Thursday, June 11, 2009

Palin and Letterman and cooperation and coordination

A lot of linguistic fodder packed into one segment on Keith Olbermann's little show:

Intentions Inferred through Available Extensions

Sarah and Todd Palin have lashed out at David Letterman for making sexual jokes about their fourteen-year-old daughter. Letterman didn't name a daughter but he claimed the joke was intended as a dig at the older daughter, Bristol. How would we know? Daughter has the intention (think of a dictionary definition) of a 'female offspring.' But when using a term that then has several possible extensions (the actual person or object being referenced) we look for clues as to where the speaker in 'pointing.'

The joke used the phrase 'knocked up.' Bristol was 'knocked up.' She's reasonably likely intention.

But Bristol didn't go to New York with the family, so by their understanding, the only daughter 'available' for the jokes was Bristol's younger sister. It's a fair assumption for them to make if they thought that Letterman knew which kids went on the trip, and they assume that he's referring to the family members on that trip. That's assuming a Common Ground understanding about the trip. And the implications then rely on Grice's maxim of quality: assuming that a statement is truthful.

Letterman then defended himself by offering more facts for the Common Ground: specifically, that he would never make such a joke, so they should trust that his intention was not the younger daughter.

More on Grice's Maxim of Quality in Jokes

There's a fuzzy line where Gricean maxims stop being relevant to humor (we're allowed to make up some facts and say more than we have to etc.) and it starts to flout them deliberately. One of Letterman's jokes on the Top 10 list straddled the line:

2. Bought makeup at Bloomingdale's to update her "slutty flight attendant" look

Among Palin's complaints: she never went to Bloomingdales.

OK. It seems pretty clear to us that she's missing the point of the joke. But let's imagine that the joke was worded differently:

2. Reason she went to Bloomingdale's: to buy makeup to update her "slutty flight attendant" look

Excusing the clunky rhythm, another reason that wording doesn't work as well is the implication that the trip to Bloomingdale's is a premise on which the joke is built, not a factual introduction of the joke itself. As the joke is actually written, her complaint sounds silly. But it does call attention to that fuzzy line where jokes have to be careful about what facts they introduce.

Scope of Adjective

The phrase "slutty flight attendant" gets some attention from Olbermann who wonders if it's fair to use a word like "slutty" to make fun of a public figure. His on-air comrade, Craig Crawford agrees that it's probably too crude. Then Crawford adds

And of course—uh—it's also an insult to flight attendants

That reading is possible. Some would say any comparison to Palin is unfair to respectable women. HEY-OHHHH.

But grammatically this is debatable. If "slutty" is a specifier of "flight attendant" then this isn't really an insult to flight attendants generally. It's a claim that some flight attendants are slutty. And so are some engineers and some librarians and some pilots. So to argue that this is not an insult could offer a structure something like

[[slutty [flight attendant]] look

to be contrasted with

[[prudish [flight attendant]] look

and the joke is then merely saying that Palin is trying to look like the first type of flight attendant.

However, there are also readings available that do conflate "slutty" and all flight attendants. Imagine that both "slutty" and "flight attendant" are specifiers of a type of look, we have a structure something like

[slutty]/[flight attendant] look

where "flight attendant" is almost a restatement of "slutty". The important distinction in coordinations here is that it's not slutty AND flight attendant but slutty IE flight attendant. If it were the first, it could still be contrasted with that "look" that is specified as slutty BUT NOT flight attendant. Using them in identical coordination the specifications are conflated and cannot be distinguished.

Which one did Letterman intend? I don't really care.

Watch the video, another post will address the bit that really caught my attention.

†Note that a specifying NP, "flight attendant" is awkward or ungrammatical in a predicative role.

I completed my flight attendant training.
*My training was flight attendant.

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