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A Linguistic Leap

February 5, 2011

In linguistics, the scientific study of language, we often talk about the pragmatic function of human language which governs the formation of the figure of the other.  Explicitly or implicitly, every sentence we utter is destined at someone or something.  By using the verbal ‘persons’ and personal pronouns (first person, I; second person, you; third person, he/she/it; etc.) we engage in what is known as “interlocution”—sharing a conversation.  The “I” is the one who is currently speaking while the “you” is the one to whom my discourse is directed.  “You” are silent when “I” speak, but the roles, if your partner in the exchange has any social skills whatsoever, will eventually be reversed.  Good gossip relies on speaking of the third person, he or she, often mockingly.  Most people can manage to understand these relationships.

 Moreover, without even knowing what the rhetorical devices are technically called, most people are able to understand the poetic use of  synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole as in the expression “hired hands” for workmen, or even metonymy, in which the name of an object or concept is replaced with a word closely related to or suggested by the original, as “crown” to mean “king”.

 So one morning last fall, I woke to find that my lawn signs for various political campaigns had all been stolen.  With a little digging, I discovered that it was a policeman who took them.  Livid, I picked up my phone and called the police dept. to ask why their personnel were out removing lawn signs from people’s yards.  The conversation went something like this:

–I am calling to express my concern over all of my lawn signs having disappeared from my yard in the middle of the night.

–I see.

–Yes, and the alder person representing this area of the city has told me that you are the ones who have been rounding them up.

–I think I need to make it clear that I have not been out collecting signs.

–I understand that.  I mean that you, the police department, has been out collecting the signs.

–I have told you that I have not been out of this office.

–I understand that.  This isn’t personal.  I am saying that it seems to be some police officer who came by and took my signs.  Do you have some sort of policy of which I am unaware?

–Well it wasn’t me.

And so it goes.

 Later, I had to call the IRS about my friend Albert’s business in 2008.  Albert has Alzheimer’s and can’t make these calls on his own which is why I am his POA.  The conversation sounded like this:

–Yes, I am calling to speak to someone about a letter I received from your office about Albert’s 2008 returns.

–I am sorry, sir, but I have not sent you any letters.

–I meant someone from the IRS at the Ogden, Utah branch sent me the letter.  Do you work at that office?

–Yes I work there.

–Ok, I received a letter from your office about Albert’s 2008 returns.

–I haven’t sent you any letters.

–Ok, then *sigh* can you tell me if on Albert’s account your office has indeed sent a letter?

–Yes, but we need to be clear that I didn’t sent it.

Like I give hoot which employee licked the stamp!

 Seriously, this type of conversation happens to me so often now where the person on the other end of the line can’t make that linguistic leap where any one normal would understand that “you” means the organization for which they work, not them personally.  Even at the cable company the gal always insists that it wasn’t her personally that messed up my account, and I respond, “I don’t intend to speak with every customer service rep your company has in order to find out!”

 Really folks… what is wrong with people?  Are we so focused on ourselves that we can’t even conceive of the world around us any longer, even if the linguistic constructions are some of the most common?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sandra permalink
    February 7, 2011 2:46 pm


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