Re: Play-date…

Let me begin with this – no, I’m not making this up.

A friend of mine got a memo today.  She got it from another parent in the neighborhood, and it was written to invite her child to a play-date with a friend from school.  It was an honest to goodness paper memo, with a subject line and contact info, information about pets and allergies, and times and dates and everything.  The only thing missing was the automated Outlook meeting scheduler.

When I was a kid this wasn’t how you scheduled a play-date.  Well, first off, we didn’t have play-dates, we just played.  And if I wanted to play with a friend I either called him and said “Hey, wanna play?” or went across the street and knocked on his door and said, “Hey, wanna play?”  My parents didn’t write memos.

This is what a Hallidayan linguist would call register confusion.  Register is Michael Halladay’s way of describing the constellation of linguistic features that attach themselves to particular social situations.  Say you’re at the till at the grocery store.  There are a finite number of things that you can say in that social situation that the clerk won’t find odd or confusing or totally meaningless.  You can say how many bags you’d like, you can decline their polite request to help you out to your car, you can give two dollars to the charity the store is sponsoring.  All of that works just fine.  You can’t confess your undying love for the stranger running the till, or ask politely about his/her thoughts on Benjamin Disraeli, or talk about your deep-seated emotional issues with your mother.  Well you can, but you’re gonna get a funny look.  You would only do those things if you’d confused the linguistic register that was in operation at the time.

I call the play-date memo register confusion because the person who wrote it apparently thought that you use the same language when interacting with your neighbors as you do interacting with other department heads at the office.

Just to be clear, you don’t.  Well, you can, but you’re gonna get a funny look.

Surprised by the Successes…

Michael Halliday, the renowned linguist, once wrote: “[Rather] than being surprised at the failures [of language], given the complexity of modern cultures, it seems to me we should be surprised at the successes.” – Language, context, and text, pg. 9.

We so often become upset, even angry, that we are misunderstood.  The fact is, it takes only a very little time studying the theoretical structure of language before one starts to realize that it is a miracle of the most profound order that anybody understands anything said by anybody else at all.  Human language is a cultural sign-system of such monumental complexity that studying linguistics (that is, studying the nature of language) is one of the more difficult philosophical and socio-scientific tasks out there.  But for all of that, the fact remains that language works in the world every second of every day.  You are using language right now, in order to read this post.  Though you, whoever you are, are nowhere near me right now, you understand me.  Even the errors of grammar that are likely present in this post matter very little.  Your mind is simply too fluent, to magnificent, to be stopped by what should, by all accounts, be an all but impossible task.

So perhaps we should be slower to anger when we are misunderstood.  Perhaps we should be more joyful when we feel that another person has grasped what it was that we meant.  Let us not be surprised by our communicative failures, but let us be surprised, and delighted, by our successes.