Monday: attention, language stereotypes

Among today’s cartoons: a Calvin and Hobbes on the paradoxes of attention, and a One Big Happy on Italians behaving stereotypically, and stereotypes of the Italian language:



Paradoxes of attention. The classic form is the instruction not to think about elephants, or not to think about an elephant — an instruction to shift the focus of your attention away from elephants, which of course focuses your attention on elephants. More specifically, in #1, Hobbes tells Calvin to try not to imagine the damage the bee might do to the boy, an instruction that of course focuses Calvin’s attention on imagining this damage.

The effect is cousin to the rhetorical device of apophasis (also known as prolepsis or by various other names). From Wikipedia:

Apophasis is a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer brings up a subject by either denying it, or denying that it should be brought up. Accordingly, it can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony.

Language stereotypes. In #2, Ruthie observes her visiting relatives from Italy, and her grandfather notes a stereotype of the language’s sound, that Italian is beautiful and melodious, like singing. And Ruthie, observing the florid gestures of her relatives’ conversations, decides that it’s more like dancing — thus coming on her own to another stereotype about Italian speech.

Some stereotypes have a basis in fact, as does this one of Italians “talking with their hands”, using gestures along with speech much more so than many other people do (though there are significant differences involving region, class, gender, context, and more).

The stereotype of Italian speech (at least as observed by speakers of English) as melodious, sweet, musical, etc. is more complex, composed of judgments about certain phonetic patterns (favoring open syllables, in particular) and certain specific sound types (favoring sonorants, especially liquids, over obstruents, etc.); the great significance of Italian music, especially opera, in Western culture; the image of Italy as a great repository of Western culture; explicit judgments passed down socially; and more.




2 Responses to “Monday: attention, language stereotypes”

  1. Brian Ashurst Says:

    Interesting comment about regional variations in hand gestures. Has anyone done a study on that? My wife’s Italian heritage comes through in her gestures, which I don’t mind at all except when she takes her hands off the steering wheel!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      There probably are studies, but I don’t have the references. What I have is northern Italians characterizing southern Italians as “coarse” or “crude” in their speech, gestures, dress, etc.

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