(This is in my teaching voice, which I haven’t actually developed yet because right now I only teach middle schoolers and the best way to earn their respect is to use the phrase “this sucks” the first time I meet them. Which happens to be one of my favorite phrases, so I took care of that. That’s right. There are people in this world who think I’m cool. After reading the next paragraph, you will not be one of them.)
Linguistics (the study of languages) ranges from morphemes (the smallest units of meaning in a language) to phonetics and phonology (the pronunciation of words) to syntax (the ways words are put together) to semantics and pragmatics (extrapolating meaning from context and phrasing). It is an ancient and fascinating practice that continues to evolve, including discovering that people in my hometown of Seattle, WA may actually have an accent, despite our fierce assurance that we don’t, because apparently we say the word “egg” weirdly. There’s also a whole lot more (to linguistics, not to the Seattle accent), but I only took an introductory class. Also, my professor was completely batty, so I wasn’t really gearing up to sit in her lectures anymore. Sorry, if I had taken one for the team, this post could have been published in a peer-reviewed linguistics journal and then you all could say you knew me before I was famous. Because, you know, so many people read linguistics journals…
Part of pragmatics is a concept called presupposition. It’s basically the study of assumptions you make based on what somebody tells you. The first assumption is usually that someone is telling the truth as a whole. If you’re assuming a lie, you’re opening up a whole ‘nother can of worms. Or whoop-ass, depending on who is lying and about what.
Next, you are assuming the existence (a part of the “truth”) of whatever is named in the sentence. In order for a statement to be true, the things making up the statement must actually exist.
For instance, if I told you that my brother graduated from college last weekend, that I am ridiculously proud of him, and that I have been dying for him to come home, you would first assume that I am telling the truth. (Unless I have in some way massively violated your trust in the past, for which I deeply apologize.) Next you would naturally assume that I have a brother.
Which I don’t.
But I’m not lying to you, either.
You see, I have a best friend who grew up just down the street from me. We’ve known each other since we were five, went to school together for 17 years, and actually look very similar. In order to distinguish him from “guy friends” and “more than guy friends,” I call him my brother. That way, when someone asks why there is a tall blond man on my side of the wedding party, it will be easy to explain. Usually, people understand or just don’t bother to concern themselves.
Once, it rather bit us in the butt.
My brother used to work for the basketball team while we were in college. The first year that he did so, he greatly admired and was appreciated by many of the varsity players, but he wasn’t very close friends with them. He is now fully recovered from his 18 years of shyness (not saying it’s always a good thing…), but at the time he was (understandably) a little intimidated by the 6’10” seniors who played D1 basketball. I would have been too, except I was too busy imagining what their abs looked like.
The end of the school year came, and he was packing up to move back home while I still had another few days of finals. His parents (Remember? We’re not biologically related.) ran to the grocery store to pick up something, and he and I decided to go grab some lunch from the dining hall. He picked out his food before me and motioned that he was going to find a table to sit.
When I walked towards the tables, I noticed that he wasn’t sitting at an empty table. The table was full of big, brawny, beautiful basketball players.
To this day, I’m still not sure why, but I was mad. I should have been stoked that he was giving me the perfect opening to introduce myself to these hunky men, but everyone could see in my face that I was pissed that he wasn’t sitting with me.
The basketball players saw their chance, but it wasn’t with me. Clearly, or so they thought, they had just started or exacerbated a lover’s spat. Instead of feeling bad about it, they were gleeful that they were causing him so much discomfort. It would be a locker room story for years, about how the team broke up a young freshman couple during finals week because the guy made a mistake and sat with the team instead of the girl. My brother would never hear the end of it, and his career with the team was just beginning. Everyone loves a story that haunts them all their days, right? Oh man. As if they weren’t big shots enough, being on the team, now they had the icing on the cake.
“So…Are you sitting here instead?” I could taste the poison in my tone.
“Uhh…yeah…hang on.” He was caught, and he had no idea what to do. Sucker.
The most attractive basketball player I have ever seen then looked me straight in the eyes. I don’t know how I didn’t faint. (I saw him last fall in a bar in our school’s town. Same reaction. So strange that I don’t swoon when appropriate…)
“Oh, sorry, did we take him from you?” The basketball player grinned up at me. By up, I mean at, because even sitting down he was probably my height, but you get the picture. He was thoroughly enjoying this scenario and mentally filming it to recap to the rest of the team. I should have let him milk it, because looking back, nothing could have possibly made my brother feel more guilty about ditching me than to have pretended even longer that we were dating and that he was in the doghouse.
“No, it’s fine, you can have him.” Ooooooh. Burn. I could see their faces twitching as they held back laughter. This girl was ticked the the extreme, and they were going to be party to a break-up of epic proportions.
“Guys, this is my sister, Jillian. Jillian, meet the guys. Sorry you haven’t been introduced earlier.”
My brother’s face turned a stunning shade of scarlet, and my lip curled up in a satisfied and vindictive smirk.
“Your…your…sister?” The beautiful basketball player stuttered. His evil plot crumbled before him. Now he was the one stuck. Suckers, the whole lot of them.
“Well,” my brother tried to explain, “she’s not really my sister, but she’s like my sister, so I call her my sister because she’s basically my sister. It works…somehow.” So eloquant.
The strong, silent one finally chimed in. (In his Australian accent, I might add. Double swoon. Seriously, why was I not eating this up? I should have had ALL of their phone numbers by the time this conversation was over. Stupid, inexperienced girl…)
“That doesn’t work. At all. She’s either your sister or she’s not. She can’t be both.”
I smirked again, this time at my brother to see how he was going to dig himself out of this hole. He chose to punk out.
“She’s not. I’ll come sit with you in a minute; the guys were just leaving.”
Even this admission that the term “sister” was not technically correct didn’t un-kerflummox the players. I got a handshake and apologetic grin from the first player, the one who was stunned into submission by his own cruel joke. It’s been four years, and I still haven’t washed that hand. Ok, definitely not true, but I thought about it until good hygiene prevailed. I walked away and found another table, sulking and yet still ready to spit fire if he even attempted to apologize.
Now, when he is introducing me to attractive athletes, I set aside any arguments we may be having and focus on what’s important. Hot men.
And also, we explain how we know each other before things get awkward.
A joke turned into incest. There’s just no recovering from that…