Voicemail Semantics

Autoanswer-mikrokasseteI vaguely remember discussing, one day in class at MIT, the meanings of indexicals (squirmy little words that change with the context in which they are spoken) in answering machine messages:

You‘ve reached the Joneses. We‘re not here right now, so please leave a message.

Now that I’m all grown up and have a class of my own, I use this exercise as way to pump everyone’s intuitions about these words.  I first have my students write down what they think these words mean (or refer to) in general. Only then do I ask them what they might mean in a voicemail message (which in some ways is worse than an answering machine).

Many reasonable definitions for indexicals fail in the context of a voicemail greeting:

  • You is not some specific person the speaker has in mind, because they have no idea who will call them (think: wrong number!).
  • I/We/Me is not the entity creating the sound wave which conveys the utterance — that’s the caller’s phone.
  • Here is not the caller’s location, or the location of the cell phone, or the cell phone owner, or even the computer where the voicemail is stored.
  • Now is not (usually) when the speaker spoke; rather, it is when the listener is hearing the message. But imagine leaving a voicemail saying “it’s now 6PM, and I should be home by 10PM if you’d like to try again”…

Endless debates ensue, of course…

(P.S., I just found an article all about this topic: http://aardvark.ucsd.edu/language/ans_machine_phil_compass.pdf .)

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