Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language

JOHN HAIMAN. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pp.ix + 220. $45.00 (cloth), $18.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Michael Toolan, University of Birmingham, UK

(appeared in Anthropological Linguistics, Indiana IL, 2001)

Quite a few of the more readable books on language over the last year or so have had Talk in the title, including Deborah Cameron’s Good to Talk and Justine Coupland’s edited volume on Small Talk. About time too. None of these is more theoretically challenging and entertaining than John Haiman’s. Talk is Cheap is praised on the back cover by the late Suzanne Fleischman as provocative, unpretentious, dazzling in scholarship and documentation, and the best kind of contemporary cultural studies. And I would agree.

One of Haiman’s themes is our heightened contemporary sense of the intertextuality, the quotedness, of so much of what we say and do. Acutely conscious of the way that much of what we write or say has been written or said before, we struggle to make these ‘pre-owned’ and pre-used sayings authentic and meaningful. How can you speak to someone straight from the heart right after uttering that deadly cliché, straight from the heart? (The phrase was used and disparaged at the very outset of the postmodern or late modern period by Sylvia Plath in “Cut”, a poem apparently about a cut thumb, copiously bleeding: “Your turkey wattle/ Carpet rolls/ Straight from the heart.”) We resort to metacommunicative prefaces like But to be serious now, but again risk our interlocutor thinking or saying “You didn’t seriously say to be serious just now did you?”.

And so, Haiman shows, we devise other means of evading or finessing this inexorable devaluation of meaningful utterance in the direction of cheaper and cheaper talk: we exploit irony, sarcasm, parody, and inversions in which taboo words are everywhere and certain polite or formal gambits are reinvigorated by their scarcity.

But we are it seems in a no-win situation: routinely, and even to the point of grammaticalization in languages like English, our sense of performing the preformed, and of being on stage whenever we speak to others, is hard–perhaps impossible–to escape. This self-consciousness can be said to be grammaticalized in English in that, for example, alongside I washed, and got ready for work we can say I washed myself, and got myself ready for work. Why this choice of formulation, with slight or secondary differences of sense, Haiman asks. He concludes that the reflexive-using version highlights our dividedness, into an individual and a persona, and that this has become deeply institutionalized in English since the medieval period.

Haiman’s dominant idea is about sarcasm, phatic speech, ritual speech, insincere or affected speech–the whole range of ways we have of opting for speech which is not plain and direct, which I would risk summarizing as oblique speech. Oblique speech is often conceptualized as a sophisticated or hyper-sophisticated addendum or excrescence, parasitic upon decent plain-speaking, language as a medium of cooperative and efficient communication, language the high-speed conduit. Against all this Haiman wants to promote the mildly postmodern idea that oblique and indirect uses of language reflect and express nothing supplementary, but the essence of linguistic activity. They are so, because they involve a ‘cheapening’ of talk: a treating of talk as ‘just a form of words’, ritualized, something whose repeatedness and habitual characteristics have become recognized by the community. Haiman doesn’t draw on the etymologically-licensed sense of cheapen, meaning to trade or deal in, but he might have done. This cheapening of talk is a necessary corollary of speakers’ self-consciousness concerning their own and others’ speech: in fact, Haiman suggests, it may be the process by which human utterance that would otherwise be intolerably individualistic, expressive, and unfathomable turns into language.

The book is a fascinating pot-pourri of brief analyses, sweeping observations, and provocative insights. Throughout there is a sense of a diligent linguist striving to ensure that his linguistic and non-linguistic life is an examined one: Haiman is scrupulously alert to the big picture, the larger turning world of politics, politeness, uncertainty, and irony.

I have found it interesting to read Haiman in tandem with David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope, which is equally ambitious in its scope, a meditation on globalization and the body (the macro and the micro that everybody’s talking about these days) and on how these might be re-conceived so as to foster in us the political will (at present so lamentably absent, Harvey says) to do something about the poverty and dysfunctionality of the cities we live in, rather than just pressing alienatedly on, unto death, on our hamster-wheels of production and consumption. For Harvey, the contemporary city–his own is Baltimore, but it could have been Birmingham (either) or Bombay–is marked by deindustrialization and by “the rise of the political economy of the sign as opposed to a political economy of direct material reproduction” (9). We urbanites labour on, in and through the texts, information, discourses that we make and sell, rather than by making and selling clogs and cars, or growing corn. The only corn we produce is in our talk. As is common knowledge. If our language were an organ in the way Chomsky has claimed, we would have to say it is our most exercised organ. And with all that exercise, it seems, has come an enlarged and more general self-consciousness of what language does to us even as we do things with language, setting us along the royal road to reflexivity, metalinguistic awareness, parody and self-parody, intertextuality, a contrived distancing if not an alienation from our very own words, a heightened sense of the difficulty of saying things ‘just right’ in a world where what seems chiefly at stake is the saying of things in acceptably right ways (this is not a standard we seem over-occupied with when we fall back into the world of material things, and talk to the mechanic fixing our car’s engine or the orthopedic surgeon explaining a procedure on our degenerated knee cartilage. Is this because in the late-modern world of a thousand specializations, we are allowed and even expected to be ignoramuses in most areas save our own?).

Some chapters are, to my taste, more lively and readable than others. Thus chapter 7, on ‘The Thing in Itself’ is a wide-ranging, absorbing and entertaining tour of ‘the cult of plain speaking’, the (as Haiman sees it) North American hostility to style or affect in speech (for style read stylized, for affect read affectation, Haiman suggests). The plain speaker–Blake, Rousseau, Whitman, Orwell–is to be contrasted with florid narrators like Flaubert, Kafka, or Mann, or, in more popular culture, with Woody Allen and Walter Mitty and all the quiche-eating non-jumping crowd. And the plain speaker is often impliedly ‘a real man’–the whole book is perhaps, rather masculinist in its preoccupations. These broad-brush contrasts, alluding to (but not fully analysing) gender- and identity-anxieties besides linguistic ones, was too abbreviated and speculative to convince me, but Haiman’s diverse observations are an excellent starting-point for more systematic studies. Bakhtin and Saussure are invoked in support of the thesis that resort to anything as organized and received as a language inevitably involves re-presentation and artifice, by contrast with the expressive ‘straight from the heart’ nature of cries and screams of pain and joy. This leads directly to some nice observations about indirect discourse or reported speech (where indirect report of genuine expressivity is difficult at best: ?When Jean cut her foot on the crabshell she said that eeowee-uh-uh-hoo.) A kind of contrast with florid speech, Haiman suggests, comes in the plainest of plain speaking that linguistics affords, namely transcription of speech (from any language) into the International Phonetic Alphabet and Daniel Jones’s eight cardinal vowels. These, like the Napoleonic metre rod relative to linear measurement, purport to be rock bottom for phonetics and phonology, unshakeable foundational absolutes against which the sounds of any language can be calibrated and plotted. Haiman reports how Jones himself came to the conclusion that, far from the eight cardinal vowels being sounds one can learn on one’s own with a good book for guidance, they could only be learned directly from him, via oral/aural transmission (and even then, recordings of Jones’s students reveal them producing acoustically quite different sounds). Hence Haiman can remark: ‘The full richness of the lunacy of the IPA becomes apparent when one attempts to use it as a point of reference in learning a foreign language’ (121)–and yet this is presumably the chief purpose to which one imagines it is expected to be put. The moral of all this, to an Integrationist linguist like me, is that the IPA and the thinking about speech representation that it engenders is a powerful instance of Western assumptions about language that are underwritten by ‘the language myth’ (Harris, 1981; 1998).

A fair amount of this book is about grammaticalisation, in view of which I was surprised that there was not more discussion of relevant work by Hopper and Traugott, among others. Haiman certainly has a flair for the provocative turn of phrase, and one feels that these phrases in themselves encourage him to ‘go further’ in his distinctive characterization of linguistic phenomena. One upshot is that his conclusions often chime with those of Integrationists, particularly when he concludes that everything we think of as part of the autonomous and codified grammar of a language is the outcome of an elaborate process of ritualization and ’emancipation’ of language patterns from the control of situated speakers and hearers who might otherwise have those clusters of signs, in context, mean whatever they wished them to mean. Like Integrationists, too (see, e.g., Harris, 1998; Taylor, 2000; Toolan, 1996), he is much preoccupied with language-users’ reflexivity and metalinguistic awareness and concerned, like Integrationists, to give an account of these aptitudes that does not prejudge them as secondary to or derivative from some characterization of linguistic proficiency that can stand, coherent and whole, without benefit of reflexivity. For Integrationists (and for Haiman, it seems) linguistic reflexivity is a primary constituent of the language ‘faculty’.

When it comes to Haiman’s use of the term emancipation, however, I have to say I have difficulties: I find it hard to attribute emancipation to anything other than a human or personified entity. The price of a language’s emancipation (so that it ‘has a grammar’ like a person might have a vote) seems to be the disfranchisement of signifying interactants. And are we interactants, where a language is not emancipated into grammar, prone to tyrannize the language we use? And once the language is emancipated, what is it supposed to do with its putative power and freedom, and how is it supposed to do it? The emancipation metaphor remains problematic.

In summary, there is an abundance of original thinking here to engage with and to respond to. A monograph that draws on sources ranging from Borges to Dave Barry, taking in Darwin and Bateson on the way, while developing an ingenious argument about repetition, habituation, and linguistic self-consciousness, this deserves a wide readership.


  • Harris, R. 1981. The Language Myth. London. Duckworth.
  • Harris, R. 1998. Introduction to Integrational Linguistics. Oxford. Pergamon.
  • Harvey, D. 2000. Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press.
  • Taylor, T. 2000. Language constructing language; the implications of reflexivity for linguistic theory. Language Sciences, 22:4, 483-499.
  • Toolan, M. 1996. Total Speech: An Integrational Linguistic Approach to Language. Durham, N.C.. Duke University Press.