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Semantic prosody by Edwin Battistella, author of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels" published by Oxford University Press (OUP)

Semantic prosody

When linguists talk about prosody, the term usually refers to aspects of speech that go beyond individual vowels and consonants such as intonation, stress, and rhythm. Such suprasegmental features may reflect the tone or focus of a sentence. Uptalk is a prosodic effect. So is sarcasm, stress, or the accusatory focus you achieve by raising the pitch in a sentence like “I didn’t forget your birthday.”

Scholars working with computer corpora of texts have extended the notion of prosody to aspects of meaning. The term “semantic prosody” was coined by William Louw in his 1993 essay “Irony in the text or insincerity in the writer: the diagnostic potential of semantic prosodies.” Building on work by John McHardy Sinclair, Louw used the term to refer to the way in which otherwise neutral words can have their meanings shaded by habitually co-occurring with other, positive or negative, words. He referred to it as a “semantic aura.” 

How do you see the aura? Researchers use tools like the Key Word In Context (or KWIC) feature which produces a listing of collocates of a key word. As the term suggests, collocates are words that are co-located with the key word in the corpus and in some genre. Semantic prosody is not as in-your-face as a connotation, and as Louw’s title suggests, it can be used ironically. Perhaps because of this, dictionary definitions tend not mention prosodies in a word’s definition.

So, to take an example used by Susan Hunston of the University of Birmingham in her article “Semantic Prosody Revisited,” the word persistent often occurs with a following noun in negative contexts. We find examples like persistent errors, persistent intimidation, persistent offenders, persistent cough, persistent sexism, or persistent unemployment. That tone seems to carry over to examples like persistent talk or persistent reports. The reports and talk have a presumption of negativity to them. Hunston points out that persistent is not necessarily negative, however. One can be a persistent advocate, or a persistent suitor, or reach a goal by persistent efforts. Its aura comes from being often negative.

That carries over to the verb persist as well, I think. When Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced during a 2017 confirmation debate, the Senate majority leader’s comment that “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” was intended as a rebuke. Quickly, however, “Nevertheless, she persisted” and “Nevertheless, they persisted,” became a rallying cry of women refusing to be silenced and a renewed call to activism. The rebuke of “she persisted” was repurposed as defiance and determination. 

Linguists are fascinated by phenomena like semantic prosody and the potential hidden patterns in language use. For writers who are not linguists, semantic prosody is worth pondering as one drafts and revises. How do our words shade our sentences with positive or negative associations? And how can we play with those associations to surprise readers. 

Consider the example of break out, a two-word verb studied by Dominic Stewart in his 2010 book Semantic Prosody: A Critical Evaluation. What sort of things break out? Typically, it’s wars, crises, fires, conflicts, violence, insurrections, diseases, inflammations. As writers, we can reverse that tone with phrasings like “peace broke out” or “hope broke out,” giving peace and hope the sudden eruption often associated with negative events.  

As readers, we ought to be aware of potential semantic prosody in the media we consume. When we encounter words like utterlysymptomatic, chill, threaten, rife, or give rise to, what subtle tones are being communicated to us? There’s not, as yet, a dictionary of semantic prosody where you can look up a word’s preferences, but you can certainly think about them.

Featured image by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash (public domain)

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