February 13, 2006

Do you have a language barrier?

From the Palo Alto Daily News of 2/11/06 (p. 24), the first item on the police blotter for the city of Atherton for the preceding Thursday, in its entirety:

El Camino Real, 9:11 a.m.:  Someone with a language barrier called police to report a medical emergency.  The person then drove to the Stanford Medical Center.

What does having a language barrier mean here?  Ordinarily, a "language barrier" is created when people don't share a language to interact in.  Maybe that's what happened here, but then how did the staffer who answered the phone know that the caller was reporting, or trying to report, a MEDICAL emergency?  (Note also that the police attribute the communication problem to the caller, not jointly to the caller and their staffer.)

Alternatively, maybe the caller had a speech defect severe enough to make understanding difficult (though not impossible).  If so, "language barrier" is an odd expression to use, though in this situation it would at least be fair to attribute the source of the problem to the caller.

Why, in fact, does the entry mention communication difficulties at all?  Why not just say, "Someone called police to report a medical emergency and then drove to the Stanford Medical Center"?

Sometimes, calculating implicatures just makes your head hurt.

[zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 13, 2006 01:21 PM