Semantic Analysis and meaning

Again I’m quoting Paul Ziff’s Semantic Analysis:

41. [...]

Consequently, if my contention about meaning is correct, then the first ‘do’ in ‘Please do not do it!’, unlike the second ‘do’, does not have meaning. This is testified to by the fact that generally the first ‘do’ in ‘Please do not do it!’, unlike the second ‘do’, will not admit of being stressed. Thus ‘Please do not do it!’ unlike ‘Please do not do it!’ is somewhat odd. Again, notice that the same is true of ‘to’ and ‘through’ in ‘I want to go through Istanbul.’. There is nothing odd about ‘I want to go through Istanbul.’ but ‘I want to to go through Istanbul.’ is generally quite odd. And this should not be surprising: if an element does not have meaning in an utterance, stressing the element is not likely to be, and indeed can hardly be, significant.

(There is a case, however, in which the ‘to’ in question will bear a stress. If I say ‘I want to go through Istanbul.’ and someone says ‘You want not to through Intanbul?’, I may reply ‘I want to go through Istanbul.’. An explanation of this is not hard to find. If I say ‘I want him to go.’ and someone says ‘You want them to go?’, I may reply ‘I want him to go.’, stressing the word after the verb for that was the point at which the utterance was misunderstood. But if I say ‘I want to go through Istanbul.’ and someone says ‘You want not to go through Istanbul.’, the confusion is owning to the insertion of ‘not’ after the verb. Thus in reply one is likely to stress whatever occurs over the segment immediately after the verb. Thus not ‘to’ but the stress it bears is significant in ‘I want to go through Istanbul.': the stress contrasts with ‘not’ in the previous sentence.)

Meaning and meaningful words in sentences

Why do I quote this passage? Because I sometimes suggest this thesis in discussions:

1. A sentence is meaningful ⇔ Every word in that sentence is meaningful.1

This might seem obvious to some and it seems interesting to me. There is an, perhaps, obvious type of possible counter-example too. Here are a couple:

2a. kjjd is not meaningful.

2b. The word “kjjd” is not meaningful.

(2a) appears to be a counter-example to (1) since there is a word2 in it that is not meaningful. However, (2a) is an unclear sentence and perhaps grammatically incorrect.3 A more refined version is (2b) where it is clear that the sentence is about some word. There are a couple of solutions or explanations that spring to my mind about this.

One, one could see “the word “kjjd”” as a noun phrase that refers to the word “kjjd”. This seems unproblematic to me.

Two, one could try to limit (1) to some particular subset of sentences. One idea is to exclude sentences that are about words or phrases (meta-language). Though this seems excessive to me.

Three, one could exclude words that start and end with quotation marks (“) or whatever character is used to mark words or phrases. (Some people, like Ziff above, use apostrophes (‘).)

I favor the noun phrase theory or some similar theory. If that theory is true, then sentences like (2a) are not a problem for my thesis, that is, (1).

Meaningless words in meaningful sentences without metalanguage

In the quoted paragraph Ziff argues that some words in some meaningful sentences are not meaningful. His two examples are:

3a. Please do not do it!

3b. I want to go through Istanbul.

I think that it is uncontroversial whether these sentences are meaningful, they clearly are.4

Ziff thinks that:

4. A word in a sentence does not admit of being stressed without it being odd ⇒ That word does not have meaning.

This seems somewhat plausible and it is a problem for my thesis, that is, (1). Since (1) implies that all words in (3a) and in (3b) are meaningful but (4) implies that there is at least one word in (3a) and in (3b) that is not meaningful. How might one resolve this? Obviously one can simply deny that Ziff’s claim is true though it does seem rather intuitive to me, and I guess to many other people too.

Tokens and types

One might try to fix the problem by introducing the token-type distinction.5 Is (1) about types or tokens?:

1a. A sentence is meaningful ⇔ Every word token in that sentence is meaningful.

1b. A sentence is meaningful ⇔ Every word type in that sentence is meaningful.

Is (4) about tokens or types?:

4a. A word in a sentence does not admit of being stressed without it being odd ⇒ That word token does not have meaning.

4b. A word in a sentence does not admit of being stressed without it being odd ⇒ That word type does not have meaning.

The relationships between (1)’s and (4)’s are less clear. Let’s examine them in turn.

One, (1a) and (4a)

This appears to be the same situation as before.

Two, (1b) and (4a)

(1b) seems true to me but it is rather unclear what it means to say that a word type is meaningful. They do not seem inconsistent; The word type “to” is meaningful in (3b) and there is according to (4a) both a meaningful and a meaningless word token of “to” in that sentence. It is curious that some type can be meaningful yet tokens can be both meaningful and meaningless. (In the same language of course.)

Three, (1a) and (4b)

(4b) is false. Consider examples similar to the (3)’s, (4b) materially implies that the word type “to” and the word type “do” is both meaningful and meaningful. Contradiction.

Four, (1b) and (4b)

This is even worse than the case above. (4b) is false for the same reason as above, and (1b) materially implies not-(4b).

The type-token distinction did not help much, even though it clarified some things. (4b) is to be avoided, and (1a) and (1b) are interesting and problematic.

Meaningful phrases

An idea is to reject (1) but accept some similar thesis:

1c. A sentence is meaningful ⇔ Every word token in that sentence is meaningful or is part of a meaningful phrase token in that sentence.

This seems more plausible than the other (1)’s so far to me. It also seems consistent with Ziff’s examples since the meaningless “to” tokens are part of a meaningful phrase token “want to”.

It also avoids the question of what it means to say that a type is meaningful.

Stress and word-parts

Notice that in the above paragraph that it is not odd to stress parts of words. (I stressed “less” and “ful”. “Less” functions as a logical negation in this case and many others.) Is this an indication that word parts are sometimes meaningful too? It doesn’t follow from (4)’s but if we created general principle out of (4):

4c. A language part is able to be stressed with it being odd. ⇒ That language part is meaningful.

(4c) materially implies that word parts (morphemes) are sometimes meaningful too.

Chomskyan counter-examples

And yet, there are still other counter-examples (1c). Consider this famous sentence:

5. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.6

(5) is clearly a counter-example to (1c) since all the words in this sentence are meaningful, and yet the sentence itself is meaningless. Perhaps another thesis similar to (1) is needed:

1d. A sentence is meaningful ⇔ Every word in that sentence is meaningful or is part of a meaningful phrase in that sentence, and all words are meaningful in the relation they are stand in or are part of a phrase that is in a meaningful relation.

This seems to effectively deal with sentences similar to (5).

Notes

1“⇔” means is logically with.

2I use the word “word “ here in a less strict sense. It is sometimes defined like “(linguistics) A distinct unit of language (sounds in speech or written letters) with a particular meaning, composed of one or more morphemes, and also of one or more phonemes that determine its sound pattern.” By “word” here I mean something like a string of latin characters (without spaces). The strict definition above is taken from Wiktionary. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/word#Noun

3It seems unusually hard to judge whether it is grammatically incorrect or not in this case.

4Though it is curious how to best establish that a specific sentence is meaningful or meaningless in a specific language. I suppose that if the vast majority of the native speakers of language L understands sentence S, then S is meaningful in L. But there are problems with this. I will not discuss them in this essay.

5See Wikipedia for an explanation. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type-token_distinction but see SEP’s article on it for a more thorough explanation plato.stanford.edu/entries/types-tokens/#WhaDis.

Paul Ziff's Semantic Analysis and Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia

You may wonder what the word “Onomatopoeia” means, and so did I when I first saw it. It’s one of those unnecessarily long foreign words which meaning is unguessable unless one is very good with greek. Wikipedia has an article on it that makes it easy to understand.1 It means sound words (danish “lydord”) which are the words that are (somewhat) made after some sound of a thing, like the sound of a cat meowing (meow) or of a dog barking (woof).2 It is not constrained to ‘natural’ sounds. For instance, it includes sounds from a camera blitz (snap). I shall just call them sound words.

Quote from Semantic Analysis

26. It has been said, “The relation between language and the world is conventional.” There are ways of twisting this remark so that it turns [out] true: as it stands, it is at best false.

‘Conventional’ sometimes indicates that which is customary: wearing a tie, saying ‘How do you do?’ when introduced to a person, shaking hands, and so forth are matters of convention, custom. That a speaker in using “I” may be speaking of himself is not a matter of custom.

‘Conventional’ sometimes indicates that which is in some sense agreed upon; we can adopt the convention that in this essay ‘thater’ is to be employed as an exact synonym of ‘that’. Perhaps we would then say, “The relations between ‘thater’ and the world are conventional.” It does not follow that something of the same sort must be said about the word ‘that’. The point here can be readily seen in connection with onomatopoeia. The word ‘meow’ stands in a relatively natural relation to a cat’s meow in that the sounds made in uttering the word are somewhat similar to the sound of a cat meowing. Let ‘woem’ be an exactly synonym of ‘meow'; then perhaps any regularity pertaining to ‘woem’ and a cat’s meow is conventional: it does not follow that the resemblance between an utterance of ‘meow’ and a cat’s meow is conventional.

    Onomatopoeia is of no great importance in language. I would not suggest otherwise. But the possibility of it indicates that not every semantic regularity can sensibly be characterized as “conventional.” What is important and true about the thesis that “the relation between language and the word is conventional” is this: only those semantic regularities that can more or less felicitously be characterized as “conventional” are generally relevant in semantic studies. The only semantic regularities pertaining to ‘meow’ that are in general semantically relevant are those that pertain equally to ‘woem’. If I say ‘What’s making that cat meow?’ then whether I like it or not part of my utterance stands in a natural relation to a cat’s meow, but this natural relation must generally be semantically irrelevant for generally (but not absolutely invariably) I could have asked the same question by asking ‘What’s making that cat woem?’. (In an appropriate context, e.g. one in which a cat is meowing loudly and plainly, there might well be a striking and semantically relevant difference between the utterance ‘The cat is meowing.’ and ‘The cat is woeming.’ for the stress on ‘woeming’ might be puzzling in a way that the stress on ‘meowing’ might not. See 56 below.)

Cross-language sound words

Surely Ziff is right about some of the things that he said. This part:

“But the possibility of it indicates that not every semantic regularity can sensibly be characterized as “conventional.””

appears to be a misstatement. Why would he talk about the possibility of it when he has just shown that it is actual? Nothing useful follows from the possibility (what kind of possibility?) of sound words, but his point does follow from the actuality of sound words.

As for the ‘natural relation’ (meaning similarity in sound?), it is much less strong than he gives one (or I got) the impression of. When I was looking up the word “onomatopoeia” on Wiktionary and Wikipedia, I stumbled upon an article that compares the sound words in various languages for the same sounds. (Unless one wants to say that a cat suddenly starts meowing differently when taken to China!) Unsurprisingly they don’t have much in common but they do have a little. Consider the sound words for a cat’s meow:

* In Tagalog meyaw,”ngiyaw”

* In Arabic, miao

* In Bengali: miu miu

* In Bulgarian, miau

* In Catalan, mèu [mɛu]

* In Czech, mňau

* In Chinese, Cantonese, mēu-mēu

* In Chinese, Mandarin, miāo miāo

* In Danish, mjau, mjav, miau, miav

* In Dutch, miauw, mauw

* In English, meow [miˈaʊ], miaow (UK), or mew [mjuː]

* In Estonian, mäu, näu

* In Filipino, ngyaw

* In Finnish, miau, mau, nau, kurnau

* In French, miaou [mja.u]

* In German, miau

* In Greek, niau,

* In Hebrew, miaw

* In Hungarian miaú, nyau

* In Japanese nyaanyaa

* In Korean yah-ong

* In Norwegian mjau

* In Hindi Myaau, Myaaoo

* In Icelandic, mjá

* In Italian, miao miao

* In Indonesian, meong

* In Japanese, nyā

* In Korean, yaong

* In Lithuanian, miau

* In Macedonian, myau (мјау)

* In Malayalam, “myaoo myaoo”

* In Polish, miau

* In Portuguese, miau

* In Romanian, miau

* In Russian, myau

* In Sinhalese, ñāvu and puru puru – purring

* In Slovene, mijav

* In Spanish, miau [mjaʊ]

* In Swedish, mjau or mjao

* In Thai, miaw

* In Turkish, miyav

* In Telugu, miao(m)

* In Tamil, miaow(m)

* In Urdu, meow

* In Vietnamese, meo3

They have some things in common: They generally feature the vocals “i” and “e” in the beginning of the word (and these two are often, I guess, pronounced similarly) and the vocal “o” in the end. Also, they generally feature the consonants “m” and “n” (also sounds similarly) in the beginning and the consonants “v” and “w” in the end.

Similarly for other sound words though the words for a balloon popping are quite dissimilar. I would not be surprised that this is because the sound a balloon makes when it pops is very dissimilar to the sounds that human beings are capable of making in general. We thus find it hard to reproduce the sound and select some sound that is somewhat ‘far away’ (in sound) from how we hear it.

The above indicates that the ‘natural connection’ is pretty weak. Even words that are not generally considered sound words may have a weak ‘natural connection’ to the sound of whatever it is that they refer to. For instance the danish word for electric socket (“stikkontakt”) sounds somewhat similar to the sound it makes when one turns on the socket (click). Though the word’s etyomology is unrelated.4

Notes

2It is interesting to note that the noun word of the behavior of the thing or animal making the sound is not always similar to the actual sound cf. a dog’s bark. This is not similar to “woof”. Similarly with the danish word “at gø” meaning to bark. This is not similar to “vuf”.

3en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-linguistic_onomatopoeias. I removed some information about how to spell the words in their respective countries because my blog does not support the symbols.

4It very probably evolved from “stik” and “kontakt” meaning, respectively, the end of a power cable that is inserted into an electric pocket and contact.

Logical interpretation of subjects, the utterer and the utterance situation

Interpretation

I earlier wrote of the logical interpretation of subjects.1 There I suggested, following Russell, that the subject of a descriptive, active, meaningful (DAM) sentence should be interpreted as an existential quantifier (∃x) but I now believe that that this seems to depend on who made the utterance and in which situation. Suppose for instance that a positive atheist2 makes this utterance:

E1. God is omnipotent.

Do we really want to interpret this as:

E1′. (∃x)(Gx∧Ox)3

If we did, then the atheist would have contradicted himself since from (E1′) the existence of God follows. From this I conclude that this interpretation is implausible.

The utterer and the situation

One idea is to let (E1) represent a conditional when uttered by an atheist:

E1”. (∀x)(Gx→Ox)

Such a conditional is consistent with an atheistic position; It is not possible to deduce that God exists from (E1”). How should we think of sentences that are like (E1)? Should they always be interpreted as existential claims, should they always be interpreted as conditional claims or should the interpretation depend on the utterer and the circumstances in which it was uttered? The first option has already been dealt with and found implausible. Let’s consider the second option.

Consider this everyday sentence:

E2. The door is open.

If I said this to my roommate while we were both out in the garden, I think that he would think that I was silly or talking about some door far away. He would never interpret this sentence as a conditional which in that case is true. Is it true not because there is a door and it is open but it is true because there is no door at all in the garden. I imagine that it is like this in many other everyday situations. Suppose that is true, that is, everyday sentences like (E2) are most often best interpret as existential claims. We may allow that sentences involving non-everyday terms like “God” are often best interpret as conditionals.

These considerations indicate that the same sentence form Subject – sentence verb – subject predicate may yield different logical forms depending on which words are used. So, there is a disconnection between language form and logic form. This is undesirable.

Return to the first example. Suppose that a theist said the same sentence. Should it be interpreted as an existential claim or a conditional? I suppose that it is best to interpret it as an existential claim. But for the theist it would not make much of a difference since he also believes that God exists, and from that God exists, and the conditional, it follows that God is omnipotent.4

But even an atheist’s utterance of (E1) may best be interpreted as an existential claim. Suppose that the current american president is a closet atheist, that he is making a public speech and that the public believes that he is a theist. In that case it would be best for the public to interpret his words as an existential claim and not a conditional.

Notes

2One who believes that there is no God or no gods.

3Where “Gx” means x is God, and “Ox” means x is omnipotent.

4In symbols: From (∃x)(Gx) and (∀x)(Gx→Ox), (∃x)(Gx∧Ox) follows.

Quote: Paul Ziff

[Discussing the type/token distinction or ambiguity]

“I shall not in general try to eliminate these ambiguities by explicitly stating which sense is intended. Sometimes both senses are intended, sometimes not. In general the context is sufficient to indicate what is meant. I shall be more specific only when there is need to be so; if everything had to be spelled out, nothing could be said.” Paul Ziff, Semantic Analysis, §14, 1960.

I am especially happy for the last sentence.

Frege and anti-semitism

I was recently made aware of an odd fact. Modern logic’s inventor, Frege, was not as adorable as many people perhaps think he was. Quoting IEP:

Although he was a fierce, sometimes even satirical, polemicist, Frege himself was a quiet, reserved man. He was right-wing in his political views, and like many conservatives of his generation in Germany, he is known to have been distrustful of foreigners and rather anti-semitic. Himself Lutheran, Frege seems to have wanted to see all Jews expelled from Germany, or at least deprived of certain political rights. This distasteful feature of Frege’s personality has gravely disappointed some of Frege’s intellectual progeny.

Surprising to say at least.

Frege and anti-semitism

I was recently made aware of an odd fact. Modern logic’s inventor, Frege, was not as adorable as many people perhaps think he was. Quoting IEP:

Although he was a fierce, sometimes even satirical, polemicist, Frege himself was a quiet, reserved man. He was right-wing in his political views, and like many conservatives of his generation in Germany, he is known to have been distrustful of foreigners and rather anti-semitic. Himself Lutheran, Frege seems to have wanted to see all Jews expelled from Germany, or at least deprived of certain political rights. This distasteful feature of Frege’s personality has gravely disappointed some of Frege’s intellectual progeny.

Surprising to say at least.