英語人は日本語を習う.

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

My elfish English master was acting in the fashion of those times; tearing down the moldering Gormenghast of colonial methods and Victorian values, and refuting beliefs in thrashings, cold baths, and English grammars based on two-thousand-year-old Latin ones. Someone in Eng. Lit. had noticed that the English Language grew from a Germanic stock to which had been grafted French, Latin, a bit of Greek and umpteen other languages. We freely steal whenever we take a fancy to one of someone else’s nouns or verbs. It is simply ridiculous to apply highly inflected Latin grammar to this perky expressive mongrel. When my Chemistry teacher mocked the Star Trek opening lines “To boldly go” as a split infinitive, he was wrong. Infinitives are there to be split when it is the right thing to do. In Japan, folks were better educated and more practical. They knew what a clause was.

Once I had recovered from feeling nauseously miffed (about my lack of formal grammar and not the other times), I set about remedying the deficiency, only to find that the weeds of industry had produced such a plethora of books, blogs and bibles that it was nigh impossible to gain much traction on the subject until I discovered The Teaching Company. I started with the excellent “Building Great Sentences” and went to buy many great other titles.  “Building Great Sentences” inspired me to attack English Grammar again. As before there were heaps of the stuff available, but this time, thanks in main part to Richard Norquist’s excellent (and free!) ThoughtCo,com Blog and Newsletter and June Casagrande, who wrote the classic Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, I got better.

This essay is the first of four on repetition, the many ways we repeat ourselves. We repeat sounds, words and phrases all the time, and we do so to increase our intelligibility and both our affect and our effect. We do so formally and informally, and have always done so. Repetition is a bore at the moment as it only multiplies the fire hose of information targeted on us. Our more rational, more intelligent progeny will have figured out how their devices work, and have a vaccine for FMO and fakenewzeemia, so will have the time to devote to the first human communication technology, speech, knowing all others are but its pale reflection.

So Repetition, then.

It is said:

“[R]epetition skulks under numerous different names, one might almost say aliases, depending on who is repeating what where:
When parrots do it, it’s parrotting. When advertisers do it, it’s reinforcement.
When children do it, it’s imitation. When brain-damaged people do it, it’s perseveration or echolalia.
When disfluent people do it, it’s stuttering or stammering.
When orators do it, it’s epizeuxis, ploce, anadiplosis, polyptoton or antimetabole.
When novelists do it, it’s cohesion.
When poets do it, it’s alliteration, chiming, rhyme, or parallelism.
When priests do it, it’s ritual. When sounds do it, it’s gemination.
When morphemes do it, it’s reduplication.
When phrases do it, it’s copying. When conversations do it, it’s reiteration..”

(Jean Aitchison, “‘Say, Say It Again Sam’: The Treatment of Repetition in Linguistics.” Repetition, ed. by Andreas Fischer. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1994)

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

And Jean goes onto total up 27 ways we do this thing. Some worry about repetition and need reassurance:

“Repetition is a far less serious fault than obscurity. Young writers are often unduly afraid of repeating the same word, and require to be reminded that it is always better to use the right word over again, than to replace it by a wrong one–and a word which is liable to be misunderstood is a wrong one. A frank repetition of a word has even sometimes a kind of charm–as bearing the stamp of truth, the foundation of all excellence of style.”
(Theophilus Dwight Hall, A Manual of English Composition. John Murray, 1880)

Yet even a recent Republican candidate for the Presidency (Mitt Romney) quipped,
“President Obama should stop apologizing for American People. President Obama should start apologizing to the American People,”
stealing a tip from the JFK’s (and Ovid’s) playbook.

We repeat:

  • Sounds, and have done so since babyhood;
  • Words, independent of words around them;
  • Meanings, to clarify or harp on another word;
  • Words or phrases balanced against others to produce – we hope – ringing persuasive rhetoric.

PIA19656-SaturnMoon-Enceladus-Ocean-ArtConcept-20150915, By NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Enceladus, Saturn’s Ice Moon

Thinking about and trying to teach artful repetition harks back to the Ancient Greece of Socrates and Plato, as do our prejudices about whether something said artfully can be as truthful as plain speaking. As we have some writing from these ancient orators, we also know what they called their stuff. This was not much of a problem until the nineteenth century when to be educated was to have read the Classics, as they became called, in the original Ancient Greek or the Latin of Augustus. Since then human knowledge has increased so prolifically that we have newly coined words to describe its vastness. The top unit, currently, is a Xenottobyte, which is 1,000 Yottabytes (Yb); a Yb is to a Terabyte (Tb) as a Terabyte is to a single byte (1b); a Tb is a 1,000 billion bytes, a byte is a single unit of computer storage which can be either a binary one or a binary zero.

Our recent ancestors could only wonder at our achievement, for example:

  • we have discovered ribosomes, those exquisite molecular sewing machines which spin the ubiquitous dogsbodies of life, proteins;
  • we know what lies at the heart of our sun, and why it is hot;
  • we have discovered an ocean in an ice moon orbiting Jupiter and another orbiting Saturn;
  • and we can make a movie of the visual cortex in someone’s brain watching a movie.

Not only are we as a species more proficient and busier, we simply do not have the time anymore.

Our lack of Ancient Greek and Latin also means we no longer have a handle on the names of all those rhetorical techniques handed down by those ancient orators, like anadiplosis or polyptoton, but as they are neat and would be an excellent zinger/put down, so I’ll include them and add little mnemonics in order to remember them.

Repeating sounds without meaning

A single repeated phoneme ( as in “ba” in “Ba-ba-Blacksheep” or “Ba-ba-Barbara Anne”) are our first words or a default when we have none. A child saying “Mama” is reduplicating. This is term is straight from the department of redundant redundancies, as “Mama” is twice a “ma”, i.e. a duplication, and the suffix re- means to do again, so a “re-duplicative” of “ma” should be “ma ma ma ma” and sounds very like the phrase used to illustrate the four tones of Mandarin. I would forget it but it goes well with other oily words: insinuate, global, bill.

In real speech there is a lot of – err – meaningless sounds or embolalia (em-bo-LA-lee-a, From the Greek, “something thrown in”, mnemonic “embol” as in embolism, “lalia” as in lips or the Cyclops on Futurama). Embolalia do not carry meaning in themselves. “Um”, “ah”, or “err” is not like the word “dog” which to me conjures up an image of  a furry, four footed mammal with a taste for long walks and duck jerky. But, to me, the word “chien/chienne” or “犬 (いぬ, inu )” or “perro/ perra” also means Monty T. Dog and his species which implies that there is something about meaning has to be learned. Embolalia can garner meaning from its context and tone, as in “Owh, no, Mrs.”

The master of this innuendo was Frankie Howerd, doyen of Carry On films and Up Pompeii, who even gave a class at the Oxford Union.

When we reduplicate embolalia, we stutter. To those of us like poor Ken in ‘A Fish called Wanda’ it is a curse but even the brief in that film, Archie, whose honeyed tongue makes him his mint, can, on occasion, fall short: “ I Wendy- I Wanda- I wonder…” when pondering a new girlfriend, a current wife and the possibilities.

Stuttering can be done deliberately and can be used to make a great deal of dough. Dan Dotsons deliberate duplications are his heirloom Auction Chant (or Auctioneering) which he performs on Storage Wars. There are distinct musical possibilities to embolalia and stuttering. Amy Whitehouse uses it to make “Doo Wop” and Scatman John worked on his stutter to become “Scat” art.

In the next essay, we will investigate, how to grow meaningless repeated sound into art with a capital A, and therefore any other purpose you may choose.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: