Sunday, January 11, 2009



Asyndeton is "The omission of conjunctions from constructions in which they would normally be used" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). A famous example is Caesar's Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered," instead of "I came and I saw and I conquered," or "I came, I saw, and I conquered"). Caesar omits conjunctions (Latin et or atque, meaning "and").

The Greek rhetorician Demetrius, On Style 192-194 (tr. Doreen C. Innes), comments on the disjointed, dramatic effect of asyndeton:
(192) First, it [clarity] involves the use of normal words, secondly the use of connectives. Sentences which are unconnected and disjointed throughout are always unclear. For the beginning of each clause is obscured by the lack of connectives, as in the prose of Heraclitus, for it is mostly this lack which makes it darkly obscure. (193) The disjointed style is perhaps better for immediacy, and that same style is also called the actor's style since the asyndeton stimulates dramatic delivery, while the written style is easy to read, and this is the style which is linked closely together and, as it were, safely secured by connectives. This is why Menander, who mostly omits connectives, is acted, while Philemon is read. (194) To show that asyndeton suits an actor's delivery, let this be an example: "I conceived, I gave birth, I nurse, my dear." In this disjointed form the words will force anyone to be dramatic, however reluctantly—and the cause is the asyndeton. If you link it together to say, "I conceived and I gave birth and I nurse," you will by using the connectives substantially lower the emotional level, and anything emotional is always undramatic.
Asyndeton also creates the effect of speed, according to other Greek rhetoricians, e.g. Hermogenes, Types of Style 2.1 (tr. Cecil W. Wooten):
Now we shall deal with those figures that are necessarily concise and rapid. The following are of this kind. First of all there is asyndeton, or lack of connectives, used in conjunction with short phrases or words: "He came to the council, a degree was proposed" (24.11) or "Amphipolis, Potidaea, Methone, Pagasae" (1.9).
Hermogenes' examples are from the speeches of Demosthenes. See also Apsines of Gadara, Art of Rhetoric 3.26 (tr. George A. Kennedy):
Some, as I say, are encomiastic and they give a detailed account of good works; these, then, are rather stately and panegyrical but there is in them something tiresome. This then should be counteracted either by apology in advance or by showing that the account is necessary while claiming to leave out much or by introducing many points as confutation (of what an opponent claims), or (by listing items) without connecting particles; for this figure creates an impression of swiftness or at least of moving on.
Among Latin rhetoricians Quintilian 9.3.50 (tr. H.E. Butler) discusses asyndeton:
But both the last example and the last but one involve a different figure as well, which, owing to the absence of connecting particles, is called dissolution (asyndeton), and is useful when we are speaking with special vigour [instantius]: for it at once impresses the details on the mind and makes them seem more numerous than they really are. Consequently, we apply this figure not merely to single words, but to whole sentences, as, for instance, is done by Cicero in his reply to the speech which Metellus made to the public assembly: "I ordered those against whom information was laid, to be summoned, guarded, brought before the senate: they were led into the senate," while the rest of the passage is constructed on similar lines. This kind of figure is also called brachylogy, which may be regarded as detachment without loss of connexion. The opposite of this figure of asyndeton is polysyndeton, which is characterised by the number of connecting particles employed.
as does the author of Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.30.41 (tr. Harry Caplan):
Asyndeton is a presentation in separate parts, conjunctions being suppressed, as follows: "Indulge your father, obey your relatives, gratify your friends, submit to the laws." Again: "Enter into a complete defence, make no objection, give your slaves to be examined, be eager to find the truth." The figure has animation and great force, and is suited to concision.
The word asyndeton is derived from the Greek adjective ἀσύνδετος (asyndetos), defined by Liddell-Scott-Jones as "I. unconnected, loose" and "II. of language, without conjunctions." The Greek adjective asyndetos is one of a large class of words with an "alpha privative" prefix (a-), which negates the rest of the word following the prefix. In Latin, the prefix in- often has the same function, as do the prefixes a-, non-, un-, and the suffix -less in English.

For some time I have been collecting examples of asyndeton in which juxtaposed adjectives are themselves privative, e.g. Recently Hans van der Hoeven (via email) suggested some additions to my list of asyndetic, privative adjectives. One of his suggestions was Seneca, Phoenissae 223 (tr. John G. Fitch):
nefandus incestificus execrabilis (evil, incestuous, accursed)
If we leave out execrabilis, the pair nefandus incestificus is a series of asyndetic, privative adjectives, despite the different prefixes ne- and in-. Nefandus is literally "unmentionable" (from ne plus fari), hence "heinous, abominable," and incestificus is literally "making unchaste" (from in, castus, and facere).

Friedrich Ritschl, Opuscula Philologica, vol. 4 (Ad Epigraphicam et Grammaticam Spectantia) (Leipzig: Teubner, 1878), p. 285, lists some examples of adjectives in ne- with their counterparts in in-, such as nefandus and infandus; nesciens and insciens; nescius and inscius; nesapius and insipiens, insipiens; necopinus and inopinus. See also E. Barrault, Traité des synonymes de la langue latine (Paris: Hachette, 1853) pp. 247-249 (Synonymes à radicaux identiques: In et ne).

Similar examples in English involving different prefixes are John Milton, Samson Agonistes 1424:
dishonorable, impure, unworthy
and Edwin Arlington Robinson, Octaves II.4:
disqualified, unsatisfied, inert.
Some bibliographical references on asyndeton for my own use:

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