Sunday, April 27, 2014


Not fooling anybody, but his piano teacher would be proud.

If you spend a certain amount of time listening to or overhearing NPR, as I have done in the mornings for years, you may not learn as much as you would from wider reading, but you do get a constant monitor on ongoing language change among the inhabitants of that Village and its friends, not only the catchphrases with a political significance but less obvious things, as when for instance people started using the semantically empty "going forward" at every opportunity.

So I've been noticing a really odd discourse pattern for the last several months, which—oops, there it is! When an interview subject begins the answer to a question with "so", in a [jump]
way that sounds weirdly dismissive of the interviewer. It's hard to explain what this is, it doesn't correspond in any clear way to the dictionary account of the uses of "so", but here are some examples, from a story on some psychology research that ran this morning (transcribed by the network):
MIKE SLEPIAN: When people are playing the game of poker, they move chips into the center of the table, and we're like, oh, well, what if how good their poker hand is influences how they move their chips into the center of the table. And if so, can people sort of decode maybe the quality of their poker hand without them, obviously, wanting to repeal their poker hand.
RACHEL MARTIN: That would be valuable information. So, what did you find out? Can you apply this to poker?
SLEPIAN: So, you can. So, we showed participants videos of professional poker players playing in the World Series of Poker, and participants watched either just players placing bets but only their faces or they watched their whole bodies or they watched just their arms pushing chips into the center of the table. And.... when just looking at the arms, they could tell how good professional poker players' poker hands were.
MARTIN: Wow. The truth is in the arms. Why does that make sense? What is it about our arm movements - and that one in particular, moving chips into the center of a table - that's so revealing?
SLEPIAN: So, it could be if you have a really good hand and you feel confident about that, you might just push the chips into the center of the table just a little bit more smoothly. 
Martin's first question illustrates a normal use as described in the literature (of which the best case I can find seems to be a 2009 paper by Galina Bolden—sorry, link only available to members of the academic elite, where we're poor but proud because "the price for admission is one's mind"): she's kind of apologizing for having expressed her own opinion as she invites Slepian to carry on with his story, because that's what "so" does;
While a default understanding of any utterance is that it advances the immediately preceding talk (Sacks, 1987, 1995), the ‘so’ preface may be used to suspend that interpretation and characterize the upcoming action as having been ‘on the speaker’s mind’ or ‘on agenda’ for some time.
She disconnects her question from her little remark and reconnects the discourse to Slepian's previous turn and the information he has to impart, which is what the agenda of the conversation is.

But what is the "so" doing at the beginning of Slepian's reply? It sounds as if he's denying that she just asked him a question even as he answers it, and his next sentence seems to be denying his own reply in the same way; them further down he does the same thing to her next question. You can listen to the audio, he's clearly not being a sexist boor or shutting her down in any way, he's just using the word "so" in a new way, and I don't know what it is.
Via McPhisto.

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