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Nov 10 / Steve Runge

The many faces of ‘this’, part 3

This is a continuation from my post Saturday on referential indefinites like “this guy”. It talked about how you can add the “referential indefinite” this to some indefinite, non-referential expression like “a guy” and make it referential.  You may not be able to pick “this guy” out of a line-up, but the expression is specific enough to build a story on, to add information about him. 

I also talked about how using this device in a context where it is not needed or appropriate can bring about certain pragmatic effects. For instance, we looked at the effect of using a referential indefinite for something or someone that is already well-established. Even though it is unnecessary, it still accomplishes something. We saw how in both English and Greek this usage can bring about a “distancing” of the speaker toward the entity referred to. We looked at the use in Luke 15:29-30, what Greek grammarians call the “contemptuous” usage of “this”. I noted how other thematic elements are combined besides the referential indefinite. There is a less personal “your son” instead of the more intimate “my brother”. Both are true relations, but the former does not imply a relation to the older brother. There is also a redundant relative clause that has the effect of recharacterizing the younger brother in a particularly bad light, the whore-mongering squanderer of money. Nice. 

The “distancing” effect is achieved by the “misuse” of the referential indefinite where it is not needed. Referential indefinites signal that the speaker does not expect the hearer to be able to pick the entity out of a line up. I may know who it is, but I do not expect you to know. The effect is to communicate distance. This is not a semantic meaning that is inherent in “this”. To claim there is a contemptuous “this” gives you little insight into what is really going on under the hood linguistically.

Now for the promised OT example. Remember: this similarity in effects achieved by the usage is not due to English being closely related to Greek or Hebrew. It has to do with how God has wired us to process language. There is a referential indefinite used  with a well-established participant in Exodus 32:1 and 23 that achieves a comparable pragmatic effect of distancing. The well-established entity is none other than Moses. This is adapted from p. 161 of my dissertation excerpt, and based on a claim about this usage in English by Pamela Downing (1996:133). It you like this, skim the portions of the dissertation I posted, especially chapters 6 and 7. 

Exodus 32 recounts the creation of the golden calf as Aaron and the Israelites’ response to Moses’ 40 day absence from the camp. The people are getting worried, and they ask Aaron to make a god for them in v. 1. In order to bolster their request, they state: ‘for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ From a linguistic point of view, it is as though the people are literally reintroducing Moses, as though implying that they do not expect Aaron to remember who ‘this guy‘ is. Moses is Aaron’s brother, for crying out loud. Like he would forget his brother! The introduction of Moses is accomplished using a referential indefinite idiom. But wait, there is more. Just like in the Prodigal story, there is an unneeded relative clause, as though to restrict which “Moses” is intended: ‘the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt‘.

Let’s paraphrase this with a little overkill: “Oh, you remember this guy, right? About yeh high, carries ‘the staff of God’ and goes by the name of Moses? Remember? He was the guy who brought us up from Egypt.” Do you see how these elements combine to achieve the effect? We are not talking about using some subverted semantic meaning of the words. The effects are achieved by skillfully using the resources of the language in the right way in the right context to bring about the right pragmatic effect. You might even say it was inspired writing! The pragmatic effect is nearly identical to that achieved in English cited from Downing (1996:133), viz. the people distancing themselves from Moses, and implying much the same for Aaron. Aaron even uses the same phrasing when he responds to Moses in v. 23. Isn’t grammar wonderful?


  1. Mike / Nov 10 2008

    That was a great discussion. My wife and I have a little joke where we unnecessarily use “this” for comedic effect, such as, “Let’s take this car,” when there’s only one car to use to begin with.

  2. Paul O'Rear / Dec 2 2008

    Wonderful stuff, Steve!

    I’m not sure this exact usage of ‘this’ falls into the same category, but I’ve often read it that way:

    I then said to them, “Anyone with gold, strip it off!” They gave it to me. I threw it into the fire and out came *this* calf!’ [emphasis mine]

    The New Jerusalem Bible. 1985 (Ex 32:24). New York: Doubleday.

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