Thursday, April 28, 2005

Language and Logic

In my blog on Proper English, I noted that nonstandard varieties that express Standard English`he isn't going anywhere' with "he isn't going nowhere" differ in that Standard English uses the morpheme "any" to mark quantifiers that are in the scope of a negation whereas nonstandard varieties use the more iconic negative form "no." Phil objected on the grounds that "[he] isn't going nowhere' compels him to be on his way to somewhere'." Phil is judging this dialect by the truth-conditional standards of a formal logical system like the propositional calculus according to which the truth-table for "not" and "no," etc. has it that "not P" is false if "P" is true and therefore that "not not P" entails "P.

A fatal flaw with Phil's position is that I have never found anyone who does not understand a nonstandard form like "I ain't gonna go nowhere." Everyone who speaks Standard English knows that sentence means "I am not going to go anywhere." Ergo, saying "[he] isn't going nowhere' compels him to be on his way to somewhere'" is flatly wrong. That is not what what he said means and we all know that.

Phil's idea that we should hold dialects of English to the truth-conditional standards of formal logics is widely held I suspect. For some reason, though, when I was first taught logic and was given the "translations" of English sentences into the propositional calculus, I instinctively took the opposite position. What was being told to me didn't square with what I knew as a speaker of English. I don't recall having a specific problem with the truth table for "not" but I did have a problem with that for "if." (In fairness, logicians now almost invariably do not represent their translations as doing justice to English. Some were not so circumspect back in the day.)

So, one important respect in which English does not act like the propositional calculus is that it doesn't obey the law of double degation -- namely that two negatives make a positive. Another respect in which English proves to be different from the sort of logical calculi we learn in introductory logic courses involves universal quantifiers ("all," "every," "any," etc.) If your kid says, after you have turned down his/her request for permission to go to the mall, "But everyone will be there," he/she does not mean everyone in the world will be there or even that everyone in his/her school will be there but, rather, something like `everyone of any importance to him/her will be there.' As a result, we must conclude that English universal quantifiers like "every," unlike those of the predicate calculus, are typically restricted quantifiers -- usually restricted to aspects of the context.

The interesting thing about "any" is that it pops up as an indefinite pronoun in "if"-clauses ("If anyone comes to your party, I'll be surprised") and questions ("Is anyone going to the party") as well as in negative sentences in Standard English. Were there some deep connection between negative sentences, conditional clauses, and questions then we might fault the nonstandard dialect by its failing to appreciate this deep connection. The problem is that there isn't any such connection either syntactically or semantically.

As I noted earlier, it was the translation of "if" that threw me as a speaker of English. The analysis according to which "if P, then Q" is true in every circumstance except when "P" is true and "Q" is false as the truth-table of the earlier link makes clear, then we must accept as true that "if P, then Q" is true if "P" is false and "Q" is true and if both are false. There are forms that seem to support the former case, such as "If you're hungry, there's food in the fridge." These are what are calleed "biscuit" or "funny" conditionals and I shall doubless blog on about these at some point. However, the idea that all that is required to make a conditional true is a true consequent is, as a general rule, quite silly for there is something very wrong with "if I were a woman, the earth would be round" or "if Jello were Spam, then beef would be chicken."

Still another standard logical analysis that struck me as problematic was the very long standing veiw that "unless = "if..not" i. e., "I will leave if you don't leave" = "I will leave unless you leave." This is a spectacularly bad idea that only a logician and his/her mother could love.

In my dissertation, "Adverbial Subordinate Clauses in English," I studied a variety of adverbial clauses (e. g., "when"-clauses, "where"-clauses, "before"-clauses, etc.) as well as a variety of conditional clauses. Though written in 1971 it seems to be fairly frequently referred to in the literature today (as one can tell by googling my name and the dissertation title). Check out the title link is to a paper I found that must have been written by my buddy Bill Lycan which addresses my views of conditional clauses among other things.

To make a long story short, I gave an analysis of "unless," "if," "only if," and "even if" in a paper called "If and Unless" that is pretty hard to get ahold now that developed ideas in my doctoral dissertation, which were further developed by a long time friend and former OSU colleague, Bill Lycan, and me in writing a book which we ultimately chose not to publish largely because we didn't want the aggravation of trying simultaneously to please both linguists and philosophers. Fortuantely Bill redid the book for a purely philosophical audience some years later, publishing the result as Real Conditionals. It includes my basic syntactic and semantic views and our joint journal article on "funny conditionals."

The claim we make, if I may simplify a bit, is that "I will promote you to full professor if you can get your next book published" means something like `I will promote you to full professor in any (relevant and reasonably expectable) circumstance in which you can get your next book published.' That is, conditional sentences require for their analysis a restricted universal quantifier ranging over relevant and expectable circumstances. Note that should the professor of this example publish his book but at the same time get caught having sexual relations with an underage coed, he would likely be fired and reported to the police. He would certainly not be promoted. However, I will not have rendered my conditional promise false. The antecedent was true and the consequent false, which, as we have seen, makes conditionals of the propositional calculus false, but my conditional was not false since the restricted quantifier came into play in a critical way. Circumspect behavior by the professor was clearly relevant to my conditional and his having sexual relations with an underage student was clearly unexpected.

These three examples -- perfectly reasonable double negation in nonstandard English (and French), the fact that English universal quantifiers are typically restricted, and the fact that the logical analysis of "if" falls flat on its face -- ought to establish that English isn't a logical language which is intended to facilitate valid deductions but is rather a langauge intended to facilitate human communication.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Proper English

My post on "Pet Linguistic Peeves" continues to draw responses long after it was published and this inspires me to take on the Defenders of the English Language, namely those who are offended by those who don't like nobody who uses double negatives or ain't happy with people who use "ain't" or busy theirselves with criticizing those who do not use reflexive pronouns properly.

One thing that amuses me is how this "offensive" language is characterized. Some refer to it as "bad English," others say is is "incorrect English," and still others would call it "improper English." I especially like "bad English," as apparently does the rock group "Bad English." The title song of their first albumn was called "Bad English." Oddly, while the lyrics of the song "Bad English" are bad poetry, I wouldn't say they employ "bad English." Perhaps I missed something.

One thing we should be absolutely clear on is that nonstandard dialects, i. e., dialects that employ "bad English," are not linguistically inferior to standard English. In fact, in some respects they are superior. Consider, for instance, that nasty word "ain't." In Standard English, our paradigm for contracted negative forms of the verb "be" in the present tense is
I **** going. We aren't going.
You aren't going. You aren't going.
She isn't going. They aren't going.

where "****" signifies the lack of a form. One nonstandard paradigm is
I ain't going. We ain't going.
You ain't going. You ain't going.
She ain't going. They ain't going.
What is wrong with this latter dialect? One might say that the contracted forms don't distinguish among the persons. The problem with that is that Standard English doesn't do so in the plural half of the paradigm. We use exactly the same form. In any event, the subject pronoun makes perfectly clear whether the speaker is employing the first person, second person, or third person. One might argue that the nonstandard dialect doesn't distinguish the singular from the plural forms. Sadly, for that argument, neither does Standard English in the second person. Moreover, except for the second person, the subject in the nonstandar paradigm clearly indicates whether a single person or more than one person is going. So, the arguments against the nonstandard paradigm fall flat on their faces.

There is one quite compelling reason to say that the Standard English paradigm is inferior to the nonstandard one. This reason is the absence of a form in the first person singular. It can't be a good thing for a dialect to fail to give its speakers a form to use when they wish to say "I negative-be-form going" to an intimate or in a causal gathering of people where informal English is the norm. Speakers can employ "am not," of course but that is a construction more appropriate to a formal occasions.

Let the slings and arrows of outraged linguistic sensibilities loose.

Another example demonstrating my claim that nonstandard varieties of English can be superior to Standard English is provided by reflexive pronouns. In Standard English we have

I like myself. We like ourselves.
You like yourself. You like yourselves.
He likes himself They like themselves.
She likes herself.

Typical nonstandard varieties have

I like myself. We like ourselves.
You like yourself. You like yourselves.
He likes hiself. They like theirselves.
She likes herself.

In Standard English, we use posessive pronouns ("my," "your,","our," in the first and second person but accusative prounouns ("him" and "they") in the third person as the base pronoun. The pronoun "her" goes both ways. Why in the world would a dialect want to do a thing like that? It makes no sense whatever. The nonstandard dialect given above is perfectly regular, using the possessive pronoun in all persons. I would think that having a rule with no exceptions is better than one with exceptions.

A more complex, and perhaps problematic, example that arguably favors the nonstandard variety concerns negative sentences. In Standard English, we use the morpheme "any" to mark when a word is in the scope of negation (an occurence of "not" whether contracted or not), as in

He isn't going anywhere with anyone tonight.

The nonstandard variety has

He isn't going nowhere with no one tonight.
In this dialect, speakers mark elements that are in the scope of negation with a semantically redundant negative marker. This irritates the hell out of English teachers and other Guardians of Linguistic Faith. Arguably, the nonstandard dialect wins again for it is more iconic to mark when a word is in the scope of the negative (is part of what is being negated) with a negative morpheme than with some other morpheme with no inherent relationship to negation. Interestingly, the nonstandard dialect is not unusual for it is common to handle negation in this way in langauges.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Anonymous astutely observed in response to my last blog

This whole piece of legislation is self-defeating. All my married friends with kids (the smart ones at least) are rushing to enroll their kids in "dual-immersion" programs where they learn Spanish as well as English. Frankly, in about 20 years, there will be two groups of people in the US: Those who can speak Spanish, and those who can't, and the ones who can't will be fetching coffee for their bosses who do speak Spanish. People in the Southwest and Florida have been using Spanish for centuries and that's not changing, and just about every company now does gazillions in business with Latin America. You just have to know the language there, period, to get ahead.

In some parts of the US, including especially Texas, speakers of English and Spanish who interact on a regular basis have created mixtures of English and Spanish that go by a variety of names such as Spanglish, Tex-Mex, Poco, as well as others. These mixtures have persisted for quite a long time. In fact, the odds are that they have existed from the first days of contact between English and Spanish speakers since there would have been a need for communication.

Throughout the world when people speaking different languages come into regular contact, often in the course of trade, pidgin languages emerge that have a highly simplified syntax -- rigid subject-verb-object word order, invariant word forms (no singular vs. plural inflection, no conjugations, no declinations), a simple preverbal negative marker, only a few pronouns, only a few prepositions, etc. In some cases pidgins undergo "creolization" becoming full-fledged languages in their own right. We find a French creole in Haiti. There are English creaoles in the Carribean and one off the coast of S. Carolina called "Gullah."

The very existence of Spanglish or Tex-Mex is testimony to the resilience of Spanish. While other languages spoken in Texas have long since died off, Spanish is alive and well and is not going to go away. Obviously, since Spanish is not going anywhere, the most useful approach of the United States is to become officially bilingual. That will doubtless distress speakers of other languages but there is no way to please everyone in such a matter.

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Making English the Official Language

It seems that certain legislators in West Virginia surreptitiously inserted language in a bill that made English the official language of that state. That will amuse some who aren't actually sure English is spoken there.

I should apologize for my mean-spirited assault on the dialects that are found in West Virginia, but I am ticked off. First it ticks me off when legislators who can't win battles on the floor stick bits of legislation into bills that they know their compatriots will not carefully read before final passage. It is a very dishonest practice. Second, making English the official language of a state is an offensive, and to my way of thinking, un-American practice.

Years ago, when Florida was debating such a bill, right wing politician/commentator Pat Buchanan said on The McLaughlin Group that the bill was an anti-Catholic and anti-Hispanic piece of legislation. This admission was remarkable since it was primarily people from the Republican party of which he was at least nominally a member who were promoting the bill.

There are various reasons given for supporting legislation making English the official language.

    One James Crawford cites the following as possible reasons
  • Citizens who want to preserve our common language and avoid ethnic strife
  • Bigots seeking to roll back civil rights advances for language-minority groups
  • Conservatives hoping to impose a sense of national unity and civic responsibility
  • Liberals who fear that bilingual education and bilingual voting discourage assimilation
  • Nativists trying to fan animosity toward immigrants and build support for tighter quotas
  • Euro-ethnics who resent "unfair advantages" enjoyed by Hispanics and Asians today
  • Politicians attempting to exploit a national mood of isolationism and xenophobia
  • Racists who equate multiculturalism and ethnic separatism
  • Americans who feel threatened by diversity, among other unsetting changes
  • All of the above
US House Republicans have stated
The use of English is indispensable to immigrants and their children who wish to participate fully in American society and realize the American Dream. As we seek to promote the rich and varied traditions new Americans bring, we must simultaneously work to insure that all of us share some basis for common understanding. Securing both these important goals requires overcoming the divisive influence of linguistic separatism. English should be and remain the official language of our national government.
In fact, while English is the de facto official language of this country, no federal legislation has ever been passed to establish this officially.

House Republicans seem not to appreciate that the use of Spanish in Hispanic neighborhoods is indispensible to Hispanics and their children who wish to participate fully in Hispanic-American society, if I may paraphrase their language. Hispanics constitute our second largest ethic community and it is estimated that by July 1, 2050, Hispanics will constitute 24% of the American population. Twenty-nine million speak Spanish at home. It is this latter fact that is most important.

Spanish is critical to the self-images of those who speak it as their "mother tongue." The same is true of English to those who speak it as their "mother tongue." Legislation such as has been passed in West Virginia constitutes a slap in the face to the Spanish language, officially relegating to second class status, as well as to Hispanic culture.

It is ironic that the party that most distrusts government and which fights to get or keep government out of our every day affairs shows no reluctance whatever to using government as an instument of social engineering -- in fact, of social oppression -- provided it is applied to Hispanics, not members of the privledged English-only social class. Republicans would do better to recognize that Spanish is not going to go away any sooner than are the various regional dialects of English, even when they are stigmatized, as is true of some dialects of West Virginia, and move to make the US into a bilingual country. A benefit of this is that all Americans will be able to communicate with each other and that includes Americans south of the boarder who live in Central and South America.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Sticks and Stones

A dispute has popped up on an internet group I frequent as to what linguistic expressions are and are not disparaging to various groups and who is and is not responsible for the hurt feelings that may resulf from their use.

One of the most famous disparaging expressions in the USA is "nigger" of course; others are "fag," "kike," "bull dyke," "greaser," "geezer," etc. Blacks, who commonly use "nigger" in reference to refer to each other with impunity, don't much like hearing it from Whites, especially in contexts in which it can only be taken negatively. And, while gay men may use "fag" with each other, they don't much like hearing it from straight men, especially in contexts in which it can only be taken negatively. This phenomenon of in-group use of slurs is an example of a common phenomeon in which negative expressions (including taboo language) are used by intimates to express solidarity. The key word here is "intimates." The average redneck is unlikely to be an intimate of a middle class Black man. Whoops! I used a slur against, well, hillbillies. Damn! Did it again.

One person took the view, in regard to a negative reference to lesbians, that he didn't think it was all that disparaging. This brings up the question as to who does and does not have the right to decide what is and is not disparaging to a particular group. Does everyone get a vote or to just those in the group it is applied to? In my opinion, it has to be the group targeted by the expression. The members of that group are the only ones who know whether or not it engenders hurt feelings.

I find it quite amusing when middle-class, protestant, heterosexual, adult (but not old), White males are moved to pronounce as to what is and is not an acceptable linguistic reference to members of a minority group. "I don't think it is all that offensive," is the sort of thing one often hears. That fact is that members of that group never experience the hurt feelings that others experience when offensive expressions are directed at them. How do you insult persons who, as a group, are at the top of the social ladder? Call them "Whitey"? Sorry, that just doesn't get the job done. I think some Blacks may have hoped that "Honky" would hurt but it too misses the mark. In fact, in my long life I have only heard one term used in reference to a socially priveledged class that had any real bite was when a gay friend refered to me and other heterosexuals as "breeders." There is definitely something dehumanizing about this term but it is simply too funny to hurt.

One of the contentious issues that arises in the USA is whether use of language referring to Native American Indians as nicknames for sports teams is offensive. There are two classes of such references. One is when a tribal name is used. "Florida State Seminoles" and "University of Illinois Illini" are two such cases. The other is when a term like "Redskin" or "Brave" or "Warrier" is used. So far, I know of no teams that have abandoned use of tribal names. However use of "Redskin" has been dropped by the University of Miami (Ohio) in favor of "Redhawk" (PETA has so far not objected) and Stanford University dropped it in favor of "Cardinals" (with PETA again staying silent). The Washington Redskins have not followed suit. Money is obviously at the root of this refusal to respect the wishes of Amerindians though the football team's executives would doubtless tell us it is merely "tradition." There are many who seem to think that "tradition" is a legitimate argument aginst change of whatever type.

The second issue that came up in m recent discussion of the use of disparaging references to minority groups is that nothing that should be done about such references because the people to whom these references are directed are responsible for how they react. I was blown away by this defense. Certainly, we are responsbile for how we react to things that happen to us that we don't like such as being passed over for a promotion or being told one's spouse wants a divorce or suffering a debilitating injury and such other calamities. And, if we are smart, we will learn to cope with racial, ethnic, and other similar sorts of slurs. However, this doeesn't let the boor who makes such slurs off the hook.

The persons wishing to let the boors off the hook several times cited the old retort, "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will ever hurt me." I suspect that most of us had mothers who gave us this to use as a retort to use to those making fun of us. This ancient old platitude persists despite the fact that it is transparently false. In fact, proof of its being false is the very fact that it is used. If words truly didn't hurt me, then I would have no need for such a retort.

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Fun Linguistic Internet Scam

I ran into a thread on an internet board I frequent that replicated a "test" that is circulating now. It starts off this way: "At the end of this post, you will be asked a question. Answer it immediately. Don't stop and think about it. Just say the first thing that pops into your mind This is a fun "test"... AND kind of spooky at the same time! Give it a try."

Following this is a series of ten or so addition problems that are placed apart from each other by a gob of carriage returns to slow the reader down. Then comes the "question": "QUICK! THINK ABOUT A COLOR AND A TOOL!" We are then told
"You just thought about a red hammer, didn't you? If this is not your answer, you are among 2% of people who have a different kind of mind."

On my board a number of participants including me reported that they got "red" and "hammer." Blue came up with some and a few other tools came up.
Does this "test" separate out two different types of minds? The answer is, "No." I have given this sort of "test" (without including addition problems) a number of times in classes I have taught to illustrate the Prototype Theory of word meaning (or of concept formation).

The philosopher Ludwig Witgenstein argued in his "Philosophical Investigations" that the sorts of things that a word refers to cannot be characterized by a set of properties shared by all of the things it refers to. He noted that any such set of properties for the word "game" would inevitably include some things that aren't games and exclude some things that are. Not infrequently on sports talk shows, for instance, the question whether or not this or that activity (say, ice skating) is a sport comes up. Never can the hosts come up with an answer that pleases everyone. Wittgensten argued instead that the things that the word "game" refers to enjoy a set of family resemblances to each other based on the properties that they share.

Prototype Theory takes the position that in learning a word, we are taught (or discover for ourselves) a single or sometimes a couple of primary exemplars of the set of things the word refers to. When we learn the word "bird" we pick out robins, for instance, as exemplars of the set of birds with other birds deviating from it to varying degrees and in varying ways. Close to it would be cardinals and sparrows. Further away would be seagulls. At the remotest end would be penguins, perhaps. In my classes, when I would give the "red hammer" test, I might ask some students to name a type of bird and others to draw a bird. The word "robin" came up most frequently and drawings of a bird almost invariably showed a robin-like bird standing, rather than flying.

What the "red hammer" test proves is that "red" is the paradigmatic color for people (and not just for English speaking people) and "hammer" is the paradigmatic kind of tool. So, those who see the "red hammer" test as separating out two types of “minds” are being conned.

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Friday, April 01, 2005


Virtually every literate person, at least in the English-speaking parts of the world, is familiar with George Orwell's influential book, Nineteen Eighty Four. In this book, Orwell described a totalitarian society, Oceania, that employed a variety of measures to control the behavior of its citizens, including wide-spread surveilance, controlling what its citizens could read, measures to encourage citizens to report on prohibited actions by others, and using language as an instrument of repression.

Interest in Orwell was heightened by the creation of the Homeland Security Act. Googling "Blog Orwell Homeland Security" will bring up a number of blogs, including one by Steve Gilliard, another by W. David Stephenson, among others. The Stephenson blog brings up a memo by the Democrat's best friend, Newt Gingrich, which advised those running for office on the language they should and shouldn't use.

Newt Gingrich seems to be an Orwellian camp follower. He wrote

"As you know, one of the key points in the GOPAC tapes is that "language matters." In the video "We are a Majority," Language is listed as a key mechanism of control used by a majority party, along with Agenda, Rules, Attitude and Learning. As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates we have heard a plaintive plea: "I wish I could speak like Newt."

Gingrich provides two lists of words, one positive set, to be used by the Republican candidate in speaking of himself or his policies, and another negative set, to be used by the candidate in speaking of his opponent or his policies.

The tyrants of Oceania took the line that only those thoughts that can be formulated in language are thinkable and, therefore, it should be possible to restrict the range of things that are thinkable by restricting the range of things that are sayable. In an attempt to restrict the citizenry's capacity to think politically heretical thoughts, Oceania's tyrants tried, then, to restrict the English language so as to make such thoughts unexpressible.

There is every reason not to believe that language can be used as Orwell suggested to control thought if we take the word "control" literally. Simply restricting the vocabulary by taking out words that convey heretical thoughts and redefining others just won't get the job done. Just yesterday, in repsonse to an email to a friend in which I used the German word "schadenfreude," he asked what the English equivalent would be. We don't, of course, have an equivalent word but we can express the concept with "taking joy at the suffering of others." And this is the problem with Orwell's theory as to how language could be used to restrict what people can think. It isn't enough to get rid of a politically heretical word like "justice" or to restrict the use of "free" to such things as "free from worry" or "free from lice" so that people can't talk about being politically free. The tyrants would also have to get rid of all of the words that can be used to paraphrase such heretical concepts. By the time the tyrants were done, there would be little language left.

However, there is good reason to belive that a weaker form of Orwell's thesis is true, namely that language can influence thought, just as Gingrich said. Take the words that we use in connection with poverty. Such words as "poor," "economically deprived", "poor," "indigent," "needy," "impoverished", "poverty-stricken", and "destitute" vary in two ways. The first respect in which these words differ is that some of them presuppose theories as to why the poor are poor. To say that certain people are "economically deprived" suggests that they lack certain advantages or opportunities others have through no fault of their own. Similarly, saying that certain people are "poverty stricken" suggests that poverty is something that has happened to them. The second respect in which these words differ is in the degree of urgency of the problem of poverty that is suggested. The word "poor" suggests no reason why the poor are poor and invokes no sense of urgency in helping them. Obviously, "poverty stricken" both suggests a reason for the poor being poor and invokes a strong sense of urgency.

There seems to be no word for the poor that suggests that the poor are poor because of what they have or have not done, rather than because of what has happened to them. We see no terms like "economically ignorant" or "economically lazy" or other similar phrases. To conjure up such expressions would be mean- spirited.

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