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Monday, May 23, 2005

Yes, but...

(This is a reposting. The original was massively spammed. Deleting the original seems to be the only way to deal with the problem. I have added nonspam comments at the end.)

In the blog, "I don't mean to be rude, but," we dealt with one instance in which one can mitigate the force of an insult simply by saying -- quite falsely in many cases -- that one does not intend to be doing what one is doing. This is just one of the very many ways in which we try to mitigate "face threats." Brown and Levinson argue that politeness turns on mitigating threats to our "negative face" desire not to have our freedom of action limited by others and paying respect to our "positive face" desire to be valued and to have what we value be valued. In the "I don't mean to be rude, but" case we have an instance in which one mitigates or attempts to mitigate the threat to the addressee's positive face by saying that there is no desire to give offense. It's as if we are saying, "Don't take this as an insult" even though what is said is, on its face, an insult.

One of my favorite instances of our use of verbal formulas to mitigate threats against positive face, is the use of the "Yes, but" construction, as when one person makes some assertion and another follows that with "Yes, but ...". In a conversation between Stephen LaBerge and Paul Tholey, on research on dreams, we find it being used by each of the main two participants, including in successive utterances.
LaBerge: That’s exactly my point. These examples do not prove consciousness! The fact that the mental arithmetic abilities of dream figures are limited suggests to me that other characters don’t have that global space in which we can hold a result while we continue the automatic processes of the computation.

Tholey: Yes, but the figures did complicated rhymes!6

LaBerge: Yes, but this also could be automatic. Rhymes spring to mind; we don’t know how to do it. It just happens!
It's pretty obvious what's going on with the use of "yes, but" in cases like this. Saying "yes" is important to maintaining civility. The principle at work seems to be that if one employs conventionalized politeness measures in regard to another, the latter is obliged to accept them. However, use of "Yes, but" surely doesn't fool anyone. The disagreement is there.

The importance of the notion of paying respect to another's positive face is demonstrated by the rapid rise to popularity of the verb "diss" as in "He disrespected/dissrespected me." I don't think this verb would have gotten off the ground if it didn't have considerable value, especially given that to the ears of those raised on Standard English, the form grates the nerves, at least initially (if I am any example). The fact is that it is a very valuable form.

"Yes, but" has gone big time. I found a European web site espousing a "Yes, but" Campaign in regard to the proposed EU Constitution -- "Yes (to the Constitution), But(with Democracy on top.) In an entertaining blog, PooterGeek has some fun with this construction while poking a stick in Bush's eye. In The Marketing Playbook blog you can read of the "Yes, but" construction being used as a marketing ploy (though not in a simple way). And, there is a book titled, "Yes, but." In my favorite internet use of "Yes, but" was one woman's writing to the SFGate.

Dog crap is biodegradable, yes, but pick it up and throw it in the garbage anyway.



Phil said...

I'd be interested in your analysis of the "disrespect" phenomenon. I am struck by its juxtaposition of formality (the sorta retro desire for "respect" in what seems to be a pre-Aretha sense) with the mercurial street-slang "dis" locution.

Discuss!
9:51 PM
Language Guy said...

I have no knowledge of the history of either the full or short forms of this verb. My memory tells me I heard "dis" first. Given the contexts in which I heard it, I presumed that it had to be a clipping off of some action verb "disrespect," which I had also not heard by then.

The puzzling thing is that there doesn't seem to be a postive action verb "to respect," meaning, "to pay respect to" for "disrespect" to have been formed off of. That is, I don't say, and don't think I have ever heard anyone else say anything like, "He respected her yesterday," meaning "He payed respect to her yesterday." We can use it as a verb, as when we say things like "He respected her then," meaning "he had respect for her then," but in a sentence like this one, "respect" is not being used as an action verb.

It is not unprecedented to have a negative form without having the corresponding postive form. "Uncouth" is a perfect example.

I bet that "disrespect" was created first as a speech error that the speaker and hearer liked and they started using it deliberately. Certainly, "He dissed me" is shorter and pithier than "He showed a lack of respect for me" and that is not nothing.

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