My friend Greg posted a great video earlier today, and as a one-time resident of Hawaii and an ad-hoc applied linguist, I’m totally captivated by it. (I strongly recommend that you watch it start to finish without interruption, as it’ll make the rest of what I say here a lot less abstract; it’s also just really enjoyable. NB, though, that there are a couple of word choice things that make it borderline NSFW.)
Not only is this encounter with a great white shark awesome in the original sense of the word (turns out charismatic megafauna is even more charismatic when it is balls-out committed to eating you, should an appropriate opportunity arise), the video the best sample of a true Hawaiian accent I’ve ever found on the interwebs, and it gives a strangely clear view of the wildly different relationship to attention and language in that culture: the video’s emphasis is focus, observation, and repetition, and indeed it teeters on that fine line between utterly soothing and fascinating and, well, kind of boring. The very idea that someone would be so overcome with fascination at a fairly straightforward thing such as this (awesome and unusual though it may be) is comparatively foreign in the jaded portion of the urban Northeastern U.S. that I inhabit (often, I believe, to my detriment), which is part of what makes the video itself so enthralling.
Also, the cyclical nature of the discourse is a fairly pure example of the huge proportion of language that is not uttered merely (or sometimes at all) for its semantic or practical/literal content. When the narrator remarks again and again on the size of the great white’s dorsal fin, for example, and instructs his companion to look at it, he isn’t actually trying to encourage his companion to complete the task looking at the shark’s dorsal fin (he’s done that already and doesn’t have much of a choice but to continue doing so: the thing is circling the boat repeatedly, and there is some question as to whether it will actually attempt to eat the motor). Rather, he’s completing a social task, namely inducting others into his experience of wonder tinged with fear and underscoring the importance of the event as a collaborative/collective rather than an isolated/individual experience.
For me, the narration also highlights the extent to which this function of language, and our awareness of/resistance to/desire to be above language’s rules, can vary wildly due to cultural or even interpersonal variation within the “same” language (I use quotation marks here because while I and the men in this boat all speak English, surely one couldn’t argue that the English we speak is congruent aurally, grammatically, or syntactically). Living in New York City as I do now, and interacting as I do with a lot of liberal arts educated, self-conscious white people who feel a desperate need to affirm their ongoing legitimacy by analyzing everything to death (See? I’m doing it RIGHT NOW.), I observe a lot of mostly pointless efforts to wrangle this thing “language” as though it is not something that is, at all times, wrangling the crap out of us. This is not, to be clear, an argument against free will, but rather an acknowledgment of the fact that there is a great deal of behavior and language that is just, you know, THERE, and we can change our reactions to it, but we can’t change the underlying realities.
For those who enjoy this kind of nerding, though, the concept of the speech act is worth reading about, and it’s fascinating to think of this video through that lens. Briefly, a speech act is an action completed through language, such as promising, persuading, encouraging, or warning – pretty much any action that can be accomplished via speech. Speech acts, according to language philosopher John L. Austin, who is widely credited with getting folks excited about speech acts and embedding the idea in the Western academic imagination, are generally divided into three categories: the locutionary act, the illocutionary act, and the perlocutionary act. In the case of the dorsal fin discussion, the speech act that is most noteworthy is the perlocutionary act – not the literal meaning of the words or the fact of their having been uttered, but what they actually accomplish in the social context of their utterance.
All this is a fairly elaborate explanation for what is a very cool, but very simple, human event: this guy seems to be getting people to look at that dorsal fin in a really straightforward way, which may even come across as simplistic to cultural outsiders – this is the locutionary act. But the perlocutionary act is getting people to join me in this experience of wonder.
And that, when you think about it, is a beautiful thing.