15 July 2009

How Do You Say...?

This past weekend, i went with Briana to her parents' house in Cottonwood, a handful of miles south of Redding. While we were there, we visited the Sundial Bridge. On the walk back to the car, a cute little girl on a bike asked us our names, like she had walked in on a pre-existing circle and wanted to be included. We told her, Briana and Mike, and proceeded to ask her what her name is, Emma. All of this happened without either of us stopping. We walked up to, past, and beyond little Emma on her bike as we had our introductions.

In the car, Briana commented that she wanted to make sure Emma and her little sister, also on a bike, weren't behind us as we backed out of the parking space. 'You don't want to run over someone you just met,' she said. In response, i made a smart comment, as is my wont to do. 'Cause, you know, if you run over a little kid you don't know, it's one thing, but to run over a kid who's name you know, it's another.'

It sounds horrible. It really does. I admit that i made a joke that says it's worse to run a child over in your car if you know that child's name. That implies it's better to hit the young one you don't know.

But look at it again. Everything that makes my joke funny (or morbidly obscene, depending on your sense of humor) is not in the words. It is perfectly legitimate to claim that running over an unknown child is different than running over one you know. There is no judgement that one is better than the other, just that they are different. It's not even denying that both are bad things and should be avoided.

What makes this a joke that can easily offend (and i'm sorry if it has) is that what is literally says is different than how it's said and what that implies.

Language is more than words on a page and their literal meanings. Each word plays off the next.

The man who answers 'Black' to the questions 'How do you like your coffee?,' 'What style iPod would you like?,' and 'What is your ethnicity?' is saying something different to each question, even if it is the same word. But that is because 'black has multiple definitions.

As well, how you say something makes a difference. You can say the sentence 'I wanna go to the zoo' a multitude of ways that all mean something different. Emphasize the word 'wanna,' you sound like a little kid who didn't do his chores. Emphasize 'zoo' and you are differentiating between choices. Each of these words can be emphasized and the sentence changes.

That doesn't even take into account tone of voice. When i said the bad joke this weekend, i used my facetious tone of voice. If it had been my serious voice, i would have said something different, even if the words were the same.

Language is more than the words you speak, or write. It is how you say what you say.

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