A Useless Guide of Conversation


Pragmatic linguists J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle published in the late seventies / early eighties a couple of studies introducing the Speech Act theory, which basically says that the act of speaking isn’t neutral and cannot be analyzed without a close regard to the context. “To speak is to do” is their common motto.

Speaking then not only leads to action (like when you tell me to piss off, and so I leave) but is an action in itself (like when a judge declares the trial “open”, which indeed starts the trial).

A Danish student of that time, whose minds were disturbed by a sentimental break-up and the sudden discovery of his being Danish, fell in love with this theory. He spent hours and hours by the seashore of Helsingor, smoking dope and drinking liquor, trying to find out how to put it into practice. Soothed by the winds of the Nordic bay, he eventually came up with the idea of a multilingual conversation guide linking words with action, and providing the reader with a linguistic answer to every single situation of communication.

Here are some quotes of his (unfinished) book:

“Imagine yourself in an gin laundery in Poland waiting in front of a washing machine. Someone comes and asks you whether the machine is reliable. You’re not sure about that, but you don’t want the guy to take alarm on too fragile ground. Then just say: mniej wiecej”

“You’re in Japan in a swimming pool and you realize that your swimsuit is too short and all the girls laugh when you go pass them. You want to apologize to them but in the same time make them see the good side of it since that made them look at you. Then simply say: Gomen nasai, Kega shimashiya”

“Your apartment is being robbed in Istanbul while you’re in bed, and you want the burglars to spare your life and leave behind the bud vase you sister offered you when you were 17. Go for: Seni seviyor ozluyorum (Prononciation: seni seviYOR euzlUyoroum)”

The list is of course endless, but the most tragic part of it is that the guy is still standing by the seashore, a pen in hand, waiting for some gentle soul to put an end to his misery.


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