Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Vague Specificity

i really get a kick out of the way some people choose to speak. im not referring to dialects so much as the way in which some people, without realising it or meaning to, betray quite a lot about their character in the simple way they speak in any given conversation. the example that prompted this post? VAGUE SPECIFICITY.
as anne and i were arriving here at jackson square where our beloved library is, i overheard a man asking the woman he was with what time it was. her answer: "not quite one minute to." (by the way it was "not quite one minute to" 12:45, as opposed to "not quite one minute to" the hour). this is vague specificity. the answer is vague, as the more direct answer would have been 12:43, but its oddly specific, because she is suggesting that there are only a few seconds remaining before it will be 12:44. why would someone speak this way? she obviously didnt do it on purpose, she was answering a simple and direct question from a person who was familiar to her. i have two theories. make that three.
1) the simplest explanation would be that she is simply a verbose person. we all know people like this. they always find the most circuitous and obscure way to articulate themselves. i think it derives from not really having anything to say. i find that sort of behaviour irritating, as a solid four years of post secondary scientific writing has made me somewhat psychotic when it comes to economy of language. flowery communication shows lack of ideas as far as im concerned. but that is another blog to be written another time, i suppose.
2) the woman is kind of controlling but also insecure. she doesnt want to be seen as not having a correct answer, hence the specificity, but she also doesnt want to be percieved as being totally anal retentive, hence the vagueness.
3) its possible that both the woman and the man had to be somewhere at 12:45 and she was therefore telling time relative to when they would be officially late.
i suppose the likliest explanation is that it is a little bit of all three. that being said, i think this example speaks to a much more interesting aspect of our lives as human beings. language is obviously one of the things that defines us as a species (although it has been shown that other species do have less sophisticated forms of language, and even that some primates are capable of learning higher forms of language), and the corollary of this is that how we use language is one of the ways we define ourselves as individuals. how and why we speak and the words we choose and the way in which we deliver them all coalesce into the outward expression of our personalities, and that is what is so fascinating about overhearing a conversation as simple as "what time is it? not quite one minute to."

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