April 29, 2016

Words of the Month - Shut the Door!

        A speech act, called a performative, is when simply to speak the words is to perform the action.  For example, if you say “I apologize” that is the apology.  It isn’t a report of something that happened elsewhere at another time; it isn’t merely a discussion of whether you might do something.  A performative cannot be false.  In other words, once you say “I apologize,” you have actually ipso facto apologized, even though you or the apologizee can always claim that you weren’t really sorry.  Some performatives are strong enough to have official or legal status, such as “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” or “I sentence you to life without parole,” but only when spoken in the official circumstances, by someone with the official authority.  Other examples of performatives are “I swear,” “I deny,” and “I resign.”  Only the speaker can perform the speech act, only by speaking is it performed, and once it’s spoken it cannot be unperformed (although in some cases it can be reversed or superseded).  If a sentence works with “hereby” inserted, it’s probably a performative.  “I hereby pledge my loyalty,” but not *”I hereby knit a sock.”
        Commands are a common kind of speech act.  They don’t usually include the labelling verb (I order you to shut the door) but it’s still true that to say the command “Shut the door” is to make the command.  This is all very well, but what’s really interesting is how frequently we perform indirect speech acts, and how wide a variety of ways we find do it.  So, you want Reggie to shut the door.  Here are some possible things to say/do, in rough order of increasing indirectness:
        Reggie, I hereby command you to shut the door!
        Will you please shut the door?
        I’d be grateful if you’d shut the door.
        Don’t you think the door should be shut?
        Shall we keep out the draft?
        Who left the door open?
        Now, Reggie, what have you forgotten to do?
        Aren’t you cold?
        You could even say nothing, but huddle, shiver, and look martyred.
        Often, indirect requests are deemed to be more polite than direct orders, but you can read personality and relationship into the varying strategies above: bossiness, smarminess, passive aggression…  I get a kick out of the ones that are not at all saying what the words seem to be saying.  Those in the form of questions are not really requests for information, nor indeed true questions at all.  And yet they are very seldom misunderstood, except willfully.
        In my youth my mother would often use the construction, Would you like to shut the door?  To which I would reply, usually cheerfully enough, but sometimes more obnoxiously, “No, but I will anyway.”  (This never failed to irritate my father.)  To this day I ask my own children simply to shut the door, please.  Although actually, in our house it’s not leaving doors open that’s the issue, but leaving lights turned on, and in my more frustrated moments I have been known to say to the guilty child, T, what’s wrong with this picture?  Which is a marvelously indirect speech act, and as such my children really should appreciate it more, for its linguistic beauty.
        There’s just one more cute twist to this particular phrase: sometimes Shut the door! isn’t a speech act at all.  It’s simply an exclamation of astonishment, synonymous with “No way!”  No doors are involved, and no special action is performed by the use of those particular words.  It’s yet more evidence of the wonderful complexity of human language as a reflection of the wonderful complexity of human interaction.

[Picture: Closing Doors, reduction linocut by Lori Biwer Stewart (Image from L.B. Stewart Printmaker).]

PS.  If you're in the greater Boston area, come see me at Needham Open Studios this weekend.  I'll be offering demonstrations and an opportunity to carve your own mini block.  Details here!

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