Knowing

In a comment on my recent Pogo posting, Bob Richmond gave a link to a posting of his (“Hum a few bars and I’ll fake it”) on the joke template that begins with the question “Do you know X?” and has some variant of the “Hum a few bars” reply as the punch line. (Several of these are from comic strips.) The joke turns on the ambiguity of the verb know, a use-mention ambiguity, and the speech-act ambiguity of Do you know? questions.

The examples from Richmond:

— [something close to the original]

There’s a noisy party with a guy playing the piano real loud. Another guy walks up to him and says “Do you know there’s a little old lady upstairs trying to sleep?” And the piano player says “No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it!”

— [an elaborate Pogo version]

CHURCHY: Playin’ the pinanna all brawly and grrr an’ a guy come in an’ say, “Do you know there’s a li’l ol’ lady sick upstairs?” – An’ the piranno plyer say, “Hum a li’l bit of it an’ I’ll give it a rally ho!”

— [a different elaboration]

In another version the piano player has a monkey. An ancient Druid wheezes up to the piano player and asks, “Do you know your monkey dreed in my weird?”

— [Dagwood Bumstead in Blondie (Chic Young)] In 1977 the hippies had finally come to Dagwoodland.

HIPPIE: Sir, I’m a strolling troubador. For a dollar I’ll sing a song of your choice. DAGWOOD: Do you know you’re a disgrace to humanity? HIPPIE: No, but if you’d hum a few bars, maybe I can fake it.

— [a family story]

My sister wields a mean fake book and can sight read the bunny raisins on the bottom of a rabbit cage. Sometimes she plays piano – like Twenties Top Forty and Forties Top Twenty – for a music therapist at nursing homes. She recalls a memorable occasion when she started playing for a room full of little old ladies lined up in wheel chairs when from somewhere in the center of the room an ancient voice piped up “Do you know I’ve gotta get out of here and go to the bathroom?” And my sister wheels around on the piano stool and she’s like – No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it!

— [from Mutt and Jeff (Al Smith)]

JEFF: Yes? STRAIGHT MAN: Didn’t you hear me pounding on the floor upstairs? JEFF: Oh, that’s OK, we’re making a lot of noise ourselves! STRAIGHT MAN: Do you know we’re trying to sleep? JEFF: Hey, guys, do we know that number – “We’re trying to sleep?”

There are several contributions to the joke. First, the verb know, which has at least three relevant senses:

‘know that’, as in “I know (that) 2 x 2 = 4”

‘know how to’, as in “I know how to multiply single-digit numbers”, or (in an extended sense) “I know the multiplication table”

‘be acquainted with’, as in “I know Noam Chomsky”, or (in an extended sense) ‘know of/about, know who/what X is’, as in “I know who Noam Chomsky is”

(It’s often pointed out that these senses are frequently expressed by distinct verbs in other languages.)

In know X, where X is the name of a song — I know “Happy Birthday” — there’s a range of possible understandings, going from ‘know of X’ through ‘know how X goes’ through ‘know how to sing/play X’. This is true even when X is a clause, say some day my prince will come.

But when X is a clause, there’s an ambiguity in speech between mention (‘I know “Some Day My Prince Will Come” ‘, involving the ‘be acquainted with’ or the ‘know how to’ sense of know — which sense will be determined by which is most relevant in context) and use (‘I know (that) some day my prince will come’, involving the ‘know that’ sense of know). In the joke, the questioner intends use, but the musician understands mention.

But it doesn’t stop there. There’s a further ambiguity in a Do you know X? question, where X is a clause, according to whether it’s to be understood as a straightforward yes-no question or as a rhetorical question informing the addressee that X is the case. So, “Do you know (that) the old lady upstairs is trying to sleep?” could be meant as a literal question about the addressee’s state of knowledge, but it is more likely to presuppose that the answer to the literal question is “no” and so to implicate that the addressee should have known that the old lady upstairs is trying to sleep — which has the effect of informing the addressee that the old lady is indeed trying to sleep and that the addressee should have realized that his actions were preventing that, so that the addressee is being enjoined to stop his actions. That’s a lot of reasoning, but in fact it’s done tacitly and quickly, because questions of the form Do you know X? (and its cousins Do you realize X?, Are you aware X? etc.) have become conventionalized for these purposes, as in:

Do you know/realize (that) you’re standing on my foot? Are you aware (that) you’re standing on my foot?

(which is very quickly understood as a reproachful protest  — ‘you’re standing on my foot, dammit!’ — combined with an insistent request — ‘get off it!’).

In the joke, the questioner intends use (with ‘know that’), but the musician “hears” mention (and so misses the reproachful protest and the insistent request), and then everything else follows from that.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: