Saturday, 28 February 2009

If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome

I've been reading a book recently that outlines how how language is understood on multiple levels rather than in a singular, literal sense. In everyday life, we anticipate our listener's ability to read between the lines and slip in requests that we feel we can't blurt out directly. Consider the following sentence:

"if you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome"

this doesn't actually make much sense. Why would it inspire awe for someone to pass you the guacamole? Well, it's clearly a request. But why don't people just say "gimme the guacamole", instead of pussyfooting around?

This polite dinnertime request - what linguists call a 'whimperative', can be explained. When you issue a request, you are presupposing that the hearer will comply. But unless you're addressing employees, or you're a bossy kind of person, you probably wouldn't want to speak to people in that way. But you do want the guacamole. The way out of this dilemma is to couch your request as a stupid question ("can you pass the guacamole?"), or a pointless rumination ("I was wondering if you could pass the guacamole") or a ridiculous overstatement ("it would be great if you could pass the guacamole") or some other blather that is so incongruous that the listener can't take it at face value.

The person you're talking to intuits what you actually mean, and at the same time they sense that you've made an effort not to treat them as some kind of assistant. Thus you've done two things at once - communicate your request for guacamole, and signal your understanding of the relationship.

4 comments:

Karen said...

Hmmm, it becomes even more interesting if the person speaking is in fact lying. For example, if the person who wanted the guacamole didn't really want it at all, but still said: "If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome."

A few days ago I read this sentence written by a playwright: "Am I trying to be so truthful because I have not the courage to lie?"

Arietty Dexter said...

Which book is it that you're reading? Sounds fascinating x

Evert said...

The book must be Pinker, "The stuff of thought"?

sanjaypillai said...

Pinker also has a talk on TED.com you should check that out too.