Can you say “cat”? Can you spell “cat”?

Two recent One Big Happy strips:

(#1) Can you say … “cat”… um, “sheepshank”?

The Mister Rogers trope Can you say X? ‘Say X’ (in a pedagogical tone); idiomatic go/get (all) X on Y

(#2) Can you spell “cat”?

Spanish ‘yes’ vs. English /si/ C (the letter of the alphabet); linguistic and natural mean; and more.

Can you say sheepshank? In #1, it’s indirect speech acts time: questions about ability to do something can function as suggestions, requests, or instructions to do it, as here. The kids’ grandfather is gently suggesting that they pronounce the unfamiliar word, as a way of making it familiar. But even if he’s avoided teachery prosody, the question is likely to have a patronizing classroom smell about it — and the kids pick up on that.

And they attribute the pedagogical “Can you say …?” figure to the PBS children’s tv show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

(#3) Fred Rogers, cardigan and all

But the TV Tropes site absolves Fred Rogers of responsibility for the formula:

For some reason, Mister Rogers is famous for saying, “Can you say ____?” The line appears in several parodies but aside from asking his viewers to say “pentagon” in an early episode, he almost never said it on the show, and in fact thought the phrase would be an insult to the intelligence of even his very young audience.

What we all remember is in fact not Mister Rogers but his parody counterpart Mister Robinson, the manic foul-mouthed homey played by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, who was fond of introducing florid slurs via the Can you say …? formula:

(#4) S7 E3 scum bucket

Ohhhh, look! An eviction notice! Brought by Mr. Landlord! [he slams his door] Can you say “Scumbucket”? THat’s our special word for today, boys and girls! [he points out the word on his easel] Do you know any scumbuckets? I bet you do! (SNL transcript)

From the previous season (S6 E11), bitch:

Hi, boys and girls! I’m all alone today. But that don’t mean you can stay too long. My wife will be home from work soon. Can you say “BITCH”? I’m sure you can. That’s our special word today, you know. Come see. [he steps over to an easel with the word “BITCH” on it] It’s a very special word

There were more.

The idiom go/get (all) X on Y. In the last panel of #1, Joe produces an instance of this little idiom family, in which X is a predicative expression denoting a behavioral state — an adjective:

In keeping with the technology-inspired theme, Kim went all futuristic on us at the 2016 Met Gala. (link)

she went all groovy on us (link)

or a nominal:

Remember when State Treasurer John Kennedy went all angry American about the expensive art at the New Charity Hospital. (link)

or, very often, a proper name, as in #1 and here:

Martha Stewart Went All Bill Maher on Us: Got Too Comfortable and Dropped the N-Word (link)

The predicative expression X, which attributes the behavioral state to the referent of the subject of its clause, can be modified by an intensifier (pretty, really, very, totally, etc., including intensifier all). Y, denoting an affected person or persons, seems most often to be 1st person, me or us.

Just the beginnings of a sketch of the idioms, but enough to explicate what Joe (speaking on behalf of himself and his sister) is saying to their grandfather: exhorting him not to become totally like Mister Rogers in his behavior. (No more of this Can you say …? stuff, please.)

(I’m putting aside the nature of sheepshank knots, and also the grandfather’s excuse that drugs must have made him slip into a pedagogical persona.)

Meaning, meaning, meaning. The easy part of #2 is the ambiguity in /si/: Cylene intends to say “yes, yes” in Spanish ( , ) — conveying ‘yes, I have some pets’ as an answer to Ruthie’s question “Do you have any pets?” — but Ruthie interprets Cyclene’s /si/ to be the name of the letter C. We then have to guess further at Ruthie’s thought processes as she guesses at Cylene’s.

Cylene, we suppose Ruthie thinks, is groping towards an answer to Ruthie’s question, saying C, C as she struggles to produce a word in reply. What word? The name of a common pet, clearly: we suppose Ruthie assumes that Cylene is behaving cooperatively and is trying to provide an accurate answer to Ruthie’s question (rather than, say, going off on a tangent to report on an idea that’s just popped into her head). Ah, yes, cat. But if Cylene were trying to say cat, she’d be stuttering /k … k …/, so Cylene must (for reasons that are unclear to us, and probably to Ruthie) be trying to spell the answer C A T /si e ti/, and she’s unsure how to proceed past the initial letter C. Remarkable that Cylene doesn’t know how to go on, but there it is.

So Ruthie asks her to go on, a request that baffles Cylene: Ruthie, it appears to Cylene, doesn’t understand /si si/. (Now we’re speculating about Cylene’s thought processes.) Cylene, finding this hard to credit, asks Ruthie if, indeed, she doesn’t know what /si si/ means, and Ruthie then reveals her own interpretation of what’s been going on, by asking Cylene if she doesn’t know how to spell cat (supposing that Cylene might, remarkably, answer that no, she doesn’t).

If we just take Ruthie’s and Cylene’s words at face value, none of what goes on in the strip makes much sense. But if we see that each of the two participants is using what the other says to judge the other’s intentions, things become clearer.

And in fact as witnesses to these exchanges, we ourselves make sense of them by judging the participants’ intentions (as I have just done). We can then appreciate the humor in their mutual misapprehensions.

All of this (tacit) reasoning about intentions needs something to work on: the conventional meanings of lexical items (and syntactic constructions). To which I now turn.

Linguistic mean and natural mean. Two bits from #2:

(C3) Cylene, panel 3: know what [/si si/] means

(R4) Ruthie, panel 4: [/si si/ means] you’re having trouble spelling “cat”

The mean in C3 — as in /si si/ means ‘yes, yes’ — is one kind of linguistic mean; from NOAD2:

verb mean: (of a word [or other expression]) have (something) as its signification in the same language or its equivalent in another language

The mean in R4 — what I’ll call natural mean (echoing Paul Grice) — is not in NOAD2 (though it’s related to one of the senses there): it denotes a relationship between situations somewhat short of ‘be caused by, result from’, that is, roughly,

verb mean: suggest, indicate: Smoke means fire. Your facial expression means that you understand your guilt.

One further wrinkle in R4: the implicit subject of (the implicit verb) mean in R4 denotes a linguistic expression, not a situation, yet the sense of mean there is clearly natural rather than linguistic mean. What we have here is a metonymy in which an expression E conveys ‘someone’s producing (saying, writing, etc.) E’, as in “I am not a crook” was the last straw for me. That is, the expression E evokes a situation, and that allows E to serve, among other things, as the subject of natural mean. In R4, Cylene’s saying /si si/ means — suggests, indicates — to Ruthie that Cylene doesn’t know how to spell cat.

All this sematic / pragmatic calculation — on Ruthie’s, Cylene’s, and our part — takes place in centiseconds (while running in tandem with phonological, morphological, and syntactic processing, not to mention the processing of all sorts of paralinguistic and extralinguistic information), but not necessarily in the way I’ve articulated things above. Still, it’s a remarkable display of cognitive abilities, even if it works very imperfectly and runs aground every so often (as in #2) — but then all it has to do is work well enough most of the time.

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