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Browsing this site recently, I noticed a lot of discussion, not to say bickering, about whether some languages are more expressive or nuanced than others. It reminded me of a question I had in my head long before I discovered Stack Exchange: how do languages that don't use stress for emphasis convey shades of meaning? An example [paraphrased from memory] from an almost-forgotten BBC radio show :-

Patient: I was at an orgy the other night ...

Doctor: An orgy you say?

Patient: Yes, I live in Purley.

Now, if the patient had said, "Yes, I live in Purley", it would have been mildly funny, suggesting that Purley is a place where orgies often happen. But by stressing the word 'live', he's saying that it's understood that Purley is the place for orgies, but because he lives there, it's easy for him to get to them.

My question is, Can this nuance be expressed in other languages, whether by emphasis or by re-phrasing? I know, for example, that in French, "I live in Purley might be expressed as something like "C'est a Purley que j'habite", but I can't see how you'd exactly translate "I live in Purley". [By the way, I asked this question of a multi-lingual EU translator, and he couldn't get past finding different countries' equivalents of Purley.]

  • There are language specific nuances and cultural aspects that are simply not translatable. What is funny for Japanese may be just boring to a Portuguese for instance. What point do you want to make with your question? – user66974 Mar 5 '15 at 20:57
  • @Josh61, My point is, trying not to be Anglocentric and because I've read here and there that all languages can be equally expressive, how do other languages do it? – David Garner Mar 5 '15 at 20:59
  • And actually, one can achieve rather different meanings in English too, without italicizing or relying on intonation alone. Consider: "I believe you." "I do believe you." "It's you I believe." "It's me who believes you." – anemone Mar 6 '15 at 7:59
  • Good, @anemone. I'd be interested, all the same, in seeing some examples of what other languages do. And as an aside, when I learned French in the 1960s, I was taught that stress-emphasis wasn't used. But watching "La Retour de Martin Guerre", I noticed Gerard Depardieu insisting, "C'est MON village, c'est MA femme...". Could any French-speaker comment on this? – David Garner Mar 6 '15 at 9:14
  • By the way, if you are particularly interested in French, there is a site dedicated to the French language here at SE. – anemone Mar 7 '15 at 17:29
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There's a Wikipedia article on topic and comment in a sentence that strives to explain how various languages devise to stress the focal element in a sentence.

I quote the initial passage:

In linguistics, the topic, or theme, of a sentence is what is being talked about, and the comment (rheme or focus) is what is being said about the topic. That the information structure of a clause is divided in this way is generally agreed on, but the boundary between topic/theme depends on grammatical theory.

The topic-comment distinction was studied in great level of detail by the Prague Linguistic Circle, presumably in connection to various shades of meaning one can achieve in Czech by opting for different word orders in a sentence. (Czech, as a richly inflected language, offers a good deal of freedom to the speaker as regards word order.)

  • Thank-you @Anenome. I've just skimmed that article, and I'll return to it at length. +1 – David Garner Mar 5 '15 at 22:16

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