Soft-Rock Sociolinguistics

The other day while I was in the grocery store, I heard the old Eighties song “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston.

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I was already quite familiar with the song… Anyway, I’ve always been amused by this part:

How will I know if he really loves me 
I say a prayer with every heart beat 
I fall in love whenever we meet 
I’m asking you because you know about these things

It’s that last line of “I’m asking you because you know about these things” that always kills me. It just comes out of nowhere: a random grenade of prosaic observation thrown into a  stew of romantic emotion.

What makes it even funnier to me is that the person the singer is addressing doesn’t get mentioned anywhere else in the song, just in that one line. By contrast, in the very similar song from the Sixties “It’s in His Kiss”, you have a lead singer and a chorus addressing the same topic, but doing so in a clear back-and-forth dialogue — and all without resorting to such an oddly robotic statement as “I’m asking you because you know about these things”.

Still, as I was listening to this song in the produce section, I realized I had to give it some props for observing one of the Gricean maxims for rational, collaborative conversation. Whitney seems to be obeying the maxim of relevance by justifying to her unspecified interlocutor why she’s singing the song to that particular person.

Well done, Whitney.

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