A morphopragmatic analysis of English and Italian negative prefixes

Elisa Mattiello
Dipartimento di Anglistica - Università di Pisa - Via Santa Maria 67 - 56126 Pisa (Italy)

Published 2010-01-16


Pragmatic investigations of negation have hitherto concentrated on syntactic aspects of the language, such as the negation of predicate expressions (Hübler, 1987), the negation of the contrary (Hoffmann, 1987) and litotes (Caffi, 1989). However, there are no morphopragmatic studies on affixal negation previous to the present contribution (see Dressler and Merlini Barbaresi, 1994). This paper explores the regular pragmatic effects produced by English negative prefixes (dis-, in-, non-, un-) and by their Italian counterparts (dis-, in-, non-, s-). In both languages, pragmatic meanings are associated with the feature [cautious] when negative derived words are functional to politeness and euphemistic reticence (cf. E. unsuccess vs. flop / It. insuccesso vs. fiasco), and with the feature [detached] when they help the speaker to save his/her own face and, simultaneously, to prevent the hearer’s negative reaction, as in the case of understatement (cf. E. inelegant vs. rude / It. indelicato vs. villano). From a dynamic perspective, negative derived words are used to modify the illocutionary force of speech acts, esp. towards downgrading. So, according to the context, they may favour either altruistic or egoistic mitigation.