Speech act ambiguity

From an esurance commercial on tv, entitled “Hank” (the key bit is boldfaced):

Hank: My daughter thinks I’m out of touch. So I asked her how I saved 15 percent on car insurance in just 15 minutes.

Neighbor: Huh. (shakes head)

Hank: (looks at phone) “IDK?” What does that mean?

Neighbor: “I don’t know.”

Hank: And I’m the one who’s out of touch. LOL.

The neighbor is answering Hank’s question, a request for information, asking about what “IDK” means. Hank understands this instead as an assertion, by the neighbor, that he doesn’t know what “IDK” means. (Hank then thinks the neighbor is out of touch.)  Both understandings involve assertions, but about different aspects of the conversational exchange.

Readers will recognize this ambiguity as a cousin of a famous speech act ambiguity, in the Abbott and Costello comedy routine “Who’s on first”. A video of the routine, along with a brief analysis, here:

The premise of the sketch is that Abbott is identifying the players on a baseball team for Costello, but their names and nicknames can be interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello’s questions. For example, the first baseman is named “Who”; thus, the utterance “Who’s on first” is ambiguous between the question (“Which person is the first baseman?”) and the answer (“The name of the first baseman is ‘Who’”).

Not the same thing as the “Hank” ambiguity, but like it involving aspects of the conversational exchange.



One Response to “Speech act ambiguity”

  1. John Baker Says:

    There is an ambiguity as to whether (I) the out-of-touch dad thinks that the neighbor does not know what “IDK” means (as Arnold suggests) or (ii) the dad understands the neighbor and thinks that his daughter does not know how to save on car insurance in 15 minutes. Note that the commercial works either way.

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