Sound waves

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Among the "10 best things Jean Claude van Damme has ever said", according to BuzzFeed, #2 is this:

An older source is here. The internet in my hotel is so slow that I can't track down the original source: maybe later. Good pragmatics exam question: why is his (obviously true) statement funny?

Update — OK, I'm back home in Philly, and freed from Swisscom's poor simulation of the antique dial-up experience at my hotel in Amsterdam: frequent unresponsive gaps interspersed with bursts of speeds in the 100 kilobit/sec range, mostly averaging not much better than a quaint 3000 baud. (Apparently all the data is routed through a clockwork switch in Geneva. Very steampunk, but kind of annoying if you want to watch streaming video.)

Meanwhile, some commenters have found (pieces of) the original quasi-French interview, and it's clear that JCVD has been wronged by Buzzfeed. What he actually said is much more in the line of standard dumb celebrity spiritualism, without the spectacular distillation of ignorance in the inaccurate English translation that BuzzFeed gave:

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En trois mille les gens vont parl(er) avec euh
les yeux, des ondes,
(me prends) pas fou, (( )) des gens- les baleines le font,
les baleines le font, et euh et
les dauphins le font aussi, ces les animaux tres intelligent dans la mer.
Nous on vit dans la terre.
Et eux se communiquent, vu qu'ils savent pas parler ((blebleble)) dans l'eau,
ils- des ondes- ils sont forcés d'utiliser des ondes, des ondes de love […]

In three thousand people will speak with uh
their eyes, with waves,
don't think I'm crazy, people- whales do it,
whales do it, and uh and
dophins do it too, these are very intelligent animals that live in the water,
and they communicate, since they can't talk ((blubblubblub)) in the water,
they- waves, they have to use waves, waves of l'amour […]


  1. Graeme said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

    Because at the pace of global warming, we'll be underwater long before the year 3000.

  2. Colin said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

    Nonsense. Everyone knows the way people communicate is by reading text as it appears on their phone and pressing the buttons to type responses.

  3. Anton Sherwood said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

    It need not be true if we're all uploaded by then!

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

    How would you grade the response "It isn't" to that exam question? I don't believe I'm particularly obtuse, but I don't see anything funny about it.

  5. Andy Averill said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    Because we already speak with sound waves?

  6. Bob Kennedy said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 1:26 am

    It's funny to different audiences for different reasons. To the general public, because he makes it sound like human communication will consist of vaguely melodic moanings, a step away from telepathy, which despite his plea, really is crazy. To linguists, because we know that communication already is sound waves, and because he assumes that whale calls can contain the same density of information as human voices.

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 1:48 am

    Humor often involves irony, absurdity, and mockery. And timing, of course. This statement causes all three to come together nearly simultaneously for the reader, as he/she realizes that of course humans already speak with sound waves (as opposed to…?), that van Damme ironically and absurdly doesn't know this, that whatever he has in mind as the alternative is strange and absurd (or who knows what he's imagining?), and that in this realization we find him unwittingly presenting himself as an object of mockery. But the icing on the cake (and, let's be clear — a cake without icing is much less than a cake) is his added examples, intended to both make his claim clear and bolster his argument with facts.

    The irony is present because while what he says is true, what he believes is very false. And the fact that he's technically correct while being deeply wrongheaded, as opposed to being merely incorrect while wrongheaded, is a meta-irony concerning our expectations.

    As always, the dissection of humor is very unhumorous. But it usually doesn't seem as mysterious to me as it does to some other people. That doesn't mean that every funny thing should be equally funny, or funny at all, to everyone. Just as is the case with frightening narratives, or moving narratives, or just many matters of subjective experience and taste in general. That is to say, there are objective qualities that correlate to how people, on average, respond to things and it's not that difficult to identify and comprehend what they are and why people respond the way they (generally) do. But some people are too locked into their own subjectivity to do so and tend to assume that their own response is the only valid metric (positive or negative) and that there's something defective when other people respond differently than they.

    That came our ranty — but Garrett Wollman's comment is a little provocative to me because it's typical of a certain kind of response that I suspect teachers encounter far too often. That is, instead of asking themselves why an instructor would ask a question which they don't (intuitively, initially) understand why it would be asked, or consider the implications inside it, and then take that as a starting point, they just dismiss the question off-hand, as if it wasn't meaningful. When, in fact, that the question is difficult for some people to answer (because they don't see the answer immediately and intuitively) is exactly why it's a question worth asking.

    Specifically, I think that the reason van Damme's statement isn't funny to some people has some important relationship to why it's funny to many others. It has everything to do with the subtle interplay between truth and what Plato called "true opinion". This is a subject I know little about, but based upon what I've read here and elsewhere, this relationship in this context is of great interest to analytical philosophers and linguists because the intersection between belief and truth in language is a very interesting place.

  8. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 2:35 am

    He's not a native speaker of English. I bet he meant "sonar."

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 2:54 am

    If he confuses "communicate" with "locate". Which I don't think he does. Rather, I think he mostly lacks a clue in general.

  10. David Morris said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 3:13 am

    I think a better exam question would be "why is this statement nonsense". (Apart from the fact that is was uttered by JCV-D and is probably ipso facto nonsense. They didn't call him the Brains from Brussels.)

    And I think "In …" should be "Before …".

  11. David Donnell said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 3:14 am

    Pragmatics-schmagmatics; this post is clearly a trap. And you commenters above are unwittingly competing for a Literal Guy Award, which Prof Liberman will award one of you presently.

  12. Nick Lamb said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    Keith, I had a surprisingly good slice of chocolate marble cake on the train two days ago. The cake had no icing whatsoever, and it seemed to me – as somewhat of a connoisseur – that it would have been no better at all for the addition of icing. Many cakes aren't, and shouldn't be, iced.

  13. D-AW said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    The humour comes, as Keith explains, from the ironic distance between the literal, true, trivial and unintended meaning of the sentences and the intended, implied, far-fetched, and stupid meaning. The implied meaning is conveyed among other things by the "In the year X000.." template, which is the conventional way to introduce some serious (or ironic) prediction about the future of humanity. Perhaps all such predictions have an inherent potential for silliness, though: (There "will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet").

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    The line is here around 2:30. I can't follow French at normal speed, but I'm pretty sure he mentions communicating with waves (maybe not sound waves?) and says that whales do it.

  15. Penny said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 10:10 am

    (Sort of) transcription here, about halfway down the page:
    "A l'an 3000 les gens vont se parler avec,…, les yeux, des ondes. Ne me prend [sic] pas pour un fou les baleines le font, les dauphins aussi. Ce sont des animaux très intelligents dans la mer. Nous on vit dans la terre. Et eux se communiquent, vu qu'ils ne savent pas parler dans l'eau, ils sont forcés d'utiliser des ondes, des ondes de love ou de hate et la communication se fait comme ca."

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    @Bob Kennedy: I assure you that many members of the general public know that speech consists of sound waves. On the other hand, I didn't know it had been proven that whale and dolphin sounds can't be as dense in information as our speech, but I think that many animals communicate even though the information density of their sounds is low.

    @Keith M. Ellis: That is, instead of asking themselves why an instructor would ask a question which they don't (intuitively, initially) understand why it would be asked, or consider the implications inside it, and then take that as a starting point, they just dismiss the question off-hand, as if it wasn't meaningful.

    Nice gapless relative. I feel sure I've seen people doubt that anyone uses them in English.

    I do get a little annoyed with students who I feel aren't using their pragmatic skills to understand test questions (especially if they don't ask). However, I feel I shouldn't make much in the way of demands on those skills.

    Another pragmatics exam question: In this case, who is assuming "there's something defective when other people respond differently than they", the teacher, or the student who responds "It isn't", or both? Literally, the teacher isn't, but I think pragmatically the student wouldn't be far off in seeing that implication. (I'm not saying that MYL intended such an implication or that Garrett saw such an implication.)

    On the subject of why this is funny, anything stupid is funny to some people (an object of mockery, as you said), though others need icing on their cake. I think it helps that he's a celebrity, and that he failed to keep in mind that what he's famous for isn't his brains (as David Morris noted). Unless this is intentional comedy.

  17. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    IMO, the quotation is not funny…but we laugh at the speaker, not the statement. It's all in the context. Had the speaker been established as a humorous fictional character, then the statement would have been funny (things funny characters say are funny) with the elements of irony, absurdity, and mockery discussed above. However, van Damme is a non-funny real person speaking soberly. We laugh at the person who would make such a moronic statement. Derision in the form of laughter does not make the statement funny. The statement is actually sad. Here's another howler that might explain everything: "Air is beautiful, yet you cannot see it. It's soft, yet you cannot touch it. Air is a little like my brain."

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    To go by the quotes given by yankeesfan, JCVD seems to be a pretty funny guy, and in all likelihood knew that his comment about sound waves was funny in the same way that Molière's M. Jourdain is funny when he discovers with surprise that he has spoken prose all his life. I don't know if JCVD had French or Dutch schooling, but if it's the former then he must know Le bourgeois gentilhomme.

  19. Noam said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: yeah, to me it looks like someone took artistic license in translating the original source for comedic effect. In the video he is pretty clearly talking about some form of telepathy ("les gens vont parler avec les yeux"), and adds "…des ondes" (not "ondes sonores") as a clarification.

  20. hector said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    The exam question might better be phrased, "Why do some people find this statement funny?" This would allow people who don't find it funny the chance to examine the question.

    Personally, I've grown to find the internet mainstay of "This guy said something that isn't scientifically true. LOL! What a retard!" tiresome, rather than funny. It's just variations on the same joke, told over and over again, with the breast-beating subtext "I know science. He doesn't. I'm smart. He's stupid."

  21. Michael Watts said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    Re: the gapless relative…

    I've been noticing them for a while, and can assure the interested that they do appear in English. The reason I note them is thus:

    There are many cases where I want to give voice to an idea and don't know how to express it *without* using a gapless relative, despite the fact that my inner syntax tells me gapless relatives are not grammatical. It's a case where I produce sentences I would admit aren't syntactically correct, in the full expectation that my intended meaning and the meaning perceived by the listener will agree completely. So obviously, in my mind, there's a _need_ for this construct, but likewise I don't truly believe it has the status of, say, subject-verb agreement in English, which we don't need but mostly observe anyway.

  22. X said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

    @hector: Ridicule provides critical social feedback to the uneducated indicating to them that society desires for them become more educated. An educated society is more prosperous than an uneducated society, increasing the utilitarian value and overall happiness of its inhabitants. Therefore, making fun of idiots on the internet is a social good. (Therefore, I should be getting paid to make fun of you like this?)

  23. D-AW said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    This isn't a case of ridicule. This is a series of propositions (in this case, badly translated, but it's irrelevant) which is funny, at least to some, and apparently to many. Unless you count the photo that accompanies the purported quote, there's no internal comment on the intelligence of the speaker. And there's nothing about JCVD that is relevant to understanding the humour. It could be Homer Simpson or your neighbour Jeff who said this, and you would find it just as funny (or not). In fact, JCVD never said these lines – his "ondes" could just as well have been translated "brainwaves," since he seems to think we'll be transmitting them with our eyes. But the proposition that has brainwaves, if it is funny, is funny for a different set of reasons.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    @Penny: Thanks. This isn't the first time my obsolete browser has refused to show me part of a page (or the first time I've thought I might need a new computer).

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 2:41 am

    @D-AW, when you say that "there's no internal comment on the intelligence of the speaker" and that "there's nothing about JCVD that is relevant to understanding the humour" that seems to me to be an arguably meaningless distinction. This is one of a few social contexts in which I feel utterly unqualified to discuss this, and is elementary to many here, but it seems to me that you're arguing that there's some very strong, qualitative distinction between what is implied and inferred; that what is said to be communicated can in any reasonable sense be restricted to exclusively what is literal, without context. And, clearly, that's not true.

    What we know about the world, which includes what we know about the identity of the speaker, brings a great deal to the table when we parse this statement and especially relative to the humor found in it. This wouldn't be funny, or at least it wouldn't be funny in any way similar, were the speaker of this to be an eight-year-old child. It would be charming and, if found humorous, in a way that is probably flattering to the speaker. Clearly the humor in this case doesn't flatter the speaker, it mocks him. And that's because we understand this statement differently coming from van Damme than we would coming from a child. It's not exactly mocking of his intelligence; but, rather, it's likely mocking precisely what's different between how we'd respond to this were it spoken by a child — we expect van Damme to not be confused, as he is, in the way that we don't require of a child. Which makes him childlike, in some sense. In ignorance, most likely, and in a way which we're not eager to excuse (probably related to a higher standard set for speaking publicly about something in a seemingly authoritative tone).

    And, of course, that he's not only a movie star, but an action movie star, also plays heavily into this.

    @Michael Watts and @Jerry Friedman, regarding the gapless relative — I don't think that mine was a good example of this in the sense that Michael describes (or that LL bloggers have discussed before). That is, a natural usage that does something that standard English can't do as easily. Rather, I think that I just became too encumbered by clauses to keep track of what I was writing.

    However, having looked up and read a few previous discussion of gapless relatives here, I'm curious about the use of the term "standard English" in past discussion. Certainly, I understand that many prescriptive authorities will tell us that there's very much such a thing. But I'm unsure of what this might mean coming from a more descriptive source, such as a LL linguist.

    I realize that this might problematically bring to mind some of the discussion here whereby Mark and Geoff and others have patiently tried to explain that being a descriptivist doesn't mean that one asserts there's no possibility for error. But, as discussed in those posts I just read, many native anglophones will use a gapless relative apparently naturally, and the gapless relative is a standard construct found in some other languages.

    In that regard, then, I don't see that it is properly considered an error, by the descriptivist standard that Mark and Geoff and others are perfectly willing to endorse. So if this example of "non-standard" usage isn't an "error", then, it's either a marginal idiolect or non-prestige. But some of the examples of it come from speakers we'd otherwise describe as using prestige English, so I'm not sure that the latter describes it. So what is it, exactly? Is it really best described as idiosyncratic and therefore "non-standard" in anyone's dialect? Is that what "non-standard" means (as distinct from simple error)?

  26. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    In my part of the SE US, the gapless relative is very common in expressions such as in "He asked me to cut the grass, which I did it," or "He saw those boots he liked, which he bought them." I always analyzed these as a poor choice of conjunction rather than a special type of clause. Why can they not be: "He asked me to cut the grass, [and] I did it," or "He saw those boots he liked, [and] he bought them"?

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: I'm coming to agree that JCVD is deliberately being funny and to suspect that comedy writers came up with some or all of his lines. On n'est pas bête à ce point, particularly not to the point of failing to notice that people are laughing.

    @Mr Fnortner: I think an interesting question would be why your neighbors use "which", when obviously they could use "and". Are they conveying something different?

    @Keith M. Ellis: I hope that one of the LL linguists will answer your question or point us to an answer. However, I have the impression that "standard English" can pretty much mean "professionally edited English with a formal tone", which there's an enormous corpus of. I think there are very few gapless relatives in that corpus (though it depends on exactly where you draw the lines). If so, you could say that they're non-standard. You might want to use a term such as "informal" or "colloquial".

  28. Ken Brown said,

    October 22, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    @Jerry Friedman – I suspect that the reason that gapless use of "which" is not unarguably standard English that its a localism. Maybe the USA, maybe parts of the USA. Perhaps we could describe Standard written English as usages that aren't strongly marked as from one place or another. At least in the semi-formal registers of upmarket newspapers and textbooks and so on. (and, anecdotally, that "which" tripped me up and I had to read it two or three times to sort it out)

  29. Graeme said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    As if to invert this blog entry, we have a Whale Bites Man story from Current Biology:

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