9.09.2005

That's what i'm talkin' about!

In a certain informal speech style (the same one that uses 'like' frequently?), speakers often use tags like "you know" and "i mean," perhaps to check that the listener is following.

Consider Scott's recent observation: after any sentence, it is possible to meaningfully insert the phrase "you know what i'm trying to say." For example, "i think you're great. you know what i'm trying to say" or "the sky is blue... you know what i'm trying to say" or even "the taste of mango... you know what i'm trying to say?"

and this is the vagueness and power of language. we don't say things in the interest of logic or truth; we speak so that people will know what we're trying to say. each word or phrase is a stand-in for all the things we know we can never describe.

articulation is a personal favorite example. it is impossible to describe the condition of the tongue in real time, because as we speak, it moves, and we can never catch up with it. so we generalize to statements like: "every time i laugh, the base of my tongue hurts." here we've used language to simplify our experience into cause and effect (or at least correlated events) that recurr in patterns. if my statement isn't true EVERY time i laugh, or the pain is a little different each time, it's ok because you know basically what i'm trying to say.

2 comments:

Seb (indignantly) said...

Reading this line,

"we don't say things in the interest of logic or truth"

makes me wince.

Of course there are times when one speaks and deliberately rejects or ignores the truth (like when one's lying or bullshitting), but I'm not sure the sort of generalization emplified by "every time I laugh..." counts.

Most people, I'd say, seem to have the intuition that what they're saying, when speaking honestly, is true. I mean, try going around and contradicting whatever people say:

"Every time I laugh, the base of my tongue hurts"
"No it doesn't."

If the person is very polite, you might get some sort of concession--"well, not every time, maybe"--but keep it up and the person will stop liking you. How can you deny that what they mean is true?

My first instinct when looking at the "every time..." example is to think that the sentence is a lossy but effective compression of the information I'm trying to express. "Most times" is approximated by "every time"--it takes fewer cognitive resources to take something for granted than to adjust for uncertainty all the time. "Base of my tongue" approximates "two centimeters back from the blah blah blah...." I really don't need to know all that detail, so the communicated thought has less accuracy but is briefer and easier for me (and maybe the speaker as well) to process.

"You know what I'm trying to say?", I think, represents a check to make sure the signal is getting through, but that doesn't mean the content of the signal isn't designed, somehow, "in the interest of logic or truth."

Blah blah blah...I shouldn't post in the mornings...

Cristi said...

i mostly agree with you, actually.

we do say things to convey ideas, that, for the most part, if we were asked, we would say are true. so, in saying "every time i laugh the base of my tongue hurts," i'm conveying something to you that involves the generalizations that you point out.

but i don't think we think IN ADVANCE abuot whether or not it's true that "EVERY time i LAUGH the BASE OF MY TONGUE hurts." if someone asks, then, yes, it's true (for our conversational purposes, at least, that is, setting aside the vaguenesses of words that you mention). but all we're anticipating when we form the statement in the first place is that we want the listener to KNOW WHAT WE MEAN.

all i'm saying is that language doesn't always SERVE the interest of truth. in fact, it's necessary for the functioning of language that we ignore those vagueries and imagine asking our conversational partner "do you know what i'm trying to say?".

much philosophy of language assumes that the intention of speakers is to be 'truthful', and this is a dangerous place to start... because we're not explicity trying to be 'truthful', but to make sure people know what we're saying (which is often, but not necessarily, an end served by truthfulness).

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