Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Poetry isn’t just a pretty way of saying plain things

So says George Szirtes, and he’s right. Compare Sperber and Wilson (1990):
The most scathing criticism addressed by the Romantics to classical rhetoric concerned the treatment of metaphor, irony, and other figures of speech. In classical rhetoric, figures were seen as ornaments added onto a text, which made it more pleasant and hence more convincing, without however altering its content. Tropes in particular, it was said, achieve this ornamental effect by replacing a dull literal expression of the author’s thought by a more attractive figurative expression, that is, by an expression the literal meaning of which is set aside and replaced by a figurative meaning. …
Against the notion of a figure as a mere ornament, the Romantics maintained that a felicitous trope cannot be paraphrased. Thus Coleridge argues that the “infallible test of a blameless style” is:
“its untranslateableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning. Be it observed, however, that I include in the meaning of a word not only its correspondent object but likewise all the associations which it recalls.”
It’s not just poetry. Ordinary speech recruits associations of words, and often more effectively than someone straining for effect. Sperber and Wilson discuss ‘You’re a piglet,’ (1990) and ‘Keep your paws off me!’ (2006).

Szirtes seems to me also to be right in the following two claims (and ‘baggage’ is a useful term to cover connotations, colouring, register, etymology – essentially anything that’s not literal meaning):
Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history.
Something that really interests me lately is whether the second claim – about baggage – is necessary for the first. Does the possibility of using words to convey different senses on different occasions depend on the baggage?

The grab bag view of word meaning, essentially, is that words only have baggage. To know the meaning of a word is just to have a collection of baggage associated with it.

I’m pretty sure that is wrong. I’m less sure – but increasingly think – that words without baggage would still not be ‘stable entities you can slam down like dominoes’, and that the versatility of word meaning for words that do have baggage (which may be all of them) is not only due to baggage.

I’d also say that this is wrong, since literal meanings are surely very important for almost all poetry:
It is the baggage that produces the poetry.
It is partly the baggage that produces the poetry. Well, it’s obviously the poet who produces the poetry, but, what I mean is that she does it using words in ways that exploit both their baggage and their literal meanings.


Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1990). Rhetoric and relevance. In The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice (pp. 140-156). Stanford University Press.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (2006). A deflationary account of metaphor. UCL Working Papers in Linguistics, 18, 171-203.

Monday, May 26, 2014

If and even if

A biscuit conditional with parenthetical even-if clause from the Guardian’s coverage of European elections in the UK:
if you didn't stay up late into the night to follow the results of voting for the European parliament (and even if you did), here are the highlights and key results.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Uncooked lobsters are red: they just don't look that way

Just a bit of data for contextualists and perhaps response-dependence theorists. In last week’s New Scientist the question is asked “Why do shellfish turn red when cooked?”
The answer begins:
“Certain shellfish, such as lobsters, turn red when cooked because they are red to begin with – we just can't see it.” (New Scientist, 7th Dec 2013: 69)
Apparently the red colour is due to a compound called astaxanthin, which is there all along. Its effect is masked in live crustaceans by various other compounds. When the creature is boiled many of these denature, but astaxanthin is stable at high temperatures, so does not break down, and the lobster turns red – or its natural red colour is revealed.

Compare with Travis on brown leaves painted green: pp. 171 ff. of Travis, Charles. 1994. On constraints of generality. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94:165–188.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What literature knows about your brain...

…is the name of a new blog about cognitive science and literature. The author, Raphael Lyne, says he “will be tempted to see literary works as experiments into cognition, as they set up scenarios in which certain qualities can be explored.”

There are already interesting posts on social cognition (posing the question “When we think together, do we think differently?”) and on spatial understanding of time.

The latter suggests that the Spenserian stanza, which has “more lines than other common forms, and an extra couple of syllables in the last line […] often seems to distend duration.” That made me think of a perhaps related phenomenon – how the rhythm of cuts in films affects time perception. For example, Donald Ritchie and David Bordwell both point out that Ozu’s cuts rarely interrupt dialogue, and Ritchie says that:
The tempo of the Ozu film […] is extremely subtle. […] in film the idea of tempo is complicated by the content of the shot: an empty shot seems to move more slowly than a shot filled with action, even if it is the same length. […] Ozu’s time is not clock time, though many of his sequences would have taken the same amount of time they take on the screen. His conversations […] are composed of a number of shots all about the same length (the length depending entirely upon the length of the spoken line), but the effect (perhaps because of the “empty” waits before and after dialogue) is not that of clock time at all. […] the effect becomes that of psychological time. As the characters experience film time, so do we.[…] the tempo is created by what is in the shot. (pp. 181–2 of Richie, D. (1974). Ozu. Berkeley: University of California Press.)
I wonder if Bordwell’s cognitive science collaborators have done work on time perception.

Lyne suggests the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream do not experience time as a straight line: “forward progression [is] a mortal way of thinking about time” and:
Fairies like to dance in rings, and they like to circle the earth. Puck promises to put a girdle round it in forty minutes, and Oberon says that he and Titania ‘the globe can compass soon’. When Titania lies down with Bottom, she imagines herself capturing the moment, and also the period of sleep, in natural circles
But, he says, “I don’t think it’s as simple as saying ‘for immortals, time is cyclical’. It might be helical.” Which of course reminds me of Delaney’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones. But also, perhaps more relevantly, of Diane Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, which is about mortals caught up with the immortal fairy queen and her court, and is considerably indebted to Spenser. Jones wrote that in order to organise the shifts of the action between the mundane and the supernatural (which she says she learned from Spenser’s shifts between overt allegory and subtle correspondences):
I found that the narrative moved in a sort of spiral, with each stage echoing and being supported by the ones that went before. I had to work very hard […] to make sure the echoes were not repetitions (p. 137 of Jones, D. W. (1989). The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey. The Lion and the Unicorn, 13(1), 129-140.)
Somewhere else, she explains that this is so that the narrative can build up in waves, each of which partly recapitulates what has come before, but some of which go on beyond and push the story forward.

Friday, November 08, 2013

T-Rex on the poverty of the stimulus

T-Rex expounding his version of the poverty of the stimulus argument

I was a bit slow to blog this one, which came out in August.

In the meantime, someone I pointed it out to says that it’s great apart from “They will stone-cold deduce rules of grammar FROM OBSERVATION ALONE”, and suggests that the author didn't finish reading the chapter on the poverty of the stimulus. The problem, of course, with what T-Rex says is that the whole point of the poverty of the stimulus argument is to establish that infants do not work out grammar from observation alone: rather, there is some innate knowledge of language.

But I’m inclined to give T-Rex (or at least his creator Ryan North, who has a master’s in computational linguistics and a dog called ‘Chompsky’) the benefit of the doubt. I think either North or T-Rex is being somewhat ironic. He (whichever one of them it is) doesn't really think that babies independently invent the idea of language or deduce the rules of grammar from observation alone, just that it might seem as though they do – to T-Rex, or to someone he is satirising.

Utahraptor is wrong, though, in saying that babies crawl off cliffs given half a chance. In fact we have an innate drop-detector which is available very early in infancy. Babies may fail to distinguish between small and large drops (pdf) though.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Structural ambiguity and the law

Mark Liberman at Language Log covers a US Supreme Court case that may hinge on the interpretation of this part of a statute:
Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.
They have a good short summary, and the discussion in the comments is worth a look too.

Nobody points out the obvious starting point, though (the comment from 'ohwilleke' comes closest): the text is structurally ambiguous, the scope relations are underdetermined by what is written, so the court will have to make a decision. Or rather, they will have to make at least two connected decisions: first, what criteria to apply (intent of executive or legislature; or the most accessible or salient or relevant disambiguation, now or when the law was promulgated; or something else) and second, what their chosen criterion or criteria imply.