April 30, 2006

Out-of-time, out-of-body seeing and hearing

David Giacalone of f/k/a is puzzled :

Why do so many news broadcasters -- from PBS's Jim Lehrer to ABC's Elizabeth Vargas -- end their show by saying "we'll see you here tomorrow"? Yes, the transitive verb "see" does have many meanings, but not one of them is "be watched by you."

David promises not to contribute to this illogical development ("The f/k/a Gang swears never to use the phrase 'we'll see you here tomorrow.' We might say: 'Come back and let our StatCounter perceive your presence.'"), and he asks for help in understanding it:

Maybe Mark Liberman at Language Log can explain (or, more likely, explain away) this language problem for us.

Although I've never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Giacalone, this request continues a virtual conversation that I've enjoyed, and so I'm happy to offer what little insight I can. And luckily, it seems to me that Laura Cantrell offers a clue in today's NYT, in an Ideas and Trends piece on Bob Dylan's new radio show ("Play a Song for Me"):

In doing my own program, "The Radio Thrift Shop," on WFMU in Jersey City for the last dozen years, I've tried to make radio by hand, like a good pie, served from my studio right into, well, wherever you happen to be listening.

Clearly atmosphere is most readily evoked with a live format (most commercial and satellite radio not only is not live, it is assembled by computer), but it can be done with the out-of-time, out-of-body approach, and a recording artist like Mr. Dylan probably has a built-in advantage.

The best example may be Hank Williams. In the early 1950's, many artists did double duty behind the broadcaster's microphone, often appearing at early morning hours on programs with names like "Farm and Fun Time." Mr. Williams's "Health and Happiness Shows" were recorded in the WSM studios in Nashville to 16-inch acetate transcription discs, which were copied and shipped to radio stations across the country.

Though these shows were "canned," they have an immediacy that a lot of our modern, technology-assisted radio lacks. The thrill of hearing Hank encouraging his band to "play it like you mean it, boys," or cracking up at some goofy studio banter, switching sincerely to his closing "If the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise" give some sense of who he was beyond the records and the songs he left behind.

In fact, the full phrase that Hank always used at the end of his Health & Happiness Shows was "If the Good Lord's willing and the creeks don't rise, we'll be sure to hear from you again". That's pretty much the radio version of the inverted meaning in TV closings like "We'll see you here tomorrow."

It's clear enough, I think, why Hank said "we'll be sure to hear from you again" and not "you'll be sure to hear from us again". In the first place, he's making a promise for himself and his band -- it would be strange and even rude for him to try to commit the listener to tuning in again. He could have promised that "we'll be sure to play for you again", but that would highlight the very thing he wants to overcome, the one-way, non-interactive nature of the medium. He's trying to make listeners feel that he's right there with them, taking in their requests and their reactions as if he were playing a live roadhouse gig rather than a canned radio show.

Hank chose an image that emphasized the empathy he wanted to feel, and if he strayed a bit beyond the strict bounds of logic, surely an author of "one-breath poetry" can forgive him.

[David G. has responded:

To me, by skewing the meaning of the words, instead of saying something factually true that invited the listener to come back, Hank -- and I'm a fan of his music -- is manipulating the feelings of the listener and making our language a bit less useful as a tool of communication. Surely, if Hank tried his "But, I've been here with you all night" baloney with a sweetheart, from out of town, she'd call his bluff. And maybe sing "Your Cheatin' Heart."

I'll take refuge in a quote from Nabokov:

Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase "sincere and simple"-- "Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere"-- under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: "Art is simple, art is sincere." Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

As, in its own way, is ordinary language.

But perhaps we're all over-analyzing. If French speakers end phone conversations with "au revoir", or German speakers with "auf wiedersehen", they're not being telling a lie, misusing their language, or even being especially artful. It's just an expression, as we can tell from the joke that's been repeated by generations of junior-high-school students:

A: See ya later.
B: Not if I see you first...


[Update: Joe Allegretti wrote:

I'm was reminded of a German-language radio program I listened to in the 1980s out of Trenton, NJ, from which the host would always sign off with "auf Wiederhören," which is, obviously, the more precise aural-oriented equivalent of "auf Wiedersehen." Apparently, this is also the common phrase used for phone conversations. Another interesting example of nuanced language for which precise English equivalents do not exist (except maybe "see you later," "talk to you later"?).

I've also used "auf Wiederschreiben" in correspondence, but found the following links interesting, regarding use of "auf Wiederlesen":


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 30, 2006 01:02 PM