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What Is Polyptoton?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
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  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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Polyptoton is a syntax event in which a speaker or writer uses the same word of a language in various forms within the same phrase or sentence. This kind of linguistic device provides an interesting contrast of different forms of the same word. It can be used in a pedagogical sense, for poetic impact, or in other various ways.

One use of polyptoton is in the recitation of verbs in their various conjugations. Many people are familiar with the recitation of verb forms by schoolchildren. This is a case where this linguistic device is used for instructional purposes.

Along with its use in contrasting verb or word forms for instruction, polyptoton is also often used by speakers for dramatic or poetic effect. There are a wide range of examples of this kind of syntax. Famous playwrights have used it for contrast in lines of dramas and poems that are still popular today.

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Many political leaders have also used polyptoton in speeches. Using this kind of syntax often serves to underline a specific word that the speaker wants to call attention to. For example, historic U.S. president John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, included a line that goes as follows: “Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are…” – here, the two words “battle” and “embattled” represent two forms of the root word “battle,” which helps Kennedy to underscore the idea of a conflict, a great conflict that is extremely relevant to the situation at hand.

A similar device related to polyptoton is another linguistic device called antanaclasis, in which identical words are reused multiple times, but with different meanings, in the same sentence or phrase. Here, another example of a U.S. president’s inaugural address is relevant. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his inaugural address in 1933, faced economic pressures in America and the growing hostilities of the Second World War with this statement: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The first use of the word “fear” is a verb, referring to many fearful Americans, but the second use of the word “fear” is a noun, signifying that the fears of the time were self-generating, and could be conquered through confidence and aggressive action.

The above sentence effectively represents the idea of antanaclasis, where the same word appears repeatedly with different meanings. While some might argue that the two uses of the word “fear” represent different forms, calling the statement an example of polyptoton, by the technical definition of antanaclasis, the phrase most accurately fits into this category. This is because the two words being used are the same in both spelling and pronunciation.

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