Sunday, September 13, 2020

Say it again, Sam or syntactical repetition


[Humphrey Bogart*]

Redundancy can be both positive and negative. In legal terminology, terms and conditions are the same as are cease and desist and thus merely add superfluous complexity to the language. By contrast, on airplanes and space vehicles, redundancies save lives. In grammar, redundant structures are quite frequent but from far from universal. Comparing examples from English, Hebrew, French and Russian, I will present some linguistic double-takes in the use of prepositions, articles, subjects, possessives and negations.

All languages use prepositions in conjunctions with verbs but the difference appears where they are multiple objects of the preposition. Most languages repeat the preposition before each noun. For example, in French, you would say “Je suis allé au cinéma, au café et à la piscine” meaning I went to the movies, coffee shop and pool. Note that the preposition à meaning to in its appropriate form (à and au) appears before each noun. This is the practice in most languages but not in English. The word to is only used once before the first noun in the English translation.

To be fair, in the case of a particle, a word without any lexical meaning but serving a grammatical function in the sentence, repetition can matter. Take the following Hebrew sentence:

הם הכירו פה את כל סוגי מזג האוויר, את החברה ואת הים.

The word את is a particle indicating the presence of a specific direct object. Translating the phrase literally into English, it comes out “They knew all types of weather, the society and the sea.” In Hebrew, the particle is placed before each noun, clearly indicating that types of weather, society and sea are all direct objects of the verb “to know”. However, in English, because of the intervening presence of the words “types of”, it could be understood that they knew types of weathers, types of society and types of sea, not the writer’s intention. Thus, a lack of a repeated article or particle can create ambiguity. The sentence as translated came out: “they are familiar here with weather of all types, the society and the sea.”

This example leads to the matter of articles, the and a in English. Since in most languages nouns have a gender, i.e., masculine, feminine and sometimes neuter, it is necessary to insert the gender identifying article before each noun. In the following sentence Le pėre, la mėre and les enfants ont tous les droits., meaning the father, mother and children all have rights, each of the forms of the French article le is used in accordance with gender and number. However, as English nouns do not have gender unless it is natural, e.g. girl and boy, there is no need to insert the word the before the two last nouns as the first use implicitly applies to each of them. Reverting back to the translation in the previous paragraph, it is not a mistake to repeat the article if it adds a certain required emphasis or stylistic element. As English stresses conciseness, the repeated articles are usually omitted.

Certain languages lack a commonly-used form of the verb to be in the present tense, notably Hebrew and Russian. They simply write the subject and predicate without that verb. For example, in English, in identifying someone’s profession, a person would write Mr. Jones is a teacher. In Hebrew, due to the lack of a register-neutral form of the verb, it comes outs Mr. Jones, he teacher. In effect, the subject, Mr. Jones and he, is repeated to allow use of the accepted grammatical structure, pronoun – identifier, without a verb. Here the redundancy is required by syntactic rules that do not apply in most languages.

Possessives are often doubled, albeit for different reason. In French, the form of the possessive is determined by the gender of the noun it describes, not that of the person that owns it. For example, in the sentence “Son chien est laid”, which means his/her dog is ugly, the use of the masculine form son is indicated because the noun chien is masculine. In order to clarify the matter of ownership, it is necessary to write Son chien à lui or son chien à elle in order to indicate his or her, respectively. In Hebrew, for syntactical reason, a possessive declination is added to the noun in addition to the actual possessive element. To demonstrate, בעלה של נינה [baala shel nina] translates literally as her husband of Nina.  The ה at the end of the word בעל turns “husband” into “her husband”, which, according to English thinking, is obvious due to the word of. English does not require such doubling up.

Finally, there is strange matter of negation. Most languages a no is a no, i.e., one word of negation does the job. You don’t need to add any other element, an example in itself. Even Russian is satisfied with one word: он не нужен большее [on nye nujen bolshe]. It does not need more, literally. However, French takes an additional step, i.e., an added pas, because the negating ne is not sufficiently emphatic: ça ne suffit pas. Ne is not enough. If you only use ne, it suggests an explanation or fear: je crains que il ne soit trop tard. – I fear that it will be too late. Like in backgammon, it is double or nothing in French.

Good reasons exist for redundancy in language even if they do add words. By nature and training, I value conciseness and efficiency in language. On the other hand, these repetitions are part of the language and add a certain charm as well as precision. So, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, say it again, Sam, but only at the right time.

*Always add captions to pictures to allow the blind to enjoy your posts.

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