Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

There They Go Again —

Posted by Neal on November 5, 2007

— people saying that Amelia Bedelia always takes things literally! Didn’t we cover this already? Given an utterance with more than one meaning, Amelia Bedelia always chooses the interpretation of maximum funniness, one which disregards contextual or social clues, and which may or may not be a literal interpretation. Just because an interpretation is funny doesn’t mean it’s literal. And as my wife and sons can attest, just because it’s literal doesn’t mean it’s funny.

This business of literal meanings reminds me of something I heard on an episode of NPR’s Science Friday from September. I wasn’t going to say anything, I was just going to let it go, but since I’m on the subject…

Joe Palca was interviewing Steven Pinker about his new book The Stuff of Thought, and just before the 23 minute mark in the podcast, Pinker reads from the book a version of the urban legend that ends like this:

The passenger was unimpressed. He asked loudly, so that the passengers behind him could hear, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO I AM?”

Without hesitating, the attendant smiled and grabbed her public address microphone: “May I have your attention please, may I have your attention please,” she began, her voice bellowing throughout the terminal.

“We have a passenger here at Gate14 WHO DOES NOT KNOW WHO HE IS. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to Gate 17.”

Good for Pinker, BTW, for not passing this off as a true story; he clearly labels it as a joke. My complaint comes when he explains his linguistic point regarding the joke (emphasis added):

One of the reasons I included it is it illustrated the linguistic phenomenon of indirect speech. The logic of the joke is that when the man said, “Do you know who I am?” he was not, of course, actually requesting that information. It was a rhetorical question, indirect speech, saying, “I happen to be a very important person.” By interpreting it literally, of course she gave us the punch line, but she also illustrated that many of these statements are not intended as literal and that there’s a kind of jujitsu of interpreting it literally when it’s not intended that way.

The joke/urban legend does indeed illustrate indirect speech, or as the phenomenon is more commonly referred to, indirect speech acts. But although the counter attendant did not take the rhetorical question as it was intended — i.e. to recognize the passenger’s importance and give him what he wanted — it is not true that she took it literally.

Let me illustrate with a different example. If I approach a stranger on the street and ask, “Do you know what time it is?”, an uncooperative answer would be for him to take the question literally, i.e. as a simple request for a yes or a no, and say only “Yes, I do.” The cooperative answer requires the stranger to bring in a non-literal interpretation: The question is a request for him to actually tell me the time (if he knows it). Simple enough. Literal = uncooperative; nonliteral = cooperative.

Now suppose that instead asking a stranger on the street, I am asking the same question to Adam when I see him dawdling in his room, in his pajama bottoms, when the school bus is going to arrive in 20 minutes. In this situation, both “Yes, I do” and “Yes, it’s 8:30” are uncooperative answers. The only cooperative answer here will be the one that takes the question not as a request for a yes or a no, not as a request for information about the time of day, but as a demand that he get off his butt right now and get ready for school! So now literal = uncooperative; nonliteral #1 = uncooperative; nonliteral #2 = cooperative.

In the urban legend about the airline employee, she gets her revenge on the belligerent passenger not by taking his question literally (and just saying “yes” or “no”), but by taking it non-literally in the wrong way, as the wrong kind of indirect speech act. If she had taken it literally, in other words, as a direct speech act of asking a simple yes/no question, then she would have answered either, “Yes, I do,” or “No, I don’t.” Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s literal.

Pinker makes this mistake again: Right after the airline urban legend, Joe Palca recounts another joke from the book, where two hunters are in the woods and one of them gets seriously injured. The other calls 911 and is asked, “Are you sure he’s dead?” The 911 operator hears a brief silence and then BLAM! The hunter returns to the phone: “Yup, he’s dead. Now what do we do?”

Again, Pinker says the humorous interpretation is the literal one. No, no, no! This time, the literal interpretation really is the intended one, and would have resulted in the non-humorous answer of “Yes, I’m sure,” or “No, I’m not sure.” The punch line depends on the hunter taking the question non-literally, not as a request for information but as a call to action. Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s literal!


8 Responses to “There They Go Again —”

  1. When I first heard that joke about the hunter, the 911 operator said to “make sure he’s dead.” In that case, I think there’s a genuine ambiguity (“make sure” = “check for certainty” versus “make sure” = “create certainty”).

  2. Jason Bontrager said

    Glen beat me to it, but that’s the way I’ve always heard the joke too (“make sure he’s dead”). Pinker obviously doesn’t remember jokes too well:-)

  3. Neal said

    Yeah, that version of the joke does work better. Maybe it’s even what Pinker has in his book; in the podcast, Joe Palca was repeating it from memory.

  4. Matthew said

    Great point. Did you know about this wonderful blog on the word literally?

  5. Neal said

    Matthew: Thanks for the pointer; unfortunately, it looks like the actual link got left out. Try again?

  6. […] story.# “Words that do not mean what you – yes you! – think they mean” for $500, Alex – literally / relatedly, Steven Pinker on Science Friday (using “literally” abusively oh noes).# […]

  7. Will said

    The discussion about jokes makes me think of the following video.

    BTW, I really enjoy your blog. I wander here on occasion.


  8. Neal said

    That video is sick, man!

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