- Talk is cheap: Sarcasm, alienation and the evolution of language by John Haiman
John Haiman entertains two main theses: (1) One of the central design features of language is the displacement of the sign (its ‘cheapness’); (2) such displacement is a consequence of repetition rather than of creativity—for which displacement is a necessary condition. H organizes his exposition around three main topics reflected in the subtitle: sarcasm, alienation, and the evolution of language.
The first three chapters delimit sarcasm and review the overt ways in which it can be expressed. Sarcasm is characterized by the rejection of the message apparently conveyed by the utterance. The sarcastic rejection of the message is a particularly transparent case of displacement. Several methods, studied by H, serve to make the rejection blatant. As a consequence, a metamessage, which H paraphrases as ‘I don’t mean this’, is superimposed onto the message. In this way, the speaker is dividing himself into an actor of a role (who rejects the message) and the social role being played (who utters the message).
This divided self is the topic of the next unit (Chs. 4–7) and is the defining feature of what H calls ‘unplain- speaking’. Unplain-speaking includes not only sarcasm but also euphemisms, politeness, or different types of affectation, highlighting in each case the presence of a divided speaker (protagonist/performer). In Ch. 7, H posits the same duplicity regarding the speaker’s roles for the allegedly natural, but self-conscious, ‘plain-speaking’.
The final chapters (8–12) show the role of repetition in linguistic and nonlinguistic evolution. Repetition lies behind the conversion of an object into an icon, the turning of an icon into a sign, and the erosion of the meaning of a sign. Ritualization is at the very origin of arbitrariness and, in a second stage, at the transition from an instrumental use of language (referential) to a more sophisticated use (ritual and phatic), where reference is blurred. Thus, evolution of language is conceived of as driven by repetition, and several linguistic processes (e.g. grammaticalization or semanticization) are considered instances of this evolution. The book includes an appendix featuring the questionnaire used to elicit sarcasm and an analytical index.
This entertaining book deals with a wide range of topics, for the author has the ability to relate different phenomena in the light of his hypotheses. The examples are quite heterogeneous and often require familiarity with North American culture. The pieces of evidence singled out in support of H’s hypotheses may not be equally convincing, but this ultimately stems from the very nature of this book as an essay. Talk is cheap, full of new insights into old topics, will bring joy to the curious and open-minded reader. Among such insights, certain observations about linguistics, including the reification of theoretical categories or the search for an objective metalanguage (e.g. IPA, semantic primitives), are especially attractive.