Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language

Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language

Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language

Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language

Synopsis

Putting aside questions of truth and falsehood, the old 'talk is cheap' maxim carries as much weight as ever. Indeed, perhaps more. For one need not be an expert in irony or sarcasm to realize that people don't necessarily mean what they say. Phrases such as 'Yeah, right' and 'I could care less' are so much a part of the way we speak - and the way we live - that we are more likely to notice when they are absent (for example, Forrest Gump). From our everyday dialogues and conversations ('Thanks a lot!') to the screenplays of our popular films (Pulp Fiction), what is said is frequently very different from what is meant. Talk is Cheap begins with this telling observation and proceeds to argue that such 'unplain speaking' is fundamentally embedded in the way we now talk. Author John Haiman traces this sea-change in our use of language to the emergence of a postmodern 'divided self' who is hyper-conscious that what he or she is saying has been said before; 'cheap talk' thus allows us to distance ourselves from a social role with which we are uncomfortable. Haiman goes on to examine the full range of these pervasive distancing mechanisms, from clich¿s and quotation marks to camp and parody. Also, and importantly, Haiman highlights several ways in which language is evolving (and has evolved) from non-linguistic behaviour. In other words, this study shows us how what we are saying is continually separating itself from how we say it. As provocative as it is timely, the book will be fascinating reading for students of linguistics, literature, communication, anthropology, philosophy, and popular culture.

Excerpt

The essence of language is its creativity. This sentence, for example, has never been uttered before in the history of the human race. (popular linguistic proverb of the 1960s)

Language is replete with clichés and commonplaces: we recycle. In fact, it is appropriate that a book like this one, devoted as it is to recycled speech (both my own and that of others), should be creaking under the weight of other people's memorable quotations, and that it should begin with a quotation in order to justify the apparent flippancy of my title (itself, of course, a familiar slogan): "The world of human aspirations is . . . a symbolic-behavioral world removed from the boundedness of the present moment, from the immediate stimuli which enslave all lower organisms" (Becker 1971:139; emphasis added). The symbolic world, being removed from the here-and-now, is therefore inconsequential in the real objective world. With all due respect for human speech, then, and in this technical--even laudatory--sense of "cheap" which I have emphasized in the passage above, I contend that what is true of the symbolic world of human aspirations is quintessentially true of the medium within which almost all of these aspirations are expressed: Talk is cheap, and actions do speak louder than words. That is why we can even consider allowing ourselves such luxuries as the First Amendment; in fact, a forceful defense of the principle of free speech is based on exactly this property of symbolic behavior (see F. S. Haiman 1972). Granted, much of what we do in our lives is talk. Granted, also, that almost everything we actually physically do is a response to, and is organized by, some kind of talk. Granted, finally, that our "flctions are not super-

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