September 04, 2005

Modes of emphasis

The attempts to explain the delayed response to Katrina are inspiring bloggers to generate lots of examples of how emphatic speech is rendered in English text: repetitions, italics, boldface, capital letters, multiple marks of punctuation, and taboo words.

I cited one case yesterday. After the AP quoted DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff

“We were prepared for one catastrophe,” Chertoff said. “The second catastrophe, frankly, added a level of challenge that no one has seen before.”

Josh Marshall responded with italics and repetitions:

Clearly, clearly, the hurricane and the flood were part of the same natural disaster. This isn't like a tornado being followed up by an earthquake. The flooding is part of the hurricane. Clearly, clearly, the hurricane and the flood were part of the same natural disaster. This isn't like a tornado being followed up by an earthquake. The flooding is part of the hurricane.

This morning, CNN quotes FEMA director Michael Brown

"Saturday and Sunday, we thought it was a typical hurricane situation -- not to say it wasn't going to be bad, but that the water would drain away fairly quickly," Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown said today. "Then the levees broke and (we had) this lawlessness. That almost stopped our efforts." ...
"Katrina was much larger than we expected," he said.

and Brendan Loy responded (in a post entitled "You have got to be kidding me")

No one -- NO ONE -- who knows anything about New Orleans's geography and topography and levee system would ever have thought for a single moment on Saturday and Sunday that Katrina, if it followed the predicted path, was going to be a "typical hurricane situation." Jesus Christ!! For how many years now has this article been out there?!? And this one? And many more like them? Did Michael Brown never read them? Was he not familiar with the science? Was FEMA's director unaware of what has been acknowledged for many years as the #1 most serious natural disaster threat in all of America?!?

If the braintrust running this country really thought that "the water would drain away fairly quickly" after a direct hit on New Orleans from a major hurricane, then my God, our country is run by the most absolutely incompetent bunch of nitwits imaginable. The city is below sea level. Once it floods, there is nowhere for the water to "drain away" to! Everyone knows this!!!

Wasn't the government studying this stuff? Didn't they have all sorts of "war games" and disaster drills, because they had been told by the scientists that the exact scenario that was being predicted on Saturday and Sunday would produce a catastrophic, months-long flood in New Orleans? So what the FUCK is Michael Brown talking about? (I'm sorry, I don't swear on my blog very often, but this is just absolutely fucking ridiculous.)

Actually, the emphasis has been growing for a while. On Friday 9/2/2005, Ed Oswald at WeatherBlog complained about the people who say that local officials should have called for an evacuation earlier:

Others say lets call for an evacuation on Thursday or Friday. That's ridiculous. In this day and age, you just can't call for evacuations 48 hours out period. Because if you're wrong, YOU DO MORE DAMAGE TO THE WHOLE SYSTEM, and next time people won't take the evacuation orders seriously.

Also on Friday, Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a Las Vegas policeman that included passages like these:

Ask yourself this: What if Al-Qaeda blew up the levees instead of the hurricane? Would the response have been any different?

No. It wouldn't. That city flooded in a day. And if it were Las Vegas, I would have been in some operations center watching people try to decide who gets to starve to death and who gets to get on a bus to Los Angeles or Phoenix. And there would be no certainty that I'd be on that bus in time to protect my wife and kids.

But one thing sure would have been different.

They wouldn't have had a whole week to sort it out and know what's coming. They were supposed to KNOW this already. It will have been FOUR YEARS next weekend since someone probably said, "Hey, what if..."

And for that, the whole stack of them should be fired.

There's one typographical mode of emphasis that I haven't yet seen in the Katrina blame-blogging, though I'm sure it's out there somewhere: individual words presented as typographically separate sentences, like "The. Worst. Ever."

The use of repetitions and taboo words in text is pretty much a direct reflection of their use in speech. However, the other typographical modes of emphasis are at best an indirect way of alluding to the many ways of highlighting things in speech: greater loudness, slower speech rate, increased pitch range, harsher voice quality, off-setting pauses, hyperarticulation and so on. The vocal expressions of emphasis are generally natural rather than arbitrary -- we don't expect to find a culture where you emphasize things by mumbling -- but some of the naturalness is audience-related (because of increasing the perceptual salience of the emphasized material) and some of it is speaker-related (because of expressing things like level of physiological arousal and strong positive or negative emotion).

At least with respect to the audience-related aspects of emphasis, the typographical interventions can have their own life, independent of any attempt to represent spoken modes of emphasis. Increased font size, type face, color, spacing and so on have their own effects on the visual salience of the text presented. When I was growing up, the stereotype was that typographical indications emphasis -- especially italics (or underlining) and multiple marks of punctuation -- were a feminine thing. It seems pretty clear that this has changed.

Anyhow, the discussions of Katrina are a rich source of examples of emphasis. I've mentioned the textual ones because reading Brendan Loy's blog this morning brought them forcefully to my attention, but there are no doubt plenty of spoken examples these days as well, in media coverage and in podcasting.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 4, 2005 07:52 AM