Associate 2013-14

Marina Terkourafi


The Importance of Being Indirect: New Insights into the Study of Indirect Speech

Research on language use in a variety of contexts has established that interlocutors seldom choose the shortest and most direct path to express what is on their minds; rather, they routinely hint, ask, wonder, or promise, when what they are in fact doing is, respectively, criticizing, offering, requesting, or placating. Indirect speech refers to this tendency to reach one’s communicative goal in a roundabout way, and it has been attributed to the combined pressures of conveying information while at the same time navigating a complex social world.

This view attributes indirect speech to considerations of politeness or deniability – which are desirable when the communicative stakes are high. However, it fails to account for a number of cases where indirect speech seems to have little to do with strategic risk management.

The documented uses of indirectness between spouses, by children and foreign learners, and, finally, in some instances of metaphor, call for a different treatment of indirectness, one where emphasis is placed not on the potential of indirect speech to disable social threat but rather on its potential to enable human complicity, or even the expression of thoughts that exist in only a primordial form in the speaker’s head. In such cases, it would be wrong to view indirect speech as a calculated, more cumbersome way of saying something that could, in principle, have also been said directly. Sometimes, a direct way of expressing our thoughts is simply not available.

During her Center appointment, Professor Terkourafi will synthesize empirical findings from the use of indirect speech in a wide range of “low-stakes” situations, with the aim of articulating a theoretical alternative to the received view of indirect speech as always presupposing a direct counterpart. Her findings will be published in a series of articles intended to spark new ways of thinking about, and studying, indirect speech.