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A Pragmatic Slayer

Q: How do you address a thousand year old vengeance demon?
A: Very, very politely.

Talking to a vengeance demon isn't an everyday conversational situation for most people, unless they happen to be characters in the hit TV drama series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The writers of this programme have set themselves a range of challenges that the writers of a soap, for example, don't have. Not only does this series have to represent realistically the rhythms and style of American teen-speak, they have to handle conversational situations that are, to say the least, unusual.

This is one way in which the world of a vampire slayer and the world of everyday conversation correlate: context is fundamental to meaning. Structure and semantics are important, of course. There is a crucial difference in meaning (not least for the protagonists) between:

But it isn't always enough to consider what the language means - it is often essential to consider what the speaker means. This takes into account the context of the utterance, and the shared knowledge of all participants of the physical and social world. This aspect of meaning is usually analysed under the general heading of pragmatics.

Pragmatics is frequently seen only as an aspect of spoken language. But written language can also use these parameters. Many writers rely on the shared contextual and social knowledge of readers to create meaning. Texts that have a persuasive agenda, advertisements and newspapers for example, often establish an artificial shared context in order to create meaning that goes beyond the structural and semantic aspects of the language.

Language in the fictional world can make use of the pragmatic aspects of language. The actual context of a novel is that which exists between reader and text, but the writer can operate through a range of devices that manipulate this context. Is the writer addressing the reader directly, or through the voice or point of view of one of the characters? Or are the characters apparently addressing each other? In this case, unlike real-life conversation, the true audience is the reader.

Script is particularly interesting in relation to this concept. Script for TV dramas often replicates, or appears to replicate, spontaneous spoken language, and much of the interaction apparently takes place between the characters in the drama. However, this script is a narrative device: it tells stories. The communication between the characters is a device to transmit the narrative to the audience.

Writer >(character < > character)> Viewer

I'd like to look here at some of the social contexts that occur in episodes of Buffy, and analyse the ways in which the language uses them to communicate with the audience.

Series seven, episode 7: Conversations with dead people

(Buffy is fighting a recently risen vampire.)

Vampire: (Stops attacking and looks surprised) Buffy? Buffy Summers?
Buffy: Have we...?
Vampire: Oh, er...Webs. Holden Webster. We went to school together. European History. I let you crib off my Vaclav Havel essay that time. You really don't remember me?
Buffy: Sure. Sure. (She clearly doesn't.)

Viewed as a conversation, this operates as it would in the real world. Buffy's response "Sure" may be untrue, but it is a necessary act of politeness. Within the context of a drama about vampires, the incongruity of the exchange creates humour which contrasts with dark and horrifying events that are taking place in other parts of this narrative. The exchange continues:

Vampire: 'Kay. Er..junior year. Spring production of Pippin. I-I did the lighting board.
Buffy: I didn't see it.
Vampire: But you helped me move the lighting board. I dropped it on your foot.
Buffy: Right! Foot! Yes of course. History class. Now it's all coming back. I'm sorry...
Vampire: Oh well, it's not like I was a big part of your life or anything.
Buffy: No, I just didn't recognise you with your face all demon. And I think you've filled out a lot.
Vampire: Oh, yes, well, I got into Tai Kwon Do in a big way at Dartmouth.
Buffy: That's great.
Vampire: Yeah.
Buffy: So what have you been up to?
Vampire: Well, apparently dying. (laughs)... (they chat for a while about Holden's recent life and mutual acquaintances.)
Vampire: So I'm a vampire. How weird is that?
Buffy: I'm sorry.
Vampire: No, no, it's great. Strong. Like I'm connected to a powerful all-consuming evil that's going to suck the world into fiery oblivion. How about you?

As well as the character interaction, there is the interaction between the audience and the text. The audience are familiar with the contexts of the series. When a vampire breaks off a fight to begin interacting socially with the slayer, the writers are flouting the conventions of the drama. This creates implicature that the audience can interpret - this vampire represents a specific and unusual form of threat.

In the world of social interaction, participants obey certain rules and mores. One of the characters in the Buffy series is Anya, a thousand year old vengeance demon who had been transformed into an eighteen year old student. Anya, though equipped with human language, lacks the ability to understand the social rules of conversation and particularly the pragmatic levels of language. In this exchange, Anya is working in a shop and has just completed a transaction with a customer:

Season five, episode 4: No Place like Home

(Speaking to customer at counter at end of transaction)

Anya: (Smiles) Please go.
Xander: Anya, the Shopkeepers Union of America called. They want me to tell you that 'Please go,' just got replaced by 'Have a nice day.'
Anya: But I have their money. Who cares what sort of day they have?
Xander: No one. It's just a long cultural tradition of raging insincerity. Embrace.
Anya: (calling out to customer) Hey! You! Have a nice day!
Xander: There's my girl.

This exchange does not really mirror any equivalent 'real world' exchange. Within the script, it functions at several levels. Anya's violation of the rules of politeness creates humour, a device that the scripts often use to lighten the darker elements of the narratives. It also allows the writers to satirise social mores by having someone from outside the group highlight the apparent insincerity that the rules of politeness tend to promote.

Another exchange involving Anya allows the script writers to show Anya's confusion with social mores in a more serious context.

Series 5, episode 17. The Body

Anya and Xander arrive at Willow's apartment. Buffy's mother, Joyce, has died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Xander: Hey. (he and Willow embrace.) How you doing? (Willow shakes her head.). I know the feeling.
Willow: I'm afraid I'm going to start crying again.
Anya: Xander cried at the apartment. It was weird.
Willow: Yeah. It''s a thing we do.

During this scene, Anya frequently refers to Joyce as 'the body' and asks questions that, while semantically correct, are socially inappropriate. This device highlights the sense of alienation, and also enhances the sense of shock the viewer must feel when a script violates the rules and kills off a regular series character. Willow's use of 'we' allows the script writers to highlight the theme of Anya's exclusion from the group, a device that also helps the viewer, watching the scene for the outside, to empathise both with the grieving Willow and the bewildered Anya.

The ways in which the script writers can play with the pragmatic conventions of language is demonstrated in the scenes in which a robot, designed to look like Buffy, (the Buffybot) and who has been programmed in the conventions of human interaction converses with other characters.

Buffybot: Hey there!
Xander: Buffy!
Buffybot: (reads list of data about each person) And Anya. How is your money?
Anya: (laughs) Fine. Thank you for asking.
Buffybot: Isn't it a beautiful night for killing evil things?
Xander: I guess. You're back very early. How was the whole quest thing?
Buffybot: I don't understand that question. But thank you for asking. You're my friend. And a carpenter.
Xander: Are you alright? You're all...
Spike: (interrupts) Yeah. Wait up!
Buffybot: It is Spike. And he's wearing an overcoat.

This exchange demonstrates very well how contributions to a conversation can be structurally and semantically correct, but contextually inappropriate. It replicates well the ways in which someone with a pragmatic language disorder might communicate. As part of a script, it uses incongruity to create humour, and sets up a series of misunderstanding that help to move the narrative along.

Dialogue is the main device by which script communicates with the audience. An analysis of the pragmatic aspects of script is interesting both in the ways the writers use the pragmatic devices of language in character interaction, but most importantly, the ways in which these devices, whether within the context of the dialogue, or within the context of the drama as a whole, serve to communicate with the audience and act as a tool of narrative development.

© Danuta Reah, 2006