Academic journal article The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The Pragmatic Force of Negation in "A Noctumall upon St.Lucies Day

Academic journal article The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The Pragmatic Force of Negation in "A Noctumall upon St.Lucies Day

Article excerpt


Focusing on the use of negative markers, their pragmatic force and meaning-making potential, and informed by the concepts of text-word theory, schema theory, overt and covert negation and affirmative juxtaposition, this paper takes John Donne's poem, "A Noctumall Upon St. Lucies Day" as a specific example to show the pragmatic function of negative markers (Pagano, 1994; Nahajec, 2009) in the poem. The main objective is to ascertain how the use of these concepts can help us understand the role of the pragmatic force of negation in creating meaning.

Keywords. Negation, affirmation; pragmatic force, Donne, Text World Theory


Negation is an important cognitive phenomenon of human language. Being the conceptualization of something that does not have material existence, negation is more difficult to process cognitively than affirmation since negatives cannot be realized without the knowledge of their affirmatives. "Negatives are formally and interpretationally marked with respect to affirmative sentences" (Swart, 2006:198). Negation, consequently, is semantically fuller and more complex than its more basic affirmative opposites. Negatives stand as marked in relation to the unmarked affirmatives. "It is a mental process added by language users, and there is thus more semantic content in a negative sentence than in the corresponding affirmative' (Miestamo, 2009:225). Negatives are also seen as derivatives of the affirmatives in both their semantic content and their pragmatic scope: "...pragmatic and psycholinguistic studies of negation have demonstrated that negation might have a greater number of effects..., they all, however, have shown to share a common feature. They all seem to mostly operate on an affirmative concept so that that concept ("X" in "Not X") undergoes some modification while being negated' ( Goira et al, 2010:238).

Although syntactic and morphological studies of negation abound, such is not the case as far as studies on the pragmatic force of negation is concerned. Hence, in this paper, we analyse "A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies's Day" a very complex poem by John Donne to explore the meaning making potential of negation in language using Nahajec's (2009) and Pegano's (1994) models.

Pragmatic Force of Negation

Exhaustive work has been done on the syntactic and morphological properties of negation. However, recent research is now more focused upon its pragmatic function. Nahajec in her paper "Negation and the creation of implicit meaning in poetry" (2009) has investigated the pragmatic function of negative triggers in discourse. Applying Werth's text-world theory, she explores the meaning making potential of negative triggers in a text within cognitive stylistic approach. Her analysis comprises an evaluation of negation in three poems from the point of view of the cooperation that takes place between the reader and the writer to make the text meaningful. She considers negation as a pragmatic tool rather than just an indicator of a semantic relation. Negation is also seen as context dependent phenomenon because the denial of a proposition is possible only when it is conceptualized. The conceptualization of a proposition is a cognitive process in which the hearer or the reader processes the semantic content of the proposition as well as its context of use. The context includes both the local context, i.e., of the preceding text as well as the larger context of social and cultural knowledge shared by the writer and the reader. Another argument that is asserted in the paper is that negation not only denies a proposition but also triggers and defeats expectations creating implicit meaning (Nahajec, 2009:110-117). In the discussion on her theory and method, Nahajec (2009:111) explains cognitive stylistics - quoting Gavin and Steen (2003) - as a branch of stylistics that explains linguistic choices from a cognitive stance and the mental processes that are employed in recovering meaning from both literary and non-literary texts. …

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