A Not Uninteresting Article

The current (July 23) issue of The New Yorker includes an article by Jack Hitt on forensic linguistics. I loved the description: “If ‘forensic linguist’ brings to mind a verbal specialist who plucks slivers of meaning from old letters and segments of audiotape before announcing that the perpetrator is, say, a middle-aged insurance salesman from Philadelphia, that’s not far from the truth.” The field had its fifteen minutes in the ’90s, when its techniques helped identify Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber and Joe Klein as the anonymous author of Primary Colors, but it continues to play a role in courtrooms.

A passage that particularly struck me was: “Most people assume that meaning is embedded in the words they speak. But, according to forensic linguists, meaning is far more vaporous, teased into existence through vocalized puffs of air, hand gestures, body tilts, dancing eyebrows, and nuanced nostril flares . . . And context is crucial; when we try to record a conversation, we are capturing only part of the gestalt of that moment.”

This got me thinking about dialog in fiction. Of course, dialog is never realistic: it mostly excludes the uhms and ahs, the hesitations and repetitions of speech, let alone the puffs and gestures of the linguists. Nevertheless, I think that effective dialog makes some efforts to hint at these behaviors. I often encounter long, hyper-articulate exchanges of dialog in stories that attempt to manifest that assumption that meaning is fully embedded in the words spoken. But I think it makes for better writing, and better story-telling, when the author displays greater sensitivity to the non-verbal portion of the conversation.

Apparently, there is a mystery novel that turns on linguistics, by the way: Double Negative by David Carkeet, who is himself a linguist. I’m afraid I’ve not read it, though I hope to do so someday. But the title reminded me, by association, of an anecdote told about Sidney Morgenbesser, the influential philosopher at Columbia University, a man about whom many anecdotes accumulated. It’s said that he attended a lecture once given by the linguist J. L. Austin, the founder of speech-act theory. In the course of the lecture, Austin noted that in English and a number of other languages, a double negative implies a positive: the negatives are considered to cancel one another out. But in no language that he could find did a double positive imply a negative. Morgenbesser piped up from the back of the room, “yeah, yeah.”

And since the double negative is an example of that underappreciated rhetorical figure litotes, I will leave you with a link to this prose-poem by Charles O. Hartman, which I have always enjoyed.

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One response to “A Not Uninteresting Article

  1. I also read the New Yorker article and it brought to mind a comment by Francine Prose, who said that if you transcribed an ordinary conversation, the ums and ahs and pauses gave the feeling that the entire dialogue was fraught with heavy meaning and importance. I think real dialogue in a story can be very off putting. I look for the sense of rhythm of different speakers and word choices.

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