Remember Senator John McCain? He- that -promoted -Sarah Palin -to -Vice- Presidential- candidate? And daughter Bristol to equivalent reality TV stardom?
Well, I’m happy to say that this month marks the two- year anniversary of his inclusion in my Undergraduate essay of the title The Field of Pragmatics is concerned with how people manage to mean more than their words seem to say. Discuss how they do this, with reference to Grice’s maxims.
It was a dull essay, believe me, but Senator JMC managed to spice things up about 1500 words in.
You see, one day in 2008, when JMC was on his campaign trail, an elderly lady supporter petitioned him for a quick word about his no-hoper opponent, Barack Obama. She told JMC proudly that she had “read about him”. JMC nodded in sympathy. By God, hadn’t he had to do his own reading up on that guy. It was the lady’s next utterance that scored the inclusion in my essay. She asked simply; “he’s an Arab?”, to which McCain- swiftly removing the microphone from under her- replied “no, he’s a decent family man … and citizen”.
The whole interchange was a delight to me. It justified the discipline of pragmatics as the study of meaning beyond words and made clear to me that language is as much about what’s not said as what is. Of course, the obvious implication in this interchange is that being an Arab and a decent family man are mutually exclusive. Were this to have been made explicit however, JMC would have been immediately asked to answer to accusations of racism. As his response was veiled in an (arguably irrelevant) compliment to Obama’s family values and citizenship (oh, the irony!) however, he faced no such charges.
Paul Grice was a linguist with a mission. He wanted to create a taxonomy of the unspoken rules that govern the kind of communication that generates meaning beyond words. You can read all about his maxims here but in short, he believed that successful communication relies on adherence to a few basic rules: tell me what’s true, tell me what’s relevant, don’t flood me with information, be polite. So, when I ask you whether you like my new haircut and you tell me that you think long hair really suited me, I can assume, based on the maxims of relevance and clarity, that you are politely answering “no”.
Saying what you mean is so rare that shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm exploit it as a particular kind of comedic art. Sugar-coating our utterances and beating about the bush are so ingrained in our psyche that they have come to represent what we consider civil society to entail. An insidious underbelly is revealed however when we consider the larger-scale effects of such rigid use of linguistic decoration. As recently as last week, the White House claimed that Bin Laden was killed “after a fire-fight”. What emerged later however, was that he couldn’t in fact have had any part in the fire-fight, since he wasn’t armed. When we hear the term “firefight” it’s fair to assume that both parties (now there’s an incongruous word) exchange fire, isn’t it?
Things don’t seem to go so well for those who do say what they mean though. Poor Old Gordon Brown had a terrible time during his campaign trail last year when he called a lady a “bigoted woman”. Even though she was.
At the end of King Lear, Edgar reminds us to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. Respect to Mr Brown for favouring William Shakespeare over Alistair Campbell.