Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Confessional

I think my bank account must have some impact on my linguistic judgment. So I'll blame my unfair impressions on my low funds. I have pennies envy.

Because I'm a linguist I feel guilty having a negative opinion about some lexical terms. I'm constantly telling my class that usage doesn't necessarily betray an attitude beyond those that are part of the truth conditions of an utterance. Accents don't necessarily indicate an attitude. Even hoity-toity ones. And terminology is conventional and often determined by community. Jargon isn't always a way of excluding others or bragging about being a part of an elite group.

And yet…

I recently read a short line from someone lamenting that their car was damaged. That's fine. But the writer of this little chirping complaint included the fact that it was his 7 series that was damaged. My first thought: well then I don't care.

Grice's maxim of quantity states that the speaker will give as much information as possible but no more than necessary. By telling me that it it was a 7 series I must assume that he thinks it's necessary information.

Something I own was scratched by a piece of metal.

Yeah. Not enough information. Not really newsworthy. I need more.

Something I own that will cost a lot of money to fix was scratched by a piece of metal.

OK. Worth telling me about but conspicuous in it's vagueness. Why not tell me what it was.

My car was scratched by a piece of metal. This I understand. I need no more information. If my car was scratched by a piece of metal, I'd be upset. No matter what make of car. But if you tell me that your 7 series was scratched… well you just lost my sympathy. I'm willing to invoke the Grice defense. Your violation of the maxim of quantity leads me to assume that there are other implications. Implications of you being an ass. Sorry. I'm just playing the odds.

But then I catch myself rolling my eyes when I hear someone referring to their car as a beemer — even when I don't sense a violation of Grice's maxim of quantity.

Let's imagine a conversation about an Oscar party.

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'll be taking the BMW.


Violation. I didn't need to know what kind of car. It's not relevant. You're bragging. I can tell.

However:

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'll be taking my car.
-What do you drive?
-A BMW.


No violation. No problem. BMW is a relevant answer.

So obviously I'd judge the following as a violation:

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'm taking the Beemer.


But then I feel guilty judging you in the following exchange:

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'll be taking my car.
-What do you drive?
-A beemer.


I should be able to accept that beemer is simply the word that you use to refer to your car and I have no reason to think that your term indicates anything about your attitude. I know this in my mind. But my heart tells me not to trust you. Tread softly.

8 comments:

  1. Consider what you reveal by your objection! I wasn't even sure what a 7-series was until the end of this post...

    Then again, there's something annoying about the guy who claims not to know what a 7-series is, isn't there? A little too holy, I suppose.

    "What's that--Rolex?--come again?"

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  2. you're right! am i just as much an asshole for assuming everyone knows that the 7 series is a particularly expensive line of bmw?

    i guess freud was right. what i really hate is my own failing that i see in others.

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  3. Of course, if the guy owns two cars, he may feel it's Gricean to tell you which one...

    And the guy who claims not to know what something relatively common is ... I know a guy like that and he's annoying as hell. I can accept "I don't like football" and "Football is stupid and a waste of my time" is a bit rude but plausible, but "Redskins? Is that some sports team?" is just too much. Work hard at ignoring your surroundings, do you?

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  4. BMW drivers are generally assholes, so I see nothing wrong with judging them harshly.

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  5. My dad has a BMW...

    ...and I judge him harshly.

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  6. ridger: that's true. then there's also the possibility that in some cases he's just trying to make sure i know how many he owns. and were back around again.

    casey: the views expressed by commenters on this blog are not necessarily...

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  7. All this is predicated on your not caring. If he's talking to you (or me) I agree, but if he's talking to someone who does care which car was damaged?

    But this is a lot of work to generalize a specific. "Beemer" is a pretentious and annoying way to brag.

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  8. true. i think this is why pragmatics chapters in intro texts often take such completely different approaches. almost by definition it's a topic that's full of "but what if..."

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