November 21, 2007

"My confidence damaged," Chancellor doesn't say

The Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdon, Alistair Darling, was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning about the Great Missing Personal Data Scare (a government clerk put 25 million people's personal details on a CD ROM and sent it to an audit department in the ordinary post, and it never turned up at its destination). I think the Chancellor has been very bold, forthright, and honest about the situation, with a clear and forthright genuine data blunder apology, but the job of the interviewer this morning was to get him in an embarrassing posture, and the technique used was to ask him very pointedly, "Doesn't it damage your confidence, that a thing like this could happen?"

The Chancellor replied, "Of course it damages... confidence." (The gap there was a sort of 200 milliseconds of silence plus what I thought was perhaps a very tiny gulp. If I had a phonetic analysis laboratory beside my breakfast table the way Mark Liberman does, I'd have a sound clip and a spectrogram for you.) The interviewer stopped him instantly and asked, "Including your own? It damages your own confidence?" And the discomfited Chancellor responded, sounding very slightly nervous now, "Of course it... does."

Two little linguistic tricks of evasion there: substituting the indefinite NP confidence for the definite NP my confidence (permissible because non-count noun heads of indefinite NPs do not require a determiner), and saying it does for it damages my confidence (permissible under the Verb Phrase Ellipsis construction because the interviewer had just used a VP with the needed sense, "damages X's confidence"). In each case he had only fractions of a second for planning (he may even have decided to use does while he was starting to pronounce the initial [d] of damages), yet he pulled it off. No newspaper can truly report this morning that he said "My confidence has been damaged" (which would of course weaken him politically), because he didn't; he avoided it both times. Isn't language wonderful?

You know, just between you and me, I sometimes worry that there is a naive view loose out there — most students come to linguistics believing it, and there appear to be some professional linguists who regard it as central and explanatory — that language has something to do with purposes of efficiently conveying information from a speaker to a hearer. What a load of nonsense. I'm sorry, I don't want to sound cynical and jaded, but language is not for informing. Language is for accusing, adumbrating, attacking, attracting, blustering, bossing, bullying, burbling, challenging, concealing, confusing, deceiving, defending, defocusing, deluding, denying, detracting, discomfiting, discouraging, dissembling, distracting, embarassing, embellishing, encouraging, enticing, evading, flattering, hinting, humiliating, insulting, interrogating, intimidating, inveigling, muddling, musing, needling, obfuscating, obscuring, persuading, protecting, rebutting, retorting, ridiculing, scaring, seducing, stroking, wondering, ... Oh, you fools who think languages are vehicles for permitting a person who is aware of some fact to convey it clearly and accurately to some other person. You simply have no idea.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 21, 2007 05:13 AM