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8 October 2007

The Stuff of Ambiguity

In line with my "anticipation is..." life philosophy, I must confess that on reading the first few chapters of The Stuff of Thought, I wasn't massively excited by Steven Pinker's latest book. Perhaps I am not really within the target readership. Whereas The Language Instinct and Words and Rules focused on syntax (the structure of sentences and how/whether this is represented in the mind) and morphology (the structure of words themselves and how they are composed), respectively, The Stuff of Thought takes on the meaning of meaning.

The first three chapters deal with various topics in the philosophy of language: what is meaning in the first place, the role of the verb in our understanding of an utterance (and the role of theta roles, which govern the number and kind of arguments, or noun phrases, a verb must have) and how we conceptualise concepts. Actually, I found the third chapter pretty interesting, if only because it was a considerable smack-down on the lovable, OTT Jerry Fodor who likes emphasis, verbos latinos and the idea that there are about 50,000 concepts hard-wired into our brain/mind. I also found studying concepts (particularly prototype theory) one of the most interesting parts of my degree, although I remain to be convinced by any existing theory, much as I liked to dabble in radical pragmatics for a while (whereby no concepts are innate and all meaning must be gleaned from context).

I enjoyed the chapter on metaphor and its ubiquituousness in language, although again, I didn't learn very much, having already read the excellent Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson (the former also having written the intriguing Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, which is about grammatical gender in the languages of the world). I've written extensive essays classifying the different kinds of metaphors and indeed metonymies (metaphor being paradigmatic and exploiting similarity or contrast in an imaginative way, metonymy involves a syntagmatic relationship, exploiting contiguity), the most oft cited of the latter being synecdoche, or a part-whole relationship, as in:

Let's go chase some skirts - the skirt standing as a symbol for the whole woman

I was interested in the first part of the chapter on names as Pinker discusses the rise and the fall in popularity (metaphor alert) of the name Steven over time. Most of the chapter is devoted to the philosophy of language topics of definition and reference. For example, if Bexquisite is to be understood as the sarcastic, cynical Nowhereseville graduate who pens a certain subtextful blog and who works, practically pro bono, for a certain organisation, we are in trouble if it is discovered that the real Bexquisite actually ran away to join an Amazonian tribe 6 years ago and was replaced by an AI clone. What does "Bexquisite" mean then? Who or what is "Bexquisite"? Again, the subtleties of this were not overly exciting for me, having read the majority of the sources in the bibliography (it's nice to feel geeky again; I read a hell of a lot of books and papers during my two years in the linguistics department).

Chapter 7. Swearing. People swear a lot. Taboo is universal. Euphemisms are rife. Pinker shows off his knowledge and talks very dirty.

Finally, in the penultimate chapter comes the area of meaning in which I am most interested: pragmatics, or how to say what you don't mean. As a dutiful student of Paul Grice and his maxims of conversation (be relevant, be truthful, be brief (but not too brief) and be clear) that we all fallow in conversation, which is a cooperative exchange. When one of these maxims is clearly flouted, we therefore automatically assume a speaker is implicating more than what she is saying. For example:

A: Can you believe that story about C? I never thought she would do that.
B: I think I'll go to the cinema tonight.
- What B literally said: I think I'll go to the cinema tonight.
- What B implicated: I am clearly flouting the maxim of relevance, which should alert you to the fact that something is up; specifically that C has just walked into the room.

Pinker talks a lot about politeness theory, which was pioneered by Levinson and Brown and explains people's tendency to use indirect language as a means of maintaining face, both positive (the desire to be approved by others) and negative (the desire not to impose upon others). He also mentions an online study in which I remember participating. The results offer an explanation for why implicature (or uttering a sentence in which the meaning consists of more than simply its truth conditions (the conditions necessary to establish whether the sentence is true)) is so common in language.

One example consists of a driver stopped for speeding by a policeman who has several options:

1. Accept the fine. [The driver will receive the fine whether or not the cop is honest.]
2. Offer an overt bribe to try to persuade the cop not to issue a fine. [If the cop is dishonest, the driver may escape the fine. If the cop is honest, however, the driver may be arrested. High-risk, high-gain.]
3. Offer a subtle bribe along with an implicature, e.g. "Perhaps we can settle this here," while proffering a $50 bill along with a driving licence. [If the cop is dishonest, the driver is likely to escape the fine and if the cop is honest, it is easier for her to ignore the possible bribe because she can pretend not to know that that is the situation, in which case the driver may receive the fine but won't be arrested.]

As I waxed lyrical about ambiguity earlier, I will end this post with a quotation from the pragmatics chapter (entitled "Games People Play"):

When people talk, they lay lines on each other, do a lot of role-playing, sidestep, shilly-shally, and engage in other forms of vagueness and innuendo. We all do this, and we expect others to do it, yet at the same time we profess to long for plain speaking, for people to get to the point and say what they mean, simple as that. Such hypocrisy is a human universal. Even in the bluntest societies, people don't just blurt out what they mean but cloak their intentions in various forms of politeness, evasion, and euphemism.

Actually, perhaps I'll end with one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, having just visited his hometown of Concord: Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.

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