Monday, October 25, 2010

Today's XKCD is really about pragmatics, I think, given that ‘constructive and helpful’ is a pretty good synonym for ‘relevant’.


There are a lot of other XKCDs that are really about pragmatics. One day I'll post a list.

This is really reality

Richard Branson, philosopher:

People are beginning to believe now. I think the drop flight two weeks ago, which went beautifully, I think it made people sit up and realize this is really reality.

(He was talking about his commercial program to put people into Earth orbit: source.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

If you aren't dead, this is a relevance conditional

There's an lovely relevance (or biscuit) conditional in the latest edition of BBC Radio's More or Less, a programme about statistics. It's in the programme broadcast on 1st October 2010, currently available here, and eventually to be archived here.

The sentence uttered:
If you are still alive, that was Matt Parker, the stand-up mathematician.

The context:
Introducing a guest item about the risks of death associated with different activities, the host announces that “there is a 0.00003 % chance that you will die while listening to Matt's essay.” (This is at about 20:40 minutes into the programme.) At the end of the essay (around 24:00), the host picks up again with the sentence quoted above.

What does it mean to say that this is a relevance conditional? Well, the way that the sentence is used here, it is clear that the main clause of the conditional (‘that was Matt Parker, the stand-up mathematician’) is true regardless of whether the proposition given by the if-clause ‘you are still alive’ is true or false. So it is more like the second group of examples below than the first, or the third, and like the other relevance conditionals it sounds very odd indeed if you put then in:

?? If you are still alive, then that was Matt Parker, the stand-up mathematician.

Normal (hypothetical) conditionals
If you heat water, (then) it boils.
If John has restocked it, (then) there’s beer in the fridge

Relevance conditionals
If I may be honest, (??then) you are not looking good.
If you are thirsty, (??then) there’s beer in the fridge

Factual conditionals
If it is stupid (then) you shouldn’t bother with it.
If he’s so smart (then) why isn’t he rich?

These examples and the labels for the different uses of conditionals (they are not really different types*) are from Bhatt, R. & Pancheva, R. (2006). Conditionals. In M. Everaert & H. C. van Riemsdijk (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Syntax. (pp. 639–687). Oxford: Blackwell.

Why the alternate name, biscuit conditionals? That is what philosophers usually call them, following J.L. Austin's example:

There are biscuits on the sideboard if you want some.

(from p 212 of Austin, J.L. (1970) Ifs and cans. In Philosophical Papers, 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press: 205–232.)

There is a post on relevance conditionals at Language Log, if you want to know more, with excellent references to the recent scholarly literature.

*Since (e.g.) there might be circumstances in which your being thirsty causes** there to be beer in the fridge (or vice versa***) and in those cases an utterance of “If you are thirsty, (then) there’s beer in the fridge,” will express a factual normal, i.e. hypothetical conditional. See p 406 of DeRose, K. & Grandy, R. E. (1999). Conditional assertions and ‘biscuit’ conditionals. Noûs, 33(3), 405-420.

**Other relations than causality are possible, but that is a topic for another post...

***For example, we know that Smith puts salt in your drinking water sometimes and this makes you thirsty (but you never get thirsty otherwise). We also know that he only does this if he knows that there is beer in the fridge. Then we have good grounds to think that it is true to say “If you are thirsty, (then) there’s beer in the fridge.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cricket, pragmatics and denial

The Guardian has run a story about allegations against members of the Pakistan cricket team that they took money to bowl no-balls – with the headline, ‘Pakistan captain Salman Butt denies any wrongdoing over ‘spot-fixing’’.

What Salman Butt actually said when asked about the allegations (transcript) (video) included: “These are just allegations and anybody can stand out and say anything about you, doesn’t make them true,” and “There’s nothing that I have seen that involves me”. This is not denial of the allegations. It can’t be, because the truth of these statements (and the rest of what he said) is compatible with the truth of what is alleged. (‘involves’ is a vague word and Butt himself isn’t in the News of the World’s videos and, not being a bowler, did not bowl any of the three no-balls at issue).

The Guardian has taken Butt to have implicated denial, but I don’t think that’s correct. I think he was measuring his words carefully so as not to commit himself. Bloggers have understood this.

What should the headline have been? Pakistan captain Salman Butt fails to deny ‘spot-fixing’’. That was the news story.

I’m not going to comment on the Pakistan manager’s interesting claim in the same press conference that, “No allegations are true till they proved either way,” beyond saying that some heavy-duty pragmatics is involved in getting to an interpretation that makes any kind of sense. Either that or he’s into some pretty serious relativism about truth...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Honourable Mr Elephant: Translating honorifics

Reading an interesting review of Shipwreck (or Shipwrecks) (破船 ha sen) by Yoshimura Akira (吉村昭) got me thinking about the meaning of honorifics and about translation.

The reviewer doesn’t say this (and nor do the other reviews available online), but ‘fune’ in ‘o-fune-sama’ is surely ‘boat’ or ‘ship’: ‘舟’ presumably (although there are other characters that mean ‘ship’ and are pronounced ‘fune’). The honorifics ‘o’ and ‘sama’ indicate something like auspiciousness here, I think, so ‘o-fune-sama’ might be translated as ‘the blessing of a boat’, in the sense of a boat received by the village as a kind of gift from higher forces: from the gods, or fate, say. (Cf. ‘In her ninetieth year, Sarah was surprised and delighted to receive the blessing of a child.’)

Honorifics are notoriously difficult to translate. The translator of Shipwrecks obviously judged that with ‘o-fune-sama’ it was best not to try.

Even when a good translation is possible, it often leaves out the honorific dimension. In most contexts v- and t-forms (e.g. ‘vous’ and ‘tu’) are best just translated as ‘you’, as is Spanish ‘usted’ -- a third-person pronoun used to refer to the addressee -- although in very limited contexts (at a barber’s, a tailor’s, or in a PG Wodehouse story) sir might prefer a more literal translation, hmmn? (Of course, English has other, role-specific, third person-ish honorifics: ‘Your Grace’, ‘Mr. President’.)

Returning to Japanese, ‘o-kane’ is just money, not ‘honourable money’ (while ‘kane’ can sound a bit rough and in some contexts might be best rendered into slang: something like ‘dosh’ or ‘the readies’).This demonstrates that the prefix ‘o-’ is sometimes required for polite speech, particularly for those (like women) who are not thought capable of speaking colloquially and politely at the same time.

But Japanese honorifics are particularly context-sensitive in their effects; they don’t always raise the tone. I suspect everyone has to say ‘kami-sama’ or ‘o-kami-sama’, not bare ‘kami’ (god) – or sound mildly blasphemous. But in other cases honorifics can indicate closeness as much as respect. My favourite example, ‘(o-)zou-san’ (lit. (honourable) Mr elephant) is a phrase used by children, those who speak to children, and those who speak to elephants while children are listening. A friend who speaks much more Japanese than me once suggested that ‘o-furo’ (the normal way of saying ‘bath’, but literally ‘honourable [warm] bath’) should be translated ‘lovely hot bath’.

What is the point of all these observations? Partly reinforcing my preexisting beliefs (prejudices) about translation: it is an art, or an applied science, and not a domain which could ever have its own theory. (One of the main contentions of Ernst-August Gutt’s dissertation on relevance theory and translation: published by Blackwell’s – review in the Journal of Linguistics.) It must be a lot of fun.

But also what might be a novel thought. Resistance to translation (and to paraphrase) is supposed to be typical of procedural meaning, exemplified by so-called discourse connectives like ‘so’, ‘then’ and ‘alors’. And it is easy to see how procedural meaning need not contribute to truth conditions, and it is clear that honorifics usually do not: I might have been wrong to tutoyer you, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t refer to you; and ‘o-kane’ and ‘kane’ surely have the same denotation. Perhaps then the semantics of honorifics is procedural. Surely someone must have said this. Relevance theory and the study of polite speech are both popular with people who study pragmatics in Japan. But I can’t find it on the obvious search terms: relevance theory, procedural meaning, honorifics, keigo.

In any case, I’m not convinced. Some questions of politeness and word choice obviously have nothing to do with word meaning in a narrow sense. That a taboo word is forbidden (and in which contexts, to whom, etc.) is a fact about the social status of that word, not something to explain in terms of its semantics. (Very much pace recently fashionable – but in my view daft – accounts of swear words in terms of ‘conventional implicature’, or ‘presupposition’.) Perhaps the same goes for honorifics. It seems to make sense not to postulate any word meaning for honorifics – given that politeness is not necessarily part of speaker meaning, as Mark Jary pointed out some years ago. I wrote in the entry on politeness in my Key Terms book,

“[It is not clear] whether politeness is communicated. Is a speaker who is being polite necessarily, or even usually expressing politeness as part of her speaker meaning? One view is that in being polite a speaker is mainly trying to avoid any implicatures to do with the speaker-hearer’s relationship, by staying within certain parameters of socially acceptable behaviour.”

Compare this with what Mark proposes: a “Relevance Theoretic account of polite verbal behaviour” which:

“distinguishes cases where politeness is communicated from those where it is not, [and] distinguishes the strategic manipulation of expectations of politeness from cases where politeness emerges from the speaker crafting her utterances in such a way as to avoid making manifest assumptions likely to have a detrimental effect on her long term social aims.”

(Last year when I wrote this I hadn’t read Mark’s paper. I should have known about it, though, and I would have put his paper in the list of further reading at the end of the book. It's a good deal more interesting, in my view, than the references on politeness that I did include.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Back in business

I thought it was time I let some air in around here, chased the dust and spiders' webs out, put the mothballs away and so on.

I see that the last time I posted before today was very nearly five years ago. I try to comfort myself by reminding myself that in that time I've finished my PhD, moved to a different university in a different country, written a book and -- oh yes -- got married.

Future posts will follow at intervals shorter than five years. I hope.

The meaning of 'most'

There is a series of interesting posts on Language Log about the semantics and pragmatics of 'most':

Most and many - Geoff Nunberg

Most examples - Mark Liberman

Most bibliography - Mark Liberman

Does 'most' (in sentences of the form 'Most Xs are Y') have the same truth-conditions as '> 50%', and, if so, how can we explain:

a) the choice of 'many' instead of 'most' in some cases of numerical majority;

b) intuitions that some people have that use of 'most' requires a much larger majority, or some other extra condition?

In the most recent post, there are links to theoretical and experimental papers, most of which endorse the simple-majority semantics. Without being au fait with this literature it seems obvious:

i) that the intuitions reflect pragmatics as well as semantics (e.g in the comments to one of the posts a commentator claims that most means more than half but less than all -- but 'most' is surely compatible with 'all'),

ii) that people often say something a bit weaker than what they know to be the case (without thereby implicating anything, pace Neo-Gricean predictions),

and iii) that the null hypothesis (simple-majority semantics for 'most') looks to be correct. (But perhaps I'm a bit biased by my complete lack of any intuition that 'most' means more than 'more than 50%'.)

For me the most puzzling and interesting point is a kind of side-issue to the original questions. Among the examples found by Mark Liberman, there are some where 'most' is apparently used to pick out the largest of a number of groups, even where that group falls a bit short of being the majority:

Most independents, or 40 percent, said they would vote for Giuliani.

Most (44.5 percent) said that 25-49 percent of students will transfer to a 4-year college.

I find these examples weird. In each case, I'd just say that the sentence is (strictly and literally) false. The alternative, as the commentator Sarang points out, is to say that "Most people did X but most people did not do X" is true in these cases, and my intuition says that that sentence is very bad indeed. My guess is that the sentences in these examples are intended by their utterers as shorthand for this quite different kind of case (but which Liberman groups with these examples), where 'most' is functioning as a superlative morpheme:

There were 42,286 eye accidents reported in private industry in 2002, and the most prevalent (38 percent) type of event involved the eye or eyes being rubbed or abraded by foreign matter.