This animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and author of popular science writings. Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. Taken from the RSA's free public events program: http://www.thersa.org/events/.
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world's foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received seven honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and The New Republic. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine's "The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals," Foreign Policy's "100 Global Thinkers," and Time magazine's "The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today." His most recent book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (photo credit: Max Gerber)
I'm not sure Pinker's right on his analysis of indirect speech. I don't think the "recovery" from a shut-down to the etchings proposition is as painless and "comfortable" as he alleges. Seems more that the indirect speech act in the proposition case adds an element of humour, and shows creativity or subtlety that is generally seen as attractive and would therefore increase the probability of a "yes".
language a window into social relations away I'll begin with I'll puzzle in langauge with what is takenfrom the movie Fargo on the scene early in the movie in which the kidnapper asa hostage been tied up in the backseat of the car and you conveniently is pulledover by the fire police because he's missing his plates the police officer asks him toshow his driver's license the proper says wallet with the likes of showing a fifty dollarbill extending ever so slightly and this is the officer is the maybe be the bestthing would be to take care of it here in Brainerd which the audience and presumablythe officer recognized as the old bribe this is an example but linguists call him indirectspeech act the case in which we don't work out what we mean so many words butwe veil our intentions in innuendo hoping for listener to be between the lines I canfor our viewing something we do all the time off without the realizing it for example hecould pass the guacamole that would be awesome now when you think about it but thosemaking less sense he effortlessly recognize it as a polite request I'm counting on you toshow leadership campaign for the future of anyone who is set to a fundraising dinner wasfamiliar with euphemistic this fiction or am I like that which can be translated as giveus morning it would like to come up and see my etchings that has been recognizedas sexual come on for so long that the nineteen thirties teams to revert to aNew Yorker cartoon was an a man says to his date you wait here at I'll bring the etchings that II the theit it is not my store thought there would be it be a real shame something happened to it anyoneyou were in the soprano ousted recognizes the veiled threats the puzzle is why our bribesrequested seductions solicitations threats so often veiled when both parties presumably know exactly what key languagehas to do two things start to convey some content such as a bribe command orproposition the same time it's got to negotiate we relationship shut tight the solution is touse language of two levels speaking uses a literal form to signal the safest relationship totwist counting on the listener to be between the lines dedicated proposition that might be incompatiblewith that relationship and politeness is that simple example what's going on with a if you topass the guacamole that would be awesome I begin to woo would agree that it's gonnabe an overstatement I also want to know why you should be wondering counter factual world'show right they are intended the dinner table now be listener thinks the sending of thespeakers not lost its mind of the speaker says the outcome is good therefore he mustbe requesting of the overall effect is that the intended content gets to me meet theimperative but without the presumption of dominance that would ordinarily company an imperative the median expectation thatyou can be commanding some of the person to do what you want spoke Wednesday anthropologistAlan Fiske there are only three major human relationship types of across the world's cultures he describesthe distinct way of distributing resources he has a distinct evolutionary basis and it applies tomost that lead to certain people that can be extended to negotiations to others that's whatlanguage dominance as I mentioned his logic is don't mess with me and which presumably weinherited from the dominance hierarchies that are ubiquitous among primates very different from that is communalitythe melody the ethos share and share alike which I am evolved by different root weekendkin selection mutualism is it therefore is extended by default you kin I've to spouses and amongclose friends finally there's reciprocity you scratch my back I'll scratch yours which pertains to thebusiness like tit for tat exchange of goods and services that characterizes reciprocal altruism behavior didwith acceptable of the blue one relationship type can be anonymous in another for example ata drinks party you might go over to your husband or wife or boyfriend and girlfriendand help yourself to a prawn off their plates but you wouldn't want your boss and help yourselfto be on a prawn because what you can get away with it communality in our relationshipyou can't get away with the dominance relationship likewise at the end of the dinner partyif you pulled the out wallet and offered to pay the host for the dinner Iwould not be perceived as fair that would be perceived as crass because of the clashbetween reciprocity which he does well with the appropriate say the restaurant and communality which iswhat we deem appropriate I'm among friends those cases where everyone knows what's appropriate but incases where the two sides are sure that there are the same wavelength the divergent understandingcan lead to an unpleasant emotions I'm the one that we call awkwardness for example theycan be awkward moments in a workplace when a an employee cousin or a student doesn'tknow whether to address a supervisor I by first name invite them by tonight after work fora beer because of the ambiguity as to whether the relationship is covered by dominance or friendshipit's well known well known bit of wisdom that good friends did not engage in amajor business transaction like one of them sell his car to the other the very actof negotiating a price can put a strain on the friendship because what's appropriate in reciprocityto the relationship is not appropriate in a communality relationship contrast between the dominance of sexas Lana the supervisor solicit sex from an employee defines the battleground of sexual harassment eventhe two claims of communal relationship of friendship and sex I'd give rise to the anxietiesdating oh one remaining problem which is why we resort to the indirectness even when thereis no way you'll uncertainty example in the listener knows the speakers and intent have peoplearen't naive it's hard to believe that any grown woman could be fooled by that pointabout the etchings nonetheless there is something that is more comfortable about asking ITC etchings thenasking for sex so what is going on don't be deniability is not really plausible whyshould the obvious innuendo still feel more comfortable in that direction overture that is in substanceon the record to illustrate the problem without a scene from the romantic comedy when Harrymet Sally wherein you really see the movie how he makes a remark that Sally interpretesas sexual and she accuses enough I hear coming on to me he says what wantedto buy a ticket back ok I take it back you can't take it back whennot because it's already on their faces old jeans when we supposed to call the copsit's already out there well what is the psychological stress of the overture that we feelto be out there to know more on the record that makes it feel so much moreawkward than veiled which this conveyed indirectly I think the key to this paradox is theconcept of economists and magicians called mutual knowledge was a distinguished from individual knowledge in individualknowledge A knows X B knows X in mutual knowledge A knows X B knows XA knows that B knows X to B knows that A knows X A knows that Bknows that A knows X I ad infinitum and this is a difference the house for family consequencesfor example why his freedom of assembly point is the fundamental rights and democracy and whilepolitical revolutions often triggered when a crowd gathers to the public square to challenge the president'sPalace because when people were called out everyone knew that they loathed the eye dictator butno one knew that other people that they knew out once you assemble in a placewhere everyone can see everyone else everyone knows everyone else knows everyone else knows that thedictator is loathed and that gives them the collective power to challenge the authority of thedictator who otherwise could pick off center is one of the time another example is thatthe Emperor's new clothes is a story about a mutual knowledge with a little boy saidthe emperor is naked he wasn't telling anyone anything that they didn't already know any newcouldn't see with their own eye balls he was nonetheless changing the state of their knowledge because themoment everyone now knew it everyone else knew it everyone else once again but gave themthe collective power to challenge the dominance of the Emperor speaking at their outlet for themoral of this story is the explicit language is an excellent way of creating mutual knowledgeso here's the hypothesis the innuendos even obvious ones he provides the divisional knowledge was directspeech provides mutual knowledge and relationships are maintained and nullified by mutual knowledge of the relationshiptype so if Harry were him I would say would like to come up to seemy etchings Sally says no then so he knows that she's turned down an overture howhe knows the keys to the sexual overture picture Sally know that Harry knows she canbe I'm thinking maybe how he could sign naive and is carrying out that Sally knowsthat he knows he could be wondering be the Sally against this bill mutual knowledge theycan maintain the fiction of friendship where's that I would say would like to come upand have sex and Sally turns him down now how he knows that Sally knows that Iknow it's only knows he cannot maintain the fiction of a friendship and I think thisis the basis for our intuition that with overt language you can take it back it'sout there