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181 What’s the Deal with Morphemes? Doing Morphology with Seinfeld Kristy Beers Fägersten Festivus. Sponge-worthy. Yada-yada-yada. No soup for you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Master of my domain. One needs only to mention words and phrases such as these to find kindred spirits across the globe who can appreciate the reference to what has been heralded as the greatest television show ever.1 Seinfeld, created by Larry David and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, starred Jason Alexander as Jerry’s best friend, George; Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Elaine; and Michael Richards as Jerry ’s eccentric neighbor, Kramer. During its nine-season run (1989–98), the series gained steadily in popularity, eventually garnering prime time’s highest ratings. It has been famously branded as a “show about nothing,” with plots centering on the mundane, everyday activities of a group of four single New Yorkers. Seinfeld was appreciated as a series with identifiable but unusual story arcs, eccentric recurring characters, and neatly interwoven storylines. Throughout its production, however, it remained firmly a show about the minutiae of daily life as endured by the four main characters. Where Seinfeld distinguished itself from other series, however, was its characteristic focus on language and the intricacies and absurdities of communication. 1. #1 of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, 2002. 182 | Kristy Beers Fägersten Not only did dialogue serve as a vehicle to progress storylines, but language use itself was a significant plot feature, with characters expressing themselves in innovative ways or discussing language use in noteworthy detail. For example, in the excerpt below from the episode “The Label Maker,”2 Jerry explains to Elaine how to interpret someone’s reaction to a gift she has given. Example 1: Jerry: Well how did he react when you gave it to him? Elaine: Um, he said, “Oh. A label maker. How ’bout that?” Jerry: He repeated the name of the gift? Elaine: Yeah, so? Jerry: Oh, well, if you repeat the name of the gift, you can’t possibly like it. Elaine: What do you mean? Jerry: Oh, you know, like when someone opens something up and they go, “Oh. Tube socks.” Similar analyses of social interaction reflect an attention to linguistic conventions and absurdities that pervaded the series and endeared Seinfeld to the viewing audience. As Caryn James (1998) noted in the New York Times, dialogue in Seinfeld is foregrounded, such that “language becomes action.” In many episodes, it was often language itself that comprised the plot. Metalinguistic awareness couched in creative language use, engaging dialogue, and innovative storylines established Seinfeld as a so-called water-cooler show, such was the extent to which it generated enthusiastic post-episode conversation. Not only did the audience talk about the (mis) adventures of the characters, they talked like the characters, freely appropriating their linguistic features and incorporating them into their own speech (see, for example, Beers Fägersten 2012, 93; Tompkins 2014). Examples of this appropriation abound in McFedries (2003), which includes a Seinfeld lexicon and documented usages of Seinfeldisms in the media. It can thus be claimed that the language of Seinfeld is arguably its greatest 2. Written by Alec Berg and Jeff Schaffer. What’s the Deal with Morphemes? | 183 legacy. After nine seasons, the series has left an indelible mark on the language of popular culture. The majority of Seinfeld’s linguistic contributions are in the form of now well-known words and phrases (McFedries 2003; Magnotta and Strohl 2011, 127). Among the most famous are festivus,3 the name of an alternative winter holiday; sponge-worthy,4 the state of being worth the use of a limited supply of birth control sponges; yada-yada-yada,5 a phrase that allows one to avoid recounting details; no soup for you,6 an admonishment from the owner of a soup stand toward any customer complicating a soup order; not that there’s anything wrong with that,7 a recurring commentary on homosexuality; and master of my domain,8 one of several analogous phrases used to claim that one has refrained from masturbation. This list of memorable phrases provides just a glimpse of the significance and pervasiveness of linguistics in Seinfeld, in which the architecture of entire episodes was regularly centered around language: the creation of a particular word, the repetition of a phrase, the linguistic management of social conventions, or the manipulation of language to discuss taboo topics. The...


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