Holophrase.

I love the eudæmonist; a single one-line post* (*plus footnote) gives me two things to write about. The first is the word holophrase, which I hadn’t been familiar with; as Wikipedia explains:

Holophrasis is the prelinguistic use of a single word to express a complex idea. A holophrase may resemble an interjection, but whereas an interjection is linguistic, and has a specific grammatical function, a holophrase is simply a vocalization memorized by rote and used without grammatical intent.

And the second is the one-line post* (*minus footnote) itself:

One finds a holophrase: men – one still awaits the longed-for day.

That’s hilarious, but to explain why I have to tell you a bit about Greek particles. Ancient Greek depended heavily for its sentence structure on a group of little words called particles; to quote the always dependable Herbert Weir Smyth:

Greek has an extraordinary number of sentence adverbs (or particles in the narrow sense) having a logical or emotional (rhetorical) value. Either alone or in combination these sentence adverbs give a distinctness to the relations between ideas which is foreign to other languages, and often resist translation by separate words, which in English are frequently over emphatic and cumbersome in comparison to the light and delicate nature of the Greek originals (e.g. ἄρα, γέ, τοί). The force of such words is frequently best rendered by pause, stress, or alterations of pitch. To catch the subtle and elusive meaning of these often apparently insignificant elements of speech challenges the utmost vigilance and skill of the student.

The best-known of these particles are surely μέν [men] and δέ [de], of which Smyth says: “μὲν . . . δέ serves to mark stronger or weaker contrasts of various kinds, and is sometimes to be rendered by on the one hand . . . on the other hand, indeed . . . but; but is often to be left untranslated.” Although there can be a μέν without a δέ (its sad name is “μέν solitarium”), one of the first things you learn as a student is that when you encounter a μέν you should expect a following δέ: the Greeks naturally arranged their thoughts in antitheses.

So! I’m sure we’re all familiar with the formulaic expression “Men!” as used by exasperated women in TV sitcoms (and occasionally in real life); it is, as we have learned, a holophrase. And when one finds a μέν, or “men,” one awaits a δέ, or “day.” QED!

Oh, and to understand the footnote you need to know that haedus is Latin for ‘young goat, kid,’ and the English verb caper ultimately derives from the Latin noun caper ‘he-goat, billy-goat.’ So to “caper apud hædis” is to goat around among the goatlings.

Comments

  1. Child language acquisition normally goes through a holophrastic stage, in which utterances that look like sentences are really indecomposable. A child may say “Gimme cup” without having mastered “Gimme” + X for various nouns X that the child may also know. Ritual and phatic speech is also often holophrastic: How do you do? is not a question about how the listener does something, and hocus-pocus (dominocus) is not analyzable as either English or Latin.

  2. “Holophrase” seems like a weird backformation from “holophrases”.

  3. It may be a back formation, but why weird? It seems perfectly straightforward to me (and is a fine-sounding English word).

  4. Phrase itself is directly from Latin phrasis, so I do not see what other formation could be expected.

  5. “Mendecant Settles Haughty’s Business”

  6. Trond Engen says:

    as Wikipedia explains:

    Holophrasis is the prelinguistic use of a single word to express a complex idea. A holophrase may resemble an interjection, but whereas an interjection is linguistic, and has a specific grammatical function, a holophrase is simply a vocalization memorized by rote and used without grammatical intent

    With hologrammatic intent.

    to quote the always dependable Herbert Weir Smyth:

    Greek has an extraordinary number of sentence adverbs (or particles in the narrow sense) having a logical or emotional (rhetorical) value. Either alone or in combination these sentence adverbs give a distinctness to the relations between ideas which is foreign to other languages, and often resist translation by separate words, which in English are frequently over emphatic and cumbersome in comparison to the light and delicate nature of the Greek originals (e.g. ἄρα, γέ, τοί). The force of such words is frequently best rendered by pause, stress, or alterations of pitch. To catch the subtle and elusive meaning of these often apparently insignificant elements of speech challenges the utmost vigilance and skill of the student.

    Ideophones?

  7. Equivalents of sentence-final particles in, eg, Cantonese?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence-final_particle

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Not ideophones. Apparently particles just like in Cantonese, Mandarin, German or Singlish lah.

  9. Jim Doyle says:

    Is there a spectrum of semantically/phonetically heavy to light holophrases? Of course holophrases are language-specific, but can a language have mostly heavy holophrases or mostly light ones?

    I wonder if things like “oops’ in English or “dozo” in Japanese (unless it has an etymology) would be considered holophrases. (Truly asking). I get the sense that even if “dozo” does have an etymology for most speakers it’s holophrastic.

  10. I’ve never heard a posh British person say “What, what?”. Does anyone still do that?

  11. What about “the”? Seems a lot like Greek “men”.

    It is not translated when translating from English to Croatian, or indeed, other languages that don’t have articles. Even in languages with articles, it might not be translated eg. English “the end” = French “fin”. Similarly articles in other languages are not translated into English eg. French “La France” = English “France”.

    “The” doesn’t add much apart from conveying a sense of definiteness. Even then not consistently:
    eg. I was at work vs I was at the hospital vs I was in hospital vs I was in the army vs I was in school.

    It might be dropped in speech without changing the meaning.

    And you can’t draw a “the”.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    zyxt: I don’t think it is the case that articles are or are not “translated”. Each language has its own conventions of when and to what purpose it uses the articles, regardless of how they are used in other languages. “Translation” considers each of the languages as a whole and respects the usage of the “target” language.

  13. I was in hospital

    Americans, however, say “I was in the hospital” even when not referring to a specific hospital. Elvis was in a jail when he recorded “Jailhouse Rock”, but he was never in jail. Johnny Cash, however, was in jail seven times, but only one night each time.

    Similarly, “I was good at the Latin” is good Hiberno-English, but in other varieties it is “I was good at Latin”.

  14. An American may be in college, but never at university.

    British writing until the mid-20th century speaks of being “in the X Road”, for what now would be “on X Road”.

  15. “I was good at Latin” is also good Hiberno-English, with a slightly different shade of meaning from “I was good at the Latin”; the latter can be further extended “I was good at the old[/auld] Latin”.

  16. Aside from anything else, μέν is a sentence adverb — it is not attached to any particular sort of word — whereas “the” is an article, tightly bound to a following noun. It’s like comparing apples and warthogs.

  17. Your explanation makes a lot of sense languagehat. Thanks.

    One question: If you leave “men” out of the sentence, does it change the meaning?

  18. Not in any obvious sense, but it eliminates the sense of contrast or antithesis — there will be no following δέ.

  19. One question: If you leave “men” out of the sentence, does it change the meaning?

    It changes the rhetoric. The clause with men, gives necessary background for what follows (introduced by de), or just makes clear the sequence of events, or “first I want to say X, then I want to say Y”.

    Every language has many features that add redundancy to the speech channel. This makes the hearer’s task of comprehension easier by eliminating some of the possible interpretations of the sounds that arrive by the ears.

    In that sense, men works like the. It is one of the many strategies to add redundancy that some languages use, but not others. In ancient Greek, making the sequence of events explicit keeps the hearer on the right track. In languages that distinguish definite from indefinite, the hearer is explicitly told whether he has all the information needed to process what he hears.

  20. Bill W. says:

    Once the Greeks discovered the possibilities of men/de, some overdid it, shoehorning nearly every sentence into a tidily balanced antithesis, to the point of monotony and absurdity. Gorgias is the prime example and Isocrates falls into this category, too.

  21. In Ancient Egyptian: yw

  22. I once showed my mother a sample German sentence from a book on linguistics, which was Es ist [about 13 particles] schrecklich. With the unerring eye of a native speaker, she said that doch was inconsistent with all the rest, but if removed the sentence would be fine. “And what would it mean then?” said I. “It’s horrible”, she said.

    I definitely remember that the particles included ja, aber, denn, schon (not necessarily in that order), but the rest escape me.

  23. Via GooBoo: “Where is there to be found, e. g., a satisfactory analysis of an exclamation such as: Das ist ja aber denn doch auch noch schon schrecklich.”

  24. Thanks, even if there were only seven particles. “O monstrous! eleven men in buckram grown out of two!”

    Hans? David? An analysis, satisfactory or otherwise? The question has been hanging fire for 75 years.

  25. Too many discourse particles for my taste. But let’s have a try:
    “Ja”: establishes that the utterance is linked to a previous information and that this information is slotted into a common frame of reference. It can either convey that the information is somehow new or surprising to the speaker (so he slots it into the common frame for himself) or he reminds the listener on how this information slots into the common frame. In the latter case, it can be translated into English by “as you know”. The constructions with “Das ist ja …” normally belong to the former type.
    “Aber” works like English “but”. Here it looks like putting the reaction of the speaker into contrast in how he perceives the potential point of view of the listener, who perhaps may not see the horribleness.
    “Denn” is normally not part of my repertoire of discourse particles in declarative sentences (I only use it as a conjunction and in questions), but it normally indicates that the content of the utterance is a conclusion or a judgment. “Doch” is again putting things in contrast, so the lady who said that it was redundant was right; it additionally underlines the contrast. “Auch noch” means “additionally to whatever has been said before”. “Schon” as a discourse particle means something like “perhaps you don’t agree / aren’t aware, but”. So, unpacked and blown up, the sentence could be rendered “Oh, but my conclusion, with which you maybe don’t agree, or maybe you haven’t considered everything yet, is that this is horrible on top of everything else”. A whole lotta hedging going on.

  26. Actually, my mother said doch was inconsistent rather than redundant.

  27. I understand that she never explained why? That’s a pity, because to me, it doesn’t look inconsistent, just a touch too much.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Denn and dann switch meanings at some east-west line; here we see the northern use, where denn at the base means “then”. I would use dann here for “then, future tense, in that case”.

    I would absolutely place schon in front of auch noch and stress it: “it is after all”. That would put it in the same place as doch, which here has the same meaning if it’s stressed. If it’s not stressed, it’s redundant with aber (despite not going in the same place), except maybe expressing more certainty than aber…?

    In short, so much hedging that the speaker may have gone back and forth on where to go while already pronouncing the sentence and produced something ungrammatical – if it was written down correctly in the first place.

    No, wait, probably we should take schon literally as “already” and make it unstressed: ist […] auch noch schon schrecklich “has already become horrible, too, like all the other things mentioned before that have turned out horrible”. Still a lot of hedging in that case, but it works more or less.

  29. On sowohl… als auch : for me, that firmly belongs to a literary / formal register; I wouldn’t use it in colloquial speech.

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