An Illustrative Case of Meaning Analysis

The theory of communicative competence is at present at a taxonomic or descriptive stage. Such attempts as those of Hymes (1964, 1962), Searle (1969), Skinner (1957) and mine (James, 1968), to mention only some, are .still trying to establish the nature of the phenomena to be accounted for.20 Therefore, it is somewhat presumptuous on my part to offer an actual case of analysis of meaning in the sense which meaning was given in this paper, especially since the title indicates my remarks as being "prolegomena." Nevertheless, I think an illustration might be useful if for no other reason than to show how inadequate our present explicit understanding is and how far w e still have to go in developing a theory of communicative competence.

I have chosen, for illustration, a conversation reported by Claudia Mitchell-Hernan (1969, p. 106ff.) in her interesting doctoral dissertation on "Language Behavior in a Black Urban Community" (Oakland, California). The interchange does not seem unusual or atypical, yet it is extremely rich and pregnant with a lot of "meaning." Her own interpretation of the account (at the implicative meaning level) is quite perspicacious and has helped me in my own analysis. Here is the episode quoted in full:

"The following interchange took place in a public park. Three young men in their early twenties sat down with the researcher [an attractive Black girl in the same age category], one of whom initiated a conversation in this way:

I: Mama, you sho is fine.
R: That ain no way to talk to your mother. (laughter)
I: You married?
R: Um hm.
I: Is your husband married?
(laughter)
R: Very.

(The conversation continues with the same young man doing most of the talking. He questions me about what I am doing and I tell him about my research project. After a couple of minutes of discussing 'rapping' I returns to this original style.)


I: Baby, you a real scholar. I can tell you want to learn. Now if you'll just cooperate a li'l bit, I'll show you what a good teacher I am. But first we got to get into my area of expertise.
R: I may be wrong but seems to me we already in your area of expertise.
(laughter)
I: You ain' so bad yourself, girl. I ain't heard you stutter yet. You a li'l fixated on your subject though. I want to help a sweet thang like you all I can. I figure all that book learning you got must mean you been neglecting other areas of your education.
I: Talk that talk! (Gloss: Ole)
R: Why don't you let me point out where I can best use your help.
I: Are you sure you in the best position to know?
(laughter)
I: I'mo leave you alone, girl. Ask me what you want to know. Tempus fugit, baby.
(laughter)"

Let us now proceed with an analysis of the meaning of this interchange along the three levels outlined in the preceding sections (viz. linguistic, implicit, and implicative)

A. The linguistic level: the language variety of which this is a sample is Black English as spoken in large urban settings. In this analysis we are not so much concerned with phonological and syntactic characteristics (such as copula deletion, deletion of auxiliary have, the existential [is], the habitual be, etc.) many of which have been described by Labov (1968), Mitchell-Kernan herself (1969) and others. The semantic characteristics of Black English overlap to a great extent with Standard English notwithstanding some peculiarities of its own. The analysis would have to consider these differences as revealed in the rules for tagging people appropriately (mama, mother, baby girl, sweet thang, scholar-all of which are used here to refer to Mrs. Mitchell-Kernan), types of modification (good teacher vs. very married vs. cooperate a li'l bit), the contextual selectivity of semantic features ("You married?" vs. "Is your husband married?"), the recoverability of indexical references such as that (in "That ain no way to talk . . .") and area (in "my area of expertise" vs. "other areas of your education"), and so on, to mention but a few interesting ones that Katz and Fodor, for instance, failed to consider in their analysis.

In addition, one would have to specify the criterial attributes of such terms and expressions as fine (in "you sho is fine"), stutter, and talk that talk which appears to be different from Standard English. As soon as one considers the analysis of actual utterances, as it is done here, it becomes painfully obvious how far short of the mark present linguistic proposals for semantic analysis are in accounting for our ability to understand the meaning of these utterances. No wonder that, for the present time, linguists are wary of considering phenomena .such as are described below under the implicit meaning level (but see Steinberg and James, in press), and much less those discussed under the implicative level.

B. The implicit-level analysis: the kinds of inferences to be considered here pertain primarily to the individual's ability to convey (speaker) or recover (hearer) the .specific conceptualizations which- the linguistic expression hints at or indexes in a nonspecific manner. For instance, the incongruity of mother (in "That ain no way to talk to your mother") is due to (a) the fact that R is a young lady of the same age as I and (b), I is engaging in a special type of flirtatious behavior towards R ("sounding," at that point). In neither case is mother literally appropriate and the humor value stems from the fact that R draws explicit attention to these incongruities. It is this act on R's part that is humorous, not the word mother itself. Furthermore, the joke is a good one (as opposed to a so-so one) by virtue of the fact that it reflects R's quick thinking (highly valued in "rapping") in response to l's earlier Mama. Had Mama not immediately preceded R's mother, the latter would still have been recognized as a joke (since the two pre-conditions mentioned still apply) but in that case it would not have had the additional value of boosting R's position as a "quick thinker."21

The term scholar normally carries positive evaluative affect, but in this context, the opposite is true, and the expression real scholar is a mocking act.22

The elliptical expression Very. is related to the full utterance "Yes. My husband is very married" and its meaning rests on two earlier presuppositions: (a) the recognition that I's question "You married?" is ambiguous in two ways: (i) means "Are you single or not?" and (ii) means "Are you faithful in your marriage?" (just in case she is married). This second meaning is implicitly inferred from the fact (which belongs to the implicative-level analysis) that I is engaging in a flirtatious game ("sounding") which includes the attempt to "make the girl." Note that it is only in this second sense that married husband has any meaning (i.e., is he faithful?; it is redundant in the first sense); (b) the recognition of the logical implication of "Yes. He is very faithful", which is that "Therefore, be forewarned!" R's response: ". . . seems to me we already in your area of expertise" presupposes recognition on her part that l's previous statement "But first we got to get into my area of expertise" refers to his prowess as a lover (an implicit inference that specifies the indexical feature of area of expertise). The humor value of her response (cf. laughter) resides in the status of her remark as a joke-an implicative meaning level fact-which is to refer to l's flirtatious game as an area of expertise (which, incidentally, is not l's original reference to "prowess as a lover"). R's remark is not only a joke, but a compliment, a fact which I acknowledges with "You ain' so bad yourself, girl" and "I ain't heard you stutter yet," neither of which would make sense as a response unless the compliment was recognized. "Tempus fugit, baby" achieves humor value by mixing elements of speech belonging to two different styles (formal and colloquial).

C. The implicative-meaning level: several implicative characteristics of the interchange have already been mentioned in connection with the explication of the implicit characteristics of affect. This illustration is particularly rich in implicative meaning, a peculiarity that characterizes "rapping" and "signifying" in Black English.23 Implicative inferences must take into account both the specific and momentary intent of the speaker and the more general and larger context of the verbal interchange: the audience there, I's two silent companions are as much addressees as R herself, the Initial relationship between the speakers (R is both an attractive girl and a stranger), the developing relationship between the speakers as the interaction proceeds (R does not condemn I's advances, R gained acceptance by her own expertise in raping), the function of the utterances at various points in the interchange (testing the other how far she wants to go, making a joke, giving a compliment, asking for help), and so on.

20. Neither Searle nor Skinner probably view their work in the same light and having the same significance that I have attached to them. This is but another symptom of the prepaedeutic stage of this area.

21. Strictly speaking, the characterization of R's utterance as A joke pertains to the implicative level of meaning, but it is introduced here to account for the affect of mother as "funny," the latter fact pertaining to the implicit meaning. The same observation applies to several of the other examples presented later (e.g., scholar). This seems to be a general rule in communicative competence, viz., the affective meaning of a word can be conveyed or altered by embedding it in a linguistic expression whose function as a speech act has the intended affect.

22. That words have an habitual affect independently of context is shown by the fact that individuals show great agreement in how they rate words in isolation on scales such as "good-bad," "nice-awful," "sweet-sour," etc. (see Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum, 1957; Osgood, James, May, and Miron, in press) For example, mother is "good-nice-sweet," snake is "bad-awful-sour," rabbit is "good-weak-fast", etc. The interindividual agreement in those ratings are based on implicit inferences derived from the criterial attributes of the concept as well as its cultural (social psychological) significance. See James, 1968.

23. Rapping is defined by Kochman as ". . . a fluent and lively way of talking characterized by a high degree of personal style," and involves a great deal of "signifying"-a manner of talk that alludes to and implies things which are not made explicit. Quoted in Mitchell-Kernan, 1969, p. 107.

An Illustrative Case of Meaning Analysis

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