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Someone using the moniker "Tarlach" tried to post a number of comments last night. This one, related to Chris Potts' post "Probably they shouldn't", was typical:

Actual speaks of language have no problems with antecedents. They are completly un-noteworthy, and I don't understand why people make posts about these un-noteworthy language events on here. If Obama's slogan was "Yes, Fred can!" with no common perception of who the hell Fred is, that would be noteworthy.

For those who are interested in why linguists have found verb phrase ellipsis interesting, I can recommend some earlier LL posts, in addition to the one that Chris helpfully linked to in the post that set Tarlach off: "VPE on the edge", 12/28/2006; "News from the further reaches of Ellipsilandia", 5/23/2007; "More fun with VPE", 10/20/2007; "Dual VPE", 12/10/2007.

If it still puzzles you why people should spend time trying to explain the structure and function of phrases that pass unnoticed in "actual speaks of language", I invite you think about the broader role of "completely un-noteworthy" things in scientific investigation: light, heat, day, night, breathing, …

I didn't approve Tarlach's comments, but comments are open on this post, if (s)he'd like to try again.

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26 Comments »

  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 7:57 am

    This whole business of how much can be left to the knowledge and understanding of the reader and how much must be spelled out is a source of endless potential pitfalls. I read just the other day a mention of "the late E.M. Forster" in a reference to one of his novels, which struck me as about as helpful as a mention of "the late William Shakespeare." (Forster died in 1970, age 91.) Do we attribute the three laws of motion (not to mention the discovery of the fig) to Sir Isaac Newton or just plain Newton ? Do we need to tell the reader that Beethoven was a German composer of classical music? Obviously the answer to such questions depends on the intended audience, and either choice is fraught. (With what is it fraught? That's left as an excercise for the reader.)

    Time was that books for the educated speaker of English would include untranslated passages in French, Latin, Greek, or — for all I know — still other languages. Nowadays many of us are wary of claiming even a solid reading knowledge of English. Do we patronize some in our audience or leave other members ignorant?

    The unexamined locution is not worth speaking.

  2. Jens Fiederer said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:03 am

    Bob, you might want to footnote that last sentence for those unaccustomed to Socrates :-)

  3. Dan T. said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:18 am

    But Beethoven is a dog!

  4. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    And as non-native speaker of English who is not all that familiar with English-language literature, I have no idea who Forster is.

  5. vlad said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    I started reading Language Log last year as a senior in high school. Needless to say, several posts which pass before my eyes are almost entirely incomprehensible without heavy reliance on Wikipedia. That being said, I'm not sure if I'd ever refer to anything posted here as "un-noteworthy." The value of VPE discussions is a notion which seems inherent to Language Log as, though your defense is spot-on (if ultimately unnecessary).

    Bob–Excuse me for falling, perhaps, into what is certainly a tempting pitfall.

    I've always found long untranslated passages in French/Latin/Greek to be frustrating and pretentious. Even though I can read French, I am no less annoyed by seeing it. Anybody who claims to feel "patronized" by reading Sartre in English is ridiculous. I go to school with kids learning Arabic, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. I can imagine friends of mine who, justifiably, would be as frustrated by encountering heavy Latin in a Roman history book as you or I might be by encountering Arabic in a text about the Islamic Empire. In short, the development of which you spoke I see not as a deterioration of our standards about what makes an "educated speaker of English", but rather a recognition of the chauvinistic 18th century ideals about academia.

  6. Theophylact said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    And as another exercise for the reader, what's the present tense of "fraught"?

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    The comments immediately moved away from Mark's original point, which was about linguists' interest in describing what speakers know about their language, even (in fact, especially) when this knowledge is entirely tacit. For some time "Tarlach" has been mystified by this predilection of scholars and scientists to analyze what ordinary people take for granted, as in this amazingly obtuse comment on the posting "Funky a" of 8 July:

    "There is something I'm starting to notice about Language Log. People who post on here write about things about language that are obvious to people who use the language. But to the people posting ABOUT the language, they act as if there is some strange interesting phenomenom going on, and usually in a condescending way. As if the people who use and understand language are the weird ones, not the ones who look back upon language through the scope of their arbritrary rules."

    (I should probably have deleted this comment, and a number of others in which "Tarlach" asked why Language Loggers posted what they did, what the point of a posting was, why people found some question interesting, and so on. But I was more lenient in those days.)

  8. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Theophylact: "And as another exercise for the reader, what's the present tense of "fraught"?"

    The OED says that it's the past participle of a now-obsolete verb "fraught" 'load with cargo', itself derived from a now-obsolete noun "fraught" 'freight, cargo'.

    So: in modern English, "fraught" has no present tense. In fact, there's no reason to say that it's a verb at all in modern English; it acts like an adjective, and that's how both AHD4 and NOAD2 classify it.

  9. James Wimberley said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    Bob Lieblich: the Renaissance Wunderkind Pico della Mirandola, in his 1486 Oration on the Dignity of Man (a modest challenge to the entire intelligentsia of Europe to face him in hand-to-hand debate), includes quotations in the original Chaldaean. Latin text here; for the irremediably ignorant like us, English here.

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    I can breathe, walk, and defecate. According to Tarlach I should have no need of 'the arbitrary rules' of physicists, biologists and chemists who write about how I manage to do all of those three things.

  11. peter said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    It seems to me that, very often, the scope of an academic discipline comprises precisely those matters which another academic discipline takes for granted, or dismisses, and therefore does not study.

    I am reminded of a story repeated by computer scientists about a linguist who specialised in a topic which others apparently thought unimportant, and who thus gained little respect. The topic was the meaning of the word "not" (ie, the semantics of negation). Whenever this is mentioned among computer scientists, someone is sure to exclaim, "But that topic is really important!"

    Please keep attending to matters which non-linguists seem to find "un-noteworthy"!

  12. Mark P said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

    If the things that appear here were of no interest to me, I almost certainly would not read them. To read discussions of other things that interest me, I go to sites that discuss those things. It seems pretty straightforward to me.

  13. Wordweaverlynn said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

    Noteworthiness depends as much on the note-taker as on the thing itself. Plenty of people have seen apples falling without suddenly comprehending the law of gravity.

    And, since this note-taker is irredeemably an editor, I had to double-check the spelling of "moniker." It usually has no C, although by the laws guidelines of English, it ought to. However, clowns spell it as you did; in clown culture, one's monicker is as individual and important as one's face makeup.

    This digression has been brought to you by Sideshow Bob, clown and pedant.

    [(myl) Thanks! I've corrected the spelling in the body of the post.

    In fact, the WordPress editor's built-in spellchecker indicated the mistake, I'm ashamed to say, but I didn't notice. ]

  14. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    Maybe I'm reaching, but there may be a parallel between Tarlach's comments and the writings of those who are sometimes called "peevologists" at Language Log. Namely, a reluctance, for whatever combination of reasons, to look at language from a scientific or historical viewpoint. I may be constructing a bit of a straw man here, but a typical peevologist's attitude could perhaps be paraphrased as "I know from my intuitions as a native speaker that this particular expression is bad and therefore should be avoided; never mind the history of the expression nor the underlying rules that might govern how the expression is produced."

  15. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    In other words, "Never mind the in-depth study; all that matters is the immediate reaction of native speakers."

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    James Wimberley: the text to which you linked gives the original Aramaic {"Chaldean") but also the Latin translation, so that it doesn't seem relevant to Bob Lieblich's comment. (The English version transliterates the Aramaic.)

  17. blahedo said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    Following up on the Lieblich/vlad thread, I'd like to point out that the currency of French, Latin, and Greek in the 19th c was not limited to erudite English speakers. Part of the reason you can't get away with that these days is not that nobody knows any foreign languages, but that there is much less commonality in the languages they might know. In large part, English itself has stepped into that role since the mid-20th century. I'd bet that there are 21st century books in a number of other languages that include untranslated (and untransliterated, where that's relevant) passages in English—because their audience will all have at least a basic reading understanding of the language.

    So I'd say that the lack of untranslated foreign-language passages in modern English books is due more to facts of geopolitics than to facts about English speakers, per se.

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

    And as another exercise for the reader, what's the present tense of "fraught"?

    Freach?

  19. G.L. Dryfoos said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    Freight.
    To freight (with). Is it obsolete, really?

    What hath the OED wrought?

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    In other words, "Never mind the in-depth study; all that matters is the immediate reaction of native speakers."

    I think it's just one manifestation of a common hostility to analysis of the undercurrents of why we do things: a lot of people don't like to be told that they're doing or saying something that's part of some psycholgical or historical trend.

    I see the same in sceptical vs pseudoscience discussions in relation to cognitive biases. Knowledge of them is actually very empowering in sharpening up your thinking and being aware of distortions in how you see the world (as, in the same way, linguistics knowledge can – for instance, awareness of recency illusion). But many people react to such knowledge as a kind of smartass "Jedi Mind Trick" to diss their view that the world is exactly as their unanalysed perception sees it.

  21. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    Well said, Ray.

    I remember as a teenager, being in a McDonald's when either myself or a friend mentioned that fast food restaurants have brighter lighting than other restaurants in an attempt to make customers finish their meals and leave relatively quickly. One friend objected to this, saying essentially, "That's silly, I just leave when I want to leave; it has nothing to do with lighting or anything."

  22. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    G.L. Dryfoos: "Freight. To freight (with). Is it obsolete, really? What hath the OED wrought?"

    ?? The OED doesn't say that the verb "freight" is obsolete, and I didn't say so either. The OED says that the verb "fraught" is obsolete, and that's what I reported.

  23. dr pepper said,

    December 25, 2008 @ 1:58 am

    I once tried to read a history of the development of post roman Scotland. It contained lots of untranslated quotes that seemed critical to understanding the author's point. I could have picked my way through the latin with a dictionary, but i just pushed through. I also ignored the quotes in various celtic languages, though i was astonished by the claim that the picts were literate enough to have left bodies of work behind in two distinct dialects. But when i came to a quote from a japenese historian and even that was left untranslated, i gave up. It's obvious that this book was not meant for a lay readership.

    But of course it's not just in language where that happens. There was an article in *Science* once, called "The Cheetah: Native American". The author claimed that certain skulls, long thought to be of early cougars, were in fact from early cheetahs. Proof was offered in terms of proportional measuremnts, particular of the distance between the jaws and he ears. Apparently the reader was expected to pull down their handy dandy Index of Feline Craniometry and go "oh wow those *are* cheetahs!".

  24. not a troll said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

    Thought you might find this post interesting; it is called "Please do not feed the troll".

    http://www.heartl.com/2005/09/please-do-not-feed-troll.html

  25. Katherine said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    not a troll, did you notice the huge amount of back-and-forth trolling in the comments of the blog post you linked? I found it very ironic.

  26. greg said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:26 am

    As an actual speaker of a language, I freely admit that I occasionally have a bit of confusion with regard to another speaker's intended antecedent for a pronoun. Anyone who ever claims to never have had a problem with such is either lying, or has ended up with quite wrong understandings of something which they were reading or hearing. Of course, when I ask about the intended antecedent for a lost pronoun, the response is sometimes "huh?" because the person isn't familiar with the term.

    But, speaking as a person with a degree in physics, I imagine that the goal of linguists in determining what people know about the processes and principles of their own language is part of an effort to determine the basic rules of each individual language and then to possibly try to create a Grand Unified Theory of Language and Linguistics. In that, it is very similar to the efforts of physicists who try to determine the processes and principles of various physical events and mechanisms such as gravity, electricity, magnetism and many other things in an effort to define a Grand Unified Theory of Physics.

    Measuring energy distributions and flows in outer space has probably less immediate impact on humanity than research into the development of pronoun-antecedent agreement and the distribution of that linguistic principle across the various known current and historical languages. But we do it, because it is interesting and might possibly have some future application.

    More simply, something is note-worthy, by definition, if someone takes note of it. Just because it isn't something that one person or many other people considers (or is that 'consider', I think you pair the verb with the first item in an and/or pairing, right?) important, doesn't mean it isn't.

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