What is language for? Many people think language exists so that we can “say things” in the sense of communicating information. However, language serves a great many functions in our lives. Giving and getting information is by no means the only one. Language does, of course, allow us to inform each other. But it also allows us to do things and to be things, as well. In fact, saying things in language never goes without also doing things and being things. Language allows us to do things. It allows us to engage in actions and activities. We promise people things, we open committee meetings, we propose to our lovers, we argue over politics, and we “talk to God” (pray). These are among the myriad of things we do with language beyond giving and getting information. Language allows us to be things. It allows us to take on different socially significant identities. We can speak as experts-as doctors, lawyers, anime aficionados, or carpenters-or as “everyday people.” To take on any identity at a given time and place we have to “talk the talk,” not just “walk the walk.” When they are being gang members, street-gang members talk a different talk than do honor students when they are being students. Furthermore, one and the same person could be both things at different times and places. In language, there are important connections among saying (informing), doing (action), and being (identity). If I say anything to you, you cannot really understand it fully if you do not know what I am trying to do and who I am trying to be by saying it. To understand anything fully you need to know who is saying it and what the person saying it is trying to do. Let’s take a simple example. Imagine a stranger on the street walks up to you and says “Hi, how are you?” The stranger has said something, but you do not know what to make of it. Who is this person? What is the stranger doing? Imagine you find out that the person is taking part in a game where strangers ask other people how they are in order to see what sorts of reactions they get. Or imagine that the person is a friend of your twin and thinks you are your sibling (I have a twin and this sort of thing has often happened to me). Or imagine the person is someone you met long ago and have long forgotten, but who, unbeknownst to you, thinks of you as a friend. In one case, a gamer is playing; in another case, a friend of your sibling’s is mistakenly being friendly; and, in yet another case, someone who mistakenly thinks he is a friend of yours is also being friendly. Once you sort things out, everything is clear (but not necessarily comfortable). My doctor, who also happens to be a friend, tells me, as she greets me in her office: “You look tired.” Is she speaking to me as a friend (who) making small talk (what) or is she speaking to me as a doctor (who) making a professional judgment (what) about my health? It makes quite a big difference whether a friend (who) is playfully insulting (what) his friend in a bar or a hard-core biker (who) is threatening (what) a stranger. The words can be the
same, but they will mean very different things. Who we are and what we are doing when we say things matters. This book is concerned with a theory of how we use language to say things, do things, and be things. It is concerned, as well, with a method of how to study saying, doing, and being in language. When I talk about “being things,” I will use the word “identity” in a special way. I do not mean your core sense of self, who you take yourself “essentially” to be. I mean different ways of being in the world at different times and places for different purposes; for example, ways of being a “good student,” an “avid bird watcher,” a “mainstream politician,” a “tough cop,” a video-game “gamer,” a “Native American,” and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list.