My friend Gustavo A. Rodriguez Martin just posted this picture on Facebook, along with a note that I might want to comment about it. He’s right.
“Cheeseburger stabbing” has to mean, of course, that someone was stabbed in a dispute over a cheeseburger. Nobody is seriously going to suggest that a cheeseburger wielded a weapon against a person or another cheeseburger.
But when you stop to think about it, some interesting questions arise. How do we know that the cheeseburger didn’t wreak any bodily harm? We have only two words to work with, and yet we’re able to construct a highly probable explanation about what happened:
Hamburger stabbing = someone stabbed another person in a dispute about a cheeseburger
That’s an amazing testimony to the power of language. Our brains contain such sophisticated linguistic wiring that we can extrapolate a large amount of information from just a couple of words.
Here’s an example I use often in my workshops. A guy named Frank calls his friend Bob and suggests they go bowling. Bob responds with “I’d love to but…” and his phone goes dead – he forgot to charge it.
Are they going bowling tonight? Probably not. When Frank hears that word “but,” his brain will instantly construct the rest of the message: “I can’t go tonight.” There’s no 100% guarantee that he’s right, of course. Maybe Bob was going to say that he’d be a little later than usual. But there’s a high probability that Frank’s brain will process that fragment of information correctly.
The power embedded in language also has a potential downside – a huge one, in fact: Ambiguity. Our two-word cheeseburger message can be interpreted in multiple ways, forcing us to rely on the context to ensure that we understood it.
And there, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub.
Does it ever happen that the context is just as ambiguous as the message?
Yes. It happens over and over again. A poorly worded remark causes offense – or a casual comment is misinterpreted as a promise for something that’s never going to happen.
And now we’re talking about postmodernism. Language – useful as it is – can’t possibly accomplish everything we task it with.
When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, and spending a lot of time thinking about language issues, a friend took me to task. Jacques Derrida and his ilk were part of a passing trend, she warned me. What would I do when deconstruction is no longer in style?
She was on target if you misunderstand deconstruction as a silly game where you load ambiguous readings into a literary work. But if you really study what Derrida was saying, and you start paying attention to everyday discourse, you begin to suspect that the postmodernists are right: Language issues are all around us.
Item: My husband and I once ordered a pizza with peppers – and were served a pepperoni pizza.
So many problems are attributed to inattention, carelessness, incompetence…when part of the blame needs to be laid at the door of our slippery language. And English is no worse (or better, for that matter) than any other language.
- A man notices that a woman in his office has lost a great deal of weight. Should he compliment her? Or is he risking a summons from the Human Resources director for a sexually inappropriate message?
- A deeply religious woman hears that a colleague has a very sick infant. Does she say “I’m praying for your family” – or is that intrusive?
- A police officer approaches a group of women leaving a shopping mall. The officer points in the direction of one woman and says, “I need to talk to you.” Her response is “Are you talking to me?” Is that a defiant statement – or is she just looking for clarification?
And consider this statement:
Time flies like an eagle.
And this one:
Fruit flies like a banana.
Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that we’re able to communicate as well as we do.
Seen any violent cheeseburgers lately?