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You Are What You Say (Verbal Tics)

Every speaker has their own way of speaking, which is called an idiolect. Repetition of certain words or expressions can rise to the status of a characteristic feature of an idiolect when it is of sufficient frequency to be classed a verbal tic. For instance, one can hear native speakers of American English inserting the name of the addressee of an utterance––or some non-onomastic substitute like “honey,” “baby,” or “darling” (a loving husband speaking to his wife)––at such a rate as to be self-reflexive (call attention to the utterer). Perhaps such behavior is an instance of linguistic adaptation, wherein the history of interpersonal relations between two speakers (such as husband and wife) has habituated one or both to constantly reinforce the feeling of intimacy that assures communicative solidarity. This puts this species of language use solidly in the phatic and emotive categories and scants the referential one.

Another sort of verbal tic is the prefacing of practically every utterance with phrases like “incidentally” or “by the way.” What could this mean? The only explanation that comes to mind is some kind of mental habit that transforms every linguistic exteriorization of thought into a tag or comment on what the speaker was thinking just before the utterance, regardless of the fact that the addressee had no access to it. This manner of language use can only be a sign, as with other verbal tics, of a self-reflexive focus on the speaker. Such linguistic signs are all autotelic (“introversive” rather than “extroversive”) and communicate information about the utterer’s mental state rather than anything referential. Only when recognized as part of the emotive component of the communicative situation do such tics become understandable as manifestations of linguistic behavior.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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