Language-Specific Rhetoric Strategies: the Russian Concept of ‘Concession’

Valentina Apresjan, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow

Several language-specific features are found on the conceptual level. Central linguistic concepts or language key-words (Wierzbicka 1997) are words that, apart from their direct literal meaning, carry certain language-specific or culture-specific connotations. To a learner of Russian and English, respectively, it is essential to know not only the dictionary meaning of these words but also the place they occupy in the language system. It is up to the linguists to describe such linguistic key concepts and make this information available to language learners.

For Russian, one of the most fundamental undertakings in this direction is the New Explanatory Dictionary of Synonyms of the Russian Language (Ju. D. Apresjan), which describes linguistically relevant properties of words and their place in the language system.

Such specificity is typical not only of individual words, but of entire conceptual subsystems of language. Thus, it is necessary to consider such systems and to create an adequate linguistic description, informative for a language learner.

The focus of the present paper is the language-specific subsystem of ‘concession’. This term comprises several lexical items and syntactic constructions (Russian xotja, nesmotrja na, vse-taki, tem ne menee, kak-nikak or their English counterparts  although, even though, particles nevertheless, still, notwithstanding, admittedly), which express the “concessive” relations. The meaning of ‘concession’, which is shared by all concessive words, can be represented as a logical construct. The logical construct in (1) constitutes the core meaning of concession, and is linguistically universal:

(1)  Although X, Y (Although it was raining, we went for a walk) = ‘X is taking place; the speaker thinks that normally if a situation such as X is taking place, then a situation such as non-Y is taking place; now Y is taking place’.

There are concessive words, whose meaning is richer, constituting a part of the rhetoric system of language (admittedly, after all). These items are language-specific and share a certain semantic core:

(2) ‘The speaker says: although I admit that X, I also insist that Y

In its rhetoric capacity concession is related to the issues and concepts of “compromise”, “negotiation”, “common ground”, “tolerance”, “debate”, “conflict resolution”. Concession is one of the central means of constructing a dialogue with an existing or imagined opponent. It can be employed in practically any setting or genre. Since the actual ways of conducting polemics vary greatly from language to language and from culture to culture, this aspect of concession is prone to be language-specific (Russian model of conducting polemics vs. English).

Analysis reveals certain linguistic and cultural peculiarities of the Russian concept of concession. For instance, English lacks precise equivalents of the Russian rhetorical concessive pravda:

(3) Ona dobraja, pravda, glupaja nemnogo
      ‘She is kind; however, I must admit she’s also a bit silly’.

Russian discourse is abundant in “apologetic” concessive items such as pravda. Many concessive items presuppose that the speaker admits the shakiness of his or her own arguments and the strength of the opponent’s position. Russian concessives are used in order to “soften” the utterance, make it less categorical, more acceptable to the addressee. Other concessive items that hold an undertone of apology are zato, kak-nikak, vot tol’ko, vse-taki 2, vse ˛e 2 and some others.

The peculiarities of the English notion of concession might be conditioned by the fact that it is geared towards “compromise”, “negotiation”, and “conflict-solving”, prominent in the Anglo-Saxon culture. Corresponding English concessive items, that express a certain degree of agreement with the addressee (or opponent), do not convey any apology, but represent a way of establishing common ground, then proceeding with one’s own argument. They are tools of reaching a compromise: true, admittedly, indeed, sure enough, assuredly; these are often followed by adversative items such as however, despite etc.

The differing set and usage of concessives is an important linguistic and cultural peculiarity that distinguishes English and Russian and, therefore, a fact worth teaching to the learners of both languages.