Archive for June, 2007

Hypercorrection, schemata and UG

June 28, 2007

A student asks why “she and I” sounds so much better than “I and she.” A simple, but resonant question — the bias for the former has the strength of a grammatical intuition, the stuff syntactic theories are made of. So it’s not a trivial question. Evidently the schemata that we learn, especially, I imagine, those we learn at an early age, embed themselves deeply — and inflexibly — alongside our original and much more flexible, productive grammar.

Corrections, including hypercorrections like just for you and I, fall into the category of memorized forms along with formulaic and schematic utterances. Their relation to the grammar of the language is incidental, but they are strongly imprinted on memory, in some ways more inflexibly than grammatically generated forms. They show up in places where the standard forms no longer carry any grammatical function. Along with formulae and schemata, they are a part of language deeply embedded, but agrammatical. They show some instructive contrasts with forms grammatically generated. (more…)

Saving Grice’s theory of ‘and’ (with Kratzer lumps!)

June 11, 2007

I’ve always considered Grice’s theory of conversational implicature to be one of the most beautiful theories around. But nowhere is beauty so tightly yoked to truth as in the sciences, where beauty, in the form of simplicity, will decide the truth of two otherwise equally powerful theories. (It’s kind of remarkable when you think about it — truth and simplicity seem not only distinct, but unrelated, unlike say, truth and accuracy or consistency. A complex theory will cause more complexity in its relation to other theories, but if it’s still true, why should complexity ever matter? Is preference for simplicity just a bias?) Truth seems to be a necessary condition for the beauty of a theory in science, so if Grice’s theory isn’t true, its beauty all is lost. The application of conversational co-operation gets messy at and, impugning its truth. I’ve got an idea on how to clean up the mess and restore the symmetry of the structure.

Grice’s analysis of “and” goes like this:

Sometimes “and” is interpreted as simple logical conjunction

1. I brought cheese and bread and wine.

The order of conjuncts doesn’t change the meaning: I brought bread and cheese and wine; wine and cheese and bread; bread and wine and cheese; wine and bread and cheese; it’s all the same. This use of and is symmetric, exactly like the logical conjunction &: A&B<=>B&A

But sometimes and carries the sense of temporal order, “and then”

2. I took off my boots and climbed into bed.

(I think I got this example from Ed Bendix some years ago)

This conjunction is not symmetric: taking off your boots and then climbing into bed is not the same as climbing into bed and then taking off your boots, and the proof of the difference, you might say, comes out in the wash.

The difference in meaning, according to Grice, arises from the assumption that the speaker would not withhold relevant information or present it in a confusing form. If the order of events matters, the order of presentation will follow the order events, unless otherwise specifically indicated. So if I said

I climbed into bed and took off my boots

you’d be justified in surmising that I’d come home very late and very drunk.

The theory of conversational implicature avoids the undesirable circumstance that there might actually be two homonymic “and”s in English, one meaning “&” and the other meaning “and then.”

A problem for Grice was observed long ago by Bar-Lev and Palacas (1980, “Semantic command over pragmatic priority,” Lingua 51). They noted this wonderful minimal pair:

3. I stayed home. I got sick.
4. I stayed home and got sick.

If Grice is right, (3) should mean

3′. I stayed home and then got sick.

But it doesn’t. It means

3″. I got sick and therefore stayed home.

Now unless we are willing to say that the sentential boundary is a morpheme with meaning, we are compelled to drop Grice. Worse still, even though (3) means (3″), the sense of “and then” returns immediately we add “and” between the sentences. (4) means

4″. I stayed home and then I got sick.

even though that’s semantically unexpected. So it’s not about semantic bias, this violation of Grice’s principle. It’s a very real problem that Bar-Lev and Palacas pointed out.

So what’s with “and”?

Here’s my suggestion.

a. In order to use “and” you’ve got to be introducing something new. Think of Angelika Kratzer’s lumps of thought: you’d never say “I painted a portrait and my sister” if you’d only painted one portrait and it was of your sister. Information is structured in clumps of truths that the logical connectives don’t respect. Yes, a portrait was painted and a sister was painted, but if these two things were accomplished in the same act of painting a portrait of one’s sister, then they are in some sense the same fact, though two truths. Now notice the difference between :

“I painted a portrait. I painted my sister.”

Could be the same event. Not so easy to get the same-event interpretation from

“I painted a portrait and I painted my sister.”

The and implies a distinct, newly introduced fact not lumpable with the antecedent event.

b. Causal relations are internal to an event.

Put (a) and (b) together and you have an explanation for (3) and (4). I have a good deal more to say about this, but it’s really nice out, and I’ve been in all day. (more…)

Syntax for the uncertain

June 11, 2007

(This entry is for the Chomsky skeptic: the type of long distance relationship prohibited among prepositional phrases provides strong evidence for a generativist view of grammar and a computational view of syntax in the brain.)

Anti-Chomskians have focused their attacks on productivity, claiming that novel syntactic structures are rare. Certainly formulaic utterances are rampant in speech and have justly received much attention recently. Diana Sidtis, who has published widely on formulaic utterances, adds to these schematic utterances — utterance patterns structurally fixed like formulae, but not fixed for content. The claim seems to be that if schemata and formulae dominate speech patterns, the generative element is marginal at best, a mere intuitive capacity largely unused.

Setting aside the question of why humans would have such an unused capacity, this argument ignores the essential duality of the Chomsky program. The goal is not just to generate all the sentences of natural language. It’s to generate all and only the sentences of natural language. It doesn’t just explain novelty and unbounded productivity. The really dramatic, interesting and compelling side of Chomsky’s work from the very outset was the other horn of the bull: discovering one mechanism that will both generate all the sentences yet won’t overgenerate. Generative syntax crucially explains why some extremely simple sentences are unprocessable, even when they contain the same structures as more complex and easy-to-process sentences.

Sometimes I think Chomsky and syntax have garnered so many vitriolic enemies because Chomsky’s original examples were not chosen for pedagogical perspicuousness and the computational origins of generative theory are not consistently taught. So here’s an attempt at pedagogical perspicuity which I hope will convert both agnostics and scoffers-in-good-faith.

Both long distance and local relations are possible for prepositional phrases

You walk into the lobby of the hotel. There are several people sitting at the bar and in the lounge, some in suits. You approach the front desk. The attendant tells you you received a call, using one of these sentences:

1. The guy at the end of the bar in the suit with the stripes on the chair with three legs called.
2. The guy at the end in the suit of the bar called.
3. The guy on the chair with three legs at the bar called.

Notice that sentence (1) is easy to understand even though it is long and complex. I’ve yet to encounter a class of undergrads who didn’t understand it instantly. Yet it contains no less than three pairs of prepositional phrases, each pair holding a local relation within the pair and a long distance relation with the subject of the sentence. So

the chair with three legs

is a noun phrase with a prepositional phrase [with three legs] related directly to [the chair]. It’s the chair that has three legs, not the guy.

On the other hand, the stripes are not on the chair, it’s the guy who is on the chair. So there is no relation in this sentence [the stripes on the chair] even though there is a relation [the chair with three legs].

So these prepositional phrases can relate over long distances to the subject, or they can hold a purely local relationship with the nearest noun phrase. Both long distance and local relations are possible for prepositional phrases.

Some long distance relationships are impossible

But now consider sentence (2). It is a simpler string of words: only three prepositional phrases — yet I have not met any English speaker who can process it to get [of the bar] to relate to [at the end] even though it’s semantically obvious and it’s the only semantic possibility. This sentence is not difficult to process; it is impossible! Even when you know what it’s intended to mean, you still can’t get it to mean that.

And yet, it contains the same prepositional phrases, some with local relationships and some with long distance relationships, in no way different from (1), except (2) is simpler and (1) is a great deal more complex. Why is the more complex sentence easy and the simple sentence strictly impossible?

Is it because a prepositional phrase cannot intervene between two related prepositional phrases? Sentence three shows this cannot be the reason.

Sentence (3) has the most complex relationships of all three sentences, and yet it too is relatively easy to process. Imagine there are two guys sitting on three-legged chairs, one chair at the bar and one in the lounge.

3. The guy on the chair with three legs at the bar left this for you.


The guy on [the chair [with three legs] [at the bar]]

where the chair is both at the bar and has three legs.

It’s not hard to understand, even though there is a prepositional phrase intervening between [the chair] and [with three legs].

So prepositional phrases may intervene sometimes but not always. What’s the explanation?

What determines which are possible and which are impossible?

Computational theory early on gave us the answer. A machine that processes language word by word cannot exclude sentences like (2) while including sentences like (1) and (3). But a machine that processes phrases as well as words, can. A finite automaton can produce any and all of the prepositional relationships above, including, unfortunately, (2), which is not possible for native English speakers. A push-down automaton, however, can produce (1) and (3) without any trouble, but is mechanically, physically, structurally, logically unable to produce (2).

The internal structure of a prepositional phrase can be processed by a machine, like a finite automaton, that reads one grammatical category at a time

prep + determiner + noun

in that order. Such a machine consists of a set of states including an initial state and at least one final state and a set of functions that take one state into another depending on input. The initial state here accepts a preposition which takes it into a new state accepting a determiner. Feeding the machine at this point a determiner will take the machine to a noun-accepting state. (When I have a chance, I’ll flesh this out a bit. Meanwhile, if you’re curious, any textbook on computer theory will have a good description of how finite automata work and the push-downs mentioned below.)

To accommodate (1), such a machine could have a structure corresponding to a regular expression like

(P=prep, D=deter, N=noun, *=any number of times including zero)

and to get (2) and (3), it needs simply

where any relationships among the prepositional phrases are allowed.

Such a grammar will allow any number of pairs of locally related prepositional phrases along with unrelated intervening prepositional phrases. In other words, a machine that processes one word at a time can be constructed to process all three sentences: it overgenerates to produce (2) as well.

But a push-down automaton — the kind of machine the accepts context free grammars — can’t be designed to produce (2) and needs no special complexity to accommodate the long distance and local relations of (1) and (3).

The simplest context free grammar that can be constructed to process (1)is:
(S=sentence, NP=noun phrase, VP=verb phrase, PrP=prepositional phrase)
NP=> D, NP
NP=> N
NP=> NP, PrP
PrP=> Pr, NP
VP=> VP, PrP
VP=> V

This simplest grammar, exactly as it is, will also generate (3), but no context free grammar can be constructed to generate (2). (This is all much easier to see with trees, but trees are tough to draw on a blog.)

This is very powerful evidence that the brain has a context free grammar represented in it — not necessarily in a specific place, possibly only in a process distributed through a variety of locations in the brain — but represented somehow.

I haven’t touched here on examples that show that a context free grammar cannot handle all the phenomena of language or on examples that suggest that elements can be moved around by the brain. English speakers have more powerful machinery between their ears capable of taking this fundamental push down structure and playing with it, within some limits. Figuring out the limits is the stuff of current linguistic theory. I am interested here only in presenting sentences that demonstrate that the brains of English speakers must have a pushdown structure that prevents the generation of sentences like (2) which are strictly impossible for native English speakers to process. This demonstration is just for the agnostics and scoffers: How else can you explain why (2) is impossible?

Three theories of English plosives: the myth of deaspiration

June 11, 2007

Abstract: There are no unaspirated voiceless plosives in English, only unaspirated voiced plosives and aspirated voiceless plosives. All voiceless plosives in English are aspirated.

The standard theory we all learnt as undergrads tells us that English prevocalic voiceless plosives come in two flavors, aspirated when syllable initial and unaspirated otherwise. The standard theory we all learnt as undergrads can’t be right: it entails that voiced plosives cannot occur in syllable-second position. Such a prohibition a) has no justification and b) is absurd — the unaspirated voiceless plosives that the standard allophonic theory predicts do occur in that position sound just like voiced plosives. I’ve got two replacement theories to offer, neither perfect but both better than the standard. (more…)

Euphemism and euideism: distinct semantic strategies for French and Latin borrowed words

June 11, 2007

The replacement of one idea for another is a strategy that looks like euphemism but is distinct from it. I’d like to call it euideism: just as euphemisms are acceptable word forms for taboo word forms, euideisms replace taboo ideas with acceptable ones. The difference between these two strategies plays upon the twofold nature of the sign observed so long ago by old Saussure: sound shape (word form) and referent (idea) —

euphemism is motivated by an attempt to replace one sound shape for another

euideism is motivated by an attempt to replace one referent for another.

The distinction also plays into differences in register between Anglo-Saxon, French-derived and Latin/Greek-derived vocabulary in English. (more…)

Ladies and lords: refitting the feminist model of pejoration

June 11, 2007

It’s become a chestnut of feminist linguistics — maybe it’s better to call it gender linguistics, to remove the politics from the science, if that’s possible or wise — that the frequent pejoration of words for disempowered people on the one hand, and the frequent pejoration of words denoting women on the other, strongly implies that women have been socially disempowered through the history of the language (as if one needed evidence for this!). Words like “knave,” which once meant simply ‘boy,’ and “villein” which meant merely ‘peasant’ have pejorated, and even “boy” is pejorating in exactly the way “knave” did: “I’ll get my boys on it” says the pop culture mobster, meaning not that he’ll get his male children to do it, but that he’ll get his servants, his henchmen. On the other hand, words denoting objects of value don’t pejorate even if they are female: the generic term for cattle is “cow,” for Daffy’s cousins, “duck” not “drake.”

I’m not going to contest the disempowerment of women, but I think the feminist correlation is too neat. The dynamics of pejoration seem to differ depending on the word, some showing signs of disempowerment, some not, so it is good to look at the cases one by one. I have in mind the female&male pairs

lady, lord

governess, governor

queen, king

madam, sir

princess, prince

all of which niftily show pejoration in the female-, not in the male-denoting word.


Starting with “lady,” the pejoration of which does, I think, show a gender difference in empowerment or prestige: the word began as a designation for the wife of the Anglo-Saxon chief. Each tribe cultivated its warriors, bringing them all under one roof of the chief’s house (remember King Lear and his rowdy entourage his daughters refused to host — Lear was an Anglo-Saxon king). In the warriors’ big house, the chief was the warden of the loaves, or “hlafweard,” (later “laward,” eventually “lord”) and she the loaf kneeder, the “hlafdige” (later “lavedi,” eventually “lady”). A difference in power and prestige is obvious at the origin. Even though labor is more essential to social survival, it is distinguished here from authority and possession which are handed to the male of the pair.

But “lady” was not without prestige. Most important, she and the lord were socially unique. There was but one lady per tribe. The closest equivalent in present-day English would be “queen.” Subordinate she may have been, but she received her tribe’s deference deflected from her husband.

Power relations changed under the Normans. The unique Anglo-Saxon chieftain was replaced with a class of superiors. Under occupation, all the occupiers may as well be kings with respect to the occupied. And the words “lord” and “lady” reflect this widening of denotation, but “lady” much more than “lord.” Feudal Norman male-oriented culture may have helped sustain the prestige and uniqueness of “lord” and while there were many Norman lords and ladies, there was still only one ruling lord in the land, but no corresponding ruling lady.

Dick Leith, in his Social History of English, tells a story of the replacement of informal “thou” with formal”you” in class-mobile industrial society where one never knows who is a genuine social superior and who is just new money, so people hedge their bets to err on the side of formality just in case. No doubt the same with “lady.” And again, the association of unique power to rule may have prevented “lord” from wallowing in such commonality. To have many ladies in ones social order may be an embarrassment of riches, but it is no contradiction. To have many lords is both. And so, today a lady is distinguished from the general class of adult females by the least mark of prestige. That it retains some prestige is evident from its ironic use in “ladies of the night,” which wouldn’t hold its humor and irony if it weren’t that whores don’t count in the usual inventory of the set denoted by “lady.”

The word today is full of surprising contrasts. As a common title of address it is formal but insulting:
Excuse me, lady (so demeaning it isn’t used anymore)
Excuse me, miss (according to my students, always preferred to “ma’am”)
As a descriptor, it is distinguishable from “woman” only in its absence of sexual, warm-blooded connotation
It’s that lady over there
It’s that woman over there

Sensitivity to gender inequality is rendering this “lady” obsolete. It survives in “ladies and gentleman,” and in circumstances where “gentlemen” is perceived as too formal, “women” is often perceived as too human.
The men on the left, ladies to the right
though it can depend on the gender of the speaker — women in polite situations often seem to feel the need to show more delicacy addressing men and vice versa.

The standard denotation of “lady” has widened immensely, spreading its girth almost to cover the entire class of adult females, its only vestige of prestige its lack of human warmth and sexuality.

However, it has great vitality as a colloquialism, where its connotations of dignity and respect reappear. Your lady is your girlfriend. It’s a title that seems to combine endearment with deflected respect (my woman deserves the respect I demand for myself) and subordination all rolled into one. Not too far from “hlafedige.”


As a term of address and a title, this word has not lost any more prestige than its male counterpart. The expansion of both reflects the decline from feudal rules to bourgeois pleasantries. It’s its use as a euphemism for the brothel administratrix that is claimed by feminists to distinguish “madam” from “sir.” It must be the power of the prestigious male that spares “sir” the place of “pimp.”

I don’t think so. Euphemism replaces an unacceptable word or covers an unacceptable idea with an acceptable word. (There are euideisms as well, but I leave that for another discussion.) There’s no eu if the stand-in word isn’t in itself acceptable and prestigious. In the case of “madam,” the denotation itself commands some respect. The pop culture image of the madam is full of dignity. She resembles nothing so much as an imperious, rigid, protective prioress of an abbey, and she’s usually tougher to bring down. The image of the pimp: a vile and villainous, cheaply and comically pretentious, tasteless and reprehensible predator. The pimp holds a special place in our culture. He is universally despised. There have been many sympathetic treatments of drug addicts, whores, indigents and criminals of all sorts, murderers, rapists, serial killers, even Hitler is probed for his motives and the possibility of an underlying human interest, but the pimp is such an unworthy worm no one will take his cause even to investigate his human motives. Why euphemize him? We don’t.

(A pander is a different person entirely.)

Euphemism as a road to pejoration doesn’t always prove disempowerment. But it does by definition prove the prestige of the euphemic word. If the euphemic word doesn’t have some prestige, then it can’t serve as a euphemism, there is no euphemism. Euphemisms have prestige by definition.


Another case of euphemism. And again, it is the prestige of the word and the (small) prestige of the position that invites the euphemy. And it’s not just a euphemism for baby-sitter or nanny: it pays better and provides better references and maybe even accommodations of an au pair. Apparently “governor” has undergone worse as “gov’nah” though not stateside, where governors all rule one or another of the fifty states of the union. Other uses of “governor” have an air of anachronism in the US.

The point here is not to deny that the female-denoting word has pejorated — it has — but to learn something from the particular process of pejoration. It is not enough to describe these euphemisms as simple reflections of lack of empowerment or prestige. Euphemism is a reflection of prestige, not its lack. The euphemism is dragged down by the denotation of the word it replaces, not by social disempowerment. It’s a case of no good deed going unpunished. The feminist story is not entirely wrong. It’s just partial.


Gender inequality is most evident here at the top. There’s no “queen of the mountain,” no female Elvis “the Queen,” no “Queen Kong.” The cross-gender epithet carries such an intensely negative implication, that one has to wonder whether males have commandeered social affect and mores in the language, here at least. Male disparagement of femininity is nowhere more evident than in this one epithet that equates everything anathema to manhood with womanhood, and not just womanhood, but the ultimate woman, the queen. The word virtue itself derives from Latin vir, ‘man.’ We’re at a puzzling place for the understanding of linguistic values. Mothers’ linguistic influence is surely greater on children, male or female, than fathers’. So what is the origin of this capitulation to maleness? Were women so thoroughly marginalized in common discourse? Were they treated as mere chattel? Judging from the language, they were.

More later, I have to get to rehearsal.