So, I’m sitting in a pre-operation cubicle as a designated driver and pre-operation emotional support cheerleader, aware of the bustle outside our curtained cave and mildly distracted by the booming exchange between patient and pal in an adjoining cubicle when a sentence fragment hit me with the same impact as, “Not the last dead thing I kept in my freezer,” or “We all smell the same when we’re dead,” overheard conversations that provided me with a wealth of material and more than enough room for extravagant conjecture.
I’ll type it out in monotonic plain text and then dive into today’s treatise on the subject and on the premise that English differs from the Chinese languages, Thai, Igbo, Yaouba, Punjabu, Zulu, and Navaho in that it is not a tonal language.
Try to imitate a Valley Girl without using run-on sentences, nasal resonance, breathy vocal fry, and high rising termination, also known as “uptalk”.
Back to that subject as we examine this awkwardly overheard fragment.
“Well, his mother was murdered…”
I’ll begin by guessing that I have had fewer than one conversation about freezing corpses, body farms, or murder in any setting; those sorts of exchanges just haven’t come up as I stir the sugar into my coffee. There are any number of graphic and unmentionable subjects that I have heard in my daily life, on film, and on social media. I’m not at my conversational best when a friend describes the process by which his septum was repaired, but would not fall into hyper-alert concentration were I to overhear that kind of description. There’s something about conversational comfort with grave subjects that raises questions I am too polite to pursue.
I’ll never know what was kept in the freezer, and imagination runs wild. The sound of a gurney scraping a doorway obliterated the rest of the conversation so that I am left with a world of imagined scenarios, most of which I probably picked up on The Sopranos.
Here’s where tonal emphasis comes in. Let’s begin with “Well…”
I don’t know when “Well” became the common first response to almost any question; I no longer know what the word means when used as the kickoff of an observation.. Listen to any interview. The interrogator lobs a softball question to a guest, knowing that the responder is fully able to handle complexity but hoping to keep it simple for the legion of distracted listeners who haven’t read the book or seen the studies.
I’m prepared to bet that 90% of respondents begin with “Well”.
It’s a heck of a word, one of the very few that can be an adverb (The interviewer is well known), an adjective (I had been ill, but now I‘m well), a noun (Yet another penny was tossed in the well”, and an interjection (Well, well, well what has the cat dragged in), and a verb (The tears welled from her eyes as she remembered watching The Notebook).
Well and good, as some would say, but what does the word mean in this context?
“Well, his mother was murdered…”?
Does it suggest a need for balance? Yes, the person in question has behaved shamefully, but … his mother was murdered? Does it convey a patronizing conviction that this guy is a jerk, and we know that because his mother was murdered? Is it a place keeper, allowing the respondent to come up with something, anything, to separate this guy from any number of other guys whose mothers were not murdered?
Dunno. Let’s move on.
Intonation is hardly in play now as “his” can be a possessive or a defining particular, but “mother” demands some verbal acuity.
“…his MOTHER was murdered” lets the listener know just how abominable and uncommon this event truly is. Not just the delivery guy or the plumber, but his MOTHER.
“…his Mother? was murdered” indicates some confusion as to which relative was actually pushed under a bus or whatever. Sorry, Sopranos again. Might have been his dad? Maybe the nanny? Can’t quite remember.
Finally, “his mother (long pause) was murdered” suggests a personal connection with the victim not simply an accounting of fact. “I need a minute. I’m not over it yet.”
It takes but a moment to realize that “was murdered” might be a matter of fact or an explanation depending upon intonation. In robotic delivery — “hismotherwasmurdered” — gets the info out of the way. No need to linger here. As an explanatory aid it offers an excuse: “Yes, Tom did dance naked on the copying machine, but his mother WAS murdered.”
Rounding third now, “murdered”.
“Hey, Bob. What happened to Tom’s mother?
“She was MURDERED!!!!!” Sound of the clang, the cash register, the phone alarm, whatever, on any episode of Law and Order — Dun Dun!
“She was murdered?” Two possible deliveries. “Wait, what?” or “I know she was alive once, but murdered?”
“She was murdered,” delivered with flat affect. “That’s what the world has come to. That’s what to expect if you have expensive shoes.”
Look, I understand that murder is a bad way to go out, and I would be sorry that his mother was murdered had I ANY context in which to place the fragment. Perhaps one ought not toss observations of that gravity in a crowded surgical unit where cloth curtains divide one patient from the next? My work here is with language.
One of my favorite diversions is the “What I said … What I should have said” constructions that illustrate how far off course any rejoinder can be. Barring any other overheard confessions, that could be the subject of the next rhapsody. Stay tuned.