Verbs not appropriate for snake as subject

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Luke Yeomans (pictured) had a king cobra sanctuary in Nottingham, England, and planned to open it to the public this weekend, but instead one of his cobras killed him on Wednesday with a single bite, a hefty injection of neurotoxic and cardiotoxic venom that gave him a heart attack. Sadly, the linguistic signs that he would be killed this way were already present in the record, quite clear in something he had said. I wish someone could have warned him.

The Daily Telegraph quotes Yeomans as saying this about why the snakes offered no threat to him:

These king cobras know I provide them with food and fresh water so they're not going to go out of their way to do harm to me when I do no harm to them whatsoever. People say I’m mad but it’s better than saying that you’re bad and everything I do is good. My life is about the conservation of the king cobra.

I'm not saying he was mad; but he was disastrously deluded. The linguistic clue is that use of the verb know, and also the idiom go out of X's way to VP.

Know is a verb that we use with subject noun phrases denoting entities that we conceptualize as epistemic subjects: creatures that can hold beliefs and possess knowledge (or sometimes corporate bodies like companies or governments that collectively function as epistemic subjects, as with the rather weird signs on gasoline pumps in California saying that gasoline "is known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects").

And the idiom we are using when we say that someone went out of their way to do something is likewise normally used only of entities that have intentions, and can depart from a previous plan, itinerary, or normal practice to accomplish something deliberately that otherwise would not have taken place.

Poor Luke Yeomans was talking about cobras knowing things about him: that he was the agent who provided their food and fresh water, and so on. And he spoke of them as if it would be conceivable for them to "go out of their way to do" some such thing as causing harm to him or deciding not to cause such harm.

But king cobras don't have the part of the brain that gives us our epistemic and intentional powers. They're reptiles. Their cerebrum doesn't have the outer crinkled layer that mammals have, known as the cerebral cortex. They can acquire behaviors, and even become habituated to temporal patterns: it has been reported that snakes have sometimes managed to "learn" when their feeding times are and start waiting at an appointed place when that time arrives. But that is about developing a practice of being at a certain place of food availability at certain intervals. I'm sure they can do that. But I'm equally sure that snakes are not capable of understanding that a particular human brings them their food out of the goodness of his heart and thus should be cherished.

Snakes cannot know that you are looking out for their welfare. They can behave aggressively (cobras often do), but it isn't because they're angry, or because they can decide to go out of their way to harm you. Don't kiss them. They don't know anything, they can't hate you, they can't love you. If only more people realized that.

Because Luke Yeomans is not the first person to be killed by a snake while caring for it. Only a couple of weeks ago something similar happened to a woman in Putnam Lake, New York.

Seven months ago a Norwegian man living in India was killed by the bite of his own pet cobra.

A year ago in Papillon, Nebraska, a man was strangled by his pet boa constrictor.

In 2008 a woman was strangled by her pet python.

In 2006 the same thing happened to a man in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In 2002 it happened to a Burmese python owner in Aurora, Colorado (he had been warned in 1998; perhaps no warnings to snake lovers do any good).

In 1996 a Burmese python killed its owner in New York under circumstances that were disputed, and the "Darwin Awards" people laughed at the story (I love a giggle, but I don't see these sad stories of unpleasant deaths as the slightest bit amusing).

There are plenty more. A couple of cases of very dangerous but not actually fatal cases of snake bites to the tongues or faces of foolhardy people are described here.

Snakes don't like you. They can't. They don't know whether you're looking after them, or whether they are doing a bad thing by killing or wounding you; they aren't equipped for knowledge in the usual propositional sense. I think they're beautiful animals; this isn't an anti-snake tract I'm writing here. But if you have a friend who says their pet snake loves them, or knows that it should not harm them, be afraid, be very afraid. People who say such things are giving linguistic evidence of a profound and life-threatening delusion about serpentine neurophysiology.

[Comments are off because experience has shown that we sometimes get snakes commenting here. On the Internet nobody knows you're a snake.]

Update: Now that I've said what I've said in the body of the post, let me make an admission. I have to, because my fellow Language Log writer the excellent semanticist David Beaver has drawn my attention to the fact that I used the sentence Snakes don't like you above, and that has the verb like with the subject snakes, and it's perfectly appropriate. So my title must have committed some sort of mistake or oversimplification, no?

Yes. It certainly does oversimplify. And I was perfectly well aware of it. I hoped I could slither by, snake-like, without having to get serious about the semantics and metaphysics. But not with Beaver down the corridor at Language Log Plaza I can't. Here is the nitty-gritty, and it gets much more convoluted — by the time I'm done you will wish that the oversimplified way of putting it was the truth.

Saying that it's about certain verbs not admitting certain nouns as appropriate to be their subjects is really a deep theoretical error and always was. It was committed by Chomsky in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax when he discussed "selectional restrictions", and he was correctly rebuked by James McCawley three years later in a wonderful paper called "Concerning the base component of a transformational grammar" (Foundations of Language 4, 1968, 243-269). What we should really say is that it's not about the linguistic inappropriateness of certain nouns and certain verbs coming together; it's about metaphysical category mistakes that certain linguistic ways of bring certain nouns and verbs together can make plain.

When you use a subject like snakes with a verb like know with a content-clause complement (a subordinate clause of the sort that often begins with that), or any of a variety of other verbs such as believe or doubt or love, and the clause as a whole makes a simple positive assertion unaffected by any negation or modality or other superordinate semantic qualificatory material, you will typically be expressing a proposition that betrays by its content that (if you are being sincere) you hold a false belief: you believe we can attribute to snakes a capacity to entertain and believe propositions.

There is in fact nothing linguistically inappropriate about any of these:

No snake can really love you.
Snakes simply aren't capable of knowing facts.
Could a snake actually know anything?
Don't tell me that your snake doubts whether it is reptilian.
That snake does not know that you supply its food.

But what poor Luke Yeomans said was not insulated from belief attribution by negation (not or doubt) or softened by modality (can or capable or the interrogation operator). He said These king cobras know I provide them with food and fresh water. That makes it clear that he was in the grip of the delusion that his cobras knew things about him. It's not really that he used a noun that was linguistically inappropriate for a certain verb; that was my deliberate oversimplification (heck, this is Language Log, not Animal Cognition and Epistemology Log). It's that he used those words in a context where the proposition about snake knowledge was overtly asserted in unmodulated form, and that's what should have told everyone that sooner or later he was going to die a horrible death from snakebite.

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