Archive for Speech-acts

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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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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It might not be the speech-act you thought it was

My credit-card company has developed a new scheme for trying to trick me with speech-acts. It's likely that you've heard roughly this pitch before, especially if you are lucky enough to work at home sometimes and trusting enough to answer the phone before ring #3.

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