Archive for Speech-acts

Toward a recursive meta-pragmatics of Twitterspheric intertextuality

A few days ago, I posted a post consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a Language Log post (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet by Lynne Murphy, a linguistics professor, quote-tweeting* an earlier tweet by Benjamin Dreyer, who is (although I didn’t know it at the time) a vice president, Executive Managing Editor, and Copy Chief at Random House.
* retweeting and adding a comment

The post was titled, "There's a fine line between recursion and intertextuality."

A screenshot of the post is provided below the fold—but I hasten to add that I am providing the screenshot solely as a convenience to the reader, to save them the trouble of having to leave this post in order to look at that one, should they be so inclined.

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The Australian people have stood up

In recent months, one after another, instances of Chinese interference in Australian politics have come to light.  After a series of outstanding investigative reports in the media, finally Australia is starting to push back against Chinese encroachment:

"Laws on foreign influence just the beginning in fight against Chinese coercion", Peter Mattis, Sydney Morning Herald (12/7/17).

Most conspicuously, earlier today, the Prime Minister has spoken out, and in Mandarin, no less:

"Malcolm Turnbull declares he will 'stand up' for Australia in response to China's criticism", Caitlyn Gribbin, ABC (12/9/17).

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Talk amongst yourselves

Please, talk to each other. It's important to linguists that there should be plenty of chat. We need language live, on the hoof. Millions of spoken word tokens everywhere, so that we can (for example) compare Donald Trump's amazingly high proportion of first-person singular pronouns to the average for non-narcissists like typical Language Log readers. tubechat

However, beware of engaging in chat to strangers on the subway if you are in London. A new campaign for people to wear a "Tube chat?" button when traveling on London Underground trains, intended to provoke random conversation with other passengers, has been met with horror and disdain by the misanthropic curmudgeons who use the services in question. No chat please; we're Londoners.

[Comments are turned off out of respect for readers in London.]

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That, that, that…

From a colleague:

A friend who has little or no exposure to Chinese language and culture posted the following on Facebook:

In the office where I work, there is a Chinese grad student having a phone conversation. I have no idea what he's saying. But what's striking is that, every so often, he drops a phrase that sounds uncannily like the N-word.

No, I don't think he's bitching about American ethnic groups to his friends. It's probably shop talk in his research field. It's just the way my ears process what are probably the Szechuan or Mandarin equivalent of "I think…" or "Maybe…"

But two things are kind of striking. The first is how much my ears ping when the phrase happens. (I don't think they'd ping the same way if he dropped soundalikes for other Certain Words.) The second is that I start wondering how many fights or attacks may have happened because someone else overheard an equally mundane conversation, and thought that the word was being tossed around casually.

Any thoughts?

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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 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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