Friday, September 21, 2012

Clegg's unusual speech act (follow-up)

Several people have pointed out that Clegg's apology is not for breaking his promise, but for making it in the first place. Rather an unusual speech act. Julia Hartley-Brewer's comparison seems apt:
Nick Clegg's apology for breaking tuition fees pledge is like a husband saying "sorry for my affair, next time I won't vow to be faithful"
And.. no more UK politics here for some time, I promise.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

‘My PR people have been drafting ways to say this’

Nick Clegg's apology video with honest subtitles (via The Guardian).

Why? Well, I think it's funny, but also it's interesting to consider what the criterion is for the substituted phrases. Sometimes the subtitles seem to represent Clegg's thoughts, and sometimes just the truth which the phrase uttered is supposed to obscure.

The best substitutions? Probably the ones that the Guardian article pointed out:

"There's no easy way to say this" -> "My PR people have been drafting ways to say this" 
"That was a mistake" -> "That was a lie".

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Linguistic underdeterminacy gags

From the 'clippings' (i.e. attested examples) sent in to last week's News Quiz:

Heard on Radio Newcastle:

In the news at six: the queen visits the north-east as part of her jubilee tour and road deaths increase for the first time since 2009.

Seen on a poster:

Would customers please note that from Jan. 1st 2011 the following left-luggage charges will apply:
£5: large suitcase or rucksack
£4: medium case or holdall
£3: senior citizens

The humour obviously in both cases due to a kind of pragmatic garden-pathing which makes an absurd (unintended) interpretation come to mind before the right one.

There's quite a literature on the enrichment of 'and' to 'and as a result of that' (or in other cases 'and after that', or 'and during that time') much of it summarized and discussed in ch 3 of Robyn Carston's 2002 book Thoughts and Utterances. Clearly the meaning of the word 'and' falls well short of fixing (i.e. underdetermines) what it may be used to convey on a particular occasion. (The scholarly debate hasn't been about that, but about i) whether 'and' is linguistically ambiguous; and ii) whether the different readings affect the proposition expressed by the speaker or just what the speaker implies.)

I can't think of any discussion of cases like the second one, but it's clearly another example where the form of words used leaves the hearer with quite a lot of working out to do, and – more interesting to me: it's an example of another kind of working out that needs to be done.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

An example of ironic use of a single word:

I married, let me see, about a month after you left France, and a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris. (from Nabokov's That in Aleppo Once...)

The writer obviously can't be the one who thinks the Germans are gentle, so the effect is that the word is used attributively and with a dissociative attitude – it conjures up the possibility of someone who would, absurdly, see the Germans as gentle - though neither of these facts is marked in the form of words used. Tacitly attributive, tacitly dissociative use is the analysis of verbal irony postulated in Sperber and Wilson's work on the subject.

That in Aleppo Once... deserves a thorough pragmatic analysis. Unusually, it's both not at all clear who the (fictional) writer is and clear that who the narrator is matters very much to one's understanding. At first it seems to be a letter written by the protagonist to a Russian emigré writer, 'V.', but there are indications that V. has taken the letter and turned it into the short story that one is reading. The title is one of them, since the letter-writer tells V. not to use it: "It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful. Spare me, V., you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title. "

So it's not just that the narrator is unreliable; it's not clear who he is, and whether anything in the story happened at all. And that's without going into the obvious similarities - and differences - between V. and the non-fictional author, Nabokov. (See here for some interesting comments on the story.)