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Repetition

Variety may be the spice of life, but repetition is its foundation. Bilateral symmetry, biorhythms, cyclical bodily functions, night and day––everything involves repetition. When it comes to language, repetition may be stylistically benign or malign, with instances of the former lending themselves to rhetorical utility. Thus Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” (Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2, line 192) is a device that classical rhetoric classifies as epizeuxis or palilogia, defined as the repetition of a single word, with no other words in between, for emphasis or to convey vehemence.

There is also the kind of repetition in speech, such as stammering or the insertion of “you know” or “like” at every turn, that belongs to a generally harmless class of disfluencies, i. e., those that are, or border on, VERBAL TICS. When a person habitually and profusely interlards his utterances with phrases like “in other words,” “incidentally,” or “by the way,” a benign interpretation would grant speakers prone to them the use of these aimless interruptions of the speech flow as slot fillers or place markers they evidently need to fill out the diapason of discourse time while sorting out in their mind exactly what to say and in what order.

But the question nevertheless hangs in the air as to why such fillers are needed at all; why, indeed, a simple pause wouldn’t do. The easy answer is that many speakers value the phatic function over the referential: they wish, in other words, to keep their listeners/interlocutors rhetorically at bay, so to speak, by elongating their utterances and thereby gaining discourse time at the expense of their partners’. (In the last sentence I have used fillers of the sort being discussed advisedly.) In the final analysis, even this speech strategy can be seen as nothing more than a (puerile?) aggrandizement––possibly an unconscious one––of the utterer’s ego.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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