Archive for Speech-acts

Despicable human scum

For those wondering why on earth an official announcement about the solemn business of executing a traitor would use wildly overheated language like "despicable human scum" and "worse than a dog" (especially about the uncle of the reigning monarch), the BBC has published a short article on the language of North Korean posthumous character assassination.

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Not so gullible after all

Most people believe they're better-than-average drivers. They also believe that, while many others are taken in by advertising messages, they themselves remain immune to persuasion unless it's with the full consent of their rational and thoughtful selves. Charming delusions. But surely we're not left defenseless, and awareness of the persuasive intentions of advertising must provide some sort of skeptical buffer against the daily onslaught of commercial messages that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. Enough so, argued the late free marketeer Jack Calfee, that the myth of the vulnerable consumer is just that, and advertising should be regulated as little as possible in order to allow its salutary effects to permeate the economy. In his book Fear of Persuasion, Calfee wrote:

Advertising seeks to persuade, and everyone knows it. The typical ad tries to induce a customer to do one thing—usually, buy a product —instead of a thousand other things. There is nothing obscure about this purpose or what it means for buyers. Consumers obtain immense amounts of information from a process in which the providers of information are blatantly self-interested and the recipients fundamentally skeptical.

The Federal Trade Commission, which is in the business of regulating advertising, happens to agree with Calfee about the protective effects of identifying persuasion for what it is. Which is one reason why it's recently clarified its guidelines on endorsements to require that bloggers and social media users disclose any pecuniary relationship with the makers of the products they're shilling for—even if free stuff is all they're getting for their efforts.

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Not ready to tiger Tokyo: tweets from Japan

At the very hour when, a few days ago, Victor Mair was posting his piece about Valentine's Day in Japan (I Tiger You), I was at ground zero for the event: the candy section of the biggest department store in Tokyo's Ginza district. I have never seen anything like it. Excited young women by the thousand buying up all the chocolate and other candy that industry could pack into pink and white heart-bedecked boxes and bags. What an incredible coup the candy manufacturers have made out of this celebration of girlfriendhood and boyfriendhood. The ratio of refined sugar and teenage girls to oxygen had reached danger level in the confined space of the department store basement, and I fled from this stampede of candy lust, escaping into the cold afternoon air. I'll tell you a secret: I simply cannot bear Tokyo.

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Dilbert fails to apologise

Dilbert fails to grasp the distinction between brevity (a syntactic property of a locutionary act) and brusqueness (a pragmatic property relating to a perlocutionary effect), and fails to draw the distinction between sorry with clause complement and the same word employed in a speech act of apology (see here and here and here and here and other places); and more office discord results…

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For Alan Turing, a real apology for once

In an age where (as Language Log has often had occasion to remark) many purported public apologies are just mealy-mouthed expressions of regret ("I'm sorry it all happened"), or grudging self-exculpatory conditionals ("If some people think I shouldn't have said it, I'm sorry they were upset"), it is good to see a genuine and direct apology for once, addressed (though more than half a century too late) to a man who deserved admiration, gratitude, and respect, but was instead hounded to death. The UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has released a statement regarding the treatment of Alan Turing in the early 1950s, and the operative words are:

on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.

That's how to say it (ignoring the punctuation error — the missing comma after work): not a bunch of evasive mumbling about how unfortunate it all was, but a simple "We're sorry."

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Lying is linguistic

Can you tell a lie nonlinguistically? That is, is it reasonable that certain actions or even physical objects should be regarded as embodying lies? A couple of clearly somewhat dishonest examples:

  • In the Best Western El Rancho Inn on El Camino Real in Millbrae (Millbrae sounds Scottish but it is near the San Francisco International Airport; I am waiting for a flight to take me back to Edinburgh) the Colombian-made cotton towels and facecloths bear a label stating the brand name "Five Star". El Rancho is nice, but it is a standard-grade California motel, not five star. Could the towel company be trying to misinform me about the quality I am enjoying?

  • In the Office Depot store across the street from the El Rancho there is a demo of wireless printing from an HP laptop to an HP All-In-One printer / scanner / fax / copier / toaster. The sign brags about the built-in wireless networking and says you should open WordPad on the laptop and type something and then click "File | Print", and what you typed will magically appear on the nearby printer. But I checked the laptop more closely. Discreetly plugged into the side of it is a USB cable. I traced the cable. It runs to the printer. There is no wireless connection at all. Could they be trying to mislead me about how well wireless printer networking works?

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National welcomes

Part of your first sense of what a country is like comes from what is said to you by the first person you meet as you cross the border and present yourself to passport control. I wonder if immigration officers realize just how large the effects of their speech acts (or lack thereof) can be. When my friend Polly and I crossed from Finland into Russia by train a few years ago, the skinny young men in military uniforms who boarded the train looked fierce and suspicious. They demanded our passports and took them away with unpleasant scowls. Returning them silently twenty minutes later, they wore expressions that seemed to say, "We found nothing, but you look undesirable, and it makes us angry that we have to admit scum like you to defile our great country." Russia seems like a truly unwelcoming place. By contrast, coming back into Finland from Russia a few days later we were met by relaxed and friendly passport officials who took a quick glance at our passports, handed them back with a warm smile, and said: "Welcome to Finland!" A small courtesy, costing nothing, but after Russia it made Finland seem a totally wonderful place. Even Finland, however, was topped by Scotland this morning, when I returned bleary-eyed to the Edinburgh airport having flown straight through from Taiwan via Bangkok and Amsterdam. I handed over my passport, open at the page with the photo and date of birth, and the woman behind the desk glanced at it very quickly and slapped it down on the glass of the scanner. And while she waited a couple of seconds for the machine to read the data, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, "Happy birthday."

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Racial epithets, pragmatics, and semantics

Those seriously interested in the meaning and the politics of racial epithets (as some of the commenters on Pakigate, Sootygate, Gollygate seem to be) should take a look at a paper called "The semantics of racial epithets", published by Christopher Hom in The Journal of Philosophy CV [= 105], no. 8 (August 2008), pp. 416-440. This is a technical paper in philosophical semantics (it's philosophy, not linguistics; and let me say that I do not necessarily endorse the view that it defends). Hom outlines its aim on his website thus:

Racial epithets are derogatory expressions, understood to convey contempt toward their targets. But what do they actually mean, if anything? While the prevailing view is that epithets are to be explained pragmatically, I argue that a careful consideration of the data strongly supports a particular semantic theory. I call this view Combinatorial Externalism (CE). CE holds that epithets express complex properties that are determined by the discriminatory practices and stereotypes of their corresponding racist institutions. Depending on the character of the institution, the complex semantic value can be composed of a variety of components. The account has significant implications on theoretical, as well as, practical dimensions, providing new arguments against radical contextualism, and for the exclusion of certain epithets from First Amendment speech protection.

Thus Hom is offering a reasoned case that it is best to see the denigratory character of racial epithets as built into their actual conventional meanings, and not just as a possible concomitant of some of their occasional uses. (Many of commenters seem to align with this view, though they tend to just assert it and call any other views absurd, rather than present arguments.)

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Giving the bad news

We’ve had more than enough bad news lately about the economy, loss of jobs, fraud in the marketplace, and our various wars, so maybe talking about how to give bad news seems timely. Now CNN.com has published an article about the problems that law enforcement officers experience when it’s their job to give the bad news to relatives about murder victims and other tragedies. Giving the bad news is hard on the police. Some do it well; others don’t. But giving the ultimate bad news is necessary, no matter how hard we stuggle to do it.

Most of us have to communicate bad news to suffering people at some time in our lives, whether it’s the type that police have to announce, the type that financial advisors have to give clients who have just lost their life savings in a stockmarket dive, or the type that physicians sadly have to give their patients. No bad news giving is easy.

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Rectifying the oath flub

When Chief Justice John Roberts and Barack Obama made a hash of the presidential oath of office on Tuesday, most early commentators — including me — assumed it didn't really matter what they said, since Obama had officially become president at noon (shortly before they actually got to the oath). But some legal scholars pointed out that the oath is still required under the Constitution and argued that a "do-over" should be performed, just to be safe. Today, the do-over proponents won out, and at 7:35 pm EST, Roberts again swore in Obama in the Map Room of the White House. From the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire:

“We decided it was so much fun,” Obama joked before again stating the words written in the Constitution. “Are you ready to take the oath?” Roberts asked. “I am, and we’re going to do it very slowly,” Obama quipped.
The oath took 25 seconds, and the recitation was flawless this time. “Congratulations, again,” Roberts said. “Thank you, sir,” Obama replied.
“The bad news for the [press] pool is there’s 12 more [inaugural] balls,” Obama joked.

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Adverbial placement in the oath flub

Chief Justice John Roberts' administration of the presidential oath to Barack Obama was far from smooth. Early reports differ in saying who stumbled: NBC and ABC say the flub was Roberts', while the AP says it was Obama's. I think both men were a bit nervous, and the error that emerged from their momentary disfluency came down to a problem of adverbial placement.


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Water landings, threats, and throwing bricks gently

My father (probably not very originally) used to tell me, “If you have to throw a brick at someone, throw it gently.” That sounded pretty stupid to me at the time, but I’ve since learned that it’s actually pretty good advice. What he seemed to have meant was, “if you have to threaten, warn, or otherwise say anything negative, temper it as much as possible.” If he had known anything about the differences among the speech acts of threatening, warning, and advising, he might have elaborated a little more. His words were brought home to me by three recent events: (1) my work trying to make the letters written by the Montana Department of Revenue clearer and more respectful; (2) my emergency landing at the Salt Lake City airport; and (3) the recent “water landing” of the U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River.

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Can we really elicit an apology?

We may expect to get an apology for an offense committed against us but we sometimes don’t get one. Henry Alford’s opinion piece in the NYT offers one solution: apologize to the person who should have done the apologizing. It goes something like this:

(someone bumps into him)

Alford: Oh, I'm sorry you bumped into me.

Bumper: That's okay.

Alford calls this “reverse etiquette.” In an effort to elicit the expected politeness routine when somebody bumps into him, he tries to prime the pump by apologizing to the bumper. He admits, however, that this strategy doesn’t seem to work. But he tries again, more explicitly upping the ante with something like this:

Alford: I didn’t really mean for you to bump me with your bag.

Bumper: Don’t mention it.

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