What is a Litotes?
The Litotes (from Greek “litótēs” = simplicity, restraint) is a rhetorical stylistic device. It belongs to the tropics and is closely related to irony .
What are tropics?
Tropics is the generic term for a number of stylistic devices . In a trope (also: Tropus) is always an improper and pictorial expression. The meaning is not directly formulated, but replaced by another linguistic phrase. This comes either from the immediate vicinity or from another area of imagination. It is used to make what is said more vivid and lively or to decorate a speech.
The term derives from the Greek tropos = turn . Even in Greek antiquity, tropics were popular as a means of rhetoric or stylistics. They were separated from each other and individually defined. The tropics include allegory , antonomatism, emphasis, euphemism , hyperbole , irony , catachesis (dead metaphor), Litotes, Metalepse, metaphor , metonymy , periphrase, personification , riddles, sarcasm, and synekdoche .
The Litotes belongs to the word figures and is
- either the affirmation by double negation or by negation of the opposite
- or the emphasis on what is meant by understatement and weakening.
Double negation and negation of the opposite are often not clearly separated. It is true that the negation of the opposite can be defined as a special form of double negation; nevertheless, the differences can be named and clearly distinguish both forms.
Affirmation by double negation
With almost all forms of double negation an affirmation is expressed in the German language. This also applies to the Litotes. In the case of double negation, a negative particle or a negative pronoun is called twice.
Examples of double negation
A mother accuses her daughter of going out without her knowledge. But the daughter told her about the invitation to a birthday party. She says:
“It’s not true (1) that I did not mention that (2).”
(= “I told you.”)
A police investigator says about a suspect:
“I do not believe (1) that he has nothing (2) to deal with.”
(= “I think he is the culprit.”)
An elderly woman points out with a view to her future:
“I have no (1) fear of not getting any (2) pension.”
(= “I’m sure I’ll get the pension.”)
Affirmation by negation of the opposite
When negating the opposite, the negative particle or the negative pronoun is mentioned only once. The second negation occurs indirectly by the mention of the opposite.
Examples of negation of the opposite
A music lover says about a world-famous tenor:
“He’s not (1) the worst singer (2).”
(= “He is a great master of his trade.”)
A woman complains about her internet acquaintance:
“He really is not a (1) gentleman (2).”
(= “He is a rude lout.”)
Her friend still likes the man. She answers:
“I still do not (1) despise him (2).”
(= »I still find him attractive.«)
Negation of the opposite as well packaged criticism
The negation of the opposite can also be a way to apply criticism in a gentle way that is better served by the addressee than a “frontal attack”: “You are no longer the leanest” sounds more nice than: “You have become fat.” “She is not a heroine” expresses more understanding of human weaknesses than: “She is cowardly.”
This use of the Litotes is characteristic of the ironic language style of Thomas Mann . He does not say about the old consul, Johann Buddenbrook, that he dresses fashionably, but: “At the age of seventy, he was not unfaithful to the fashion of his youth.”
Highlighted by understatement and mitigation
In another form of the Litotes the actually meant statement is underlined by weakening and undercutting. In this way, appreciation, praise and admiration can be expressed.
Examples of reinforcement by understatement and mitigation
A German teacher sees a pupil reading Rilke in his spare time saying:
“Rilke is said to have written passable poems, I’ve heard.”
(= “Rilke is one of the greatest poets.”)
He expresses his appreciation and approval of the pupil’s clever choice of reading materials.
A man visits his brother for the first time in his newly acquired, stately mansion. He says:
“You’ve got a nice house there.”
(= “Wow, what a fantastic house!”)
He states that he is impressed by the size and features of the house. This type of understatement is particularly appropriate when applied to someone else’s talents, possessions or achievements. The irony of understatement is a pleasant compliment.
By contrast, when talking about oneself in this form, one hides behind apparent understatement. Anyone who always speaks of his “hut” and thus means a magnificent estate on the Côte d’Azur, does not mean to emphasize his modesty but his luxurious lifestyle.
Relationship to the hyperbola
Related to the Litotes is the stylistic device of the hyperbola . It is an exaggeration emphasis, using the reverse language method to achieve the same goal.