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American Speech 76.1 (2001) 97-100

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Saying What You Don't Mean

Adrienne Lehrer
University of Arizona

Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language By John Haiman Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 220

In Talk Is Cheap, Haiman explores various ways in which speaker-meaning and sentence-meaning (to use Gricean language) pull apart. Displacement, detachment, autonomy, insincerity, grammaticalization, alienation, un-plain speaking, ritual language, and arbitrariness are overlapping (but, of course, nonsynonymous) concepts employed in this book. The metamessage in these forms of discourse is 'I don't mean this' or 'I don't mean exactly this'. In the postscript Haiman writes, "Although I believe that much of what I have just said here is possibly true, I am not so naive or pompous as to mistake this book for any variety of hard science, soft science, or social science. It is an idiosyncratic personal essay" (191).

Haiman discusses various speech modes which involve not only such detachment but the speakers' and hearers' awareness of this detachment. Chapter 1 deals with sarcasm, which has become extremely common among young Americans and is much the norm in television and film. Chapter 2, "Sarcasm and Its Neighbors," provides a taxonomy and definitions of put-ons, irony, lies, parody, caricature, affectional insults, and the guiltative mode. Since all but the last are familiar, I will mention only the last. In the guiltative, the metamessage "is not produced by the speaker but is rather left to be supplied by the addressee, who is thereby made to feel like a worm" (24). The speaker has to sound sincere, so that the metamessage 'I don't mean this', has to be covert. Haiman characterizes this form as a passive-aggressive act and provides examples from Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

In chapter 3, "The Metamessage 'I Don't Mean This'," Haiman proposes to treat sarcasm (the sarcastive) as a grammatical mood (like the subjunctive) because it indicates the speakers' attitudes toward the message. The sarcastive is symbolized by a limited set of iconic gestures: (1) facial expressions of disgust; (2) inverse pitch obtrusions (e.g., low pitch [End Page 97] where high pitch is expected and vice versa); (3) inappropriate intonation of various types, which Haiman discusses in detail; (4) lexical items such as so-called or quote-unquote when reporting someone else's words; (5) clich├ęs, in a singsong intonation or in writing with hyphens between all the words; and (6) repetition and other lexical and syntactic devices. However, the sarcastive, unlike the subjective, is iconic because it represents affect closely.

"Alienation and the Divided Self," chapter 4, involves any speech genre where speaker and sentence meaning diverge, as, for example, where there is a conflict between one's inner self and the public role. Sarcasm is most likely to appear where there is a tension between the two. Chapter 5, "Reflexives as Grammatical Signs of the Divided Self," deals with both linguistic and nonlinguistic manifestations of this division. Haiman speculates that reflexive pronouns represent a kind of introspective self-awareness. "My central claim . . . is that the representations of reflexivity by a separate (nonclitic) reflexive pronoun . . . originally signaled the recognition of not one but two participants and this implied some kind of detachment from the self" (72). In earlier periods, the reflexive was reserved for unexpected coreference and was a marked form, but as this structure became common (unmarked), other means evolved to signal unexpected coreference, such as names or nonreflexive pronouns.

In "Un-plain Speaking," chapter 6, Haiman provides a list of various genres in which the speaker is playing a role and not necessarily revealing his or her true self. This includes codes and euphemisms, hints, understatement, veiled speech, gobbledygook, politeness (linguistic etiquette), ritual language, affectation, polite self-abasement, and conventional response cries like oops. Haiman contrasts Grice's view of conversations as the exchange of information with Goffman's view of getting strokes and saving face. "The Thing Itself," chapter 7, is about the cult of plain speaking, a myth that "real" people, especially working-class men...


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pp. 97-100
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