We stopped serving pizza at 2:30: Relevance, inference, and a mammoth

Waiting in line at the San Jose children’s museum just now, I overheard this conversation:

Customer: Do you have pizza?

Clerk: We stopped serving hot food at 2:30.

Clear enough to a human: the clerk’s answer was no. In fact, when the customer stared at him blankly in response, the clerk said this: We do not have pizza.

What did I have to do in order to understand that we stopped serving hot food at 2:30 meant “no”? Think about this: if you walked up to me in the street and asked Do you know where Notre Dame is? …and I responded We stopped serving hot food at 2:30, would you take that to mean “no” ? I think not. So, let’s think about what had to happen at that cash register:

  1. The listener had to make an assumption that we call relevance: that the clerk’s response was, in fact, relevant to his question. (For those of you who are into pragmatics and discourse: this is one of the Gricean maxims.)
  2. The listener had to know that pizza is a “hot food”.
  3. The listener had to know or consider that the current time was past 2:30.
  4. The listener had to make a number of inferences: I got a response about hot foods, pizza is a kind of hot food, so what is true of hot foods will be true of pizza.
  5. The semantics of to stop are such that when the guy says that they did it at 2:30, I should understand that they are still doing it now. (Contrast to stop with the verb to pause, which doesn’t require the same inferences as to stop.)

…and of course it’s the fact that I get excited about the guy in line behind me at the museum snack bar not being able to get his fucking pizza that keeps me from ever getting a second date, and so I’m just gonna go talk about the mammoth skeleton with my niece and nephew. What will we say about it, exactly? See below.

The mammoth has two clavicle bones. They articulate with the sternum, but aren’t attached to it. Why do we care? Because that’s pretty characteristic of mammals. In contrast, in birds the clavicles have fused to form what’s called the furcula or fourchette in French, or the wishbone in English. Check it out next time you’re stripping the post-Thanksgiving turkey carcass, and see below for the French-language terminology.

Source: http://fauconeduc.biz/biologie-des-oiseaux/, a pretty nice web site for avian anatomy information in French.

The mammoth’s shoulder blade (omoplate in French–it’s the thing that looks triangular) is on the great beast’s side. Why do you care? Because that’s characteristic of quadrupeds. Humans, apes, and birds all have their scapula on their backs, not their sides.

…and lacking a good ending for this post, I finish my coffee and head back to the mammoth room.

Oh: the guy got a bag of potato chips. Junk food is junk food, I guess.

5 thoughts on “We stopped serving pizza at 2:30: Relevance, inference, and a mammoth”

    1. I suspect that we disagree not about the French terminology, but about that of English. Personally, I had to look up the English term for bréchet just now! Much better in French…

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Your breakdown of that conversation is enough to make me wonder if artificial intelligence will ever manage to fully understand us. Frankly (and quite possibly irrationally–I haven’t really thought it through) I kind of hope not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As you have probably guessed, I had initially planned to turn the post to what you would have to do to get a computer to understand that little exchange. Too much to type on my cell phone while sitting in a children’s museum restaurant, though!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pulling wishbones as a child and praying you will win, pulling wishbones with a child and praying you won’t. I guess that’s what they call growing up … that and understanding that Pizza really isn’t sold 24/7 and neither should it be. For some things you must wait, surely?

    Liked by 2 people

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