Archive for Philosophy of Language

Rescued debate

Yesterday Sharon Klein wrote to ask about the 2010 debate on Language and Thought hosted by The Economist:

Some colleagues in other departments (notably in philosophy) have been asking to talk about the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, and the actual research around the issues. While I can (and have begun to) collect relevant papers for a casual reading group (a good way to reach out…), I remembered that the debate provided a very helpful clearinghouse for the discussion that had developed in this area.

But she found that the Economist's intro page on this debate  leads only to an debate archive site that doesn't include this one; and the links in old LLOG posts are now redirected to the same unhelpful location.

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The hot potato of interpretive responsibility

Below is a guest post by Elisabeth Camp.


Mark posted part of a particularly linguistically juicy exchange from James Comey’s recent Senate testimony, in which Senator Risch “drilled down” on the “exact words” attributed by Comey to Trump, noting that Trump merely expressed his “hope” that Comey could “can see [his] way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Risch then went on to suggest, without saying, that speakers can only be held legally accountable for what they explicitly threaten or claim, and not for mere expressions of hope:

Risch: He said, ‘I hope’. Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses and, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?

Comey: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying ‘his words’ is I took it as a direction.

In a follow-up post, Mark linked to a discussion of a 1995 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which though not a criminal statute, held that the mere statement of an employer’s “hopes” can indeed have a “chilling effect” and “interfere with [an employee’s] exercise of rights.” But there are further grounds for challenge as well, including workplace law on sexual harassment.

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Everything, everything

At a Semantics Workshop in the Rutgers Philosophy Department last weekend, my job was to comment on an excellent paper by Alex Lascarides & Julian Schlöder, "Understanding Focus: Tune, Placement, and Coherence". Here's the opening section of my presentation:

We modulate our linguistic performances in many ways, expressing our state of mind and our attitudes towards the interaction and towards the content of the message.

These modulations include officially phonologized aspects of prosody, like phonological phrasing, pitch accents, and junctural tones.

But they also include local and global modulations of other aspects of pitch, of speaking rate, of voice quality, of gesture, posture, gaze, etc. …and in text, there's layout and typography.

Scholars have recognized for at least a century that English intonation includes elements that are tropic to stress (“pitch accents”), and elements that are tropic to boundaries (“”boundary tones”). Current theory quantizes and phonologizes these elements in a particular way, turning them into tonal symbols that are integrated into phonological representations. There are also obviously many other communicatively-relevant aspects of prosody, which are treated as paralinguistic modulation, or ignored.

But posture, gesture, gaze, etc. include elements that are tropic to stress and elements that are tropic to boundaries. These are not generally quantized or phonologized in current linguistic theory.

Are these the right choices?

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Nouns, verbs, and ontological metaphors

Federico Escobar pointed me to an essay by David Brooks, "The 2016 Sidney Awards, Part I", NYT 12/27/2016:

Perry Link once noticed that Chinese writers use more verbs in their sentences whereas English writers use more nouns. For example, in one passage from the 18th-century Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Cao Xueqin uses 130 nouns and 166 verbs. In a similar passage from “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens uses 96 nouns and 38 verbs. […]

Link notes that Indo-European languages tend to use nouns even when verbs might be more appropriate. Think of the economic concept inflation. We describe it as a thing we can combat, or whip or fight. But it’s really a process.

Link takes this thought in a very philosophical direction, but it set me wondering how much our thinking is muddled because we describe actions as things. For example, we say someone has knowledge, happiness or faith (a lot of faith or a little faith, a strong faith or a weak faith); but faith, knowledge and happiness are activities, not objects.

Of course I wondered about this, since David Brooks was post-truth before post-truth was cool (see e.g. "Reality v. Brooks", 6/1/2015). And it's likely to puzzle both philosophers and psychologists to be told that they view faith, knowledge, and happiness as objects.

So I went to the cited essay — Perry Link, "The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?", NYRB 6/30/2016.

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Language, law and money

Eric Lonergan, "The economics of language: David Hume & valuing Facebook", Philosophy of Money 2/19/2016:

Language, law and money have very similar economic properties. Specifically, the resilience and propagation of these institutions does not reside in some intrinsic, physical value, nor in a promise, nor in the value each individual derives from them. It resides in a network externality.

 

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Grammarians, Whores, Buffoons

From an anonymous colleague:

I'm currently auditing Jennifer Houseman Wegner's class on Cleopatra. Today, in a Powerpoint lecture on Ptolemy IV, she showed the following quote from Edwyn Bevan's "A History of Egpyt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty": (Metheun, 1927, p.233)

"Agathocles and Agathoclea still, as before, ruled the king's [Ptolemy IV] corrupt affections. The palace swarmed with literary pretenders, poets, grammarians, whores, buffoons, philosophers."

Somehow put me in mind of Language Log.

Heavens!  What a motley crew!

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"If you're just joining me, …"

On Facebook, Mike Pope asks:

On "Fresh Air," Terri Gross says:

"If you're just joining me, my guest today is …".

What she DOESN'T mean is:

"… but if you're NOT just joining me, my guest is …"

Linguists: who can help us understand how "if" here is not a simplistic conditional? Any links welcome. Thx.

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Heart-mind

This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts.

It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?  The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory claims, 'This course will change your life.'"

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James Higginbotham, 1941-2014

James Higginbotham, professor of philosophy and linguistics at USC, died on Friday at the age of 72. USC News details his professional career, which straddled the disciplinary boundary between philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics.

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George Carlin, G.K. Chesterton, and Jorge Luis Borges

From Larry Getlen, "Conversations with Carlin", 2013:

Larry Getlen: Why are you so fascinated with words?

George Carlin: Because they’re all we have. Nature gave us this magnificent brain, which is so different from any that came before it. And the only way the wonders of this brain are shared and developed is through language – the exchange of ideas and communications and feelings. Words are the conveyors of all that. They’re magic. They’re mysterious and wonderful and magic.

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Newt Gingrich, Whorfian theorist

Barbara Scholz died exactly two years ago today. Had she lived, I would have been drawing her attention to Newt Gingrich's latest YouTube video "We're Really Puzzled". Not because she would have liked this latest Gingrichian piece of Republican-oriented self-promotion (she would have hated it), but because he appears to be flirting with what she used to call strong or global or metaphysical Whorfianism, in a naive lexical variant form. (You can read Barbara's discussion of strong and weak Whorfian theses in this section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on philosophy of linguistics.) Holding up a smartphone, Gingrich says:

We're really puzzled here at Gingrich Productions. We've spent weeks trying to figure out: What do you call this? I know, you probably think it's a cell phone . . . But if it's taking pictures, it's not a cell phone."

Now, this may at first sound ridiculous; but in fact I do have an inkling of what moved Gingrich to embark on his piece of burbling.

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New blog on history and philosophy of language sciences

There’s a new blog, “History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences”, edited by James McElvenny at the University of Sydney. I’m the invited author of the third post in it, ‘On the history of the question of whether natural language is “illogical”’, which came out on May 1. For now, new posts are planned weekly. Here’s the blog address: http://hiphilangsci.com.

Let any interested friends know about it, because there is a desire for good discussion of the entries and for interesting new posts.

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Perhaps now more than ever, ain't nobody got time fo that

Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination
by E. Lepore & M. Stone, 2012

Perhaps now
More than
Ever
We spend our days
Immersed in
Language

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