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11 - Verbal communication - Part 2

  In the previous unit, we introduced, in their outline, the mechanisms of verbal communication according to JAkobsón. In order to pinpoint the fundamental triad of this diagram of the communication system, we concentrated on three elements only - addresser, context, and addressee. One of the reasons is that - as we have seen - the referential function plays a vital role in completing the sense of the utterance. In an utterance, we never take such care as to specify every detail: we take for granted many aspects of the context, otherwise the communication would be very inefficient. The emotional and conative functions are crucial too: the former because of the role that the addresser plays in communication, the latter owing to the position of the message towards the addressee when the communication takes place.

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The basic approaches to the construction of utterances

  In order to continue our analysis of verbal communication, we need to consider the two main aspects of sentence building from a mental point of view.

  Experiments carried out on subjects suffering from aphasia showed that the two cerebral hemispheres, the right one and the left one, govern two different functions. The left hemisphere presides over the paradigmatic selection of words, while the right hemisphere presides over their syntagmatic combination 1. Here is what that means, in simple terms:

  Let us imagine the following panel as representing a slot machine. Suppose that, by pulling its (fictional) lever, we spin its parallel vertical wheels showing on their facets different words or blanks, until they stop - forming a combination of words. Our slot machine, though, even allows us to see all the words on the facets not appearing in the central window, the one showing the utterance starting with "Giampaolo".














ran out


of red wine










will go


to buy

the paper


To learn



an effort


you give


to Matilda?



  First, let us have a look at the table horizontally, starting from the first line. The mind of the addresser who wants to express a concept begins, say, by looking for the subject of the action: he carries out a selective process, until he gets to the word "Alfredo", which satisfies his need of communication at that moment. In order to go on building his sentence, he has now to face a syntactical problem: after the word "Alfredo", what kinds of words are likely to follow according to the grammar rules of the English language? By raising this question, he carries out a combinational process. There are many different possibilities, but it is more likely that, after the subject, a verb will turn up. At this point, the addresser mentally reviews all the verbs he knows (selective process), singles out the one he considers fit (to love), and properly conjugates it. To get to Gertrude, he must carry out another combinational process (which prevents him from saying, for example, "Alfredo loves although") and a selective one, until he gets to "Gertrude".

  Slot machines do not have combinatorial capabilities. Or rather, they randomly combine what is shown on bordering wheel facets, without asking syntactical or constructional questions. Were they humans, one could say that they suffer from right-hemisphere aphasia, or contiguity disorder. Indeed, our imaginary slot machine may bring forth incomprehensible expressions, such as "To learn touches to Matilda an effort" or "Now to learn loves coffee an effort". In other words, the slot machine has a paradigmatic capability (by simply pulling its lever, we can review the whole range of possibilities), but not a syntagmatic one (indeed, it combines words randomly).

  Conversely, subjects suffering from left hemisphere aphasia do not have any paradigmatic capability: in other words, they are not able to refer to the range of possibilities.

  As JAkobsón ingeniously understood by reworking concepts that had already been partially identified by de Saussure, all linguistic acts are based on combination and selection capabilities.

  As for the combination (syntagmatic, horizontal, metonymic axis), a word is in relation to the next one by contiguity. In the sentence "Giampaolo runs the coffee company", between "Giampaolo" and "runs" there is no similarity, just contiguity, and the two words are combinable. The same goes for "runs" and "the coffee" and for "the coffee" and "company".

  As for the selection (paradigmatic, vertical, metaphorical axis), a word is in relation to the others (above and below, in our model) by similarity.

  A metonymy is a figure of speech built on the contiguity relation between literal and figurative term. For instance, "He earns his living by the sweat of his brow" substitutes "He earns his living by the work that causes his brow to sweat". As we can see, it is a syntagmatic relation (subtraction).

  On the other hand, a metaphor is a simile that does not express the terms of comparison. "Golden hair" is a metaphor that originates from the implicit comparison between the color of the hair and the color of gold, a paradigmatic 2 operation.

  These concepts are indispensable for dealing with the three other functions of verbal communication, which we will examine in the next unit.


JAKOBSÓN R. Brain and Language. Cerebral Hemispheres and Linguistic Structure in Mutual Light. Columbus (Ohio), Slavica, 1980. ISBN 0-89357-068-0.
MARCHESE, A. Dizionario di retorica e di stilistica. Milano, Mondadori, 1991. ISBN 88-04-14664-8.

1 JAkobsón 1980.
2 Marchese 1991, p. 186, 187, 190, 191.