Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink. Say No More

One of the great joys of being a parent is the opportunity to revisit children’s literature, particularly fairy tales. Reading them with an adult eye, however, I was at first surprised at the number of adult themes that are addressed in these classic tales. I sometimes wonder if it is not just my stereotypical male brain that reads too much sexual innuendo into statements that are semantically innocent.

For example, a tale called “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” in Andrew Lang‘s The Blue Fairy Book, tells the story of a prince turned into a bear by some trolls and forced into an engagement with a troll. He finds a girl to marry and the two of them hatch a plan to break the spell and the engagement. When they knew that the plan would work, the story explains:

There was great joy and gladness between them all that night…

Reading this line as a child, I would never have thought more of it other than what it says on the surface – they were glad to have created a plan to escape their predicament. And this interpretation of the text is semantically sound.

However, looking at this sentence through the perspective of pragmatics, there is an implicature that suggests the writer’s intended meaning is beyond the purely semantic. How can we infer that the writer implicates another meaning? H.P. Grice explains implicature as flouting of either the Cooperative Principle or one of it’s maxims. The Cooperative Principle is a description of how people interact in a conversation. It is stated as follows:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

Flouting this principle intentionally could be used to deceive the listener/reader or to convey some other meaning to what is being said. Grice proposed four additional conversational maxims that are special cases of this principle. For this context, I will skip the first three maxims and focus on the fourth which, I believe, reveals the implicature of the sentence in question. (Grice’s full article can be found here).

The Maxim of Manner is “Be perspicuous” followed by four sub-maxims:

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

The assumption is that, by following all of these maxims when conversing, semantics will determine the meaning of a given statement. That is, they were glad and experienced great joy at finding a way out of their predicament. Flouting the sub-maxims of obscurity and ambiguity, however, is an attempt to convey a meaning to one party while leaving the meaning unknown to a third party. A common example of this is when adults are speaking around a child and do not want the child to understand all of what is said. The speaker/writer must not be so obscure, however, that the meaning is lost for everyone. Regarding the sentence in question, why did the author not say they rejoiced if that was what he intended to mean? Semantically, they rejoiced is nearly synonymous with the sentence, is far more concise, and less ambiguous.

Presumably, Lang chose the sentence, There was great joy and gladness between them all that night, to implicate (by flouting the maxim) an idea not stated semantically, to say something that he couldn’t say. It conveys a message to an adult reader that (he would hope) would be missed by a child reader. A prince and a maiden, sharing an experience of great joy and gladness, in the prince’s room,… at night and… well…

Nudge nudge. Say no more.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin