Sunday, September 24, 2006

Language at the races

This morning Peter and I volunteered at the Boulder Backroads marathon (and half-marathon), handing out cups of water and Gatorade to the 3,000 runners. It was a lot of fun, especially since Peter dressed up as Elvis and made a lot of tired runners smile.

One thing that was really interesting to me as a linguist was the specialized way language was used. Handing cups to runners is more stressful and fast-paced than it might seem at first. Even with well over ten people at our station, when the large clumps of runners came by, it was difficult to keep up with the pace. The runners are not concentrating on who has water, or the best way to grab it, so cups get dropped, connections get missed and people get wet. Also, the entire interaction takes less than a second or two and I handed out 3-4 waters within the span of several seconds when things got busy.

Since time is at such a premium (and breath at a minimum for the runners), the "conversations" held between volunteers and runners are extremely efficient. Vocabulary consisted of two words: "water" and "Gatorade" for the vast majority of the interactions. One volunteer even remarked on this, joking that "Water" was the greeting of the race. With such a limited semantic set, pragmatics (especially prosody, or "tone" of voice) had to play a much larger role.

Here's an interaction I found especially interesting, with my interpretation in parenthesis:

Runner: Gatorade? (asking Volunteer 1 if the cups she held out contained Gatorade)
(cup contained water, Volunteer 2 had cups of Gatorade, but that volunteer was not paying attention)
Volunteer 1: Gatorade! (directed to Volunteer 2, almost as a "name" and to direct attention to the runner requesting Gatorade)
Volunteer 2: Gatorade! (attention engaged, directed to runner to indicate cup held Gatorade and possibly also to acknowledge attention to runner and her desire of Gatorade)

I wonder how most linguistic theories of meaning and conversation could deal with this?

What's left of the water vs. Gatorade debate in the end:

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