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Thursday, April 6, 2017


So consider there are two uses of the adjective:  

The verdant hills of Ireland

A pathetic drunk

A loud-mouthed frat boy

Wise Athena...  

A privileged white dude...  

In these cases the adjective adds information we already associate with the rest of the noun phrase.  So we think of the hills of Ireland as being green,  drunks as being pathetic, etc...  We call this the epithet, and in Spanish, in these cases, we put the adjective before the noun.  

I find this use unsettling, because we can smuggle in a judgment simply with an adjective. If I say "a screaming infant" or a "callow youth," I am making a judgment about an entire category. 

The other uses of the adjective is to distinguish part of the class of nouns from other parts.  So I if I said:

"Contemporary Egyptians knows little about the ancient Egyptians" the adjective is serving that purpose.  In Spanish we put that kind of adjective after the verb. We know this is different because we can omit the epithet and the meaning of the sentence doesn't really change:  

"How I remember the verdant hills of Ireland"

"How I remember the hills of Ireland"

"You are a drunk!"

"You are a pathetic drunk!"  

But if the adjective fulfills the function of distinguishing the meaning is not preserved if the adjective is omitted:  

"I was married to a stingy man" // *"I was married to a man" //. *"The Egyptians know little of the Egyptians." 

There is a technique in which  the poet will put one adjective before and one after:  "rugosa piel inmóvil" (Vicente Aleixandre).  Both adjectives are descriptive, and don't really differ in their function all that much.  It is more of a literary flourish. 



Vance Maverick said...

Herrick led me by a side route to another version of the mystery of epithets. I noticed that searching for "Robert Herrick" showed a picture of a different writer, and since the search itself is the best-known product of my employer, I filed a bug internally. In the ensuing correspondence, someone wrote (recycling information found online), "Robert Herrick (poet) is popularly known as 'Son of Ben'".

Which is as much of a pet peeve of mine as the nonrestrictive adjective is for you. Nine times out of ten, writers who use the "known as" formula don't actually intend any concrete interpretation -- for example, that "Son of Ben" could be substituted for Herrick's name in a sentence. (For comparison, the DJ just said "A little music from the Red Headed Stranger -- Willie Nelson." So he was just half-confident of the epithet, which is more than I'd wager on Herrick.)

Jonathan said...

That's funny. I can see how the mistake was made by a circuitous process if you didn't know that the tribe of Ben (or sons of Ben in the plural) were a group of several poets inspired by Ben Jonson.