Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pragmatics of knocking

While camping with some linguists and non-linguists this weekend, a funny little language quirk came up. Upon returning from a trip to the bathroom, a non-linguist friend asked, "How come when somebody knocks on a bathroom door, or simply barges in, we say 'There's someone in here!' and not 'I'm in here'?"

Fair enough question. Really, why is it that we don't claim our own agency when responding to the unexpected bathroom intrusion? It's not as if we are so startled that we forget who we are. It is also unlikely that we are trying to remain unknown to our intruders (that would necessitate climbing out the bathroom window after our business, I would think). So what is going on here?

The first thing we must establish when answering the bigger question is a determination of what exactly is going on here. Meaning that we must figure out what is different between these two sentences, before we can figure out the reasons why a speaker would automatically orient to one phrasing over another. And before I go on, it should be noted that there is a premise here that has not been tested whatsoever; rather a bunch of drunken linguists around a campfire assumed that the 'There's' phrasing is more prevalent than the 'I'm' phrasing. We didn't go knocking on tents and barging into bathrooms to verify this, despite the grounds being rife for this sort of empirical study.

There are several differences between the following two sentences, and many of them involve deixis. For reference, the two sentences being compared are as follows:

A) There's someone in here!
B) I'm in here!

The first thing we noticed is the lack of agency signaled by the indefinite referent 'someone'. We also determined that 'somebody' could work in place of 'someone', even though there are ever-so-slight semantic differences. It seems more important in this case that a person spontaneously refers to him or her self as something other than 'I'.

One thing that is puzzling about this is that we know that in the case of barging in, the responder is abruptly tasked with the responsibility of conveying the occupancy of the room as quickly as possible. So we would expect shorter phrases, such as B (and not A). Sometimes this is the case, but I'm inclined to think they are more often the 1 word variety...Hey! Occupied! Here!

Another thing to notice is the perspective of the responder. By using the word 'here' in both cases (as opposed to 'there' or something else entirely) we know that the deictic center (place of semantic focus) is indeed in the bathroom. This is important because it's contrasted with deixis of the speaker who responds, who does so NOT in the first person. So, while the location of focus is in the room, the perspective is shifted away from the responder (who presumably is also located in the room).

I think that last point is key, since it more salient to establish that somebody is in the room rather than exactly who is in the room (which presupposes a somebody). And it answers the question that is asked by the paralinguistic act of knocking on a door. Because when we knock on a door, we are not asking "Who is in here?" but rather "Is there someone in here (and may I enter)?"

It is interesting that this is implicitly understood. Also, that even in a split-second response (possibly while compromised in some pants-down fashion), we tailor our answers to place focus on the presence of a person in a particular location rather than the identity of the person in that location. We even take linguistic pains to avoid putting ourselves in the equation.

It is possible that there are several other factors involved. Maybe this phenomenon only happens in bathrooms and other super private places. Maybe we disassociate from claiming ourselves as a discretionary measure. Maybe something else is pragmatically conveyed by using 'I'm in here' that we haven't thought of. Perhaps there is a trend not to do this in publicly shared spaces in general (as opposed to the rooms of our homes, where we 'own' the space and there's expectations about the identities of the occupants).

Anyways, that's plenty on this topic for now. Please comment if you have any additional thoughts about what might be going on in there.

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