November 07, 2003

Cell phone poems

Rosanne over at the X-bar comments on an informative tautology in a bit of cell phone conversation heard on the street:

"I miss them because I miss them, but, you know, I'm happier."

Rosanne says that "public phone chats should be part of the linguistic public domain". This particular chatlet reminds her of a song lyric, and starts her thinking about tautologies in everyday life.

Since public cell phone talk is acoustic littering that degrades common spaces, I'm in favor of this idea of using it as a source of linguistic examples and as a form of found poetry. When life hands you one loud side of an unwanted conversation, make an example sentence -- or a poem.

It's interesting how often an everyday conversation feels like a poem, if you just arrange its typography according to the conventions of the form. A striking recent example was Hart Seely's discovery of the poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld. Without detracting from Rumsfeld's accomplishments, I think it's fair to say that most genuine conversations contain similarly effective and affecting passages.

For example, part of one side of the sample of conversational audio shipped with the Transcriber program goes like this:

It's like I mean
I just didn't know

You know everyone tells you
    you don't know
        you don't know
            you don't know
And the thing is you don't know
so you don't even know that you don't know
you know what I mean?

It's like-

I don't know.

So the next time a peaceful lunch is invaded by half of a cell phone conversation, I'll try to think of it as an impromptu poetry reading.

[Update: a couple of people have pointed out to me that it's not obvious that a sentence of the form A because A is a tautology, i.e. is necessarily true. In fact, some people might think that it's necessarily false, if taken literally, or perhaps has a necessarily failing presupposition. Whatever.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 7, 2003 07:01 AM