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Rhetorical Questions




The rhetorical q e^s t i n Is a special syntactical stylistic j device the essence of which consists in reshaping the grammatical mean-j ing of the interrogative sentence. In other words, the question is no" longer a question but a statement expressed in the form of an interrogative sentence. Thus there is an interplay of two structural meanings: 1) that of the question and 2) that of the statement (either affirmative or negative). Both are materialized simultaneously. For example:

"Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace?" "Is there not blood enough upon your penal code, that jnore

must be poured forth to ascend to Heaven and testify against

you?" (Byron)

One can agree with Prof. Popov who states: "...the rhetorical question is equal to a categorical pronouncement plus an exclamation." x Indeed, if we compare a pronouncement expressed as a statement with the same pronouncement expressed as a rhetorical question by means of transformational analysis, we wilFfind ourselves compelled to assert that the interrogative form makes the pronouncement still more categorical, in that it excludes any interpretation beyond that contained in the rhetorical question.

From the examples given above, we can see that rhetorical questions are generally structurally embodied in complex sentences with the subordinate clause containing the pronouncement. Here is another example:

"...Shall the sons-^of Chimary I

Who never forgive the fault of a friend .1

Bid an enemy live?..." (Byron) .]

^Without the attributive clause the rhetorical question would lose-| its specific quality and might be regarded as an ordinary question. Thei subordinate clause, as it were, signalizes the rhetorical question. The meaning of the above utterance can hardly fail to be understood: i. e. The sons of Chimary will never bid an enemy live.

There is another structural pattern of rhetorical questions, which is based on negation. In this case the question may be a simple sentence, as in:

"Did not the Italian Mosico Cazzani

Sing at my heart six months at least in vain?" (Byron)

"Have I not had to wrestle with my lot?

Have I. not suffered things to be forgiven?" (Byron)

Negative-interrogative sentences generally have a peculiar nature. There is always an additional shade of meaning implied in them: sometimes doubt, sometimes assertion, sometimes suggestion. In other words, they are full of emotive meaning and modality.

We have already stated that rhetorical questions may be looked upon as a transference of grammatical meaning. But just as in the case of the transference of lexical meaning, the stylistic effect of the transference of grammatical meaning can only be achieved if there is a simultaneous realization of the two meanings: direct and transferred. So it is with rhetorical questions. Both the question-meaning and the statement-meaning are materialized with an emotional charge, the weight of which can be judged by the intonation of the speaker.

The intonation of rhetorical questions, according to the most recent investigations, differs materially from the intonation of ordinary questions. This is also an additional indirect proof of the double nature of this stylistic device. In the question-sentence

"Is the poor privilege to turn the key Upon the captive, freedom?" (Byron)

instead of a categorical pronouncement one can detect irony.

A more detailed analysis of the semantic aspect of different question-sentences leads to the conclusion that these structural models have various functions. Not only ordinary questions, not only categorical pronouncements are expressed in question form. In fact there are various nuances of emotive meaning embodied in question-sentences. We have already given an example of one of these meanings, viz. irony. In Shakespeare's

"Who is here so vile that will not love his country?" there is a meaning of challenge openly and unequivocally declared. It is impossible to regard it as a rhetorical question making a categorical pronouncement. In the rhetorical question from Byron's maiden speech given above ('Is there not blood... ) there is a clear implication of scorn and contempt for Parliament and the laws it passes.

So rhetorical questions may also be defined as utterances in the form of questions which pronounce judgements and also express various kinds of modal shades of meaning, as doubt, challenge, scorn, irony and so on.

It has been stated elsewhere that questions are more emotional than statements. When a question is repeated, as in these lines from Poe's "The Raven":

"Is thereis there balm in Gilead?! Tell me- ' tell meI implore!"

the degree of emotiveness increases and the particular shade of meaning (in this case, despair) becomes more apparent.

The rhetorical question re-enforces this essential quality of interrogative sentences and uses it to convey a stronger shade of emotive meaning. Rhetorical questions, due to their power of expressing a variety of modal shades of meaning, are most often used in publicistic style and particularly in oratory, where the rousing of emotions is the effect generally aimed at.

Litotes

Litotes is a stylistic device consisting of a peculiar use of negative constructions. The negation plus noun or adjective serves to establish a positive feature in a person or thing. This positive feature, however, is somewhat diminished in quality as compared with a synonymous expression making a straightforward assertion of the positive feature. Let us compare the following two pairs of sentences:

1. It's not a bod thing.It's a good thing.

2. He is no coward.He is a brave man.

Not bad is not equal to good although the two constructions are synonymous. The same can be said about the second pair, no coward and a brave man. In both cases the negative construction is weaker than ,the affirmative one. Still we cannot say that the two negative constructions produce a lesser effect than the corresponding affirmative ones. Moreover, it should be noted that the negative constructions here have a stronger impact on the reader than the affirmative ones. The latter have no additional connotation; the former have. That is why such constructions are regarded as stylistic devices. Litotes is a deliberate understatement used to produce a stylistic effect. It is not a pure negation, but a negation that includes affirmation. Therefore here, as in the case of rhetorical questions, we may speak of transference of meaning, i. e. a device with the help of which twp meanings are materialized simultaneously: the direct (negative) and transferred (affirmative).

So the negation in litotes must not be regarded as a mere denial of the quality mentioned. The structural aspect of the negative combination backs up the semantic aspect: the negatives no and not are more emphatically pronounced than in ordinary negative sentences, thus bringing'to mind the corresponding antonym.

The stylistic effeciT of litotes depends mainly on intonation. If we compare two intonation patterns, one which suggests a mere denial (It is not bad as a contrary to It is-bad) with the other which suggests the assertion of a positive quality of the object (It is not bad=it is good), the difference will become apparent. The degree to which litotes carries the positive quality in itself can be estimated by analysing the semantic structure of the word which is negated.

Let us examine the following sentences in which litotes is used:

1. "Whatever defects the tale possessedand they were not a fewit had, as delivered by her, the one merit of seeming like truth."

2. "He was not without taste..."

3. "It troubled him not a little..:'

4. "He found that this was no easy task."

5. "He was no gentle lamb, and the part of second fiddle would never do for the high-pitched dominance of his nature." (Jack London)

6. "She was wearing a fur coat... Carr, the enthusiastic appreciator of smart women and as good a judge of dress as any man to be met in a Pall Mall club, saw that she was no country cousin. She had style, or 'devil', as he preferred to call it."

Even a superfluous analysis of the litotes in the above sentences clearly shows that the negation does not merely indicate the absence of the quality mentioned but suggests the presence of the opposite quality. Charles Bally, a well-known Swiss linguist, states that negative sentences are used with the purpose of "refusing to affirm".

In sentences 5 and 6 where it is explained by the context, litotes reveals its true function. The idea of 'no gentle lamb' is further strengthened by the 'high-pitched dominance of his nature'; the function and meaning of 'no country cousin' is made clear by 'as good a fudge of dress...', 'she had style...'. Thus, like other stylistic devices, litotes displays a simultaneous materialization of two meanings: one negative, the other affirmative. This interplay of two grammatical meanings is keenly felt, so much so indeed, that the affirmation suppresses the negation, the latter . being only the form in which the real pronouncement is moulded. According to the science of logic, negation as a category can hardly express a pronouncement. Only an assertion can do so. That is why we may say that any negation only suggests an assertion. Litotes is a means by which this natural logical and linguistic property of negation can be strengthened. The two senses of the litotic expression, negative and positive, serve a definite stylistic purpose.

A variant of litotes is a construction with two negations, as in not unlike, not unpromising, not displeased and the like. Here, according to general logical and mathematical principles, two negatives make a positive. Thus in the sentence"Soames, with his lips and his squared chin was not unlike a bull dog" (Galsworthy), the litotes may be interpreted as somewhat resembling. In spite of the fact that such constructions make the assertion more logically apparent, they lack precision. They may truly be regarded as deliberate understatements, whereas the pattern structures of litotes, i. e. those that have only one negative are much more categorical in stating the positive quality* of a person or thing.

An interesting jest at the expense'of an English statesman who overused the device of double negation was published in the Spectator, May 23, 1958. Here it is:

"Anyway, as the pre-Whitsun dog-days- barked themselves into silence, a good deal of pleasure could be obtained by a connoisseur who knew where to seek it. On Monday, for instance, from Mr. Selwyn Lloyd. His trick of seizing upon a phrase that has struck him (erroneously, as a rule) as a happy one, and doggedly

sticking to it thereafter is one typical of a speaker who lacks all confidence. On Monday it was 'not unpromising'; three times he declared that various aspects of the Summit preparations were 'not unpromising', and I was moved in the end to conclude that Mr. Lloyd is a not unpoor Foreign Secretary, and that if he should not unshortly leave that office the not unbetter it would be for all of us, not unhim included."

Litotes is used in different styles of speech, excluding those which may be called the matter-of-fact styles, like official style and scientific prose. In poetry it is sometimes used to suggest that language fails to adequately convey the poet's feelings and therefore he uses negations to express the inexpressible. Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 130 is to some extent illustrative in this respect. Here all the hackneyed phrases used by the poet to depict his beloved are negated with the purpose of showing the superiority of the earthly qualities of "My mistress." The first line of this sonnet 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun' is a clear-cut litotes although the object to which the eyes are compared is generally perceived as having only positive qualities.




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