Friday, May 04, 2007

Pragmatically Speaking

For word-watchers, this past April was an interesting month to see what happens to people who don’t watch their words – and, in particular, the context in which they are spoken. Poster Boy for Blowing It Big Time was the radio shock-jock whose succinct, crude, and now notorious hyphenated adjective-plus slang plural noun so defamed the upstanding Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team that his show was first canceled for two weeks and then ultimately, forever.

Over in England, a mother’s hopes of having her daughter marry the prince were dashed, in part, by said mother’s unfortunate use of certain vocabulary words: These words were not monosyllabic, Saxon-sounding slurs or foul-mouthed interjections; rather, they were simply words and phrases (plus one action) that indicated that she was not “one of them” – which to the royals, raised the specter of an unhappy marriage due to irreparable class differences.

What these seemingly distinct cases have in common, however, is “pragmatics” – a branch of linguistics that studies how the meaning or interpretation of certain words can change according to context. Pragmatics is what guides our ability to change or modify our word choices and even gestures when speaking to a teacher, a friend, a baby, or a stranger who’s speaking too loudly on his cell phone. If you don’t pay attention to your audience, you may end up falling flat.

The morning that ex-radio host Don Imus spewed his gender- and racially charged remarks about the Rutgers women, he was talking by speaker phone to a male sports commentator as well as to the station’s listeners; he was also able to be heard by anyone who missed the show – including the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team –on the news and Internet. So, Imus’s audience, in the end, was actually men and women of all races in the New York tri-state area and, via the media and technology, the world.

The racist remarks he made that morning were not Imus’s first: In fact, the radio host had a track record that had been largely ignored in the past – mainly because he picked on people whose stature was big enough to handle the offense, not because it was any less offensive. But using those words to describe a team of hard-working, championship-playing young women athletes rightly – and finally! -- hit a nerve, and crossed a line. His nasty words sank like a slam-dunk into the wrong hoop.

Michael “Kramer” Richards of “Seinfeld” fame also needed a better understanding of pragmatics when he used racial slurs to lambast two African American audience members who annoyed him during his comedy act last November. Like Imus, he did not think pragmatically – and ended up sounding not like the edgy comic he possibly wanted to be – but more like Mel Gibson, who last summer made some equally offensive remarks about Jewish people, while being arrested for alleged drunk driving. The police officer, and object of Mel’s tirade, rightly did not appreciate those remarks – and Mel promptly landed himself not only in rehab but in a swirl of public outrage.

These days, course language is fashionably cool and hip. Movies, radio, TV, the Internet and email all use nasty words and blunt images. It seems like our society is Anything Goes – but it’s not. Filthy language is one thing; racist remarks, especially personal, racist remarks should not be tolerated and it was a boost to see society rise up and vanquish these perpetrators.

Meanwhile, the English mum, Carole Middleton, who had worked so hard to have her daughter, Kate, be the kind of girl to interest the English royal family’s Prince William apparently did not take her own words and actions into account.
According to a Royal Source quoted in the English newspaper, the Daily Mail (4/14/07), Carole Middleton “is pushy, rather twee* and incredibly middle-class. She uses words such as ‘Pleased to meet you,’ ‘toilet,’ and ‘pardon.’” (*Twee is a British word for dainty or pretty in an overdone and affected way.)
The Royal Correspondent for the Australian TV news show, News Idea, said that Mrs. Middleton, on meeting the Queen, should have said, “How do you do?” and not, “Pleased to meet you.” I’m guessing that even in proper BBC English, “Pleased to meet you” (and the reportedly pushy and socially ambitious Mrs. Middleton no doubt was pleased to meet The Queen) sounded a bit too chummy. “How do you do?” has such a nice, frigid sort of sound, and seems a more natural choice for people known for speaking about themselves in the 3rd person singular, as in: “One wonders if one ever thinks referring to oneself as ‘one’ sounds funny.’”

As for calling that sine-qua-non of necessary rooms a “toilet” instead of a “lavatory” or “bathroom,” well, the trouble with that word is simply that, according to the experts, upper crust English people over the age of 30 simply do not say it. Ever. Etymologically, there’s nothing crude about the word: the root is not “toil” or work, suggesting grunts or groans, but rather, the root is “toile,” (twahl) referring to a lacy cloth that was used to cover the dressing table, which the French called a “toilette.” Dressing oneself in French was called “to make one’s toilette,” and the word evolved from there. But at this point, even informal Americans go to the “restroom” or “bathroom” and only speak of the toilet when referring to the object itself.

Saying “Pardon” instead of “What?” was another of Carole Middleton’s verbal offenses, according to Sarah Lyall’s article in the New York Times. (Memo from London 4/26/07) Saying “Pardon?” makes a person sound like she’s trying too hard – and in the same way that, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” works, so does the idea that if you have to try to sound correct, you’re obviously, hopelessly not up to snuff.

And try – really, really try -- is what Carole Middleton did. Though her methods were different, Mrs. Middleton and the meddling, neurotic Mrs. Bennett, mother of the five eligible girls in Pride and Prejudice, could be distant cousins. News articles from the Daily Mail, The New York Times and others all cite Mrs. Middleton’s aspirations for daughter Kate, beginning with starting a mail order business twenty years ago – a business that catapulted the family from middle class to nouveau super-riche, enabling her three children to go to private school and on to any university that they could get into. Meeting Prince William seems not exactly unexpected on Mrs. Middleton’s part.

In fact, it was the perfect plan – and it almost worked (and that’s not to say it never will for Kate). But Mrs. Middleton, a coal miner’s granddaughter and former airline hostess, -- attributes that made mockery all too easy for Prince William’s upper crusty crowd -- neglected her pragmatics: and her lack of discretion coupled with the language of an arriviste were interpreted on the Royal Family’s side as strictly NOCD (i.e., Not Our Class, Dear).

"The irony is that Carole has been so busy pushing her daughter forward and doing her best to groom her for Royalty that she's rather missed the point that she might not fit in herself,” said the Royal correspondent for News Idea. He added that in addition to her language faux pas, Mrs. Middleton was seen at the formal Sandhurst Military College parade – the one in which Prince William marched this past winter -- chewing gum.

Chewing gum?! That is a type of body language that emanates the same strong message as its verbal counterparts – which is, that in the wrong context, such an activity is Just Not Done. At this point, it is probably a truth universally acknowledged that chewing gum is more than a tad tacky at formal functions. Did Eliza Doolittle slip a little Dentine into her mouth before the ball? Did Cinderella’s breath smell like Wrigley’s spearmint when she danced with the prince? Did Mrs. Middleton think the Queen wouldn’t notice? She could have at
least swallowed the gum before gushing, “Pleased to meet you.” One has to wonder.

Mrs. Middleton could have taken some tips from Nancy Mitford’s classic 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love, a mostly autobiographical novel of growing up in an eccentric, aristocratic English family in the 1930s. Here is what the father (“Uncle Matthew” to the narrator/his niece, Fanny, who, unlike his own children, attends a regular school) thinks about formal education – and its influence on the decline of proper English:

“Education! I was always led to suppose that no educated person ever spoke of notepaper … Fanny talks about mirrors and mantelpieces, handbags and perfume, she takes sugar in her coffee, has a tassel on her umbrella, and I have no doubt that, if she is ever fortunate enough to catch a husband, she will call his father and mother Father and Mother. Will the wonderful education she is getting make up to the unhappy brute for all these endless pinpricks? Fancy hearing one’s wife talk about notepaper – the irritation!”

Coming to the rescue, Aunt Emily says, “A lot of men would find it more irritating to have a wife who had never heard of George III. (All the same, Fanny darling, it is called writing-paper you know-don’t let’s hear any more about note, please.)”

So you can see what Mrs. Middleton was up against. All the same, being British, didn’t she know? It’s not as if the English aristocracy has hidden their subculture or dialect from the world. In 1954, Ms. Mitford even compiled a glossary of Upper Class and Non-Upper Class words, which, though intended for a lighthearted article, nonetheless still carry the sting of reality for today’s wannabe royal mothers-in-law.

Upper Class Non-Upper Class
Bike or Bicycle Cycle
Dinner Jacket Dress Suit
Knave Jack (cards)
Vegetables Greens
Ice Ice Cream
Scent Perfume
They've a very nice house. They have a lovely home.
Ill (in bed) Sick (in bed)
Looking-Glass Mirror
Spectacles Glasses
False Teeth Dentures
Die Pass on
Mad Mental
Jam Preserve
Napkin Serviette
Sofa Settee
Lavatory or Loo Toilet
Rich Wealthy
What? Pardon?

Though it is now 50-odd years later and I am not sure what still applies to the general English verbal class distinctions today; however, the mere fact that such a list exists at all is unusual – and seems like something that could only happen on a small island nation with a fairly homogeneous society. How else to tell the social wheat from the chaff? But with all the changes going on there recently, perhaps this list will be completely obsolete in the near future. But for the moment, we shall have to leave it to the English to separate aristocrats from arrivistes through sofas and serviettes.

No comments: