Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Love You, You Love Me, Barney Loves Polysemy

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2004

Now that it’s October and Halloween is on the horizon, here’s a recommendation for a Halloween video that Doug enjoyed a few years ago: Barney’s Halloween Party. Even after Doug lost interest, I still got some use out of the video when I talked about lexical semantics in an introductory linguistics course I taught. When I introduced the idea of polysemy (different but related meanings of a word, also discussed here), I played this part, where Barney is looking at a list of Halloween party items that the kids need to get:

Barney: Hmm, now let’s see what’s on Ms. Kepler’s list… a ladybug…
Curtis: She wants us to get a ladybug?!
Barney: Uh, no, there’s a ladybug on the list! Go on, now, shoo! Fly away home! Now, where was I? Oh, yes, Ms. Kepler wants us to get pumpkins, dried corn, and apples!

Hah! That Barney is something else! He took advantage of polysemy of list to crack a joke. There’s the “physical object” sense of the word, the one in play in sentences such as:

I spilled ketchup on the list.

Then there’s the “information” sense of the word, the relevant one in sentences such as:

There are ten items on the list.

Curtis naturally thought Barney was using list in its “information” sense, while Barney was secretly using it in its “physical object” sense.

Of course, in order to fool Curtis, Barney had to violate one of the rules of conversation, i.e., that you should make your contribution relevant. Curtis, assuming that Barney was being a cooperative speaker, and therefore respecting the Maxim of Relevance, had to conclude that Ms. Kepler wanted them to procure a ladybug.

In fact, there’s some other disregarding of conversational maxims in this video. Not long after the ladybug bit, Barney and his friends pay a visit to Farmer Dooley to get some of the items on the list. When they arrive, Farmer Dooley is nowhere in sight, but all of a sudden, a scarecrow perched on a fence moves, and the following dialogue ensues:

Scarecrow: Can I help you, little girl?
Hannah: (surprised) Uh, yes, sir, I guess so. Can… can you really talk?
Farmer Dooley: (emerging from behind fence) Talk? ‘Course I can talk! Why, I’ve been talking ever since I was just a little boy!

Instead of violating the Maxim of Relevance himself, Farmer Dooley plays dumb by seeming to blithely accept a violation of Relevance by Hannah. If Hannah were being a cooperative speaker, and believed she was being addressed by a normal, human speaker, the question “Can you really talk?” would be a flagrant violation of Relevance (unless it’s intended as an insult, that is). But Dooley proceeds as if no violation has occurred at all, as if it’s perfectly normal to ask your conversation partner if they can really talk.

Linguistics has deepened my appreciation for the subtle humor of Barney.

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2 Responses to “I Love You, You Love Me, Barney Loves Polysemy”

  1. Anonymous said

    That was a cute post, Neil. I’m not sure I have anything relevant to say but that won’t stop me. First, I’m sorry for the “innocence lost” aspect of childhood. When I was a kid, I learned quickly from my father about not taking candy from strangers–he beat the shit out of me when a man a few houses down gave me a cream pie. (Parents shouldn’t be so cruel to their kids.) Good for that Halloween video that it is still o.k. for children to talk to inanimate scarecrows. They didn’t even question the little girl’s sanity. How quaint! Your post also made me think about that Mike Meyer’s SNL bit where he played a stereotypical middle-aged Jewish lady. When she has something gossipy to say, she always says, “can we talk.” Is that way of speaking really typical of Jews and why does it strike people as funny? Everyone knows they are capable of talking. She means to say that she has something juicy to tell her social group. So why did “let’s talk” change into “can we talk?” I’m sorry if it’s a stupid question.

  2. Anonymous said

    Oh, I guess the scarecrow was “alive.” But her response was so unrealistic and unrealistically polite. Maybe that is why Doug got bored with it. Nowadays, the kids would say,”scarecrows can’t talk and I can’t talk to strange scarecrows whether they can speak or not, goodbye!” (Muttering under her breath something about a freak of nature.) No wonder we, as a society, are so alienated from each other. That’s too bad.–>

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