Definition of Polyptoton

Polyptoton is a stylistic device that is a rhetorical repetition of the same root word, however, each time the word is repeated in a different way such as the words Iuppiter, lovi, lovis, lovem are derived from a root word “love”.

Features of Polyptoton

Polyptoton is a use of excessive words instead of shorter expressions. It involves an indirect way of expressing things. These words can help embellish sentences to create striking effects. In fact, it happens when the grammatical meaning can be expressed by using syntactical construction instead of morphological marking. The words in polyptoton share the same etymologies. It is sometimes used as superlative and comparative adjectives formed by adding the words like, “more” or “most” instead of suffixes.

Similarity with Antanaclasis

Antanaclasis is another linguistic device which is similar to polyptoton, wherein the similar words are repeated several times but each time with different meanings and that too in the same phrase or sentence. For instance,

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

(Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Examples of Polyptoton from Literature

Example #1

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
of the one Annunciation…..

(The Dry Salvages by T.S Eliot)

There are three Polyptoton examples in the above excerpt. In the second line, the word “wither” is used in two ways (verb and adjective). Also, in the fourth line the word “drift” (noun and adjective) and the word “pray” have been used to give different senses (aadjective and noun) each time.

Example #2

The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength, fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant….”

(Trolius and Cressida by William Shakespeare)

In the excerpt, Shakespeare has repeated three words in different ways in the line. Each time they are creating a different sense. The word, “strong” is repeated as “strength”. In the same way, the root words “fierce” and “skill” are also used twice.

Example #3

My own heart’s heart, and ownest own, farewell…..
My dream?do I dream of bliss?
I have walk’d awake with Truth……For my dark-dawning youth,
Darken’d watching a mother decline
And that dead man at her heart and mine:…
Yet so did I let my freshness die….

Seal’d her mine from her first sweet breath.
Mine, mine by a right, from birth till death.
Mine, mine–our fathers have sworn.

(Maud A Monodrama by Alfred Lord Tennyson)

This is one of the perfect examples of polyptoton in which Tennyson has used the same word in various shapes. Here, it is creating poetic effect by contrasting different forms.

Example #4

‘With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder….”

(Richard II by William Shakespeare)

Here, Shakespeare provides an interesting contrast of different forms of the same root word, “feed”. This repetition also draws attention towards the paradoxical meaning of the word.

Example #5

The signora at every grimace and at every bow smiled a little smile and bowed a little bow….

(Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope)

This is another very good example of polyptoton. Here, the words are used in multiple forms. “Bow” is used as a noun and then as a verb. Similarly, “smile” is used twice in two ways with different meanings.

Example #6

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove …..

(Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare)

Again Shakespeare has employed polyptoton as a stylistic device. The word “alter” is used as a verb and in the same line also as a noun. In the third line, “remove” is repeated in a different sense but the root words are same.

Function of Polyptoton

Polyptoton enhances the meaning of a word persuasively and dramatically in writing or speech by employing a cognate of the words. It is also used to create rhetorical effect by the articulation of a speech or statement. Although it helps provide an exciting contrast of different words in a text, it is also in didactic sense to create dramatic and poetic effects. Besides, it brings a paradox or an irony in a text to the surface. It is widely used in popular dramas and poems while several political leaders have also used this device in their speeches to emphasize specific points.

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