Posted by Neal on April 17, 2005
Doug’s been reading a few of Louis Sachar’s Marvin Redpost books, and the one he’s been reading now (Marvin Redpost: A Magic Crystal?) is full of fun linguistic lessons just in the first two chapters. It opens with a syntactic ambiguity, in this exchange between Marvin and his teacher:
“Excuse me, Mrs. North,” said Marvin. “When’s the book report due?”
“I told you Tuesday,” said Mrs. North.
Mrs. North returned to her papers.
He still didn’t know when the report was due. Did Mrs. North mean that it was due Tuesday? Or did she mean that she told him on Tuesday when it was due?
In chapter 2, Sachar moves on to pragmatics. Marvin is invited to go home with his classmate Casey, whose house he has never visited before. On the way to her car, this dialogue ensues:
“I hope you like cats,” said Casey.
“Oh, sure,” said Marvin.
“You’re not allergic?” Casey asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Marvin.
“That’s good,” said Casey.
“Do you have a lot of cats?” Marvin asked.
“No, I’m allergic,” said Casey.
Casey expresses concern over whether Marvin likes cats seemingly apropos of nothing; Marvin assumes she is abiding by the Maxim of Relevance and has a reason for doing so, the most likely one being that there are cats in her house and she is looking out for the comfort and well-being of her guest. But no, she has no cats, and was apparently just violating the maxim. Casey, it seems, is a little bit off, an impression reinforced by the conversation two pages later:
“I’m going to have to call my mom when we get to your house,” he said. “She thinks I’m at Stuart’s.”
“Do you know your phone number?” asked Casey.
“Of course,” said Marvin. “Don’t you?”
“No,” said Casey.
That surprised Marvin. He’d known his phone number since kindergarten. “You should,” he said.
“Why should I?” asked Casey.
“I don’t know it either,” said Casey’s father from the front seat.
That really surprised Marvin. “Did you just move or something?” he asked.
So now Sachar is into the semantics lesson. Marvin intends his “Don’t you?” question to mean, “Don’t you know your phone number?” while Casey is taking it to mean, “Don’t you know my phone number?” Or as semanticists put it, Marvin intends the “sloppy identity” reading (where the you in know your phone number refers to either Marvin or Casey as appropriate), while Casey takes the “strict identity” reading (where it starts off referring to Marvin and continues to do so).
The resolution of the misunderstanding comes a few pages later, along with the revelation that Casey really was obeying the Maxim of Relevance when she brought up the subject of cats: The title of the book he’s been carrying for his report is A Thousand Cats.
A Magic Crystal? is clever and entertaining aside from the linguistically relevant parts, but I do have one minor complaint about it. When Marvin or Casey makes a wish with the magic crystal for something to happen in the future, they say, “I wish,” followed by a present-tense indicative clause–for example, “We wish nobody in Mrs. North’s class is sick tomorrow,” (p. 27) or “I wish I don’t get hurt” (p. 24). That’s not how wish is used in the English I speak. You could say, “I wish nobody would be sick tomorrow.” The trouble now is that it sounds as if it’s understood that someone is liable to be sick. If that’s not the case, you either substitute hope for wish, or go for an infinitival clause: “I wish for nobody to be sick tomorrow.” Sometimes Sachar uses wish in a more normal way, though. When the wish is a present-time counterfactual (i.e., for things to be other than they are right now), Sachar has the characters use a past subjunctive, the normal usage in my grammar: “I wish I had an ice cream sundae” (p. 20), or “I wish you’d shut up!” (p. 46). Does this pattern of usage for wish hold for any of you?