the river

From yesterday’s “Metropolitan Diary” in the NYT, this contribution (“Which Way Is the River?” by Alan Rogowsky):

Dear Diary:

From the Useful Information Department.

Overheard in front of the subway station at West 72nd Street and Broadway.

Woman: “Which way is the river?”

Policeman: “That way. Or that way. We’re on an island.”

(This in Manhattan, which is bounded by three rivers: the Hudson River on the west, the East River on the east, unsurprisingly, and the much smaller, and locally much less salient, Harlem River on the north.)

Definite descriptions like the river notoriously require interpretation in context; you have to take into account (at least) the physical locations of you and the speaker, your own knowledge, your assessment of the speaker’s knowledge, and your assessment of the speaker’s purposes in speaking.

In this case, given where the two people were located and what we can assume about the policeman’s knowledge of Manhattan’s geography, his answer was strikingly unhelpful: the Hudson is about two long city blocks away, the East River all the way across town, and the Harlem River far to the north. So information about the Hudson would be useful. If the cop wasn’t sure about which river the woman had in mind — she could, after all, have been a drastically lost tourist — he should have asked.

And if she was trying to get to the boathouse in Riverside Park, she could probably have used some directions about how to get there on foot. (The subway station at 72nd and Broadway is as close as you can get by public transportation.)

Meanwhile, I’m musing on how to answer “Which way is the river?” in other contexts — for instance, in Columbus OH, with the Scioto and its tributary the Olentangy, or in Pittsburgh PA, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela join to form the Ohio. An interesting exercise in pragmatics.


One Response to “the river”

  1. Steven J Levine Says:

    In my menagerie of pet peeves, the cleverly unhelpful answer (to a faux-literalist interpretation of a question) is on prominent display. It’s a form of humor I have never found funny, being a subcategory of teasing (which is too often a form of aggression, which you are not permitted to take issue with because that makes you a bad sport). Although I don’t find this to be a particularly egregious example, as I do see a light-heartedness here.

    What these sorts of false claims not to understand make me think of is a story a late friend of mine used to tell about her childhood, when her Israeli parents wanted their American children to learn Hebrew so they wouldn’t speak English in the home. She remembers her younger sister, as small child, speaking English to her parents who would respond, in Hebrew, that they didn’t understand her. The child knew perfectly well that her parents spoke fluent English, and she would grow increasingly enraged, screaming ‘You DO understand! You DO understand!” until she worked herself into a tantrum of stubbornness (and never would speak Hebrew at all, as it turns out).

    I’m on the child’s side here — not regarding the parents desire to speak Hebrew in the home, but in regard to their telling her an obvious falsehood to get her to do so. That’s kind of how I feel about people pretending not to understand something and falling back on a literal reading of the words as justification (as they do for double negatives).

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