Monday, May 29, 2006

An Advertiser Speaketh with Forked Tongue

I mentioned earlier that I may redo my book on the language of television advertising and that may still happen. In the interim, I saved via Tivo a number of final episodes of network shows to see what was happening in adult advertising (having skipped past most of them over the year). I ran across a really cute advertisement while watching Rocketman on BBCA, one that regularly runs on BBCA and perhaps other cable stations. It was an ad for CardioAssist. This name is a proper name or proper noun and therefore what philosophers have termed a "rigid designator" and as such ity is said to have no meaning -- it simply designates something. We know better -- at least those of us who accept my reasoning in "Individual Dolphins have Names?" blog. We know that there are two relevant kinds of meanings in play here -- conventional meanings and what I have called "understandings," which are a species of what I called "meaning as significance" in my blog "The Meaning of 'Meaning'." We associate significances with the things that proper names name and these may or may not reflect the meanings of the words that comprise them. In the case of "Michael Geis" we may be sure that whatever understandings you have of me which you have attached to my name do not reflect the meanings of "Michael" and "Geis."

This is not true of "CardioAssist." This compound noun immediately suggests that the product assists the heart in some way. Check out the two screen shots. The first claims overtly that this product lowers bad cholesterol, maintains good cholesterol, maintains triglycerides, and maintains homocysteines. The last three come with a disclaimer saying that the FDA has not evaluated the statements and goes on to say that "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

I am guessing that the first of these three claims does not come with the disclaimer in the first sentence because it has, say, oatmeal or something else that is said to lower cholesterol in it though possibly no more than a trace amount. I haven't looked. Perhaps someone will go into a health foods store, check, and report back. In any event, the last sentence of the disclaimer raises the question (no, it does not "beg the question," a misuse of language that gets on my nerves) as to why in hell anyone would want to take it. Though it may lower bad cholesterol, it may do so at a nontherapeutic, quite trivial level. They have said nothing that contradicts my strong assertion.

Finally, the ad gives us a picture of a happy heart, the product, and the phrase "Help your heart 4 ways" spilling out of a sketched heart. The phrase contains a classic "weasel word," namely "help." Put simply, if you ask me to help you move your sofa and I agree to do so but I pick up just one cushion and leave the rest to you, you will see me as having betrayed you, but literally speaking, what I said was true. I helped. In general, we use "help" to mean "help substantively" but advertisers do not. They have been doing this since I began studying advertising language and surely long before that --no doubt as long as there has been advertising. Advertisers do not have a free speech defense here since free speech has long been said to be limited to nonfalse claims and even on occasion nonfalse impicatures.

Commercials constitute a species of offer and offers come with what has been called by Speech Act theorists a "sincerity condition" according to which the offer must be a sincere one, that is meet the expectations of the addressee, that is, us in the viewing audience (you should watch Rocketman if you get a chance). Sincerity conditions are to offers and promises and questions and all other speech acts what truth conditions are to assertions -- indeed, the condition what what one asserts be belived to be true is the sincerity condition for assertions. If we cannot rely on people to tell the truth most of the time, we will quit listening to them. If we cannot rely on people to fulfill offers and promises, then we will stop listening to their offers and promises. As David Lewis noted, a convetnion of truthfulness is a condition on the existence of language. That claim should be generalized in the way I suggest. We clearly should not be listening to the advertisers of CardioAssist.

I confess that in my book on Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction I get rid of conventional speech act theory and nearly totally revamp the conditions on speech acts but not in a way that falsifies what I have just said.

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Data Mining

Back in the mid-60's, a certain US agency wanted a company I worked for while attending graduate school to help them solve a huge problem. The agency was being overwhelmed by audio taped material from potential or actual enemies and wanted some way of analyzing their audio tapes so that they could, to use a more modern term, "mine" them for information. My first reaction to their problem is that we linguists could provide them with no solution to their problem.

The most obvious way to solve this problem was through some sort of key word search, assuming that the "bad guys" would tend to talk about different subjects when talking to each other than when talking to their wives and social friends. But this entailed an ability to do speech recognition and that was a pipe dream at the time. Today, speech recognition software works better than it did back then, but the problem, at least with home software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, is that the software must be trained for each particular voice and one must articulate carefully and fairly slowly. Maybe spy agencies have better speech recognition software than is available to you and me just as our spy satellites have better cameras than I do and their photo enhancement software is better than anything you or I can get. But I doubt that the technology has reached the point where speech recognition plus content analysis will help these spy agencies to distinguish terrorists from others.

The need for some sort of serious content analysis can be illustrated by the following two sentences.
(1) That song is the bomb.
(2) Put a bomb on the first floor.
Clearly just finding the word "bomb" in a conversation isn't going to solve the terrorist identification problem. One is going to need more information from the conversation and something about who is doing the talking.

Another approach to the problem bypasses the need for speech recognition and content analysis. My morning paper (see the title link) had an article on data mining by Brian Bernstein, who has a more accessible article than that at the Columbus Dispatch at the Seattle Times which is similar in nature.

Bernstein's article concerns the use of social network theory to try to figure out who may be linked up in a terrorist plot. This is a very different problem than the linguistic one and in one way is simpler -- the primary data consists of who calls whom, not what they say. But it presents problems of its own. The graphic that appears above illustrates the sort of structures of telephone calling the NSA hopes to find.

The NSA's problem is to identify first who calls whom and then to analyze the pattern of calling and from that to determine who is the hub of the enterprise, the boss terrorist. The question is how do patterns of calling among sets of terrorists differ from the patterns of other social organizations?

My wife is in several tennis playing groups. In some groups, there is a team captain who calls the others to say when they need to show up at the court. Her team members would, when unable to play on the given day, would have to call her to tell her this so she can go to alternates. In other groups my wife is in, each team member would be responsible for finding a substitute. In summers, the situation is much more fluid and there is less organization. I imagine it would be very hard to tell these tennis social networks from terrorist social networks predicated simply on the pattern of the calls. I can't say that it would be impossible because I don't know enough about social network analysis to know just how difficult the problem is. But these tennis networks illustrate the point being made in the article that it seems to be necessary to have an entry point -- a known terrorist -- to work out which social networks are terrorist in nature and which are merely social. Once you have found him/her, one might employ social network analysis to ferret out those who are simply the entry terrorist's friends and who are a part of any conspiracy he/she might be involved in.

This situation reminds me to the mathematics that is used on the CBS show "Numbers," in which a math genius who helps out his FBI agent brother. Our math prof seems to know every application of mathematics to the real world which is pretty implausible but this is right up his alley. The NSA should have consulted him.

There has been quite a stir over the President's authorizing surveillance of us all to find out which of us are the bad guys. It is a perfect example of his lack of respect for American civil liberties -- we must invade the people's privacy in order to preserve it. However, I am inclined to think your secrets are safe from George given the difficulty posed by the problem the NSA faces. The more people whose communications are surveiled, the less the NSA will learn.

I expect this blog will get picked up by the NSA since the word "bomb" appears twice. So, if my blogs stop, you will know why.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006


Begs to Differ has suggested that I blog on terrorism. I have been meaning to for some time in part because my MIT professor Noam Chomsky has claimed (not necessarily his exact words) that America is the greatest terrorist nation in the world. This sort of claim would typically be greeted with outrage by Americans but, given how he means it, his claim is one that deserves serious consideration.

There are at least two relevant terms, terrorism and terrorist in evaluating Chomsky's view. The Merriam-Webster OnLine dictionary "defines" terrorism as "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." It doesn't define "terrorist." Answers.com "defines" terrorism as follows: "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." Answers.com sees a terrorist as "One that engages in acts or an act of terrorism." You who have been following this blog know that dictionaries do not actually define words but are at best guides to usage but that's what we actually want here.

In the "definition" of terrorism Answers.com speaks of the acts as being "unlawful" We might go a step further and say that terrorist organizations are unlawful in that they are not established via any conventional legal process such as being created by a recognized political state. In any event, I shall take the position that any military or extra-military organization is capable of committing acts of terrorism without being terrorist organizations per se. In fact, my morning paper reports that the US military is investigating a Marine unit's alleged unprovoked killings (see the National/International section) of civilians. This is little different, assuming this event happened, from an extra-legal Palestinian organization using a suicide bomber to kill civilians in Israel. The deaths are as real. The actions are equally illegal by all normal standards of judgment (remember that the US military is investigating the case). And the actions were directed at civilians or noncombatants, a term I prefer to use.

The terrorist organizations we normally think of -- Al Queda, Hamas, the IRA, etc. -- come into being because they cannot field conventional armies to do battle. Al Queda was formed in part out of the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. The latter were a military organization of the revolutionary sort and they fought the Russian military directly. Al Queda is incapable of fighting the US military in a similar way (except for occasional skirmishes in Afghanistan and allegedly also in Iraq). So, it resorted to the use of suicide pilots and crews to hijack and then fly airplanes containing noncombatants into buildings containing noncombatants, at least in the case of the WTC attacks. And, had Hamas or the PLO tried to form a conventional army to attack Israel, Israel would have nipped such actions in the bud with pre-emptive attacks. So, if they are to fight against Israel, one of their most effective methods is to use terrorist attacks on noncombatants such as shelling noncombatants from outside Israel or use of bombs planted in Israel or carried in by suicide bombers. The point would presumably be to convince the people to pressure the government to find some accommodation with the Palestinian people. Now that Hamas is a part of that government. the issues have become more complicated.

The US and British forces during WW2 were not above the use of terror. The Brits firebombed Dresden in a clear attempt to kill civilians and scare hell out of those not killed. And the US dropped two A-bombs on cities in Japan in a clear attempt to kill civilians and scare the hell out of those not killed. These were terrorist acts by anyone's criteria. So, in the case of the US, we have a history of occasional deliberate attacks by our conventional military forces on noncombatants either at the direction of its leaders (the two A-Bombs) or as extra-legal acts by rogue military units.

Chomsky takes the position that the motives of any government or extra-legal organization in taking action against others are irrelevant to evaluating the morality of the actions since every such group has motives it views as lofty. The Palestinian-Israeli case provides a perfect example of the futility of evaluating motives for each side can make a credible case at least from the perspective of outsiders. Instead of looking at motives, Chomsky would argue we should look at the results. In the case of terrorism, we look at whether or not the actions taken kill noncombatants and/or scare hell out of (i. e., terrorize) noncombatants.

Taking this view, we must look at US bombing campaigns of the last three Administrations. We have killed noncombatants in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan and perhaps other places. In the case of the first Iraq war, perhaps because it knew that the press was taking a close look at the killings of noncombatants, the military emphasized how "smart" its weapons were. We were given show and tell movies to prove the point but after the war it turns out that the smart weapons were, in general, not as smart as advertised. In any event, in the current Iraq war, the US has killed many noncombatants and by normal legal standards, given that this war was built on a fabric of Administration lies, misrepresentations, and factual mistakes, we are arguably responsible for any deaths of noncombatants on analogy with the notion of "being an accessory to murder." If we hadn't started this damn war, none of these people would have been killed, at least not in the way they were. So, arguably we are responsible for them all.

In any event, knowing that many will not accept my "accessory to murder" argument, let us just consider deaths of noncombatants by US military actions whether deliberate (rare, I would think or hope) or not. Tote up the deaths of noncombatants in the current Iraq war. Add them to similar such deaths in Afghanistan. Add them to those of the previous Iraq war. Add the results to deaths in former Yugoslavia. When you add all these deaths up, it is clear that no organization of any sort has killed as many noncombatants as the US during this time period. One reason is that we fight more wars than anyone else -- an odd sort of thing for a peace-loving nation to do . In some of these cases, we probably did intend to scare hell out of noncombatants in an effort to coerce them into causing a change of government. My memory is dimming but I believe that was the point of our bombing in Yugoslavia Minor (what's left of the original). And, it worked. Milosovic was eventually booted out. Keeping this murderous bastard around was getting too costly.

I am uncomfortable with Chomsky's claim that the US is the greatest terrorist nation in the world since it depends on twisting the notion of "terrorist"about 90 degrees for most alleged "terrorist" acts were not done specifically to terrorize and/or kill noncombatants. However, like the deadly side-effects of certain medicines, the side-effects of our military actions have been to terrorize and/or kill noncombatants whether these effects were deliberate or not. For this reason, we must be very careful about going to war against anyone to make sure that the side-effects on noncombatants are justified by the positive effects of taking action and negative effects of not doing so. The Bush Administration appears to have considered only the positive effects of invading Iraq and vastly over-rated those while lying or misrepresenting the evils of Saddam in defense of its actions. For this reason, I see their engagement in Iraq as so irresponsible as to be borderline criminal.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Present Tense in Journalism

Back when I was preparing my book on the language of politics, I studied also the language of political journalists because news men and women were then and still are, but arguably to a lesser extent, the conduit for political news. A couple of days ago, I came across a Yahoo News link on my My Yahoo page reading New Orleans chooses mayor for huge recovery task. and clicked on it to find out who got elected. But as you will discover if you follow the link, the citizens of New Orleans had not chosen its mayor yet. The election was occurring on the day the story was published. As journalists use the present tense in headlines, this one was ambiguous as to whether it had past time or present time reference.

And the next day, I got another Yahoo news story on the election, this time titled "Nagin wins re-election in New Orleans." Here the headline unambiguously referred to a past event. So, we have two headlines, both in the present tense, but in one the headline had present time reference and the other had past time reference. In the case of "Nagin wins re-election in New Orleans" we would have no doubt that the election was over and Nagin had won. Or in the case of "Mayor Jones dies" we would have a sentence unambiguously past event. In short predicates that refer not to processes but end states of processes -- winning, dying, being born (the beginning of life but the end state of gestation), divorcing, etc., will unambiguously refer to the past when described using the present tense. On the other hand, there are processes like playing, flying, and working, etc., that can go either way."
Ohio State plays in Big Ten tournament championship game"
"Injured Marine flies home.
"Owner of Mavericks works at McDonald's."
In these cases we cannot be sure whether the game is over or ongoing or coming up. The same would, I think, be true of the Marine flying home and of the basketball team owner working at the fast food restaurant (might have gotten the wrong fast food chain.) Why, if the goal of journalism is to tell us the truth in as clear a way as possible would they use the present tense when the time reference is left ambiguous?

As I discovered while reading a journalism text book during preparation for my book, budding journalists are instructed to use the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy. This leads to classic TV news teasers like
(2) Man bites dog -- film at 11:00.
where we have a past action being described using the present tense. What I am wondering is if ordinary people ever talk this way.

We use the present tense to refer to future events as in
I go to Houston in June.
We use it to refer to present events, as in
I am writing a blog.
We use it to refer to generally (or always true) states, as in
Gold is heavier than water.
We use it to refer to events or processes that started in the past but are continuing, as in
My dog barfs a lot.
But do we ever use the present tense to refer to past completed events the way journalists do? Ican't think of any.

The first principle of journalism should be to tell the truth as you see it because that is the first principle of discourse generally. As a result, I find it troubling that journalists have decided to follow the injunction to use the present tense to give an impression of immediacy as a superordinate principle.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

The US may be Joining the French

As S. Tsui notes in a comment on my last blog, "Uh Oh," for the US seems to want to join the French in requiring immigrants to learn the predominant language of the respective countries. To anyone who has spoken English since childhood, this is likely to seem like an innocent enough requirement, but it flies in the face of a fact we linguists have known for as long as I have been in the field, namely that adults have a very difficult time learning a second (or third, etc.) language.

Before getting into that, let's look at the President's and Congress's proposals. In the Yahoo news story s tsui cites, it is said by Tony Snow, the President's mouthpiece, that
"What the president has said all along is that he wants to make sure that people who become American citizens have a command of the English language," Snow said. "It's as simple as that."
The problem is what does "a command of the English language" entail? Is it equivalent to fluency or is it equivalent to a functional knowledge (the person knows enough English to do his job) or something in between?

Bush is currently supporting, lukewarmly I believe, two conflicting positions, one is that English becomes the national language of the country and the other is that English becomes the "common unifying language." The latter has not teeth and the former, at best, has baby teeth. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, says that
"We are trying to make an assimilation statement."
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., lies when he says that the national language was not aimed at Spanish speakers. One would have to be a total idiot to believe that since the issue arises only in connection with a concern, a legitimate concern, with the integrity of our border with Mexico. If we were worried about people coming in on the giant container ships that come, say, to the port of San Francisco, then maybe Inhofe would be right since the odds are that those people would be Asian. Inhofe seems to be of the position that if you take an anti-Latino stance, but say you are not doing so, then you are not doing so. It is sort of like sentences like, "I don't mean to interrupt, but..." which involve interrupting while saying you don't mean to.

The impulse to force a national language on everyone derives from the belief that if immigrants just learn English/French they will assimilate and become American/French. That, of course, is nonsense. The identity of immigrants are is bound up in their original cultures, as is still true of many Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and others and before they give that up they will have to be absolutely sure that they will be replacing their acceptance within the American communities that share their original culture with acceptance into the American or French majority cultures. That is anything but guaranteed unless you can make enough money to live in the burbs, as do many Indian immigrants, for instance, who are engineers or doctors.

It is, I think, against the nature of America to force immigrants to do anything. Our policy towards those who come here with papers has been that of benign neglect. Those who form communities and help each other, as Korean-Americans have done, tend to do well. Indians typically come here already knowing English and often come with some serious education. Some of the Vietnamese that came here were fishermen and succeeded at that. And, we have lots of nice foreign restaurants here thanks to all these immigrants knowing that if they have a restaurant or small foreign foods market their families will be able to eat even if they don't make a lot of money.

Some Democrats are in favor of requiring "sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life." I'm sure they don't mean this but what this ignores is the issue of speaking English, which is a great deal harder than simply understanding it. The latter is required for taking orders from bosses; the former is required to be a boss (in some business that is part of the majority culture, as opposed to the large Chinese sections of our largest cities).

So, for the US we have five proposals.
1. A command of English.
2. English language fluency.
3. An ability to use the language in everyday life.
4. An ability to understand the language in everyday life.
5. A sufficient knowledge of how to speak and understand English to assimilate (i. e., English is to be a "common unifying language."
Bush, to his credit, seems never to have actively supported making English the national language, perhaps because he has developed some sensitivity to the Latino situation through knowing his brother Jeb's wife. But now he is entertaining that, partly, I suspect, so as to get some immigration bill out. As in all times the President and Congress pass laws hoping that the people will see this as solving the problem and get off their backs.

Proposals 1 and 2 fly in the face of one fact: adult immigrants normally are unable to acquire a command of or fluency in English. While I was in grad school in 1964 Eric Lenneberg proposed the thesis that there is a critical period of language learning that lasts until one is around 12 years old. Those who begin acquiring a second language before this time tend to develop fluency while those who begin acquiring it later will have an accent (if still fairly young) or genuinely struggle with learning the language if one is an adult. We run into the nature/nurture issue here and it is relevant to the issue. If it is nature, then adult immigrants cannot fairly be expected to master the language (proposals 1 and 2) and if it is nurture we could expect that they could master the language even though, for the most part, they don't. Children of immigrants exposed to English language children will want to fit in and will learn it. Adults don't expect to fit in and their primary motivation can be expected to be to learn enough English to get by.

We have some Latino grocery stores not far from where I live (they are scattered around Columbus) and most of the people working in them know no English at all. Fortunately, I know enough Spanish to shop in them. At a Mexican restaurant I used to know the owners of, they and the waiters were fluent but their cooks were often not. Some years ago, when the Bilingual Education Act was being debated, a group of OSU linguists, while developing a PBS TV series, learned that leaders in the NYC Chinese community were were strongly opposed to bilingual education acts. The reason seems to be that as long as recent immigrants know no English, they are easily exploited and the businessmen can get by with paying them below the minimum wage. I created the series but we lost in round three of the competition for funding. My original title was "The Verbal Ape." It was opposed by the others who joined me.

What disturbs me is the use of force by the French government to ensure that people learn French -- no French, no citizenship. It would disturb me if we were to adopt the same position for it does not take into consideration the difficulty adults have learning English. A recent immigrant's primary focus is to survive and that will often require working long hours. There would normally be little time for evening language classes. So far, it is unclear what the US government will do. It might be time to write your representatives in the House and Senate and express your views on the subject.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

The French and Their Language

Though the French seem to see us as a bunch of crude cowboys (with George W doing his best to confirm the stereotype), I find it interesting that their approach to what we see as civil rights issues seems to be one of brute force, which is a cowboy way of solving social problems. The ruling that females could not wear a hijab in schools was a brute force way of getting people to assimilate or, at least, look like they are assimilating. I know of no place in the US that has passed a law forcing Muslim women to drop their head covering though in some places, they must take their head covering off long enough to get a driving license photo taken. That seems reasonable to me. The whole point of the photo is to allow the police to determine that people stopped for a driving violation or in connection with a driving accident are who they say they are. Of course, they would have to expose their faces to the police at the time.

I read today in my morning paper that France's lower house has approved a law that allows the government to chose which foreigners can live and work there and require them to learn French. In the US there are states that have made English the official language though our country hasn't. That is a far cry from demanding that every immigrant or imported worker learn English. We have here another example of the French doing their social engineering with brute force.

Clearly immigrants to the US who do not learn English may suffer economically from their choice since many jobs will be closed to them. But, so far, we do not make learning English a condition on living here. To my way of thinking it is the French who are the crude ones. They, at least, use crude methods to do their social engineering in regard to assimilation.

The French have a nasty streak of racism that, to my way of thinking, must be the origin of the actions of the French government toward Muslims and other persons of color. I recall that a prominent French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen complained about the multi-racial French soccer team that won the World Cup in 1998, saying that
it was "artificial to bring players from abroad and call it the French team," even though every member of the World Cup squad had been a French citizen for years
The French do not provide a good example to the world of how to deal with social problems. As in all things, one first must realize that there is a problem. The US realized this the day that Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor's police beat up civil rights activists in front of television cameras that broadcast it to the country and world. The French have still to recognize that they have very serious racial issues that need to be dealt with, including especially economic problems French citizens of color face. The beauty of denial is that one does not have to face facts. The problem with denial is that one will be forced to face facts at some point.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

To Do or Not to Do

That is the question. I have received another in a line of requests for access to my book on the Language of TV Advertising, published in 1982. As time passes, it must be harder and harder for some to get access to it. So, I have started checking into on-line publishing, some sort of scan, OCR, and PDF page creation process or some other method. I could actually just scan the pages at home, though I would take awhile and figure out some way to get paid enough to pay for my web site and perhaps my other expenses. I checked into Google's books program and I couldn't figure out how in hell I would get paid. Would it be clicks on my order page or books sold or clicks on the advertising on the page with my buy the book link? Nowhere on their page did the word "royalty" appear so I guess their method would be the same as in the adsense stuff I don't put on my blog. Anyway, no royalties, no book.

I inquired with a real publisher and their representative had the interesting idea of coming out with a new edition. Given that the other one is a quarter century old a redo would make more sense. But am I up to it? The gear I would need is a problem. For screen shots, I would want to take them off my HighDef TV. I haven't actually tried that but I think the results would be great. The problem is that Tivo offers no easy one button recording feature that a tape or DVD recorder offers. So, whole shows would have to be Tivoed. But they fill up the hard drive fast. As a result, I would have to make a video of the TV commercial with a video camera I don't own, do the screen shots with a digital camera, and then delete the file. The question is whether or not I am too damn old to do another book. I am doing two blogs and it probably would be no more work than that. But I like blogging. I also like book writing. What's a person to do?

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Language and Script Writing

My morning paper came yesterday with an article on the now expired show "West Wing," commenting specifically on the writing as a key to its success. One sentence interested me particularly, "The rapid fire of syllables proved more exciting than that of missiles." I'm pretty sure that this sentence is false, construed literally, but the fact is that the dialogue was rapid fire. This heightened the immediacy of what was going on, especially when what was going on was itself dramatic -- some world crisis, Bartlett's illness, the kidnapping of Bartlett's daughter, etc. It also was one of the factors that led me to get hearing aids. I couldn't keep up.

I wrote two short plays that were produced by the Contemporary American Theater Company ("CATCO," as its called) in Columbus, Ohio. A key thing I learned in the class on playwriting from which the first play emerged and from the directors of the two plays is that the essential principle of play writing and script writing is that actions speak louder than words, trite and true. One can communicate more subtly through how people act, including the smallest gestures, than through what they say, which is not to say that language is unimportant. The last line of my first play caused many people to gasp and was something that could be communicated only through language.

One of the things I learned for myself in these two efforts is that the language of a script must seem natural without being natural. Real talk is full of fits and starts, hemming and hawing, departing from and returning to topics. The talk in a script, talking now of realistic theater or movies (say, "Brokeback Mountain" or "Crash"), needs to do three things.
1. Each line must sound like something someone would say.
2. Each line must be stripped of all the false starts, pause fillers, etc. that do not contribute to the story but stay sounding natural anyway. Some of these things will contribute to the effect of the line. The term "pregnant pause" wasn't invented for nothing. However, this is sometimes better left to the actors and director to work out.
3. Each line needs to contribute to the story, character development, etc. of the script or play. If it doesn't, it should be jettisoned. I also learned that there is or -- in my opinion -- should be a kind of "logic" to the script. I don't mean to suggest that there should be a proof of some theorem that is the "point" of the script but that something rational like that should underlie the script. Everything said and done must contribute to what the writer is trying to achieve, which would normally be several things, not just one thing.
I am anything but an expert in play writing or analyzing plays though I have read plays since I was a kid -- my mom had the complete works of Shakespeare and also a book of plays produced in New York, possibly while she was studying at Columbia. And I have gone to plays since I was a kid.

There are some script writers, perhaps most notoriously David Mamet, who have a very stylized way of writing dialogue (check out the movie "House of Games"). When I heard he was involved creatively in the creation of the TV show "The Unit," I was intrigued. Would he use that, by now (at least to me) very tiresome way of having people talk? He didn't. Another producer, Shawn Ryan, executive producer of "The Shield" said in an interview with both men presented on TV.com "We just tried to be authentic with military speak. It is so interesting, the real way they speak, that we didn't really need to change it." Yes real but cleaned up a bit -- soldiers in my experience tend to be somewhat profane. The creative "trick" in script writing, is to make dialogue sound natural without being natural.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Individual Dolphins Have Names?

In the "Nation and World" section of my local paper there is an Earthweek section that describes all sorts of stuff -- especially disasters. Today, my wife spotted reference to an article claiming that individual Dolphins have names, that they recognize their names, and two dolphins can refer to a third by his or her name. We are assured that "she stopped short of saying dolphins might have a human-like language." Check you this Yahoo reference.

This article reveals the stunning level of ignorance of the nature of language by the writer, one Deborah Zabarenko, for it is a silly suggestion that the researcher might think this unless they too are silly.

Even if it is true that dolphins have individual names and can signal other dolphins by names, this is about as far from showing that dolphins have something like human language as saying that people who eat round fruits can play Major League baseball. The reason is simple.

The official word from the philosophical world for years, and may still be, is that proper names, which is what we are talking about here, are rigid designators. A rigid designator is something that designates some entity but does not have conventional meaning. Thus, for instance, the name "George W. Bush" is devoid of content. This view is due to the philosopher Kripke. His argument goes like this. Consider
(1) Aristotle might not have been the last great philosopher of antiquity.
(2) Aristotle might not have been Aristotle.
We all know that Aristotle was the last great philosopher of antiquity. Certainly, I know that because I read all of them back in the day. Note, though, that if the name "Aristotle" has meaning in the way that, say "the last great philosopher of antiquity" does, then sentence (1) should be as odd as (2) but its not. Sentence (1) makes an empirical claim; (2) does not. Kripke wrote:
The rigidity of proper names demonstrates that utterances of sentences containing proper names, and utterances of sentences differing from those sentences only in containing nonrigid descriptions in place of the proper names, differ in content.
I took this quote from a section of A Companion to the Philosophy of Language called "Names and Rigid Designation", which you might want to read.

In a way, using a name to refer to a man in the immediate environment is cognitively no different from pointing to him except for the difference between doing something linguistically and physically. Thus, though it is interesting that Dolphins might have names and might refer to to other Dolphins by names -- they don't have fingers so they can't point -- it in no way, shape, or form suggests that they have language at all.

However, the rigid designator theory of proper names doesn't fully fly. Advertisers know this and craft their proper names to exploit the semantic content of the words employed. Should a manufacturer of candy that they sell to children call something "Fruit Squares," the children of the world would be quite surprised to find that they do not contain fruit and are not square. I discussed this in my book on TV advertising making the point that we have "understandings" of the things and people that proper names refer to that are not the same thing as conventional meanings but are functionally equivalent. If I asked you who I am you would reply with some sentences that would reflect your understanding of me and you associate these with my name or moniker "The Language Guy" or "LG."

Advertisers use this fact to exploit us -- especially children. There was and may still be something called "Fruit Stripe" gum. Anyone below the age of four or five or six or seven or eight (who knows?) who sees or hear that name will expect the gum to have some fruit in it and, moreover, that this fruit will come in the form of stripes, as, perhaps, a clever way of bringing fruit flavor to the gum. In fact, the stripes are printed on the gum and have nothing to do with the flavor of the gum. Moreover, the gum has or, at least had when I last looked, no fruit in it at all. It was artificially flavored. Check out this screen shot I took and used in the book:
Notice the stripes on the gum and the mane of the horse (donkey?) as well as the ball on the nose. As I recall, pieces of fruit bounce into the picture and affix themselves to the noses of the animals. It was and probably still is the case that wholly artificially flavored products with names like "Fruit Stripes" and "Fruit Loops" will show pictures of fruit to help sell the kids on the good flavor. This particular ad claims, for instance: "And now our fruit stripes are bigger. And there is more fruit flavor. There's more orange. More lemon. More cherry. More lime. And more fruit flavor makes your mouth taste fine." Given that there is no connection between the stripes printed on the gum and the flavor this is monumentally deceptive. And, of course, there was no fruit in the product at all. This practice is despicable on the part of the advertisers of the product and the manufacturers who hired them. I am tempted to take a fresh look at Saturday morning cartoons. I bet you a nickel nothing has changed.

Putting in a disclaimer that the product is "artificially flavored" won't help much unless mom or pop is around to explain it. I asked my kid, who was seven at the time, "What does `artificially flavored' mean?" and she replied, "Not real." I asked, "What does that mean?" and she said she didn't know. In fact, I suspect there are adults who don't fully grasp this concept. For instance, is a chocolate flavored bar that contains carob, but no chocolate, "artificially flavored" or not? Carob is a natural food. It seems to be healthier than chocolate. So is it naturally or artificially flavored?

Fruit Loops, the last I looked, took the form of loops, as in the case of Cheerios, but the different colors are not associated as far as my taste buds could tell with different flavors. Advertisers use "fruit" in the name of their products because they know that children will believe that the product has some sort of connection to fruit. The kids don't give a damn about the possible nutritional implications of their containing fruit but from eating fruit they are likely to expect the product to taste fruity.

Okay, friends and neighbors, I am going to give you a homework problem. Our fruit stripe ad used fruit names in the singular: "There's more orange. More lemon. More cherry. More lime." Why?

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Friday, May 12, 2006

The Language of the Wedding Vows

Some linguist once told me that during traditional wedding vows, the man and woman (and perhaps someday the man and the man or the woman and the woman) actually "get hitched" three times if viewed from the perspective of speech act theory. You can find a quick descriptions of speech act theory all over the web. John Austin started it, John Searle popularized it, and I perfected it by getting rid of it (in my last book, now in paperback but still expensive.)

One of John Austin's seminal notions was the performative, an utterance that performs the action it, in some since, names. If your boss says, "You're fired," you are fired for he through his performative utterance has performed the action named by the main verb. These sorts of verbs and sentences are way wired and the last I heard no fully adequate theory of them has emerged. I cleverly avoided them in my aforementioned book.

Now, on to the wedding vows. You can go to the title link for the whole shebang. I will very much condense what is going on.

The first performative -- the taking bit. The minister asks of both groom and bride, "Do you [NAME] take [OTHER NAME] to be your wife/husband [yada, yada, yada]," whereupon each party says "I will." In saying that they have performed the act of taking someone to be their respective spouses. The ceremony could be ended right then and there, but the preacher needs more face time.

The second and third performatives -- the ring ceremony. The minister takes the bride's and groom's rings and blesses them. Then the minister says to each: "[NAME], in placing this ring on [OTHER NAME]'s finger, repeat after me: [OTHER NAME], you are now consecrated to me as my wife/husband from this day forward and I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed." Notice that we have "you are now hereby consecrated to me as my wife/husband," which is a very strange sort of thing. The husband/wife (remember, they are already married according to me) is boldly asserting that he/she is declares the other to be sacredly dedicated to himself/herself. My slipping "hereby" into the previous sentence was a trick. If you saw nothing wrong with its presence there, like it or not, we have had our second performative and another declaration of marriage, which is immediately followed by a third, "and with this ring, I thee wed." They could say, "and with this ring, I hereby thee wed." This instance of "hereby" is awkward because of the odd word order. "I hereby wed thee" works fine.

The fourth performative -- the joining bit. The preacher says, "In as much as [NAME] and [OTHER NAME] have consented together in marriage before this company of friends and family and have pledged their faith – and declared their unity by giving and receiving a ring – are now joined." There you have it. He could have said "are hereby joined" but doesn't because if he did he would have to stop talking.

An implicit acknowledgement that the couple is already married. The preacher says, "You have pronounced yourselves husband and wife..."

The fifth performative -- the prouncement. The preacher says, "And so, by the power vested in me by the State of ______ and Almighty God, I now pronounce you man and wife..." Notice that "hereby" can be plugged into this sentence with no harm.

So, when two people get married this way, they are five times married. I think the high divorce rate must result from the fact that having looked into each other's faces for such a long time during this ceremony they are already tired of each other. The veil is probably there to hide the bride's face as long as possible.Usuallyly, when their faces were that close prior to the marriage they were making out and their eyes were clouded over with lust or closed and this ceremony might have been the first time they get really a good look at each other. What the ceremony proves is that preachers don't have a lot of confidence in people to stay married and stay faithful and so they seal the deal five times, even thowing in an Almight God to seal the deal.

By the way, the "hereby" test is solid. For the first performative, it has to be in the minister's sentence ""Do you [NAME] hereby take [OTHER NAME]" and is completed by the participant's "I will's".

The preacher says, "You may now kiss the bride." As if they haven't already kissed. I am, of course, having a little fun here. An old guy needs his fun. By the way, did I ever disclose that when my wife and I got married the second time it was by a witch? A white witch (no racist implications intended, of course), I hardly need say. She wore a white robe, drew an imaginary circle and consecrated it with prayers to fire, earth, air, and water. Also, she purified our wedding rings in fire (actually just smoke), which is a good thing, since they failed to keep us together -fasthe first time. She then invoked the four gods, one for each direction. We werehandted. Our kid and a long time friend, a young man who is my pseudo-son/nephew and friend, snickered. We were offered the option of jumping over a broom stick. Harry Potter would probably have gone for the jumping. Kids like to jump.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Love at First Sight

It seems that there is research that supports the Rogers and Hamerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening" lyrics
Some enchanted evening you may see a stranger
You may see a stranger across a crowded room
And somehow you know, you know even then
That somewhere you'll see her again and again
at least for the reverse case of women.

There is research alleging that with just one look at a photograph women can detect the testosterone level of men and determine whether the men are better suited to one-night stands or as husbands, these predictions being predicated on an alleged ability to detect whether the men seemed to like children, their masculinity, their physical attractiveness (duh!), and whether or not they were kind. In short, if you show a woman a mug book of all available men in her area, she will be able to pick out those she just wants to screw and those she might want to marry.

These decisions are, we are assured, being made at an unconscious level and thus hidden from both the women and the researchers and is probably due to genetic programming, which is also safely out of view of both the women and the researchers. The researchers were flying blind without brains, I fear.

"How were the men tested?" you ask. Their testosterone levels were tested from saliva (so far so good) and their interest in children was determined by showing them pictures of an adult and a baby and asking them to pick one or the other and indicate their level of interest in it. Now, the fact that women could identify which men had the higher testosterone levels from photos seems possible (don't high testosterone men lose their hair more quickly than the low testosterone guys?), but the idea that choosing between a picture of an adult and a baby and rating one's interest in the picture is one sorry ass way to determine whether a man is interested in being a father.

I am sorry but life is just a bit more complicated that this. I heard on some TV show the other day that a guy decides whether or not he wants to sleep with a woman in 4 seconds. I would have thought it was instantaneous and I can see women being just as quick as men in determining the studliness of a man. But the idea that one can determine which men are better prospects as fathers from looking at photograph and determine which men would be better candidates as fathers from their choice between a photo or an adult or a baby and rating interest in the photo are ridiculous.

Maybe they could have asked the college boy subjects to bathe an infant and seen how quickly they set about the task, whether or not they showed good instincts as to how to cradle the baby over the water, whether or not they avoid dropping the baby onto the floor or drowning the baby, whether or not they dried the baby off well, and then whether they put powder on the baby's nether region and then properly put on a diaper. Each of these skills could be scored and a measure of "help meetness" (but in reverse, since "help meet" goes back to a Hebrew term that refers to wives) determined. That might put the lives of babies at risk but, hey, this is science.

The irony of this is that the Rogers and Hamerstein's lyrics quoted above applied literally to me and my wife, or at least to me. I saw her long before she saw me so the "across the crowded room" part isn't relevant to her. Also, she wasn't looking for someone who would be a good father since at that point she had no motherly instincts whatever. I was the one who had motherly instincts (gave the baby her first few baths, showed my wife how to diaper the baby, and so on and so forth). Some powerful motherly instincts did kick in, sort of like they did for the Eva Longoria character on "Desperate Housewives."

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Wendy's Artisan Bread: Please Give Us a Break

Wendy's is offering a Frescata Club sandwich using its freshly baked "artisan" bread on TV, where I first learned of this magnificent achievement in fast food, and on the web.
"Your favorite deli cuts of turkey and black forest ham mounded high on our freshly baked artisan bread, topped with 2 bacon strips, lettuce, tomato and mayo. This club is fit for a king."
Given the sizes of the stores, Wendy's must keep its imported Italian bakers underground pumping out their hand made bread as fast as we require it.

We must applaud Wendy's for training its bakers to make artisan Italian bread. The French Culinary Institute in New York City offers a "Total ImmersionSM method can fully train you to bake a range of international artisan breads in eight exhilarating weeks." The full course takes 240 hours but the section on Italian bread would be shorter.

If you have seen the Wendy's ad on TV you know the tray of "artisan" bread they display doesn't look like any bread I've seen in Italy or Germany or anywhere else I've been other than a fast food resterarunt . If you haven't just go to the Wendy's link in the first paragraph and check out the bun (uh, well, maybe bread) pictured there and then imagine a tray of these odd looking pieces of bread (buns) arrayed in rows and columns. Though you know how I feel about what dictionaries do -- they don't define words but give guides to usage -- but the essential element in artisan bread or cheese or wine or beer is that a craftsman (or woman, of course) is doing the work. The online Webster's gives the etymology of the word as:
Middle French, ultimately from Old Italian artigiano, from arte art, from Latin art-, ars
The fact is that Wendy's is acting like it can use language in any way it wants no matter how false the resulting claims are. If we all felt free to do that in our own ads -- say in a personal we might write to attract someone to go out with us, then the words of our language would cease to have a conventional meaning and not just personal ads, but language itself would cease to be of any use since no one could rely on what anyone says. Of course, we aren't going to do that. Just greedy manufacturers of foods who must think we are idiots or that we just don't care about the truth and politicians and other liars.

Perhaps we need as part of Homeland Security a unit of Forensic Language Police that strike down the enemies of honest advertising and politicking who employ linguistic distortions of the sort Wendy's is doing. The security of our nation depends on a secure and reliable language so that our fighting men and women can communicate with each other in an effective manner and Wendy's is threatening the very foundations of our language, and therefore our nation. I suppose Bush would appoint a General to run the unit.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Rock and Roll and Forensic Linguistics

My morning Dispatch had a story on Robert Leonard, a co-founder of Sha Na Na, who morphed himself into a forensic linguist. This group played at Woodstock, apparently at the invitation of Jimi Hendrix. Why he morphed into a forensic linguist I don't know but it seems to have worked for him. He is a professor at Hofstra and seems to have a forensic linguistics business Robert Leonard Associates. I haven't been able to figure out who his associates are since they are not identified, nor have I found a Long Island or New York City address. I think he may pick up hired guns for particular cases. Hey, if he wants me as a hired gun on a trademark or death penalty or deceptive advertising case, I'm available. I could live out my childhood cowboy fantasies of being the gunslinger brought in from out of town to vanquish the bad guys. I never ran across Leonard in my ramblings through forensic linguistics but wish I had. I really liked the song, "Teen Angel," which doubtless gives evidence of my sappy side.

Given the popularity of the three CSI shows and NCIS it is clear that forensics is the flavor of the day on TV. So, why not forensic linguistics? That's what Benjamin Zimmer, writing in the Language Log, thinks as well. I found his particular post while doing a search on the unabomber case. I was hunting for Roger Shuy's story about the FBI's James R. Fitzgerald's observation that
[Ted Kaczynski] used the phrase "You can't eat your cake and have it, too," instead of the usual form, which is "You can't have your cake and eat it, too." Like most people, Mr. Fitzgerald thought Kaczynski had made a mistake. But examination of other letters by him contained a similar feature, which, Mr. Fitzgerald says, "is actually a traditionally middle English way of using the term. He technically had it right and the rest of us had it wrong. It was one of the big clues that allowed us to make the rest of the comparison and submit a report to the judge who signed off on a search warrant."
Roger Shuy is an old friend and forensic linguist, as well. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he was the first to give a conference paper in my presence on a forensic linguistic case. An unbelievable number of linguists have gotten involved in cases involving a wide variety of issues. The list given at Robert Leonard Associates' web side by no means covers the field.

The question of authorship of documents has always seemed to me to be a bit dicey. In the unabomber case, a single unique phrase gave the villain away. More commonly things are not so simple. I was asked to try to determine whether the author of some letters to the editor of a newspaper was also the author of some letters to a business. I rapidly decided that the sample size was too small to say one way or another and that I would never take another such case. I did take one plagiarism case but that was a lot easier. When you have two relatively large documents with a number of identical passages in it, you have plagiarism.

Sadly, I did have students who forced me to worry about academic plagiarism. One kind of problem is students copying from each other. Not so smart students who haven't been working very hard will sometimes turn in identical prose answers to questions where the answers are not just wrong, they are off-the-wall wrong. Three kids giving exactly the same correct answer may have cheated but you can't prove it; three kids giving exactly the same incorrect answers don't realize just how easy it is to tell that they have cheated.

Coming back to forensic linguistics and TV let me ask you for story ideas. I'll give you full credit when I go to Jerry Bruckheimer to give my pitch for "CSI Linguistics." The Unabomber case would have been a hell of a first show. Naturally, all the linguists on our show would be hot women and studly guys, just like real life.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Immigration, Language, and Soccer

I have been trying to find an article supporting a news report that some Latino leader out in California (where else?) is advocating that Latino immigrants adopt a "no assimilation" and "no English" position. I caught "sound bites" in the news about this. The idea that English is white, which seems to have been claimed, is ridiculous on its face. English is spoken by Euros (Whites, I suppose) of every type (German, Irish, Spanish, Italian, etc.), African descended Americans of all sorts, Asians from numerous linguistic and national backgrounds, etc. A claim like this is a sure sign that someone is practicing demogogery, which is a nice way of saying the person is lying.

A Pakistani-American, Rob Asghar, has an op-ed piece in my local paper in which he notes that "Latino immigrants and white liberals correctly smell xenophobia in the breaths of a few Americans who recently criticized bilingualism" but goes on to say that "this should not distract us from the goal of championing English as a prerequisite for success in this nation." Mr. Asghar has correctly identified my position that the learning of English must be encouraged, but that we should not take the xenophobic step of making English the official US language. I must say though that something about this "no assimilation," "no English" movement, if indeed there is one, inspires even me to step back and assess my position. This is an unfortunate position for Latinos to take unless they wish to reap a pro-English whirlwind.

There is one thing about the behavior of Latino immigrants that irritates the hell out of me. I really don't much like seeing Mexican flags at World Cup qualifying matches in the United States being waved by Mexican-Americans, though I recognize that some of these flags are being waved by Mexicans who have flown up for the match. The situation is so bad for the US national team that it has held the home game between the US and Mexico in Columbus, Ohio (once in Feburary when it was bitterly cold) where there is much less danger that the pro-American fans will be outnumbered by the pro-Mexican fans. It is hard for the US to get genuine home games in the US. The same is true of games with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, etc.

I understand why Mexican-Americans might do this. Many follow Mexican soccer on Spanish language cable/satellite stations and that will naturally inspire a certain loyalty to some of the players they watch. And soccer from other South of the border nations can be found on other stations. Given that Latinos are frequently treated as second class citizens by White Americans (especially when they aren't actually citizens) it would be surprising if they were not to take a certain delight in their former countrymen beating the Big Bad Americans at something even if it is just a game. Unfortunately, for them, the US team has drawn even with the Mexican team and even beat them in the quarterfinals of the last World Cup. So even that special pleasure is being increasingly denied them. Still, it pisses me off to see these flags at "home" matches.

I have long advocated that everyone in the US learn both English and Spanish. I makes sense at too many levels not to take this step. First, Whites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and other Americans will find it easier to get certain types of jobs if they speak Spanish, especially if they live in the states that have large Latino populations. Right now, in Columbus where Mexican grocery stores are popping up like wildflower in a meadow (to my delight since I like to cook Mexican food), and I suspect that it would be very easy for a bilingual person to get a job with the Columbus police department or in the school system, or jobs in businesses where there will be contact with recent immigrants. This obligatory English/Spanish program gets rid of the xenophobic aspect of forcing Latinos to learn English since White kids and African-American kids and other American kids have to learn Spanish. It solves the problem of having to print official documents in both languages since everyone will know English. And it makes otiose an official English law.

Forcing people to do things is difficult. If we abandon bilingual education programs aimed toward Latino immigrant children to help these children along in school there is nothing to keep Latinos here from creating their own schools which are Spanish only. That would be a serious step backwards. We will do well to embrace immigrants rather than treat them as pariahs, as xenophobic Americans would have us do. We can't keep the "undocumented persons" (the most recent PC term I have seen) out of the country and if you can't beat them (by closing off the borders securely) you might as well embrace them. That would be the way to win friends and influence people (in this case, Latinos) to borrow a phrase.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

The Role of Intuition in Linguistics

In doing science, there are certain principles that are widely believed to be inviolable. One is that the science (and the scientists that practice it) be objective. Another is that the results obtained in any investigation be replicatable. These two principles help to put sciences on as solid a foundation as possible.

I originally was trained as a theoretical linguist, specializing in syntax, the theory of sentence structure. The original goal of syntax was to construct a theory of sentence formation and within that theory, provide descriptions of the sentences that comprise each language we want to describe. In this way, our theory was to have universal applicability. Chomsky argued that the set of sentences in any language is unbounded, which is to say, infinite in size. He also argued that it would be wrong to gather our data from observation by, say, transcribing the sentences we hear. One must, instead, use our linguistic intuitions as to what is and is not a sentence in the languages we are native speakers of. In short, he argued that it would be wrong to use actually occurring linguistic data, data most naive observers would say is "real data."

Chomsky noted that the gathering of data from observation would be very unlikely to contain data critical to theory construction. There is some merit to that view. We all recognize that
Which girl did John tell the boy who kissed to get out of town.
is utterly uninterpretable. It is unlikely that we would encounter it in real speech but suppose we did. What would we do with it? Throw it on the scrap heap and continue on without inferring anything at all from it? That doesn't seem to be a very good idea. Indeed, speakers of languages that are sufficiently like English to allow for construction of such a sentence find them uninterpretable (the last I heard -- remember I have been retired for awhile). The general consensus has been that such sentences illustrate what is called the "A over A" Principle: if you have construction of type "A" (a noun phrase like "the boy who kissed some girl" which contains a construction of the same type, as is true of "some girl," which is also a noun phrase, then you cannot "extract" the subordinate instance of A from the superior instance of A. In
Which girl did John tell [the boy who kissed [e] ] to get out of town.
I have put in the "identity element "e" in the position from which one could say "which girl" was extracted. There have been many ways of trying to account for this phenomenon. Without perusing the recent literature I think I can say with confidence that no real consensus has developed. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is real and it seems we must employ our imagination to think up such a possible sentence and our intuition to judge it unacceptable.

A second reason Chomsky said we should use one's intuition is that real speech can be rather chaotic: full of false starts, pauses, pause fillers like "uh", and the like. In my book, Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction, I analyzed a conversation that was full of these and other messy things. This conversation can found at pages 109, 110, and 111,. Here we find inward and outward breathing (the .h's and h's), pauses, the lengths of which are indicated within parentheses, and numerous pause fillers, incomplete sentences, and the like. I had access to a copy of this conversation before going to a conference in Italy where Manny Schegloff, a Conversation Analyst, played the actual tape recording. As "defective" as this conversation is, it sounded perfectly natural, like those we engage in every day. The fact that I had read it before hearing it might make me into a problematic source but no one in the crowd said they found it to be nothing but word salad.

What made this conversation so interesting was that the incomplete sentences are easily filled out. When Donny says, "I don't know if its possible but I have to open up the bank" he means "I don't know if its possible for you to give me a ride but I need for you to do so because I have to open up the bank." In my book, I provide a theory of certain classes of conversations, inspired in large part by work I did with Terry Patten and Barbara Becker on computer simulation of conversation, as well as much reading in the speech act, conversational analytic, sociolinguistic, and artificial intelligence literatures, that makes perfect sense out of what Donny said as well as what Marsha said in the next turn of the conversation. What she says means "I know you want a ride and i would give you one but I can't because I've got to leave in about five minutes." Her shift from "but" to "except" is socially significant for "except" means "in every circumstance other than the current one" in this context. This is powerfully strong and is intended to mitigate the face threat associated with her rejection of his request. What is most remarkable about this conversation is that there is no direct reference to someone giving a ride to someone else; the request is never explicitly made; and it is never explicitly rejected. Yet the conversation was perfectly clear to the participants.

I have talked to linguists who say that they believe they have intuitions as to what are and are not well-formed conversations. To that, I say, and "4 million angels can dance on the head of a pin." The idea that we have intuitions as to the well-formedness of conversations is one of the silliest things any putative linguistic scientist could possibly say. Nevertheless, linguists and semanticians routinely work on "home made" conversations the way that syntacticians work on "home made" sentences. I'm not going to tell syntacticians that they shouldn't use intuition as they do even though doing so is clearly problematic. My reason is that I believe that what linguists should be working on is conversations like the Donny and Marsha ride request. Real data. It will force a radical revision in how linguists do theory construction. No longer would constructing a grammar Chomsky-style be a desideratum and to some degree some of the motivations for using intuition would vanish. A better idea would be to create what Michael Halliday called a systemic functional grammar in the form of a complex "munge" of pragmatic, sociolinguistic, semantic, morphological, and syntactic features, examples of which are in my book. That is the sort of grammar that Patten, Becker, and I1 worked with in a computer simulation of conversation.

1Terry Patten, Michael L. Geis, and Barbara D. Becker. Toward a theory of compilation for natural language generation. Computational Intelligence, 8(1):77--101, February 1992.

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