Can we talk?

Today’s Bizarro:

An ambiguity in communicative intent. There’s the ominous question “Can we talk?” between intimates, conveying “Let’s talk!” — suggesting a subject that the recipient will find distressing. (“Can we talk?” is often an opener to a break-up speech or to personal criticism.) This has the can of permission.

Then there’s the can of ability: are we able to talk? This is a paradoxical question: the parrot produces something that sounds like an English question, about ability, but the ability in question is being able to produce utterances with intentions and to comprehend those intentions, and it’s unclear — indeed, very unlikely — that the parrot has this ability.

[Addendum: three previous variants (notably, “we need to talk”) on this blog: a Leo Cullum cartoon (here), a Zits (here), and a Bizarro (here).]


5 Responses to “Can we talk?”

  1. More needing to talk | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on my posting of a Bizarro “Can we talk?” cartoon, several people have linked to this 3/6/13 PhD […]

  2. Jan Says:

    Okay. But, hese are parakeets (what the English call budgies). They cannot do a convincing imitation of speech, which parrots can. Just sayin’….. Was the creator trying to introduce yet another layer of ambiguity?

  3. Michael Vnuk Says:

    A very clever cartoon.

    Growing up in Australia in the 1960s, we were often told by parents and teachers that we shouldn’t say ‘Can I [do something]?’ We had to say ‘May I [do something]?’ The word ‘can’ related to ability and ‘may’ related to permission. This sometimes led to the unhelpful answer to a ‘can’ question: ‘Yes, you can but you may not.’

    Also, if the cartoon birds are budgies (and to my inexpert eye they appear to be), then Wikipedia tells me the following:
    – ‘budgie’ is an informal term for ‘budgerigar’
    – a budgerigar is a type of parakeet
    – ‘parakeet’ is a loose term for a range of unrelated parrots
    – budgies and parakeets are parrots
    – budgerigars can mimic human speech.

  4. the ridger Says:

    All modals are ambiguous, having several meanings, including “may”! (“he may take the money” might as easily mean he’s likely to as that he has permission). Why on earth did poor “can” get singled out?

  5. More Bizarro parrots | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] this blog, 3/19/13, “Can we talk?”, parrot to parrot. More paradox. From the […]

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