Thursday 30 July 2009

On prosiopesis

A correspondent writes to ask for an explanation of prosiopesis and whether this can be used in relation to writing.

The term was introduced by Otto Jesperson in his Philosophy of Grammar. Here's his definition: 'the speaker begins to articulate, or thinks he begins to articulate, but produces no audible sound (either for want of expiration, or because he does not put his vocal chords in the right position) till one or two syllables after the beginning of what he intended to say'. He gives the example of 'Morning' for 'Good morning'. Another example would be 'Kyu' for 'Thank you'.

This is plainly a phonetic definition, and it could only apply to writing in cases where the same type of communicative pressure applies. I suppose one could adapt the definition as follows: 'the writer begins to type, or thinks he begins to type, but produces no graphic form (either for want of energy, or because he does not put his fimgers in the right position) till one or two syllables after the beginning of what he intended to type'.

I do this often, when typing on screen, but you don't see the results in print because typing allows revision in a way that speech does not. However, in styles of writing which simulate spontaneous speech, I think we can see the same sort of process in operation. Looking back over some instant messaging logs, for example, I can see several examples. My daughter sent me one the other day which began 'Morning'. And any genre of spontaneous written electronic communication (chat, social networking, twitter, etc) is likely to display such things.

The notion becomes more obviously applicable to writing if we replace Jesperson's phonetic definition by one in terms of syntactic or semantic processing. When someone says 'Coming out tonight?' or 'Looks like rain', these days people talk more in syntactic terms, such as 'elision', 'pro-drop', and suchlike.


ceri said...

What would you call something in speech when a person mixes up the letters. I can only think of examples in some dialects of Southern Welsh eg.
Prynu (to buy) > pron. pyrnu
cywilydd (shame) > pron. cwiddyl

I can't think of examples in English, but i'm sure there are some.

Barrie England said...

It seems to me at least as likely that the production of 'Morning' for 'Good morning' is a conscious substitution as a failing of expiration or of the vocal chords. Doesn’t the same apply in writing? If I write ‘Morning’ in an email, for example, is it not simply as an informal version of ‘Good Morning’, rather than as a result of my fingers not doing what my brain tells them to do?

Yousef B. Al-Bader said...

I've never come across the term "prosiopesis" before.

But I did note the usage in certain electronic discourse and had no idea what is it called.

What about "K" for "OK"?

I'm trying to look for examples in my native language Arabic, or specifically in my Kuwaiti Dialect, and whether there is such a grammatical term in Arabic Syntax called prosiopesis.

Thanks for the fruitful info.

DC said...

That's exactly what I meant by referring to syntactic or semantic processing. Note, though, that the substitution argument doesn't work for the 'thank you' example (which David Abercrombie discusses in terms of a 'silent stress').

DC said...

'K' is like 'Kyu', it seems to me.

DC said...

Ceri: you're thinking of 'metathesis'. Examples are frequent throughout the history of English, e.g. ask from aksian, and commonly pronounced as 'aks' in many dialects today. Purty for pretty shows the same kind of thing as happens in your first Welsh example.

David Crosbie said...

One of my typing errors is analogous, I think. I have a tendency to type, for example, substution for substitution. As with prosiopesis, my body thinks it has created the substance (typed the letters) from the first T up to and including the second.

The analogy may be accidental though. My most frequent typing error is remeber for remember. (I hardly ever type it correctly first time.) In this case I don't miss out the whole of the em element, but only the repeated letter M.

In both cases, the brain seems to be accepting false feedback. The perception of having typed T confirms that I have typed substit; the perception of having recently typed M confirms that I have typed remem.

Could it be that -- at least in some cases -- the brain perceives the end of an utterance such as kyou or morning and wrongly takes it as confirmation that thank you or good morning has been uttered?

DC said...

That's really interesting. I've never studied typing errors, but I certainly recognize the kind of example you cite.

Barrie England said...

Then I think ‘kyu’ for ‘thank you’ is a better example of the feature than Jespersen’s ‘Morning’. But perhaps at the time Jespersen was working ‘Morning’ was not as popular as it is now.

In typing ‘Cambridge’ I frequently first get ‘Cambirdge’. Metathesis as a particular example of prosiopesis?

patchworkZombie said...

I do the same as David Crosbie when I am writing by had as well. When one word ends with the same letter as the next begins I often only write the letter once because I think I have already written it.