Cognitive aspects of intralingual and interlingual paronymous attraction in mass media communication

Статья напечатана в "Вісник Українського товариства дослідження англійської мови"
Серія: Філологія
– Київ –Харків: КОНСТАНТА, 2000. – Том 1. – С. 35 – 40.

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Paronymous attraction is a most effective and frequently used type of foregrounding in mass media communication. The article discusses cognitive mechanism addressee's mental activity aimed at decoding messages with paronymous attraction, or in other words, messages whose components (linguistic units of different format and sometimes of different languages) are purposefully collided with each other because of their formal semblance and to create a new semantic complex verbalized in a bright, frequently euphonic form. Concept or language deficiency in the addressee's memory storage leads to either complete or partial communicative failure. Realia and their names collided in paronymous attraction may be either of the same national culture/language or of different ones. The former is called here intralingual, the latter interlingual paronymous attraction. Cognitive mechanisms of each of them differ.

It is no longer a disputable issue that research of cognition in linguistic perspective requires involvement of neurolinguistics, psychology, and even culture studies. As U.Neisser rightly and accurately says, cognitive processes do not simply happen in a person's head but they occur in a certain social context and are intimately connected to the person's interaction with the milieu (Ref. to: Kubryakova 1996:84).

The present paper is a pilot attempt to look at certain aspects of mass media communication in the light of cognitive research. It is but common knowledge that language production is planning and producing certain speech messages aiming at a definite communicative goal and taking into account specific features of the communicative situation.

Mass media communication happens in a rather "unfavourable" situation. There is usually very little if none whatsoever, addressee's preparedness, or tuning to the activity of receiving, decoding, and comprehending a message as such. This concerns both informative materials and even more so advertisements in the press and on TV. Reading or watching such mass media messages an addressee, initially, is more likely to skim and scan than to pore over the printed text or to give a vacant look and inattentive ear to what's being broadcasted than to watch and listen out for something special.
Thus the addresser's communicative strategies should aim at changing the addressee's activity from superficial and perfunctory into deep and concentrated. Without doubt a most effective strategy here is to foreground the key positions of

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a message which are both its beginning and end, its title and sometimes certain specific parts of the message, depending upon its genre. Foregrounding is connected with surprise, unexpectedness and, consequently, with arousing some additional attention to the foregrounded part of the text (Peer 1986).
The focus of our present investigation covers messages of informative and advertising character, circulating in printed and electronic, namely TV, mass media. (On different mass media genres see: Bell 1991:12-51). In terms of text linguistics title, or pre-text first and foremost exercises phatic and advertising functions aiming at potential readers' attention (Kukharenko 1988:92). Advertisement as a type of text has still another strong position, distinctive in this particular genre. It is an ad's slogan. (For more details see: Rees 1982:3-10). No wonder the addresser is always eager to use title and slogan as keys to the addressee's attention. With the appropriate application of the keys the receiving activity of the addressee can be changed from реrfunctory into profound, thus enhancing the communication as such.

We cannot but agree with Ch. Fillmore who defined foregrounding as motivated communicative emphasis. (Fillmore 1981). Our opinion is that the motivation in question can be of two sorts. On the one hand, it depends upon the validity of the information. Let us call it content motivation. On the other hand, it depends upon the functional necessity to catch the addressee's attention with unexpected, fresh and unpredictable form. Let us call it functional, or form motivation.

In the light of cognitology foregrounding is treated as choosing and picking out of the whole message such pieces of information which are most relevant for both the communicants and the context. (Kubryakova 1996:21-22).
We suggest that these pieces of information can be coiled up, condensed into a short, dense phrase, word combination or even a separate word. The process of coiling up information is triggered by content motivation and results in form motivated coinage of a linguistic unit quite fresh and expressive, which is placed into a key position, i.e. into a headline or a slogan.

There are by far more than one way of form motivated foregrounding. (See e.g. Arnold 1981:61-73). We would like to study a linguistic phenomenon which has recently gained extreme popularity in mass media communication. This is the phenomenon of paronymous attraction. Its mechanism is as following: linguistic unit of different format (a word or any of its parts, or a combination of either of them) similar or identical in their graphical/phonetical form but not necessarily connected semantically are purposefully collided in a speech phrase. This collision forces the addressee to occasionally blend together the semantics of the paronymously attracted units and to make up some new semantic complex, verbalized in a bright, often euphonic and easily remembered form.

Both correlated units may be actually used in the phrase, e.g. "Praise from Paris"; 'Is your lipstick making you sick?"; "Beans Means Heinz". Much more often indeed one of the correlates is involved into paronymous attraction implicitly, as it virtual, not yet actualized sign of a language system.

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For example, the advertisement of a sea food restaurant is entitled as following: "Shrimply delicious".

Believing that mental lexicon contains representation of both verbal units and patterns of their speech valencies we can better understand the mechanism of recalling information from a person's memory storage. The explicit component "shrimply" with the right-hand valency "delicious" must but evoke its implicit correlate "simply" out of the reader's memory.

"Simply delicious " is quite a usual, normative word combination. It actualizes a frequently used pattern "Adv. + Adj." denoting a certain degree of quality. The addresser partially substitutes the adverbial element "simply ": instead of the initial syllable simp– (which is devoid of any separate meaning) the addresser uses a word shrimp (which means a certain type of seafood). Eventually a new linguistic unit "shrimply " is occasionally coined.

The addressee's communicative strategy is directed the other way round. Having recognized the pattern "~ly delicious" as Adv. + Adj. and having recognized "shrimply" as a non-existing and semantically incongruent to the pattern unit, the reader tries to retrieve the lacking "sensible" element from his verbal memory storage. This is the point where and when the addressee's sensor representations come in. Shrimply looks and sounds very much like simply, and the latter unlike the former is sensible and congruent to the structure of the phrase which is being processed in the addressee's mind.

Why not take the whole phrase as a mistake? Because the addressee's decoding activity is steadfastly based upon the initial presumption of meaningfulness of any given message. In terms of cognitology it is presumption of possibility to interpret any given utterance. Consequently, the addressee of the abovementioned text entitled "Shrimply delicious" attempts to justify the use of the seemingly senseless phrase.

He sets to interpreting the utterance seeking out the lacking sense in a wider context. The clue comes from the subject of the article, a seafood restaurant, which triggers the mechanism of thematic memory: a network of thematically connected concepts. If the addressee's individual thesaurus contains such concept as shrimp and his mental lexicon includes the linguistic form "shrimp" – then both of them are easily recalled out of his memory even in case "shrimp "hasn't been mentioned in the whole text.

On the one hand, the text subject directs the searching mind to the thematically bound sector of the addressee's memory. We can treat it as content motivated activity. On the other hand, a part of the structurally and normatively correct, yet only implicit word "simply" amplifies the direction of search upon the sound- and look-alike "shrimp". We can treat it as form motivated activity.

Having combined semes of both correlates "simply" and "shrimp" together the phrase "Shrimply delicious" starts making sense. It sounds and looks fresh and expressive. Eventually if the result is a communicative success additional intellectual efforts spent for inference brings the addressee additional intellectual pleasure.

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Paronymously attracted utterances, with implicit VS explicit correlates involved, might result in a communicative success only in case there is the required concept in the addressee's thesaurus and the required word in his mental lexicon. Lack of either of them results in communicative failure.

Communicative failure may vary from a complete one to a slight misunderstanding, in which case the addressee misses the very fact of the word play due to not feeling the presence of the other, implicit correlate. It might happen with a certain lacuna (either conceptual or verbal or both) in the addressee's thesaurus, especially if the addressee is not a native speaker and has some cultural biases in his own thesaurus.

For example, the newspaper article about disastrous political crisis in the USA is entitled "District of Calamity". The phrase looks and sounds quite normative. In case the reader lacks background cultural information about the political centre of the USA being located in Washington D.C. (District of Columbia) the implicit correlate "Columbia" escapes his notice. The communication is partially successful, yet no foregrounding happens, no expressiveness appears, no maximizing the addressee's activity takes place.

The information required for profound decoding of such paronymously attracted phrases is very often deeply immersed in the national cultural context. Some pieces of this information are long-lasting and stable, some are recent and fleeting. For instance, without any knowledge about the White House and the name of US President's office being Oval Office, on the one hand, and without any specific information about the scandalous sexual intercourse between Bill Clinton and Monika Levinsky, on the other hand, the reader might not understand the newspaper heading "Oval Sex". Its complete and correct understanding cannot happen provided there is certain concept deficiency (insufficient cultural information) and/or language deficiency (lack of word combinations "Oval Office", "oral sex" in the mental lexicon).

Information required for adequate decoding mass media's hints and innuendoes does not exclusively belong to some national culture, sometimes it is of a more general, though nationally tinted, type. For example, "The Times" published an article about undemocratic and cruel actions of the Chinese authorities towards the people of China, which fact hinders international tourism to the country. The article had the headline "The Great Wail of China". A more or less educated reader knows that for many centuries China was isolated from the outer world by means of the Great Wall of China. This piece of information is supposedly kept in the reader's memory as a concept of realia and as a language cliché, which is activated as a one-piece linguistic unit.

The real phrase offers a deviation from the cliché: the central component "wall" is substituted with its sound- and look-alike "wail". Consequently the cliché stops being such, as it does not any longer agree to the corresponding realia which has already been activated.

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Communicative presumption of meaningfulness and cognitive presumption of interpretability of any given text makes the reader try to put two and two together.

Combining the explicit information given in the article context with the implicit information activated from out of his memory the reader may infer the information that Chinese people suffer a lot because of undemocratic and cruel ruling of Chinese authorities which fact hinders international tourism to that country and isolates it from the outer world like the Great Wall of China used to.

The expanse and richness of an addressee's thesaurus and mental lexicon are crucial factors for communicative success of a message exchange in which paronymous attraction is used. The requirements to both of them are limited to a certain average norm, as mass media communication addresses the man in the street with an average range of learnedness and language proficiency. Which fact, apropos, gives a good reason for studying paronymous attraction in the light of sociolinguistics as well. (On the issue of understanding mass media messages see. De Fleur 1988).

Up to this moment we have been discussing paronymous attraction occurring within the boundaries of one national language and culture. We suggest calling it intralingual and intracultural paronymous attraction.

Modern mass communication gives numerous examples of exploiting other, foreign language units and cultural phenomena together with the communicants' native ones. Every now and again addressers use them in paronymous attraction. It stands to reason to call it interlingual and intercultural paronymous attraction.

For example, "The Daily Telegraph" published an article informing about the problems of wine-making industry which are being verbosely discussed but not solved. The headline reads as following "In Vino Verbosity". The addressee with a certain cultural background easily recognizes the Latin borrowing "In vino veritas".

The Latin implicit correlate "veritas" (truth) and the English explicit one "verbosity" (wordiness) are semantically alien, the substitution of one with the other is provoked by sheer formal similarity and the context of the whole article. Though alien to each other, the semantics of both correlates are involved in the word play and a by-product of their collision is irony, as the positively charged "veritas" is substituted with the negatively charged "verbosity". Anyhow both correlates, their form and meaning including, contribute to the final result of the message. In other words, final success of the present communicative act depends upon the addressee's mental activity equally motivated by form and content of both correlates. Such is usually the situation when a native unit "intrudes" into a borrowed context.

The situation might be reverse. A foreign word collides with a native linguistic phrase. In such cases the impact of the foreign "intruder" in its interaction with the native correlate is limited to formal motivation. Usually no semantics of the foreign correlate (if there is any) is exploited.

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Most frequent of such foreign elements are proper names, denoting some products imported to the country. For example, "Feel Heppi" is a slogan advertising German mineral water Heppinger. The alien and semantically hollow correlate "Heppi" due to its left-hand valency "feel + " and its formal semblance to the implicit correlate "happy", activates this linguistic unit out of the reader's mental lexicon. The word comes out in its unity of form and meaning thus donating its positively charged semantics to the correlate "Heppi".

This type of interlingual and intercultural paronymous attraction is most widely used in advertisements. Examples can be easily taken from our everyday life:

(Rus.) "WELLA - vy velikolepny" (WELLA – вы великолепны);
(Ukr.) "Sluhajsya svojeji spragy. Pyj SPRITE"(Слухайся своєї спраги. Пий SPRITE);
(Rus.) "Chystota - chysto 'TIDE'" (Чистота – чисто 'TIDE').

Linguistic units of different format and of different national languages (Russian -English; Ukrainian - English) are collided with one another on the basis of their formal semblance. Positively charged semantics of the native linguistic context is expanded upon the semantically hollow (for the reader) foreign element, eventually forming the audience's positive attitude to the product.

Thus we cannot but share the following: "Foregrounding activates not only knowledge, but opinions, intentions and emotions as well" – (Kubryakova 1996:22).




Arnold, I.V. 1981. Stilistika sovremennogo angliyskogo yazyka. Leningrad: Prosvesceniye.

Bell, A. 1991. The language of Media. News and advertizing. Defining Genres. L.: Blackwell.

De Fleur, M.L. 1988. Understanding Mass Communication. Boston: Houghton Miffin.

Fillmore, Ch.J.1981. Delo о padeje. Novoje v zarubejnoy lingvistike 10, 369-495.

Kubryakova, E.S. et al. 1996. Kratkiy slovar' kognitivnyh terminov. Moskva: Filologiceskiy fakultet MGU.

Kukharenko, V.A. 1988. Interpretaciya texta. Moskva: Prosvesceniye.

Peer, W. van. 1986. Stylistics and Psychology: Investigation of Foregrounding. London. Rees, N. 1982. Slogans. London : Allen and Unwin.