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Cases of Asymmetry between Semantic and Pragmatic Meanings in Emotional and Evaluative Utterances (Based on the Analysis of English Fiction)

Zhgun Daria

Professor of the Department of Asian Studies at Catholic University of Daegu

41528, Yuzhnaya Koreya, g. Daegu, ul. 84 gonhang-Ro, 105

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The subject of the article is emotional and evaluative utterances in literary texts. The article briefly appraises the current research of emotions in linguistics, emphasizing their role in communication. The linguistic data are also enforced by theories from psychology. The author thoroughly studies emotional and evaluative utterances that reveal asymmetry between the semantic and pragmatic meanings. Emotional and evaluative utterances are defined as utterances that express, imply or describe emotions, emotional states and reactions. Asymmetry is defined as the deviation from the norm as a result of a language natural functioning. Research methods include definition, semantic and pragmatic analyses of emotional and evaluative utterances, selected from English fiction by the continuous sampling method. The author comes to conclusion that asymmetry occurs due to the subjective experience of emotions and linguistically manifests itself in reverse reactions and ambivalence. It has been revealed that true knowledge about emotion is context dependent and it is the context that shows whether emotion is appraised positively or negatively.

Keywords: pragmatic potential, pragmatic meaning, semantic meaning, reappraisal, appraisal, emotional and evaluative utterance, emotion, asymmetry, reverse reaction, ambivalence

How can a heart expression find?

How should another know your mind?

Will he discern what quickens you?

A thought once uttered is untrue.

F. Tyutchev (translated by V. Nabokov) [1]

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the study of emotions from various scientific disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics and psycholinguistics. Emotions play a critical role in the operation of mental processes, motivation and determination of one’s behavior and adaptation for a better well-being. On a basic level, emotions are defined as personal experiences including three components: a) the experience of emotion, b) the processes that occur in the brain and nervous system, and c) the observable expressive patterns of emotion [2, p. 4]. From another perspective, emotions are also “episodes of interrelated, synchronized changes in the organismic subsystems in response to the evaluation of an external or internal stimulus relevant to major concerns of the body” [3, p. 93]. From the second definition it becomes obvious that emotions are cognitive by their nature and are based on one’s appraisal. Cognitive activity is inherent to emotion [4; 5] and cognitive processes determine its experience [6, p. 40].

In addition to experiencing emotions, people can communicate these experiences to each other: emotions are an essential component of verbal communication [7, p. 144]. Linguistics studies the expression and implication of emotions by different means (direct nomination, description, figures of speech and tropes) and on different levels (phonetic, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic), as well as emotional and evaluative utterances, which include the expression, implication or description of one’s emotions, emotional states and reactions. Emotional and evaluative utterances also include words and sentences that have an emotional and evaluative seme as one of the elements of their meaning [8, p. 163].

On the one hand, language can “constitute, clarify, and enhance emotions, as well as induce novel and oft surprising experiences” [9, p. 1]. By shaping the nature of emotions (“feelings don’t just get “put into words”, but words get “put into feelings” too” [10, p. 15]), language also allows people to acquire, organize and use the concept knowledge that is an integral part of emotion perception [10; 11]. From this viewpoint, language is mostly used to refer to the words that people use to name and describe emotional states. In other words, a bigger role is devoted to the semantic aspect. On the other hand, emotions can influence the language by bringing additional overtones to emotional utterances. Emotions are one of the preconditions for the functioning of language and “for its coming into existence” [12, p. 349]. Since emotions are conceptualized as “displays” that are performed in interactional contexts and have communicative intent [13], the word choice in this case is determined by the speaker/writer and the pragmatic situation.

Emotions can be analyzed differently from the semantic and pragmatic perspective. Semantics considers logical invariants of words, whereas pragmatics aims to explain the use of these words based on situations [14, p. 218-219]. Semantics deals with “a theoretical construct”, while the object of pragmatics is more personalized [15]. Thus, in order to determine the true conditions of an emotional utterance it is important to study both purely linguistic information [16, p. 465] and the “occasion of an utterance” [17, p. 100]. Almost any word used in a specific situation has its pragmatic potential [18, p. 62-72] and can acquire a different pragmatic load [19, с. 36]. In many cases semantic and pragmatic meanings coincide. Let us consider some examples.

(1) She had never felt so frightened in her life. “I’m going to die right here in this movie theater” [20, p. 116].

In the example the emotion from the cluster of fear is expressed:

*frightened – filled with fear;

**fear – an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger;

***unpleasant – unlovely, bad, displeasing [21].

The definition shows that the emotion is negative and the word has negative semes such as fear, unpleasant, bad, danger . The degree of the emotion is conveyed by the intensifier so and the general negative appraisal of the emotion is revealed in a broader context: the woman is afraid to die. The pragmatic potential of the lexeme “frightened” also reveals the implied fear of death that can be caused by such emotion.

(2) It took him a while to find Ray and Luke’s house on his bike, in the dark, half-delirious from the heat and no sleep and the rage that was strangling him, coiled like a snake around his gut and throat [22, p. 365].

In this passage another negative emotion is expressed by means of direct nomination – the rage (violent, uncontrolled anger [21]). The negative appraisal of the emotion is implied in the metaphor strangling (obstructing seriously or fatally the normal breathing), and the comparison like a snake around his gut and throat . Interestingly enough, both of the words pragmatically imply the ability of rage to deprive its experiencer of air, causing him/her to panic.

In both illustrations there is a correspondence between semantics and pragmatics of emotional signs. In other words, what is expressed or described linguistically, agrees with a lexeme meaning and has a corresponding pragmatic potential and meaning. However, it is not always the case, and asymmetry may occur.

Asymmetry in linguistics can be defined as a deviation from the order, regularity and uniformity in the functioning of language units, representing one of the main peculiarities of the natural language structure [23]. In general, asymmetry may occur in different aspects of language and as a result can be an object of a scientific interest and description in various areas of linguistic research [24, с. 47;25, с. 3]. The linguistic expression of emotions also includes cases of asymmetry. Asymmetry of emotions contains the following variants: 1) emotions can be experienced, but not expressed, 2) emotions can be expressed but not experienced, and 3) emotions experienced and emotions expressed can differ [26]. In order to reveal the causes of such asymmetry, a more in-depth analysis should be performed.

When analyzing emotions and their verbal manifestation, it is important to emphasize that emotions are not given to people biologically, but are constructed in the process of categorization [27, p. 20] and vary across cultures and over time [28, p. 22]. Therefore, emotions exist as experiences based on which a person can appraise the same emotion differently in different situations. Also, emotions do not always have the same fixed appraisal to them: “Perhaps it would be more adequate to use the metaphor of a field or space of fluctuating fuzzy elementary emotional states, i.e. a ‘diffused continuum’ … with relatively ‘condensed islands’, more or less different in various cultures and identified by them by means of particular labels” [29, p. 31]. Being socially generalized, emotions vary based on the individual expression of emotional meanings in an emotional situation [26; 30]. Asymmetry in the language occurs due to the fact that the language “only has reality as an abstract idea” and in the real world there are only emotionally personalized versions of it [31]. Thus, each person automatically personalizes and emotionalizes the language based on their experience and may attach a completely different meaning to an emotional utterance.

A good illustration of the asymmetry between a semantic and pragmatic meaning in verbal communication is a reverse reaction – the non-correspondence of a physiological reaction to the experienced emotion. In psychology, such reactions are referred to as an inappropriate (incongruent ) affect , when a person shows some emotional reaction that is incongruent with their current status [32]. Let us compare the following two examples:

(3) Cecilia bobbed her head and smiled slightly to show him that he was doing a good job [33, p. 72].

(4) Juliet turns to face me then. She’s smiling, but it’s the saddest smile I’ve ever seen [34, p. 262].

Both sentences express a smile – a typical physiological reaction in the state of happiness. The definition of the verb to smile reveals positive connotations of the lexeme:

*to smile – to look or regard with amusement; to appear pleasant or agreeable; to bestow approval [21].

In psychology, a smile is considered a sign of peace and joy that creates the feeling of co-participation and approval [35, p.1125-1134]. This is confirmed in the first example, where a smile pragmatically implies the woman’s approval: to show him that he was doing a good job. However, the contextual analysis of the second example reveals a different aspect of a smile – a sad smile. This phenomenon is known as smiling depression, or appearing happy to others, while internally suffering with depressive symptoms [36]. The pragmatic potential of such reaction is manifested in the intention to discover the depth of the emotion of the girl – her sadness that is hidden in a smile. Pragmatically, the smile plays the role of a defense mechanism.

Let us consider other examples.

(5) Ha! To her horror she actually laughed out loud [37, p. 208].

(6) “Juliet? Someone’s here for Juliet?” He sounds exactly like a dog. Bark, bark, bark, bark. I fight a wild, nervous urge to laugh [34, p. 118].

(7) Then Dodge said abruptly, “We spoke before. Once. At the pep rally last year. You called me David.” “I did?” Nat giggled nervously [22, p. 119].

All three examples show another reverse reaction in an emotional state – laughter (ha!, laughed out loud, laugh, giggled ). In general terms, laughter is considered an emotional reaction of the body to something positive, funny or unexpected [39]. Again, the contextual analysis indicates that laughter accompanies fear and anxiety. Such laughter is known as nervous laughter – a physical reaction to stress, tension, confusion, or anxiety [40]. The pragmatic potential of the emotional utterances in these examples displays an attempt of the characters to hide their true emotions and their desire to believe that things are not as bad as they appear.

Another example of a reverse reaction includes tears of happiness. In psychology, such behavior is known as a dimorphous expression, which occurs when a person feels overwhelmed with emotion and tries to regulate it through balancing one emotion with the expression of another [41]. Below are some examples.

(8) As Mama continued washing the customer's hair, the lady hummed a tune and tapped her toes. Rosa thought there was something familiar about her. When the shampoo was done, Mama helped the woman sit up. The towel fell away. Rosa shrieked. It was Abuelita! Rosa fell on her grandmother, laughing and crying at the same time. “When? How...?” Abuelita was crying, too. “We wanted to surprise you!” she said, her eyes sparkling with tears of happiness [42, p. 40].

The passage describes the meeting of a granddaughter with her grandmother whom she had not seen for a long time. Both ladies are overwhelmed with happiness, which is expressed by a direct nomination (tears of happiness ). The positive appraisal of tears is also implied in the verb sparkle : to glitter or shine, to become lively [21].

(9) She looked like an angel bride in her billowing lacy dress, and her smile was clearly visible behind the rhinestone-studded netting of her veil, as were the happy tears sparkling in her eyes [43, p. 287].

In this example the tears are a way of expressing the state of happiness of the main character. The foundation of appraisal is linguistically expressed: the woman is getting married. Positive appraisal is revealed in the following lexemes with positive connotations: an angel (a spiritual being superior to humans in power and intelligence [21]), sparkling (glittering, shining lively [21]). Pragmatically, the emotional utterance implies the woman’s desire to get married to the man she loves.

Thus, the reasons of reverse reactions in psychology can be linguistically expressed or implied in emotional utterances that carry a strong pragmatic load and have a deep pragmatic potential. In all examples, their pragmatic potential is revealed with the help of the context and demonstrates that positive communicative actions (smile and laughter) can imply negative emotions, and a negative reaction (tears) demonstrates otherwise.

Other examples of the asymmetry between semantics and pragmatics include cases of ambivalence of emotional states. Ambivalence of emotions is the ability of one and the same emotion to have the potential of both positive and negative emotions 44, p. 91-96]. It has been stated before that emotions are based on appraisal. The role of appraisal is to correlate objects and events to an “idealized worldview” of a person [45]. One of the causes of ambivalence, in its turn, is reappraisal – a method by which people regulate their affective response to a stimulus by thinking about or reappraising it or their reaction to it [46, p. 16]. From a pragmatic perspective, ambivalence occurs due to the fact that the experience of emotions is situation and context-based: for a speaker the action or experience is “subjectively construed” [47, p. 358]. Pragmatic factors are present at all stages of the sentence meaning interpretation. Therefore, in order to analyze an emotional utterance correctly, it is necessary to study it in context. Considering that emotions are “goal-based, i.e. the concept of any emotion is centered on a goal that one has in the moment, binding together all the instances from his/her past” [47, p. 92], it is especially important to study the pragmatics of emotional utterances expressing their ambivalence. Let us provide some examples.

(10) Another thing making my mood foul is the ten-minute screaming match I had with my mother before storming outof the house. Even when Izzy went to hide in her room and my father threatened to ground me for life (Ha!), the words kept coming. It felt so good to scream, like when you pick a scab and the blood starts flowing again [34, p. 151].

The negative emotional state of anger is implied in the metaphor to storm out (to rush about or move impetuously, violently, or angrily [21]), but the contextual analysis shows the ambiguity of the emotion: the interjection Ha! implies surprise, sarcasm and disagreement [48], and the evaluative predicate good demonstrates a positive appraisal of the emotion. The pragmatic potential of the emotional utterances includes the intention to show that anger is necessary for the girl in order to avoid emotional overload. Therefore, a negative emotion is appraised positively.

(11) I’ve made him lose it probably a first in Thomas Jefferson history. I know that in whatever game we’re playing I’ve just won a point. The idea makes my stomach drop a little not in a bad way, more like at the moment right before you reach the highest part of the roller coaster, when you know that at any second you’ll be at the very top of the park, looking down over everything, pausing there for a fraction of a second, about to have the ride of your life [34, p. 164].

The expression to make one’s stomach drop is used to describe a stressful situation, a shocking event or huge disappointment that may cause a sudden change of one’s mood and have a strong and sensitive reflection on their stomach [49]. The context, on the contrary, demonstrates an obvious positive appraisal of this condition (not in a bad way ). Pragmatically, the emotional and evaluative utterance implies a positive anticipation of the upcoming event.

(12) In Dudley there were more sides of the tracks than any American can imagine. Every Englishman knows his place. And if you forget, there’s always someone to remind you. My family had no doubts about who they were. But I was an aberration in that household, a freak of nature. I had imagination, cleverness, joy. Where did I get that? Certainly not from them. Whale's voice has changed, becoming more pinched and nasal. They took me out of school when I was fourteen and put me in a factory. They meant no harm. They were like a family of farmers who've been given a giraffe, and don't know what to do with the creature except harness him to the plow. Whale seems completely lost in the past by now. Hatred was the only thing that kept my soul alive in that soul-killing place [50, p. 73].

In the passage a strong negative emotion of hatred is expressed. The reasons for the emotion are expressed by the metaphors an aberration (straying from the right or normal way) and a freak of nature (a person who is odd or has a physical oddity [21]), implying a negative and humiliating attitude of the family members towards the boy. However, the contextual analysis makes it obvious that hatred is perceived positively by the man: Hatred was the only thing that kept my soul alive. The opposition of the boy’s “good soul” and the soul-killing place also implies the positive appraisal of his hatred and justifies it.

Thus, the analysis of the examples demonstrates that using emotional utterances in real speech may enhance, decrease or change their pragmatic predetermined outcome under the influence of the context. Pragmatic potential increases due to emotional and evaluative surroundings, created by various means. In context, these means actualize new semes, and semantics becomes more pragmatically and functionally oriented. As a result, asymmetry between semantic and pragmatic meanings takes place.

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