phrases whose literal meaning...

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Mon Nov 4 12:42:13 UTC 2002

Of course one may break down the functions of indirect speech acts
further, but I don't see how this makes them any less indirect. The
fact that they carry social or interactional meaning (rather more
directly than some other sentences) is undoubtedly the case, but I
wouldn't want to mislead someone who asked about "noinliteral" speech
by saying that the linguist's word for such things was the
Malinowskian label. This brings us (dangerously) close to the
discussion of "convention," speech act territory where we would
surely not want to go in our initial response to this request for a
label. I go there anyhow:

Non-conventional indirectness:
A: It's cold in here.
B: (Hmmmmmmmm. Why is A informing me (as the statement form of her
sentence suggests) about the temperature in my room. Let's see. Oh,
she might be cold, and, since it's my room and she doesn't want to
seem presumptuous, I bet she wants me to close the window, but, since
she doesn't want to seem rude or demanding she didn;t say "Close the
window you bozo"). Oh! Are you cold? Here, let me close the window.

Conventional indirectness:
A: How's it going?
B: Surely B does not reason as follows: (Hmmmmmm. What is 'it.' Where
could 'it' be going? What the !~@#$%^&*()_+ is A talking about.)
Instead he just says "Fine."

Notice that you have to "know" the language to get the conventional
indirectness, but you can "figure out" the indirectness in the first
example (in a language you spoke badly). I dare not suggest that the
line between the two is fixed, if for no other reason than the fact
that conventions must be established, and, while they are on their
way, they may exist is a muddy middle ground.


But aren't "How do you do?" and its even more truncated for "Howdy" examples
of something even further removed from intent than an indirect speech act?
These sound rather more like instances of what Malinowski called phatic
communion, where it's the verbal social interaction that's important not the
communication of intent.


>  When the grammatical form of  a sentence does not match up with the
>  "intent" such a form usually carries, people in pragmatics refer to
>  it as an "indirect speech act" or, simply "indirectness." For
>  example, The interrogative "Is it cold in here?" could actually be a
>  "request" or "command," the latter having direct expression in "Shut
>  the window you bozo!" (Well, the 'you bozo' part could be a little
>  gratuitous.)
>  There are many more "intents" or "speech acts") than there are
>  grammatical forms, so this mismatch (or indirectness) is inevitable.
>  On the other hand, Brown and Levinson, in their famous "Politeness,"
>  explored the idea that much language indirectness comes from self-
>  and other-face-protection. "Do you have a dollar?" is less direct
>  (and does not threaten the speaker's or hearer's "face") than "Gimme
>  a dollar."
>  Note that a "speech act joke" (perhaps the lowest form of humor) can
>  be accomplished (if the word "accomplishment" can be used in such a
>  case) one's pretending interpreting a grammatical question directly
>  "Do you have a dollar?"
>  "Yes."
>  "Well, will you loan me a dollar."
>  "Oh. Did you want me to loan you a dollar?"
>  dInIs
>  >>At 11:14 AM -0500 11/3/02, James A. Landau wrote:
>  >>My daughter needs to know the term to be applied to phrases whose
>  >>meaning is one thing but which are universally interpreted as something
>  >>  Her examples are "How do you do?" which literally asks "How are you?"
but is
>  >>used merely as "Hello"; and one from Hebrew, "mazel tov" which literally
>  >>means "good luck" but is universally used as "congratulations".
>  >
>  >
>  >Aside from "idiom" and perhaps "expression"  I don't think there's a
>  >term for this, but I have a few good examples:
>  >"Break a leg" --  (in theater; = Good luck!)
>  >German: "Hals- und Beinbruch!"  (literally: Neck and leg break!) i.e.
>  >You should break your neck and leg.  = Good luck!  (This German
>  >expression is probably the source of English "Break a leg!")
>  >"Kick the bucket" ( = die)
>  >
>  >     Also, a lady from South America told me that she had a job in
>  >Florida, and her boss had to leave the store for an hour or so.  As
>  >he left, he told his employee that she should "hold down the fort."
>  >The lady is very conscientious
>  >and wanted very much to carry out her boss' order, but even though
>  >she understood each individual word ("hold," "down," "fort"), she had
>  >no idea what the boss wanted her to do.
>  >
>  >    She was very nervous the whole time, since the boss might be upset
>  >upon his return that she had not held down the fort, whatever that
>  >meant. Of course, everything turned out fine, but she still vividly
>  >remembered the incident and her discomfort when she told me the story
>  >some years later.
>  >
>  >Gerald Cohen
>  --
>  Dennis R. Preston
>  Professor of Linguistics
>  Department of Linguistics and Languages
>  740 Wells Hall A
>  Michigan State University
>  East Lansing, MI 48824-1027 USA
>  Office - (517) 353-0740
>  Fax - (517) 432-2736

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic,
      Asian & African Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027
e-mail: preston at
phone: (517) 353-9290

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