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Social Saturdays’ posts look at the social side of language. After all, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it is communication.

Grice is Linguistic Hero #23. He would be higher up, but he made one or two errors; these I’ll go into at a later date, to make this post flow more and also because I want to go to bed!

Grice came up with the theory that what we say follows rules. In particular, he came up with a cooperative principle: four maxims that any utterance should follow.

  1. Quality
  2. Quantity
  3. Relevance
  4. Manner

The maxim of quality is, essentially, not to lie.

Obviously, it’s expected that when you introduce yourself as Barry, your name should be Barry.

The maxim of quantity states that you shouldn’t omit facts – but also shouldn’t blether on about irrelevant things.

That means say just the right amount.

Following the maxim of relevance means you don’t change the topic or say something completely unrelated; which makes sense.

The maxim of manner is the most abstract: “Avoid obscurity of expression, avoid ambiguity, be brief and be orderly.”

This just means don’t act weird while you’re talking.

The four maxims, together, create the Cooperative Principle: while you’re following the maxims, you’re being cooperative.

As much as the maxims are interesting, what’s much more interesting is when people aren’t following the maxims.

The most interesting instance of not following a maxim is when you flout it; this is when you still make sense to the listener, you don’t come across as “not all there”, and yet you aren’t following one or more of the maxims.

Flouting the Maxim of Quality

Speaker 1 (S1): Did you know they weren’t together?

Speaker 2 (S2): Yes… As far as I’m aware, they ended it after her alligator became allergic to his cat. It was a case of “It’s me or the alligator”.

Now, this is only flouting the maxim of quality for someone who is aware of the actual truth (the cat was, in fact, allergic to the alligator). However, S2 has hedged, which is what we call it when a speaker uses “As far as I’m aware”, “Don’t quote me on this”, “I heard”, or something along those lines, so we’ll forgive this indiscretion.

S1: Thank you for dinner, it was fantastic.

We’ve all done this one. Whether it’s “dinner was fantastic”, “that dress looks fabulous on you”, or “don’t worry, it didn’t hurt when you dropped that boulder on my toe”, white lies are another example of flouting the maxim of quality.

S1: Are you okay?

S2: Why yes, I love it when I get food poisoning, spend the evening in hospital and ruin my brand new carpet

Assuming, here that the speaker of the utterance is a relatively normal person, we can be pretty sure they are not speaking the truth. Sarcasm, as seen here, as another example of flouting the maxim of quality.

Flouting the Maxim of Quantity

S1: So?…

S2: Yeah, I did it. It was AMAZING.

When two or more speakers have assumed knowledge of something, they often flout the maxim of quantity. Often, when a relationship spans a long time, 2 people develop their own sort of language, based on shared knowledge.

S1: So you and he are friends?

S2: Yup. Friends.

There’s a reason people swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Telling the truth and nothing but isn’t enough – you can follow the maxim of quality perfectly, and yet leave out vital pieces of information, which can make a massive difference. Telling someone that the person you’re going out with is a friend isn’t lying – you are friends, you’re just also going out. Flouting the maxim of quantity in this way is usually deliberate, in order to hide something from someone without actually lying.

Flouting the Maxim of Relevance

S1: I thought you two were just friends???

S2: … Did you move the wash on this morning?

Changing the subject at an awkward moment, in order to avoid a topic of conversation, is an example of flouting the maxim of relevance – and a consequence, in this case, of flouting the maxim of quantity!

S1: Do you want an ice cream?

S2: Do I want an ice cream? Do bears poo in the woods?

On face value, the second utterance here makes no sense. It’s answering a question with another (flouting the maxim of manner) and it changes the subject (flouting the maxim of relevance). Of course, it’s assumed that S1 will come to the conclusion that: of course bears poo in the woods -> answer is yes -> S2 does want an ice cream.

S1: If voted in, you alluded to introducing tax-cuts… how would this work?

S2: I think it’s extremely important to remember, and to bear this in mind, especially in the current economic climate, that we will always prioritise those most in need. We were there to bail out the banks, and we will continue to provide support – as we have throughout the recent economic crisis – to those who need it most. If this means altering our system, we are fully prepared to take steps in that direction. Do not think that we can come out on the other side of this crisis without making changes to the current system.

The above utterances are from an (imagined, but fully plausible) political interview.

Filibustering (consequently, an amazing word) is what politicians in particular are renowned for. If you look at S2’s response, no movement is made towards answering the question. Instead politicians talk around the question – or even about a completely unrelated topic – in the hope that people either forget the question that was asked, or else don’t notice that it hasn’t been answered.

Flouting the Maxim of Manner

S1: Do you want to take the dog for a W-A-L-K before he goes to the V-E-T this evening?

It’s not normal to spell words out to your listeners; but in this case of flouting the maxim of manner, the listener will understand that the dog will become excited at the sound of the word “walk” and agitated/nervous at the sound of the word “vet”, and this is to be avoided.

S1: Remember to…

S2: Yeah. I will

What can also happen when two speakers have a shared knowledge is that they can speak in this code to deliberately exclude others – note that this is also flouting the maxim of quantity.

S1: There’s a level 4 alert at number 16!

Shops, hospitals and other establishments where there are customers, or in the case of confidential information (perhaps being relayed over radio signals, etc.) often have a “code”.

Being ambiguous, and deliberately excluding people outside a certain group is flouting the maxim of manner – it means that you can talk about things which others aren’t allowed to know, from confidential information to the fact that there’s been a spillage in an aisle in a supermarket.

So, there you have it – there are rules to conversation.

If you notice any particularly interesting instances of flouting a maxim in your day to day life, comment it – pragmatics and discourse analysis are much more interesting to observe than to read about!