Raining cats and dogs, Indirect Speech in social and political satire

An indirect speech is one of the most used verbal language skills in our culture. When I say our culture I obviously do not mean 21st century western culture but more basic interaction in between human from most of the known eras, cultural and geographic areas.

For example, when I say to a friend that it is raining cats and dogs, I obviously do not mean that cats and dogs are falling ferociously from the sky. As they say in www.phrases.org.uk, there is no direct relation to cats and dogs though, at times, small creatures can be ported into an impromptu involuntary flight, yet there are no meteorological record for cats and dogs. The supposed origin, however, is “that the phrase derives from mythology. Dogs and wolves were attendants to Odin, the god of storms, and sailors associated them with rain. Witches, who often took the form of their familiars – cats, are supposed to have ridden the wind.”

Another common example is in today’s adolescent jargon, one can have chemistry with another. Well, taking under consideration that they don´t  have science lab assignment homework, they are trying to convey the fact that get feel attracted to one another. Many times we feel a certain need to transform the true meaning and intentions to a certain extent for it might be too straight forward (seducing) or too weary (enthusiasm about an event) in other cases.

Language is a tool that when use with talent and ingenuity it can provoke wars, accomplish peace and empower seduction. In this context, Indirect Speech is one of my favorite subjects I study as a part of my thesis. The most famous example will surly be Francisco de Quevedo, being the master of language manipulation usually for offensive purposes, he used his artistry to create textual forms that are both amusing for some and very thorny for others.

Steven Pinker, a psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguistic professor at Harvard College says in his talk (video of rsablogs.org.uk) that language has to do 2 things:

–          To convey some content (Bribe, command, manipulation etc.)

–          To negotiate a relationship type

What happen in an Indirect Speech where the social situation requires a certain contextual behavior is that the writer or presenter knows that the interlocutor knows the same thing he knows. To say it in a different manner, by writing an Indirect critic or satire on the figure of Count Duke Olivares, the anonymous poet takes under consideration that his lectors know the situation but does not know that other know as well. As Pinker puts it, when only one person knows about a dictator, he knows a certain fact but he doesn´t know that others know that fact. Hence while you publish a pamphlet about the dictator, you actually make sure that everyone will know that everyone else also know about the dictator (Pinker uses the example of public assembly).

The explicit writer, or as Pinker calls it, the writer of an overt language, (in our 17th century context, Quevedo in his last years, Adam de la Parra, Matias de Novoa) is making sure that he is changing the state of the common knowledge, assuring that everyone will have no more doubts all others know what they do. Thus, while everyone knows that everyone knows, it will make place for public opinion which will allow them the use of a collective power.

At the same time, the implicit writer, whether a famous ones as Quevedo (especially until 1634) or the many anonymous all through the 17th century, can maintain an ambiguous relationship with the figure in question, leaving uncertainties, ambiguities and dilemmas in the reader’s mind. This epigrammatic writing then fomented a literature that actually helped influx large scale governmental decisions.

Full lecture link: http://www.thersa.org/events/video/archive/steven-pinker


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