Out of My Depth

Recently finished reading George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. Yet more thanks owed to Brendan O’Kane. It’s fantastic, if a little…disorientating. Eerie. Or invasive, in a good way, like the best anthropological ethnography examples I’ve stumbled into. That weird recognition of the logic in someone’s methodical vivisection of something as personal and unconscious as the way you relate to—process and comprehend—well, in the case of Metaphors, pretty much everything.

There’s an especially interesting chapter where Lakoff and Johnson disassemble how spatial metaphors add content to language’s written forms, imbue extra meaning in syntax and the physical area used by words on a page. They cite the example of closeness equalling strength of effect—as in, “those closest to the king” meaning “those with the most influence on the king”. Aspects of that metaphor are embodied in the difference between “I am unhappy” and “I am not happy”. The latter is weaker, less definitive, partly because of the actual gap separating the negative “not” and “happy” versus the immediately adjacent prefix “un-”. Intensifying constructions like “she ran very, very fast” or “this is huuuuge” literally use up more room than their “she ran very fast” and “this is huge”counterparts. The chapter continues:

Many languages of the world use the morphological device of reduplication, that is, the repetition of one or two syllables of a word, or of the whole word, in this way. To our knowledge, all cases of reduplication in the languages of the world are instances where MORE OF FORM stands for more of CONTENT. The most typical devices are:

Reduplication applied to noun turns singular to plural or collective.

Reduplication applied to verb indicates continuation or completion.

Reduplication applied to adjective indicates intensification or increase.

Reduplication applied to a word for something small indicates diminution.

Vietnamese loves reduplication. Adores it. Varieties of từ láy are everyday vocabulary. Alliteration and rhyme don’t come burdened with the affect of the English versions. Phân vân, vớ vẩn, ngốc ngẩn, băn khoăn, tong tỏng, lang thang, lôi thôi. Repeated syllables, repeated words with tone variations. Semantic reduplication, or “synonym compounding”, a significant proportion fed by complicated Hán-Việt legacies. Chờ is “to wait”, đợi is “to wait”, chờ đợi is “to wait (longer, or more generally)”.

The most reduplicative of Vietnamese reduplication, when the repetition is exact—called từ láy toàn phần or từ láy tiếng—are a little strange. Some function as you would expect. My teacher uses “rất, rất…” just like “very, very…”, and “luôn luôn” is a more emphatic “luôn (always)”. Counterinuitively though, the majority serve as diminishers. Cao cao and xinh xinh are weaker than cao (tall) and xinh (pretty).

It’s not just contrary to Lakoff’s and Johnson’s persuasive analysis, but to the general character of Vietnamese itself. Tiếng Việt’s not exactly profligate with sound. It has one of language’s highest syllabic densities. And spoken Vietnamese seems to possess this relentless drive towards concision. Maybe I notice it more because it’s a source of frustration. “Anh là người nước nào?” (“Where are you from?”) becomes “Anh ở đâu?” (“Where are you?”)

“Uh…ở đây?” Here?

So now, instead of doing something useful like memorising new words, I’m wondering how these outlier từ láy tiếng developed. I’ve never studied linguistics. One of my bigger educational regrets (the private sand-through-the-hourglass image will forever be a university timetable packed with literature subjects). Fascinating books like Metaphors can really only kick at the pebbles scattered around the edges of that hole. I’ve probably misunderstood Lakoff’s and Johnson’s points entirely, or overlooked something obvious. Researching the origins of usage in this manner might be impossible. No idea. Vietnamese isn’t the only language with abundant and unusual reduplication. The first thing anyone hears about Malay, usually in relation to the simplicity of its grammar,1 is all its doubled words. Thai, Mandarin…has anyone investigated how similar reduplication came into being? Would I even be able to grasp whatever attempts to answer the question exist?


1. This sentiment gets old real fast. Sure, it’s easier. Easier, motherfucker. Advance beyond basic competency and relative misdemeanours like prepositional indecency start to matter. Instinct and apparent common sense can’t rescue you from spouting the equivalents of “my thoughts to the issue are…” or “this should work, at least on top of theory”. All those native language patterns hardwired for efficiency betray you the moment your mind tries to bend itself around the unfamiliar.

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