What it says on the license plates of cars registered in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan is more or less indistinguishable from many other provincial or state slogans: Land of the Living Skies. The point here seems to be to give you a succinct summary of the geography of the place so that you have some idea of where you are if you find yourself on an ill-advised cross-country road trip involving too much drinking in the off-driving hours. Hence, you get the rather obvious Grand Canyon State (Arizona), The Ocean State (Rhode Island), The Green Mountain State (Vermont) and Explore Canada's Arctic (Northwest Territories). At least Saskatchewan adds a small pinch of poetry.
Enigma is clearly under-valued in these slogans, with the exception of Quebec's Je Me Souviens ("I remember"), whose meaning is elusive to outsiders or residents with shallow historical roots in the province. Though I lived there from 1971 to 1984, I never did figure out what it's supposed to mean, though I suspect that it means something like I remember how to order hamburgers and fries in French, or I remember when the Habs were the greatest hockey team on the planet. Or perhaps it's shorthand for something slightly more sinister, as in I remember how the English bastards smashed us in battle and oppressed us economically, and I promise to counter their linguistic imperialism using all means necessary, including enforcing legal requirements that English appear on Montreal restaurant menus only in microscopic font guaranteed to make anglo eyeballs bug out. Or something to that effect.
But Saskatchewan's unofficial motto, which you'll see imprinted on T-shirts or tourism signs is: Hard to spell. Easy to draw. This is often accompanied by the following image, registered as a trademark by the Government of Saskatchewan:
The linguistic challenges posed by the name Saskatchewan appear to serve as an all-purpose baseline of sorts, the stick against which to measure the relative difficulty of just about anything under the living sky. For example, the Scottish band The Proclaimers proclaimed:
"I can say ‘Saskatchewan' without starting to stutter. But I can't understand why we'd let someone else rule our land, cap in hand."
But while it's easier to infer the politically-spiked intended message of these lyrics (English imperialism again) than it is to either spell or say "Saskatchewan", making sense of that province's informal slogan is quite another matter. It represents a florid flouting of one of the most basic guidelines of communication: that what one says should be relevant to the communicative goal at hand.
Now, as we've known since Grice, even the most flamboyant non-sequiturs typically invite some sensible inference as to what the speaker really meant to communicate—provided that they're being wielded by your average mostly rational speaker who is not simultaneously texting, tweeting, google plussing, writing a blog post, paying his/her bills and ending a three-year relationship over Facebook all while engaging you in conversation.
Prospective son-in-law: Sir, I've asked your daughter to marry me and she's said yes.
Prospective father-in-law: Have I ever shown you my collection of rifles?
It stands to reason then: if we start with the assumptions that a) the Government of Saskatchewan is populated by mostly rational individuals (and, despite the average daily temperature in January there, I have no real reason to suspect otherwise), and b) that their goal would be to lure as many visitors to Saskatchewan as possible, it should in theory be easy to come up with a reasonable inference about the meaning of the slogan.
So I did a spot of empirical research, polling a non-random sample of 21 friends, colleagues and family members: What is this slogan supposed to mean, and what does it tell you about Saskatchewan?
Six responders spun their inferential wheels, failing to come up with any deeper meaning at all. Some of them simply re-stated the slogan itself more explicitly ("It means that it's hard to spell the word Saskatchewan but that it's easy to draw its shape") and stopped cold there. Others openly admitted defeat: "I got nothing. But then again, I'm just a psychologist."
Only three managed to eke out some favorable inference about Saskatchewan. For example: "We are just regular folks in Saskatchewan. Down to earth, with a sense of humor. We have trouble spelling, just like you. You'll fit in, in Saskatchewan."
But the majority of the respondents (12) reacted quite negatively to the slogan, and felt that it communicated nothing flattering about the province:
"Not the place for high-tech industries or academics. Not useful in attracting jobs to Sask."
"It tells me there's absolutely nothing of interest there."
"Ideal for the illiterate with simple drawing skills."
I'm especially interested in the inferences about Saskatchewaners (Saskatchewanites? Saskatchewanians?) as dull, simple, unsophisticated folk, because my own take on the slogan is that it deploys a strategy that's very similar to the well-known "Dear Ketel One Drinker" ads that appeared for Ketel One vodka between 2003 and 2009—ads that had a reputation as being edgy and urban. The ads had no pictures, and consisted entirely of supreme irrelevancies such as: "Dear Ketel One drinker: This is an advertisement for the aforementioned product. Sorry." Or: "Dear Ketel One drinker: Can we just say you looked great the other night."
If these ads nonplussed you, you might be interested to know that in media studies circles, the Ketel One ads are often described as examples of postmodernism in advertising. The idea is that the ad engages the viewer at a metalevel and presents itself as a kind of anti-ad—as a sideways comment on the conventions that are typically used by advertisers (accomplished in part through violation of these conventions), and a nod to the viewer who is surely too sophisticated to be taken in by such tactics. Not all resonated with the approach (though it was apparently a commercial success), even if they did get what the intended effect was. For example, David Segal wrote for the Washington Post:
"Ketel One comes across like a slightly smug, irony-loving post-grad who's read just enough Derrida to be dangerous and wants to hit you up for cash—but won't come right out and say so. Instead, he starts spewing non sequiturs in the hopes that you'll be intrigued enough to hand him a fiver."
But no one seems to be accusing Saskatchewan of behaving like a Derrida-reading, irony-loving post-grad. And only one of my respondents read the provincial unofficial motto as anything like an anti-motto:
"If this is a tongue-in-cheek 'motto' (with the goal of in part making fun of the notion of having mottos), then it's cutely self-deprecating."
I can't say for sure what the creators of the motto did have in mind. But I do know that, contrary to stereotype, Saskatchewan likely has at least its fair share of Derrida-reading students. More than a quarter of its residents live in Saskatoon, which has in recent years undergone a burst of urban growth and become a haven for artists. Another quarter or so live in Regina, its capital city. The local aesthetic is high on irony, and residents are particularly fond of playing around with common stereotypes associated with the province—which I suspect is the central agenda of the enigmatic motto.
But such meta-inferences seem hard to access, judging by the handful of responses I solicited. The Ketel One ads presumably worked because the company was operating from its core identity as an underground brand. But Saskatchewan—for all its newfound hipness—still seems to exist in the imagination as that flat province populated by wheat farmers. I guess dispelling that impression requires a somewhat more direct, less postmodern approach.