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  • Who's Afraid of Anacoluthon?
  • Jan Mieszkowski (bio)

Had ye been there—for what could that have done?

—John Milton, Lycidas

The goal of this essay is to describe an emotional dynamic that is intrinsic to language rather than simply represented by or expressed in it. Beyond the familiar models of linguistic praxis—positing and performance; reference and signification; formation and deformation—I will attempt to articulate a notion of linguistic affectivity, or more specifically, linguistic auto-affection. The initial focus will be on the traditional but vexing figure of anacoluthon, a breakdown of grammar or syntax that is often mistakenly treated as though its manifestation reveals nothing about language. I will then turn to a reading of Gottfried Benn's "Requiem," a text in which the relations between disruptions of syntactic norms and discursive affectivity are explored in detail.

From the Greek for "lack of sequence," anacoluthon is typically defined as an abrupt change in the syntax or grammar of a statement, as when a sentence begins in the first person but suddenly switches to the third person or a transitive verb appears but fails to be followed by a direct object. Anacoluthon is often associated with aposiopesis, in which a sentence breaks off, never to continue, and anapodoton, in which a sentence begins with a subordinate clause that is not followed by a main clause. In these cases, rhetoricians speak of the initial syntax or grammar creating an expectation for the completion of a pattern that is then thwarted when another grammar rears its head. Anacoluthon is regularly linked with feelings, but not in the terms I propose to delineate. Figures of interruption are celebrated for what they convey about the volatile emotional state of their speaker, since [End Page 648] it is maintained that one can infer from the "sloppy" grammar or syntax that the producer of the utterance is not fully in possession of his or her linguistic faculties due to overexcitement, distraction etc. Language breaks down, but the fault is said to lie with the speaker rather than with language itself. By this line of reasoning, the proper use of words is tantamount to the overcoming of emotional factors entirely. Anacoluthon is thus praised as a stylistic asset when it appears in Shakespeare or Racine, where it is lauded as an inventive way of expressing a character's feelings. In cases where the expressive intention of the figure is not obvious, anacoluthon is simply written off as a blunder, an indication that an author or translator had not fully mastered the rules of, for example, subject-verb agreement. Either way, as long as overt grammatical or syntactic disruptions are treated as products of a writer's skill or incompetence, they remain an effect of forces external rather than internal to language.

Many linguists follow a similar strategy in relegating anacoluthon to the realm of language use and assuming that it has nothing to tell us about grammar or syntax as such.1 In this way, it is treated as a flawed verbal performance, a phenomenon of spoken discourse that occurs when someone changes course in the midst of a sentence. A writer who was to pen such an abrupt alteration in form would simply edit his or her line—unless, of course, he or she was deliberately trying to illustrate confusion or an oral exchange.2 Described as "unplanned speech" or "self-correction during speech," anacoluthon is seen as a trace of the spontaneity of the process by which an individual produces and revises propositions rather than a window onto an essential feature of signification.3 By definition a disruption, anacoluthon is nonetheless understood with models designed to affirm the sovereignty of the sober, competent speaker over the discourse s/he employs. For rhetoricians and linguists alike, language as a system of articulation and representation is thereby starkly contrasted to the play of emotional dynamics, which make their influence felt only by upsetting the proper functioning of verbal systems. If the goal is to study language, it seems that one would do best to ignore the vicissitudes of feeling entirely. [End Page 649]

Of course, such accounts of anacoluthon raise as many questions as they...


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pp. 648-665
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