What Do You Mean, What Do I Mean?

by Translation Guy on March 7, 2011

There’s more than words at work in a conversation. Listen in on the next conversation you overhear and you’ll know what I mean. Most of what you overhear is pretty light on content (actually, it’s mostly completely moronic, but I didn’t want to say that directly). And it’s behaviours like that just mentioned (eavesdropping) that got cognitive scientist/author Steven Pinker interested in what people are really talking about when they talk to each other.

It’s the stuff in Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, his most recent book.  Again, at the risk of being direct: I haven’t cracked it, haven’t read a word this prolific guy has written. Did look at some of the photos on his site, which were weak, but that’s not the point.

I did take almost six minutes from my busy schedule (not to put too fine a point on it) to watch his wisdom get animated on the RSA Whiteboard. Having some artist squeak out magic marker comic illustrations while Pinker goes on and on makes it a lot easier to follow. Hopefully there’ll be a hand puppet version.

What Pinker has found is that a lot of what is going on in a conversation has nothing to do with the actual content of what the conversationalists are saying, but about what kind of relationship they have.

This is because language has two functions, content is king, the message is the message, but language is a medium for relationships, which is of far more importance to us. Getting our relationship just right is our chief concern, and failure to do so can really ruin our day.

Social anthropologist Alan Fiske has identified three major types of human relationships across all cultures.  Each is a distinct method to distribute resources. Each has a distinct evolutionary path. Each applies most naturally to certain people, but can be extended through negotiations!

Communal Sharing: Our most intimate relationships are conducted as share and share alike, in that ancient family spirit that allows you to wear someone else’s underwear and do irritating things to drive those closest to you insane. You’re not supposed to keep count for those types of relationships.

Equality Matching: Those are the kinds of relationships that depend on reciprocity. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. One good turn deserves another.

Authority Ranking: That’s when the dominant dominate. Exchange is asymmetrical. Subordinates defer, respect and obey, while superiors make sure their inferiors stay that way.

Now, when it comes to talking, what you say in one type of relationship, you can’t necessarily say in another. And you can never be sure, either, which type of relationship you’re dealing with because these relationships are constantly being negotiated. At the cocktail party, you can eat off your wife’s plate, but don’t even think about grabbing that cocktail wiener off the boss’s paper plate. Sometimes, though, the relationship is not so cut-and-dried. There are days when you might take the boss out for a drink (in my case that’s most days) or days when an invitation might make things awkward. And no one likes that, not even bosses.

So when it comes to requests, people don’t say what they mean in order to say something else. Conversationalists are often concealing their intentions, sort of, with what Pinker calls an “indirect speech act.” We don’t say what we mean, but we say it in such a way that the other person knows what we mean. That way there’s wiggle room, enough plausible deniability to get out of a sticky situation.

Because when we speak directly, all can hear, and it becomes mutual knowledge. And what we say cannot be taken back. The more inappropriate the remark to the relationship, the longer it will live in memory.  But if we keep things indirect, we never actually said it, just let those around us know that we could say it. There is enough uncertainty so that no damage is done.



  1. Cheesepants says:

    Good post Ken. If you are really interested in language and thought you should check out “Cognitive Linguistics” from oxford press by Croft and Cruse; “Towards a Cognitive Semantics” by Len Talmy, which can be found online at his website (just search for it), or even a book by Mark Turner, “The Way we Think”– this last one isn’t as good, but it’s a little more readable than the other two.

    • Ken says:

      That’s a long reading list, Cheesepants. Hopefully they come in “Classic Illustrated” editions. I’ll check them out.

  2. This blog is interesting in regards to the development of language. I would go as far as to say that it is a great alternative if you wish to read an alternative to the chomsky theory

    • Ken says:

      Chomsky doesn’t do it for me, either.

  3. Lou says:

    Interesting article Ken. I came across this blog while searching out what good ol’ Stevie has been up to these last few years. I worked with him about 15 years ago. Steven Pinker is a brilliant man.

  4. Beatrice says:

    It is really sad our culture continues to reinforce superstitious ignorance. It is so sad our culture continues to reinforce what is popular and rejects science it doesn’t understand. B.F. Skinner actually did scientific research and understood the brain functions based on the contingencies of reinforcement. Language is human behavior and functions through real world variables, not made up mentalistic causes as Steven Pinker makes up.

  5. Harry Stone says:

    As a real student of cognitive science, it absolutely astounds me that Pinker is at Harvard. So many others (Len Talmy, Adele Goldberg, Charles Fillmore, Giles Facounier, Mark Turner, Per Aage Brandt) are doing so much more with linguistics.

    • Ken says:

      But Pinker has great hair, Harry! I’ll check out these other guys on your advice. Thanks.

  6. Edward says:

    We can learn a lot about people from the way they put together words, thanks Ken!

  7. Renee Harris says:

    Nice blog, I’ll be on here a lot from now on. Being a newcomer to the analysis and debate of linguistics, this blog is excellent!

  8. wprager says:

    Hi Ken, I’ve noticed something here. This is a good language blog, and in it, you have examined the origins of the English language, but to a large degree you’ve failed to introduce the factors attributing to the physiological and cognitive results from the birth of language. I’d love to here your thoughts on the latter.

    • Ken says:

      I share your fascination. Will do.

  9. Digital79 says:

    Nice post. I am a multilingual life-long student of linguistics with time to read and study in retirement), which is why I come here so often – thanks Ken.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Ha! Yes, my family – Mum especially – are masters of the coded comment. She’ll phone up and ask us how we all are, and it is only afterwards I realise that she’s asking me: will you come over and visit? My wife an I will often spend ages decoding family conversations – hunting for the subtext. Blunt? Us Stuarts don’t know the meaning of the word. Kind regards.

  11. Mr. Thug says:

    I love how you’ve managed to take the work of Fiske and Pinkerton and mash it together into a very fascinating and relevant piece…. Awesome ken.

  12. Cowboy says:

    I’ve read quite a few other blogs that cover linguistics, but I found this one to be the most interesting. Part of it is the fact that you are a good writer, bridging the gap between popular science and real research. Thanks for this.

  13. Cherie says:

    Does the study of linguistics guarantee that you will become a good writer? Read this book and you’ll fiund that the answer is a resounding “no”. You’ll have to excuse me now, I’m sitting in Starbucks and a cute little number just walked in wih a nice ass. Bye.

  14. Bob Walter says:

    Hey Ken. Really, quit while you are behind. Good luck in your inconsistent beliefs and worshipping at the Church of Academia, fawning over their High Priests.

    • Ken says:

      Thanks for your advice and best wishes. I’ve always considered consistency the hobgoblin of little minds, so hopefully that is reflected in my writing too. But fawning? Didn’t I say that Pinker was a shitty photographer? I thought that was damning, damn it.

  15. Wendy Lopez says:

    Pinkers book is very thought-provoking if you’re into this sort of thing. TWO thumbs up.

  16. Agreed. Implicative language, like with sarcasm and politeness, versus direct is such an interesting thought. Hierarchical and “culture of honor” societies use politeness more. That’s all I know…

  17. Cassie says:

    If Pinker’s quest were truth seeking, he would begin and end at the Politics of Controlling the Commoner through language.

    • Ken says:

      Is that the answer we get when we speak truth to power?

  18. Jean says:

    The point here is that we need not be permanently shackled by our limited primate brains; scientific progress relies on our remarkable ability to extend our knowledge to new domains through the use of metaphor, analogy, and linguistic combinatorics.

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