Pragmatist Arrested, Charged
Associated Linguists Press (ALP)
December 28, 2006
Dr. Jonathan Pecksterwilde, lecturer at Shrewesminster College, Dorkesbury, was arrested last Thursday and charged with the use of undue illocutionary force. He is suspected of belonging to a splinter group of radical pragmatists who have been deploying speech acts in and
around the College, primarily directed against rival gangs of minimalist grammarians and compositional semanticists. He was brought before the court early this morning accompanied by his academic department head, Prof. Reginald Syllabus, who was asked to appear on behalf of the defense.
“Words, like fashions, disappear and recur throughout English history, and one generation’s phraseology, while it may seem abominably second-rate to the next, becomes first-rate to the third...”
Pecksterwilde has been the subject of recurring complaints by the patrons of the Dorkesbury Arms, a pub frequented by the college faculty, where he usually stopped in for a pint after his evening lecture at the college. Sgt. Pete Bobbitt, the arresting officer, read aloud to the court depositions that had been obtained from witnesses at the pub. Pecksterwilde was reportedly in the habit of uttering ambiguous sentences and then challenging his colleagues, usually the compositional semanticists at the next table, to account for the meanings he had just expressed or buy the next round. Pecksterwilde’s utterances would become increasingly ambiguous as the evening wore on.
The owner’s cat, the pub mascot, usually to be found sleeping next to the hearth, was often
the innocent and unwitting subject of these ambiguities: “The cat is on the mat,”
Pecksterwilde is reported to have said, with a menacing leer at the poor animal; “She’s
the cat’s pajamas,” with an insinuating glance at a hapless young student having a shandy at the bar; “Cat’s got your tongue,” when the young woman refused to respond to his overture, and so on.
“Change is legitimate and inevitable, for our language is a mighty river, picking up silt and flotsam here and discarding it there, but growing ever wider and richer.”
Ironically, the chief complainant against Pecksterwilde was a fellow pragmatist. Prof. Katherine (Kitty) McFeline-Boyle, who was present at today’s hearing, is well-known internationally as the driving force behind the Association Against Discriminatory Implicatures Directed Toward Small Animals (AADIDTSA). Ordinary speech is permeated with these implicit biases, McFeline-Boyle maintains, illustrating the argument with the commonly-used taunt against suspected cowards, “Are you a man or a mouse?” the implicature of which, she has famously argued, is massively discriminatory toward the mouse. Pecksterwilde, it seems, was formerly
McFeline-Boyle’s doctoral student. She headed the committee that recently turned down his bid for tenure and she argued in her complaint that his aggressive speech acts, which she termed “speech attacks”, are a transparent bid for revenge.
The depositions read by Sgt. Bobbitt appeared to support her claim. Pecksterwilde had been observed speaking ambiguously in the immediate vicinity of dormice, hamsters, gerbils, hedgehogs and badgers.
The court directed Prof. McFeline-Boyle to substantiate her complaints in this regard. “One couldn’t really expect an animal to understand, could one?” asked the court.
“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.”
McFeline-Boyle, apparently anticipating the challenge, submitted as evidence a recent article published in the Eingesagtgesellschaftforschung, a prominent journal in the field, which summarized a decade of research that demonstrates the understanding of communicative intentions by chimpanzees, gorillas, dogs and parrots. “If it please the court, implicatures are not comprehended linguistically. If all of these animals can comprehend intentions, it’s a minor inferential leap to the abilities of small rodents.”
The court was presented with additional evidence in the form of materials seized in a search of the defendant’s residence. These included a number of published works characterized by the arresting officer as being of a subversive nature, including titles such as: “How to do things with words”, “Words and Things” and “Beyond Naming”.
The court asked Professor Syllabus if he could justify the defendant’s possession of such material.
“In the hands of a responsible linguist these materials are perfectly harmless,” explained Syllabus. “It’s apparent that Dr. Pecksterwilde simply put them to an irresponsible use. You have to expect that things will get out of hand if you let people go around attacking perfectly good theories and getting away with it. There is no reason why a straightforward compositional semantics could not have fully accounted for all of the meanings that Pecksterwilde was experimenting with. When one starts appealing to dodgy notions like intentions and beliefs... well, the court can see where it leads. It’s a long and slippery slope down to the dark side of human nature. I have to say that this entire episode could have been prevented. Pecksterwilde was a promising student until he took up with the wrong company.” Syllabus directed a dark look toward McFeline-Boyle who refused to acknowledge his remark.
“Of course, I’m not sure which dictionaries agree with me—but I’m a
linguist! I care not!”
Syllabus was asked to enlighten the court as to the nature of Pecksterwilde’s beliefs and intentions.
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” answered Syllabus, “but it should be clear to the court that Pecksterwilde was doing things with words that Austin never dreamed of.”
The court noted that as Pecksterwilde’s earlier “speech attacks” had gone unpunished, he had apparently become emboldened. Around the time he was apprehended, he was seen approaching a small pony.
“To handle a language skillfully is to practice a kind of evocative sorcery.”
In passing sentence, the court reluctantly ordered that biological constraints be imposed on Pecksterwilde’s meta-representational capacities in the hope that this would curb his relentless abuse of implicatures. He was also ordered to refrain from speaking within hearing distance of small animals and will be remanded until such time as a linguistic rehabilitation program can be arranged to prevent the permanent impairment of his ability to communicate.