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Marked illusions and the corruption of English discourse

By Domenico Pacitti

Markedness in English Discourse: A semiotic approach by Lavinia Merlini Barbaresi. Published in 1988 by Edizioni Zara, Parma, 199 pages.

Lavinia Merlini sets out to devise a working model of markedness in English discourse. Essentially, this means developing a theory to explain whether the basic constituents of a piece of written or spoken English are natural (unmarked) or unnatural (marked).

A moment’s thought should suffice to see that any attempt to base a rigorous theory on so vague and intuitive a notion as naturalness will result in circularity, thus affording at best only the illusion of an explanation. Nor does adopting semiotics as a reference point solve the problem, given the crucially loose nature of the field.


Predictably, the project fails miserably. Mrs Merlini does not really devise any theory at all but simply throws together a few trivial ad hoc points. In order to lend such points importance and respectability, she vainly attempts to relate them to the insights of a number of thinkers and scholars. These include the American logician C.S. Peirce and the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria, neither of whom Mrs Merlini appears to have understood.


Apparently oblivious to these not inconsiderable shortcomings, Mrs Merlini remains quixotically committed to her mission. At one point she seems to recover enough lucidity to describe her final model as “sketchy” and “incomplete”, which is still decidedly overgenerous. But by the end of the book Mrs Merlini's delusions of grandeur have once again taken over, causing her to place herself and Umberto Eco on a symbiotic par as dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.


Mrs Merlini fares no better in writing English than she does in reasoning. Trouble is heralded by the opening sentence of the book, which sets an irritating and insistent pattern. Exactly reproduced as follows, it seems hardly worthy of an English language expert:


“This book is an attempt to connect a variety of phenomena concerning discourse that, agreeing as they do, with intuition–bound notions, appear familiar and obvious, but that actually deserve theoretical investigation.”


As it stands, the sentence is plainly both ungrammatical and meaningless, though one can, of course, see what Mrs Merlini is struggling to say.


Or take the following extract from one of Mrs Merlini's cooking recipes, again from the same opening page:


"But, before, it is curd cheese you add and blend well. You will have liquidised 2 oranges, first, with 2 oz sugar."


But Mrs Merlini's corruption of English is by no means limited to her poor grasp of punctuation. Mistakes relating to other areas of English figure throughout. It is a pity that Mrs Merlini did not take the trouble to learn English properly before insisting on publishing this embarrassing material, thereby at least limiting the damage to those Italian students and aspiring academics who have been obliged to use it as a model for the past fifteen years.


Poor language is further aggravated by overuse of technical jargon, apparently aimed at satisfying the customary Italian academic need to create at all costs an impression of depth and complexity.


The book, which reads strangely like a poor translation from Italian, also contains passages of grammatically correct English that appear incompatible with the more typically Merlinian linguistic traits. The impression is that Mrs Merlini has had some of her work revised, albeit imperfectly. On the other hand, the absence of any formal acknowledgement of such assistance in the book would seem to preclude this, confirming a rare form of linguistic schizophrenia.


Following the publication of this book, Mrs Merlini took up a senior post in English linguistics at the University of Pisa's faculty of modern languages.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on May 5 2003.