Grice Gone Wild

Here’s the background. A few blocks away from my house is a bagel shop. One of the people who works there is a woman with cat’s-eye glasses and black Betty Page bangs. We’ve gotten to know each other on sight from my going there to get coffee in the mornings on my way to work. A block and a half away from the bagel shop is a video store located in an old brick firehouse. There is a small grass lawn behind the video store bordered by a low concrete wall. In 2008 the city of Seattle passed a law prohibiting smoking in public places that extends to smoking within 25 feet of an entrance to a public place. One recent Saturday morning I got a bagel at the bagel shop from the woman with the glasses and the bangs. While I was eating she left on a break. When I was done I headed home and on the way passed the video store, where I saw her sitting on the low concrete wall smoking a cigarette. Here’s what I said:

–You’re way more than 25 feet away.

This was a violation of the Gricean maxim of quantity. Obviously she was more than 25 feet away from the entrance to the bagel shop. I knew it, she knew it, and she knew that I knew. The point was not to communicate this piece of information but rather to finally get on a first-name basis. The bit about 25 feet was just an opening gambit.

I note this here for two reasons. First to point out that Grice’s Cooperative Principle is something that you can clearly see in operation in the daily business of talking to people. It is not a textbook concoction, not merely some vague, unrigorous, quasi-mathematical formalism that ostensibly describes sentence structure but is so willfully dismissive of actual language that it appears to exist solely for the amusement of professional linguists I’m looking at you Noam Chomsky. Nevertheless, the examples of the maxims people have at their fingertips tend to be textbooky. Two burglars are making their way through a darkened house when they hear a siren outside and the one says to the other, “That’s not an ambulance.” When is the last time you had an elliptical conversation in the middle of a heist? Whereas this exchange about the cigarette and the 25 feet actually happened between two real people recently.

But I’m not just reporting field work here. My exchange also differs from the textbook examples of Gricean implicature in an interesting way. The literal meaning of “That’s not an ambulance” is “That’s not an ambulance” while it’s contextually salient meaning is “That’s a police car”, and Grice’s insight is that the utterance’s full significance arises from the interaction between the two. In the burglar example the contextually salient meaning is a straightforward paraphrase of the literal one–it simply changes the polarity of the verb and substitutes one kind of vehicle for another.  In my example, it is nowhere near as easy to come up with a paraphrase. The best you could do goes something like this:

–I’m pleased to have run into you outside the bagel shop because it gives me a pretext to introduce myself.

The full message that arises from the combination of these two meanings is all bound up with the notion of what counts as a proper social pretext and turns on my intuition that a little joke about local smoking regulations strikes the right note of shared intimacy without the awkwardness of a formal introduction. Sounds complicated when you discuss it in excruciating detail, but of course this is what we all do day-in day-out. Crucially, there is no simple ambulance/police car parallelism. Unlike the burglars, I cannot substitute one sentence for the other without embarking upon an entirely different conversation. This illustrates how Gricean conversational moves exploit not just the contrast between the semantic content of formally similar assertions, but also the contrast between entirely different illocutionary levels. Of course for pedagogical purposes it makes sense to construct deliberately simple “clean room” examples, but once you’ve got the concept under your belt it’s fascinating to observe the subtle ways it manifests in the wild.

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5 Responses to Grice Gone Wild

  1. Fred says:

    OK, I’ll bite…did you get her name?

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    Yes, though in this instance it was just a getting to know your neighbors thing rather than a flirtation, though for flirtation similar rules would apply.

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