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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Israeli Linguist A Bit Too Full Of Herself

An Israeli linguist seems to think she has turned the linguistic world upside down with her new meaning for the word "most."  A UPN article states
Professor Mira Ariel of Tel Aviv University says her research "is quite shocking for the linguistics world" and proves some of her fellow linguists are wrong in their definition of the word "most."
She claims that we linguists believe that
"most" generally means 51 percent to 99 percent of a group of people or objects.
but that in a survey she and her colleagues did, a number of persons
understood "most" to mean about 80 percent to 95 percent of a group and not the much larger range of 51 percent to 99 percent.
One very serious problem with her claims is that no self-respecting linguist would ever say that "most" means 51 percent to 99 percent of a group or means '80 percent to 95 percent of a group.'  This is just now how we use the word "mean."

Professor Ariel seems not to understand the distinction between "meaning" and "use".  It very well may be that people use "most" in a proposition like "Most Ps are Q" in circumstances in which 80-95% of the relevant Ps have the property Q.  But that is not what it means.  That is how we use it.  I am not sure how to characterize what it means but I am sure that that is not what it means.

If I say, that most Ps are Q and it turns out that 97% of the Ps are Q is what I said false?  Surely not. And if it turns out that 75% of the Ps are Q, is what I said false"?  Again, surely not.  This may not be how people generally use "most" but the meaning of "most," whatever it is, is consistent with these two claims being true and so long as that is true, then we can be sure that Professor Ariel is wrong about what "most" means.

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4 Comments:

Blogger SusieQ said...

I place the word "most" in the same category as the word "few". Both are difficult to define. What does the word "few" mean other than few is more than one? Few is more than one, but there is no limit to the number few can represent. It depends on what you are talking about when you say few. Am I wrong?

10:26 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

The words "most" and "few" seem to be a matched pair: "Most P" = "Few not P." They are separate from {none, some, all/any}. Where "many" fits isn't clear."Some" is consistent with being both less and more than "many."

7:34 AM

 
Blogger JCO Language Blog said...

Well, as far as I know the border between pragmatics, which deals with usage, and semantics which deals with sense, is still being debated in linguistics. What kinds of meaning would you ascribe to semantics then?

8:28 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Check out my blog, The Meaning of "Meaning" . Semantics is the study of conventional meaning and of what it contributes to overall utterance significance.

3:48 AM

 

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