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


The Hermemorphic Shift: a Parody

Why'd you pull me into this, huh?

Why’d you pull me into this, huh?

A seldom discussed linguistic principle, the Hermemorphic Shift is named after Hermes, the Greek god of language. The principle states:

In any conversation in which the meaning or pronunciation of a word is contested, a speaker’s religious belief about the word in question trumps all other scientific and conventional usages.

In short, it is an appeal to having access to a god’s knowledge of the word. Thus, for an otherwise competent speaker to change the meaning of a word to suit their purposes they need only say something to the nature of “It is my religious belief that the meaning is otherwise.” Case closed.

When it comes to disputes about pronunciation this is rarely a serious matter. Claiming heavenly or elysianic authority over the pronunciation of atomic weapons as NOO-kyoo-ler, for example, or that the people of our nation are uh-MER-kins, doesn’t tend to produce mutual unintelligibility. (Though if more Americans favoring the latter pronunciation understood the joke, they might work harder at their elocution).

However, when it comes to disputing word meaning, a heremorphic shift is absolutely corrosive to the discourse. Although both speakers may hold the same, or similar, religious beliefs about all other word usages, the first to rely upon this principle for a word in dispute is usually the “winner” of the debate. As an example, consider the following (partially) parodic dialogue inspired by Rep. Tim Murphy:

S1: Is the morning after pill or something like that an abortifacient drug?

S2: This drug is a contraceptive, not an abortifacient. It does not interfere with pregnancy. If the morning pill were taken, and a female were pregnant, the pregnancy is not interrupted. That’s the definition of abortifation.

S1: Ma’am, that is just your interpretation and I appreciate that.

S2: A contraceptive prevents pregnancy before fertilization. So it’s not my interpretation. That’s what the scientists and doctors…

S1: We’re not talking about scientists. Almighty Wotan himself told me that this pill is an abortifacient, using that very word! Ma’am, I’m asking you about a religious belief. This is, therefore, a violation of a religious belief. Wotan himself condemns it.

If by definition a substance is a contraceptive but the speaker’s religious belief declares that it it not, then it is not. Science, definition, and conventional usage (norma loquendi) be damned!

The speakers may be using the same words but now they are decidedly not speaking the same language. The winning strategy by employing a hermemorphic shift is, therefore, through assuring mutual unintelligibility. It dissolves the meaning of the word in mid-discourse and without warning to such an extreme degree that words, in general, no longer have meaning in the conversation. The complete lack of even the appearance of meaning, and the subsequent difficulties in analysis that ensues, is why linguists shun this principle.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin