# Ancient Greek Shorthand.

Candida Moss has an extraordinarily interesting Daily Beast piece on something I hadn’t been aware of:

Several years ago, Ryan Baumann, a digital humanities developer at Duke University, was leafing through an early 20th-century collection of ancient Greek manuscripts when he ran across an intriguing comment. The author noted that there was an undeciphered form of shorthand in the margins of a piece of papyrus and added a hopeful note that perhaps future scholars might be able to read it. The casual aside set Baumann off on a new journey to unlock the secrets of an ancient code.

Initially, Baumann told me, he thought that perhaps everything had been deciphered. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s been about 100 years, maybe someone has figured it out!’ So, I looked into it, and to my delight, the system of ancient Greek shorthand does seem to have been largely figured out.” To his dismay, though, this century-spanning scholarly achievement has also been largely overlooked and underexplored. Very few people are interested in shorthand.

Why does this matter? Well, ancient Greek and Latin shorthand (also known as stenography or tachygraphy) were the bedrock of ancient writing and record keeping. The scripts that emerged in the first century BCE allowed people to record things faster than “normal.” Just like today, said Baumann, stenography was “crucially important” for recording courtroom proceedings and political speeches, but dictation was also used to compose letters, philosophy, and narrative. Everything from ancient romance novels to foundational political theories were first transcribed in shorthand. Often this would have happened on erasable wax tablets (we have many examples from archaeological excavations), but shorthand was also used on papyri and parchment.

Though his primary training was in computer science, Baumann has been working with the Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing since 2013 and on papyri since 2007. The Duke Collaboratory runs papyri.info, an open access online resource that gathers information about ancient Greek papyrus manuscripts and their contents. Duke is one of the foremost institutions in the world for working on ancient manuscripts—it not only has a remarkable collection, it is the home of numerous prominent manuscript experts. So, Baumann was in a position to think more about these ancient codes. […]

Unlike the forms of shorthand that dominated 20th-century Europe and America, however, ancient Greek and Latin shorthand was not always standardized and was uncompromisingly difficult to learn. A second-century contract from Egypt tells us that it took two years for a literate enslaved child to become proficient in Greek shorthand. The curriculum began with the student memorizing a basic set of signs vowels, syllables, word endings, and phrases before progressing to a more complicated system of compound signs. In this second step a single sign was modified by a dot or dash to augment its meaning. With only a few exceptions, these symbols were in no way pictographic, so you couldn’t guess what they meant just by looking at them. This made it useful for military communications and espionage: Both Julius Caesar and the Jewish freedom fighters who led the mid-second-century Bar Kochba revolt used it to send messages.

Those who learned ancient shorthand were aided by something called the “commentary,” a set of sentences that served as mnemonic devices for the student. A copy of this commentary was published by Sofía Torallas Tovar and Klass Worp in the important volume To the Origins of Greek Stenography. It has helped scholars decipher more complex signs and understand how it was learned. “At the conclusion of this process,” said Baumann, “the student would have learned a system of over 800 signs alongside what is essentially a gigantic lookup table of over 4,000 words and phrases.”

In my own work I have argued that, to the best of our knowledge, only those who went through this arduous process—that is enslaved and formerly enslaved workers—could actually read it. To the untrained eye it resembles squiggles or chicken scratch. Given the transformational nature of translating the spoken word first into symbols and subsequently into ancient Greek (or Latin) literacy seems important. (Full disclosure: I have an article coming out early next year in the Journal of Theological Studies in which I discuss the ramifications of this for thinking about the composition of early Christian texts and the ways in which enslaved people might have resisted structures of power). […]

The problem, Baumann told me, is that scholars haven’t been that interested in shorthand and, thus, haven’t been fully or accurately noting its presence. When an editor just notes that there were “shorthand marks” in a particular ancient text this doesn’t tell us even how many there were much less what they were. Sometimes editors of manuscripts describe it not as shorthand, but as an “unidentified script.” If an entire text was written in shorthand, it might have been misidentified at some point in its study. And, in some cases, editors might not have registered it at all. The lack of editorial consistency makes it difficult to get a sense of how much untranslated shorthand there even is. Short of going back and reviewing the hundreds of thousands of papyrological fragments sat in university libraries, museums, and private collections we can’t really be sure what is out there.

This is one space where digitization could be helpful if additional resources were available to scholars. We lack the adequate tools for notation: we don’t have a font for shorthand script so even if you wanted to transcribe ancient shorthand and print it in a book or put it on a website like papyri.info you wouldn’t be able to. In 1992, Giovanna Menci started a database of papyri that included shorthand with the goal of eventually establishing a corpus of shorthand texts. But the project was abandoned due to technological challenges and a shortage of funding.

What this means, then, is that there are codes inscribed in ancient manuscripts that we could read but aren’t. This material might give us insight into the hidden spaces of ancient writing culture and access to scientific thinking, bureaucratic processes, and literary interpretation. It’s especially promising for helping us understand the obscured lives of enslaved people and decipher the workings of the Roman military. But, currently, only a select group of scholars and librarians are even thinking about it. The first steps, Baumann said, are to produce transcriptions and readings of the papyri we have and expand our understanding of how it worked. This is still an obscure sub-sub-discipline and just gathering what we know so far would allow a larger number of people to participate in the project. If we want to understand stenography, Baumann told me, “We must first reanimate the dead understanding of ancient Greek shorthand.” If we do that then “knowledge that was lost for over a millennium can be reclaimed.”

There’s more at the link; I couldn’t help but note the oddity of “codes […] that we could read but aren’t” — I would have queried “but don’t” or “but aren’t able to” had I been copyediting it.

1. David Eddyshaw says

I knew about Tiro, Cicero’s freedman, using shorthand, but kinda assumed it was his own invention. Seems I was not alone in this misconception:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tironian_notes

2. Well, he probably let people think it was. Tricksy, these underclass folks…

3. drasvi says

“but dictation was also used to compose letters, philosophy, and narrative”
Sigh. I need a secretary and I need philosophy.

4. David Eddyshaw says

It’s pretty impressive that Cicero, Mr Style ipsissimus, could actually dictate Ciceronian periods; but then, I suppose that’s what being a great orator does for you.

5. Noetica says

That Cicero, Mr Style ipsissimus, could actually dictate Ciceronian periods (but then, one might suppose that that is what being a great orator does for one), as recorded in the obiter dicta of a frequent correspondent who rejoices in the name (among others?) of “David Eddyshaw”, is pretty impressive. (Someone write that down, please.)

I couldn’t help but note the oddity of “codes […] that we could read but aren’t” — I would have queried “but don’t” or “but aren’t able to” had I been copyediting it.

Engaging oddity indeed. A fuller extraction from our text:

1. “There are codes that we could read but aren’t.”

Is there some construal that makes this grammatically acceptable (passable by grammar checkers such as MS Word’s, furnishing one explanation but not an excuse)? Yes:

2. “There are codes that we could read but that we are not [identical with].”
(So trivially true that it could not be what was meant.)

Word for Windows 365, as standardly configured, accepts 1 and also 2. But then, it is so unciceronian that it accepts as grammatical the quasi-sentences *”These are codes that we could read but isn’t.” and *”Which codes we were eat but.”

Hat’s query concerning “but don’t” is of course apt; “but aren’t able to” is trickier:

3. “There are codes that we could read but aren’t able to.”

Grammatical, but is it likely to be what was meant? I doubt it. Among the candidate meanings:

3a. “There are codes that we could [formerly] read but can’t [any more].”

3b. “There are codes that we could read [if circumstances differed] but can’t [given the way things are].”

Another “correction” to consider:

That might be what the author had in mind: simply dropping “reading” on the assumption that it was not grammatically needed. Quite plausible. Anyway, I like “but don’t” best of all.

6. drasvi says

One more variant:

7. Noetica says

Dravsi, that’s a bit cryptic. Perhaps you meant this:

“There are codes that could be read but aren’t.”

Or something else, perhaps?

8. rozele says

and enoch read [the codes] with god and wasn’t.

9. rozele says

this is making me wonder about the relationship of dictation to :

1) the production of the homeric texts. the origins are almost certainly in semi-improvised, episodic performance, but there’s a certain haze between that and the existence of the oldest versions of the written text. there’s a certain assumption that the haze is incarnated as an ionic elias lönnrot, but knowing that there was a widely-used dictation shorthand around on the one hand makes that seem a more literal possibility, and on the other makes more plausible the idea that the extant text is a more purely literary creation assembled with no direct connection to the oral tradition, but by mining an array of manuscripts of many ages and provenances produced through transcription of different performers’ tellings of the epic.

2) the production of the qu’ran. gabriel’s command “recite” means something different in a world where it can mean “transmit this text once, so that it can be accurately recorded by a professional transcriber” as well as “speak this text to confirm that you have memorized it”.

10. TR says

knowing that there was a widely-used dictation shorthand around

We don’t know that, though. I don’t know when the earliest attested papyrus shorthand dates from, but it must be several centuries after the Homeric poems were first written down. It sounds like a Hellenistic thing.

It would be very interesting to read “the commentary” — I wonder if it’s online somewhere.

“Codes that we could read but aren’t” sounds standard to me.

11. January First-of-May says

Another “correction” to consider:

That might be what the author had in mind: simply dropping “reading” on the assumption that it was not grammatically needed. Quite plausible. Anyway, I like “but don’t” best of all.

I agree fully. This does seem to match the context, and it does appear that don’t is the grammatically correct replacement in this meaning.

An unrelated point…

Often this would have happened on erasable wax tablets (we have many examples from archaeological excavations)

This is strangely phrased; are there actually any archaeologically excavated Greek wax tablets sufficiently well preserved to tell which script they were written in?

(It’s not a priori impossible, because if we drop “Greek” the answer is in fact positive, though I’m only aware of one such example. In principle it could also be possible to read wax tablet text from impressions left on the non-wax part, but I’d imagine it would be almost impossible for shorthand in particular.
But AFAIK the actual situation is that archaeologists find 1. many illegible tablets and 2. many texts on other media mentioning wax tablets as something people write on.)

[EDIT: apparently yes, there are many examples. TIL. Wouldn’t have expected.]

12. David Eddyshaw says

the obiter dicta of … “David Eddyshaw”

All my dicta are obiter. I lack your human concept of “relevance.”

13. mollymooly says

For me,

“There are codes that we could read but aren’t.” — ungrammatical

“There are codes that we aren’t reading but could.” — grammatical

Interesting. I would guess that some readers find the latter unacceptable but not as bad as the former?

14. David Eddyshaw says

Grammatical for me, though with a bit of delay in the parsing. I think I myself would actually say “… but aren’t doing”, but I find the el|iptical version perfectly acceptable (though clunky.)

IIRC there is a known UK/US difference over dropping forms of “pro-verb” do, but I’ve forgotten the details.

15. Noetica says

MM:

“There are codes that we could read but aren’t.” — ungrammatical

Yes, interesting. We note that TR finds it “standard”. Does TR mean that people utter such things often? I would accept that limited claim, but not much beyond it. And David Eddyshaw finds it “perfectly acceptable”.

Sensibus strictis: I don’t say that it’s “ungrammatical” (a contestable term), just that if it’s parsed in a way that makes it likely to be judged “grammatical” then it can’t mean what it was intended to mean (see above).

A further candidate amendment:

5. ?“There are codes that we could read but that aren’t.”

If we take each that in 5 to be a relative pronoun (quaintly, and pace Pullum and co), it does seem to lack one puzzling difficulty found in the original:

1. “There are codes that we could read but aren’t.”

In 5 the first that is the object of “could read” and the second is the subject of “aren’t [read]”; in 1 the single that must fill both roles. Makes most of us queasy.

To explore further I would substitute a regular verb for read, and try for a convincing parallel that does without the modal ambiguities of could, issues with that, forms of to be that are not common to we and to they [the codes], and so on. Strip it down to essentials. Trying to do so reveals the slippery outlandishness of 1:

6. *?”Some codes I can understand but aren’t.”

7. *?”This code I understand but isn’t.”

8. *?”There exists some code that I understand but it isn’t.”

The exercise seems futile; and that futility suggests (unfutilely) that the crux is indeed located in the that, with further obscurity lent by sundry uncertainties or bivalencies: a single read with two parsings; a single that with two parsings; even a single aren’t with two parsings.

This expansion of 5 seems to do all that could be asked, by removing bivalencies:

9. “There are codes that we could read but that aren’t read.”

16. Jen in Edinburgh says

I don’t have a problem with ‘codes we could read but aren’t’, although I might have written ‘could be reading’

For 6, I’d have to substitute ‘don’t’ just because of the awkwardness of ‘I aren’t’, but I’m not sure that’s the same issue?

17. David Eddyshaw says

Looking it up in CGEL, I see that my confused recollection that there are UK/US differences in the dropping of “pro-verb” do is correct, but that it doesn’t actually bear on this issue.

CGEL treats the ellipsis of the actual -ing form of the verb in the progressive on p1521, under Ch 17, 7.1 “Stranding of auxiliary verbs”, and describes constructions like this as “of somewhat marginal status”; the examples they give are

? “KIm won’t enter the competition, but Pat is.”
? “They may all move south, and in fact some of them already are.”

They say that the adjunct “already” in the second example improves it slightly, but that “fuller marking of the progressive (e.g. is/are doing so) would generally be preferred.”

In other words, this is yet another case where there is no neat line between grammatical and ungrammatical. Take that, Noam!

18. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

I’m not a native speaker, but I did spot this in the OP and my initial reaction was “What? Oh, it used to say be reading and they changed it without noticing they needed to change the conjunct.” So: the meaning is clear, but it gives pause and makes me think about grammar which is not what the writer wants.

19. And David Eddyshaw finds it “perfectly acceptable”.

No, no, what he found “perfectly acceptable” was the second option, “There are codes that we aren’t reading but could.” I find I have the same reaction to it as DE. Odd!

20. David Eddyshaw says

No, I did actually mean that I found the “aren’t” version grammatical, although it took me a few microseconds longer than usual to supply the ellipsis as intended. Hence, grammatical but clunky. It seems to be parallel to CGEL’s debateably-grammatical examples, so it’s not surprising that even native speakers’ intuitions about it vary.

21. Oh! It was I who completely misread!

22. pc says

Both “There are codes that we could read but aren’t.” and “There are codes that we aren’t reading but could.” are grammatical to me. The first to me is more neutral (are we not reading them because we don’t have the knowledge, or because there are institutional/structural reasons preventing us from exercising said knowledge), whereas the 2nd one I would invariable read as meaning that we have the intellectual/physical capabilities to read the codes but cannot due to some reason external to the codes themselves and we must be exhorted to overcome those external barriers.

Randomly swapping pairs of nouns and verbs continues to retain the grammaticality for me: there are rockets that we could fly but aren’t, there are books that we aren’t making but could, there are widgets that we could code but aren’t, there are songs of sixpence that we aren’t singing but could, etc.

23. Stu Clayton says

In other words, this is yet another case where there is no neat line between grammatical and ungrammatical. Take that, Noam!

Did Old Nick genuwinely hold that there was a neat line ? That would be the stupidest opinion I’ve encountered this week. No need to go on further into bindings and gummint, or whatever they are.

It does give me pause that, as I just realized, I now measure stupid opinion frequency per week rather than per month, since the figures were getting too large. Despite reading less and less news ! I must be getting old. It’s not that I think *my* opinions are non-stupid, I have after all very few and I fine-tune them as needed.

24. drasvi says

@Noetica, yes, I meant that technically “but aren’t” could be a part of this construction.

The comparativist asterisk means “unattested”, and I think when I first encountered the generativist asterisk (which as far as I understand means: “at the moment I really don’t like this construction” (I’m not sure if “grammaticality” is a thing)) I just expanded “unattested” to “hypothetical” (as a concept that can meaningfully cover both the generativist and comparativist usages).

25. Y says

Not quite. The diachronic asterisk is “unattested, but likely existed”. The synchronic asterisk means “wrong (and therefore unattested)”.

26. Hans says

The diachronic asterisk is “unattested, but likely existed”.
Exactly. That’s why one finds double asterisks for forms that are unattested and didn’t likely exist, e.g. for rejected reconstructions.

27. drasvi says

diachronic – synchronic
I considered using these two words, but the generativist use is different from “unattested in the corpus of modern texts”…

but likely existed
I think, “if [some sound law were true] then the Italic reflex of *[an IE form] would be *[…] rather than *[…]” is fine.
And even synchronously:
“…. then the modern reflex would be *[…] rather than […]” is also fine.

P.S. Yes, the double asterisk. But is it used systematically? And was it used origianally?

28. drasvi says

I can be wrong, but I thought that the contrast was (at least at some point) between real/observed forms and theoretical constructs, and that * / ** is a secondary distinction.

In this respect, *I loves Masha is indeed somewhat more theoretical than I love Masha for me, even though I don’t know any Masha closely.

29. January First-of-May says

The comparativist asterisk means “unattested”, and I think when I first encountered the generativist asterisk (which as far as I understand means: “at the moment I really don’t like this construction” (I’m not sure if “grammaticality” is a thing)) I just expanded “unattested” to “hypothetical” (as a concept that can meaningfully cover both the generativist and comparativist usages).

I agree, the concepts are very similar. I don’t recall which I encountered first, but whatever it was, I suspect I made a similar conceptual leap to the other.
Of course comparativist/diachronic notation has no equivalent for the generativist/synchronic question mark (for sentences that fall in the gap between clearly grammatical and clearly ungrammatical).

As far as I’m concerned, the double asterisk is for counterfactual reconstructions, usually in a context to the effect of “then the reflex would be **[…]” (here’s an example from this Monday), though I think I’ve also seen it used for merely particularly implausible reconstructions (and might well have used it that way myself, but it’s not very easily searchable across multiple comment threads).

I vaguely recall a LH thread from last year (or so) that went into some detail on the history of the double asterisk, and on other marks used for counterfactual reconstructions (I think one was some kind of superscript X thing). Unfortunately, as I just said, it’s not exactly easy to search [and there’s just two Google hits on LH for the actual phrase “double asterisk”, one of which isn’t even about reconstructions… I tried “double star” but that’s swamped by astronomy*].
IIRC the consensus was double asterisk is a fairly recent introduction, but it was one that quickly caught on for its convenience.

EDIT: I wonder if the counterfactual double asterisk developed through contexts like this textbook quotation [“the initial resonant clusters like *wr- (not **ur-) or *ml- (not **m̥l-)”, and many other examples within the paragraph], where the comparativist “this is a reconstruction” asterisk is apparently combined with the generativist “this is not the actually used form” asterisk.
[Found this while searching for an implausible-reconstruction example I thought I’ve seen, which actually only had one asterisk and wasn’t that implausible anyway.]

*) meanwhile, the only hit for “two asterisks” is about footnotes, and “two stars” is again all astronomy

30. Y says

** sometimes also means a double hypothetical, e.g. Nostratic reconstructions based on PIE, PU, etc. reconstructions.

By “wrong” I meant the generative sense of “judged unacceptable”. In principle that is not the same as “unattested in the corpus”, because competence/performance.

31. Brett says

I find, “There are codes that we could read but aren’t,” clearly comprehensible but glaringly ungrammatical. Following, as it did, the weird-sounding “sat” in, “Short of going back and reviewing the hundreds of thousands of papyrological fragments sat in university libraries, museums, and private collections we can’t really be sure what is out there,” I found myself wondering about whether there were systematic gaps in the author’s English language competence.

As to the possibility that the Homeric epics might have been recorded in shorthand, before they were standardized in written Attic Greek, it seems unlikely. The shorthand methods appear to date from much later, and the glyph forms used in the shorthand seem to suggest that they were developed by people who were already familiar with a Phoenician-derived script. The content of the epics also points in this direction. There is no indication that Homer (or whoever set the works in something resembling their final forms) had any awareness of writing whatsoever; writing, whether in a Phoenician-derived script or a (period-accurate) Linear script is simply never mentioned. Compare this with the heroes’ use of chariots; Homer at least knew that the nobles of the time rode chariots, even if he had no real conception of how they might actually have been used in a pitched battles.

32. drasvi says

Yes, there is a difference here.

It seems many ascribe the asterisk to Schleicher, but that is dubious. Cf. also E. F. K. Koerner, L’asteriso nella linguistica storica :

The preceding note constitutes but a partial history of the origin and development of (the use of) the asterisk in linguistics, whose locus classicus is no doubt August Schleicher’s Compendium of 1861 although Schleicher was by no means the inventor of the either the symbol or the concept. There is no clear indication that H.C. von der Gabelentz and Julius Loebe introduced the asterisk into linguistic nomenclature when they made regular use of ‘starred forms’ in their Glossarium der Gothischen Sprache of 1843. It appears much more likely that they found the procedure to mark unattested forms with a preposed asterisk already in use in other linguistic writings of the time, most likely in lexicographical work since reconstructions of Indo-European proto-forms à la Schleicher were not undertaken before 1850.

33. rozele says

the timing of the appearance of the shorthand seems to me to be an argument against an assembly-from-transcribed-performance-corpus process for the homeric epics.

but i’m not sure that the lack of references to writing tells us much. aside from some specific subgenres*, i’d be hard put to name more than a few yiddish folk songs that mention writing (only one comes to mind immediately: “shtey ikh mir afn ganikl”**), and that’s a body of work collected in the 19th century and later in communities where literacy was widespread (though far from universal, despite persistent pseudo-ethnographic fantasies). literary forms that are primarily written are often obsessed with writing (from arabic letters as reference points for beautifully-shaped facial features in andalusi love poetry on down), but i don’t know that i’d expect references to writing to show up in primarily oral forms just because it’s around and familiar as a technology.

.
* maybe only two, even: emigration/conscription letter songs; songs for/about boy-children that define success as talmudic learning.

** which might be a version of a conscription letter song, given the figure of the bird as messenger of the death of the beloved (here bringing a letter, as opposed to speaking as it does in conscription letter songs like “af di grine felder un velder”/”dos fertsente yor” a/k/a “chorna rillia izorana” in its ukrainian version)

34. TR says

Does TR mean that people utter such things often?

Yes, but also that they occur fairly often in more-or-less informal writing styles like that of the quoted article. I’m surprised so many Hatters find the sentence objectionable, frankly — it doesn’t give me pause at all.

In 5 the first that is the object of “could read” and the second is the subject of “aren’t [read]”; in 1 the single that must fill both roles. Makes most of us queasy.

But the elision is “aren’t reading”, not “aren’t read”. Noetica’s 5 (There are codes that we could read but that aren’t”) is completely ungrammatical to me precisely because it rules out the “reading” reading.

35. mollymooly says

Brett, ‘the weird-sounding “sat”’ is not a “gap in the author’s English language competence.”; it is increasingly common colloquial British. See https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/12/sat-stood.html

36. drasvi says

What a world where every conversation that happened 200 and more years ago is recorded and accessible would look like?

37. Noetica says

TR:

Noetica’s 5 … is completely ungrammatical to me precisely because it rules out the “reading” reading.

Voyons:

5. ?”There are codes that we could read but that aren’t.”

Yes, 5 rules out an interpretation involving “[we] aren’t reading”; but does that make it ungrammatical? Hardly. I expanded 5 as follows:

9. “There are codes that we could read but that aren’t read.”

By your reasoning that too would be ungrammatical (“precisely because it rules out the ‘reading’ reading.”). But does anyone here think it is? Segue to an obiter dictum of David Eddyshaw:

“In other words, this is yet another case where there is no neat line between grammatical and ungrammatical. Take that, Noam!”

Quite. As I myself had said (sensibus strictis):

“I don’t say that it’s ‘ungrammatical’ (a contestable term), just that if it’s parsed in a way that makes it likely to be judged ‘grammatical’ then it can’t mean what it was intended to mean.”

Relevant here (sorry David, this part is for the rest of us) is the swampy no-analyst’s land between the “ungrammatical” and usages deemed improper by so-called prescriptivists – and sometimes militantly advocated by so-called antiprescriptivists (many of whom I call cryptoprescriptivists) on account of their supposed “grammaticality”. And on account of their being in common use. See this ancient comment (the asterisks), and follow-ups in that thread.

What a world where every conversation that happened 200 and more years ago is recorded and accessible would look like?

(I love it!)

38. TR says

There is one reference to writing in Homer, in Iliad 6 where Bellerophon is sent to the king of Lycia with a tablet bearing σήματα λυγρὰ … θυμοφθόρα “baleful, live-destroying signs”, i.e. a message to the king to kill him. I don’t know what scholarship thinks about the date of composition of this episode.

I think if I came across There are codes that we could read but that aren’t in an English text I’d do the same double-take that Hat did with the original version. The filled-out version There are codes that we could read but that aren’t read is of course fine. What I meant was that the possibility of reading “reading” makes 1 unproblematic for me, and that if it were possible to read that in 5 then 5 would be fine too.

39. David Eddyshaw says

mollymooly is (naturally) quite right: “sat” in that sense is perfectly normal colloquial UK English.

The linked grammarphobia article is fairly seriously misguided: for one thing, “sat” is being used here to mean “seated”, rather than “sitting”; this has nothing whatsoever to do with any imaginary “decline of continuous tenses.”* Needless to say, it’s not an “error”, as the ill-informed Catherine Soanes (Soames, more likely, as in the second invocation) is cited as saying. Tell it to the French … and indeed to the multitude of speakers of other languages that do this sort of thing regularly with body-position verbs.**

* I see that the grammarphobia blogger has in fact correctly worked this out, unlike Soan/mes.

** Please note that I am heroically resisting the temptation to explain how they work in Kusaal (or even Swahili.)

40. David Marjanović says

There is one reference to writing in Homer

…but it reads like (this particular) Homer was thinking of magic signs and did not actually have an idea what writing had been like.

41. TR says

The signs are life-destroying in that the king reads them and tries to kill Bellerophon; they’re not magical in themselves.

42. ktschwarz says

It’s Catherine Soanes with an N (yes, Grammarphobia got it right once and wrong three times), and shame on Oxford Dictionaries for dumping the blog in the trash — that post is gone, it wasn’t even captured by the Internet Archive.

The same post by Soanes was previously cited here by AJP Crown in support of his own belief that “I was stood” was exactly the same as “I was standing”. However, he was interpreting it from the outside: “I don’t use it myself, but I’ve spoken to enough people who do, mostly northerners, to know that there’s nothing implied that wasn’t in the -ing form.” And he seems to have been outvoted in that thread by Lars (the original one), mollymooly, and AntC, who all felt there was a difference, though the first two are also outsiders who don’t say it themselves, and I’m not sure about AntC.

43. January First-of-May says

The signs are life-destroying in that the king reads them and tries to kill Bellerophon; they’re not magical in themselves.

Perhaps Homer (or whoever helped him compose that particular story) had heard of writing but thought it was a Lycian thing? Or, to be more precise, had encountered reports of some eastern barbarians using strange signs to write down messages.

Specifically, AFAICT the Luwian hieroglyphs were in active renaissance in Homer’s time, though admittedly mostly in places well east of Lycia. (Shortly afterwards they were replaced by Phoenician and its derived scripts even there.)

[EDIT: of course it’s also possible that the story is just very old, itself, and Homer just repeated it without understanding how that worked. Are there any older examples of the same plotline? I know it from Hamlet, mostly, but of course that could have been derived from the Iliad itself…]
[EDIT 2: apparently there is in fact a Sumerian example, so yeah, it’s an old plot.]

that post is gone, it wasn’t even captured by the Internet Archive

It was in fact successfully captured on an earlier address. The comments are gone, though.

44. drasvi says

“It was in fact successfully captured on an earlier address. ”

45. ktschwarz says

Wow, thanks, JFoM! Impressive! I wondered if the context was as bad as the bits quoted at Grammarphobia — turns out, it’s *worse*:

Aarrgghh!!! … (being a sensitive soul when it comes to incorrect grammar) it gets to me just as much as hearing four-letter words on daytime radio. … why, oh why do many people say ‘I was sat’ or ‘we’re stood’? … I hope this blog has helped those of you who (perish the thought!) use this construction to see the error of your ways.

Wow, that’s unprofessional. Camping it up in the hope that the camp covers up the class/regional prejudice (perish the thought!).

46. David Eddyshaw says

“Four-letter words (indeed, any obscenities) aren’t standard English” says la Soanes …

How did this person ever gain employment as a “lexicographer”?
(The rubbish about tenses also displays fundamental grammatical ignorance.)

47. AntC says

AntC isn’t so sure himself, now that he’s not visited Yorkshire since before there was sensible government.

48. ktschwarz says

Soanes is identified as an “ex-lexicographer” at the top of the blog, so there’s that.

49. ktschwarz says

In We were sat in a pub having a drink, that “sat” could be replaced with “seated” (or could it? I’d want to ask whoever said it whether they’re the same). But what about the hundreds of thousands of papyrological fragments sat in university libraries? I don’t think a papyrus can be seated. Is it maybe an implied causative, i.e. caused/made/forced/had no choice but to sit/stand, and to remain in that position? (As an American, I have no real clue, just throwing out guesses.)

Notes on “sat”/“stood” were added in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1996. Burchfield thought they were acting as present participles:

sat, used as a present participle (= standard English sitting), has been rediscovered by dialect scholars, who say that it is widely used in parts of the north and west of England. The following examples seem to confirm that its currency on the fringes of standard English is increasing: I can’t help thinking of that Tim sat there juddering his leg up and down—K. Amis, 1988; Now, I’m sat in a nice car, my husband at my side—A. Duff, 1990 (NZ); now, as a result of a conference débacle, you are sat on the back benches with nobody wanting to sit next to you—B. Elton, 1991. The use is exemplified in the OED s.v. sit v. 18b, with examples from OE down to 1864. It is firmly marked ‘Now dial.’ In other words it is an example of a use that was once standard but has gradually become regionally restricted over the centuries. Cf. STOOD.

stood, used as a present participle (= standard English standing) presumably has a dialectal distribution in BrE similar to SAT, but if it has its history seems to have gone unrecorded in the OED. Its existence in modern regional use is not in question, but its precise distribution has not been established. J. Cheshire et al. (1989) conclude that it and the similar use of sat ‘are now becoming characteristic of a general nonstandard or semistandard variety of English’. Examples: She was stood in front of the mantelpiece trying to think of the name for the clock—A. Bennett, 1981 (Yorkshire); ‘But that’s not the half of it.’ Uncle Simon sat forward. ‘Do you know what he did when he was stood there face to face with the priest, the man who positively identified him?—G. Patterson, 1988 (NIr.); And she’d pay the driver, and she’d be stood there, on the soiled concrete footpath—A. Duff, 1990 (NZ, Maori speaker); My husband was stood on the opposite side of the pitsCycling Weekly, 1993.

Jenny Cheshire in various publications also calls these “present participle sat” and “present participle stood”, but maybe that’s just a shorthand label? I wonder if there’s disagreement in the literature on whether that’s what they are.

50. David Eddyshaw says

what about the hundreds of thousands of papyrological fragments sat in university libraries?

Good point. More epicycles needed …
I think “sat” here is functioning like a predicative-only adjective, like “asleep”; “situated” seems to cover the relevant meanings.

It occurs to me that this “sat” differs from “seated” in another way: it requires a complement. You can say “I’m sat at the table” or even (I think) “I’m sat quietly” but not just “I’m sat.” Same for “stood.” (It differs from “sitting” in this respect, too.) It’s clearly not a participle; you can’t (for example) say *”a sat duck.”

Soanes is correct in saying that it’s not a passive: in “I’ve been sat by those people”, “by” must mean “next to”, and not “by the agency of.”

However, I don’t it’s a stretch to connect this with constructions like French je suis assis or to the Swahili nimekaa “I am sitting”, where the -me- marks so-called “perfect tense”: nimesoma “I have read” (and the verb is reconstructable to Proto-Volta-Congo: Proto-Bantu *kada, Proto-Oti-Volta *kaʎ-, cf Moba kal.)

51. ktschwarz says

The 2015 revision of Fowler (by Jeremy Butterfield) has further developments, and explicit warnings of “best avoided”, indicating it’s now common enough to cause anxiety:

sat, combined with the auxiliary be in place of a progressive tense (i.e. she is/was sat, instead of she is/was sitting), has become a topic of interest because of its increasing use: it raises the question of what is ‘standard’. The OED entry for sit (not fully updated) shows that this use stretches back to Old English (earliest citation, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 922), and the editors of the entry (1911) labelled it ‘dialectal’; the latest citation they showed (1864) was from a book of Lancashire rhymes and clearly dialectal. So much for the history. For many people from a large part of the North and part of the West of England, it continues to be the normal formulation, and they might well be offended to hear it described as ‘dialect’. What has changed is that, as the OEC data suggests, its use has spread well beyond its traditional regional confines; though still a predominantly British construction, it is also found in other varieties, including AmE, Australian, NZ, and Irish English. Unsurprisingly, it appears above all in texts classified by the OEC as not being formal or technical, especially in blogs, news, and sports writing. Many of the British newspaper examples are from Northern papers, often directly quoting what people said. However, even a paper as starchy as the Telegraph occasionally slips it in, as in the last example below. For the moment it is likely to raise eyebrows in some quarters, so is best avoided in any kind of writing where formal standard English would be expected. Examples: [same as previous edition, plus:] It means that if people are sat here waiting a long time they will see new things each time they look at itThis is Wiltshire, 2004; Both Mr Swinney and Mr Russell were sat near the First Minister as he misled parliament by claiming that the £546 million college budget increased this year— Daily Tel., 2012. For a parallel phenomenon, cf. STOOD.

stood, used, like SAT, with the auxiliary be in place of a progressive tense (i.e. she is/ was stood, instead of she is/was standing), presumably has a regional distribution in BrE similar to sat … [continues as in previous edition, then adds:] The types of register in which it appears are the same as for sat, and, just like sat, it appears often in journalism from the North of England reporting what people said. It seems to be very much a spoken form, and is best avoided in any kind of standard formal prose. Examples: [same as previous edition]

(“Progressive tense” [sic].)

52. David Eddyshaw says

Actually, come to think of it, “I’ve been sat by those people” does permit a passive interpretation, even though the unnamed individuals who have caused me to sit by those people cannot be those people themselves.
I would usually interpret it in isolation as meaning “I’ve been sitting by those people”, though.

53. drasvi says

You can’t exclude obscenities as in Kama Sutra positions, but you can, I think, exclude unprintable words.

54. David Eddyshaw says

Well, it’s true that if you can’t print it in the dictionary, you can only allude to it obliquely …

55. drasvi says

Here I imagined a dictionary where four-letter words are described (and defined) in the style of Arabian Nights.

56. David Eddyshaw says

Well, there are always pictures

57. David Eddyshaw says

Butterfield’s reference to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is interesting. However, the use of “be” rather than “have” to form the perfect of intransitive verbs is regular in Old English, so this would simply be a straightforward case of exactly the same sort of thing as the Swahili nimekaa “I’ve sat down” ↔ “I am sitting” (and abundant cross-linguistic parallels.) If the construction has been in continuous use since Old English (which is not altogether clear from what B actually says) then “I’m sat/I’m stood”, far from being Horrid Neologisms, would be Venerable Survivals, worthy of assiduous imitation by all Soaneseses.

58. ktschwarz says

“I’ve been sat by those people” does permit a passive interpretation

But isn’t that a different construction? All of the examples so far have been “to be sat”, not “to have been sat”. Also, in “to have been sat”, it would have to be the same as “seated”, wouldn’t it? i.e., you can’t have *papyrus fragments that have been sat in libraries.

The argument that this isn’t a passive because there’s no such thing as “to be sat/stood by (some agent)” sounds pretty decisive to me. I wonder if that criterion is discussed in the literature. And the parallel to “asleep” is strong, too: you enter a bodily state/position and remain in it for some time.

Is there any difference between asleep and sleeping, other than where you can put them syntactically? That is, you can’t have *an asleep child and you can’t *fall sleeping (and maybe a few other cases), but otherwise they’re interchangeable. So if that’s the analogy, it would seem to imply that “to be sat” is the same as “to be sitting” … on the other hand, you could argue that the -ing form suggests a process or activity while the non-ing form suggests a state, if that’s really a difference.

59. ktschwarz says

The OED has also now weighed in on “to be sit/stood”. They call them “passive” and “equivalent to the progressive.” From sit, revised December 2020:

27c. transitive (in passive). to be sat: to be sitting, to be in a seated position. Cf. to sit down 2b at Phrasal verbs 1. Now British colloquial.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, regional and nonstandard, but increasingly common since the late 20th century. …

[last quotations:]
1981 J. Sullivan Only Fools & Horses (1999) I. 1st Ser. Episode 4. 37 (stage direct.) Pauline is sat at a table.
2017 @carolinefoste5 23 Oct. in twitter.com (accessed 9 Nov. 2017) I should be doing work but instead I’m sat on my bed watching Strictly.

to sit down 2b. transitive (in passive). to be sat down: to be sitting down, to be in a seated position. Cf. main sense 27c. Now British colloquial.

Apparently rare from the 19th century until the late 20th century. …

[last quotations:]
1986 alt.folklore.computers 16 Dec. (Usenet newsgroup, accessed 24 Nov. 2017) James, our manager, was sat down, head in hands, hands between knees.
2012 K. Hudson Tony Hogan bought me Ice-cream Float 177 You could see an inch of grey sock and three inches of greyer skin when l was sat down.

and stand, revised June 2022:

5g. transitive (in passive). Chiefly British colloquial. to be stood: (equivalent to the progressive, usually in senses 5a(a), 5d) to be continuously in a standing position in a place or while performing an action; to be standing.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, regional and nonstandard, but increasingly common since the late 20th century. …

[last quotation:]
2003 Independent on Sunday 30 Mar. (Review Suppl.) 14/1 I was stood waiting to get my pay-cheque cashed.

I’m still wondering if there’s disagreement in the literature over the “passive” label.

60. David Eddyshaw says

But isn’t that a different construction?

Yes, potentially: it’s ambiguous between a passive reading (which is a different construction) and a perfect active (which is the same construction but with a different tense/aspect.)
Cf

“I’ve been stood in the corner for being a prescriptivist.” (passive)
“I’ve been stood here for an hour now.” (perfect active)

The first type could in fact have an agent supplied: “I’ve been stood in the corner for being a prescriptivist by that gang of rabid descriptivists”; my criterion didn’t work as I proposed because I missed the ambiguity in my example sentence. But Soanes in nevertheless correct in saying that the construction she deplores is not passive:

“I’m sat by those nasty prescriptivists.”

can’t be interpreted with “by” meaning that the prescriptivists caused me to sit, but I think this is because “sat” needs a complement, and the by-phrase is the only candidate available. I think you could just about read

“I’m sat here by those nasty prescriptivists.”

in the sense that the nasty prescriptivists habitually cause me to sit in this place; this restores the potential ambiguity.

“I’m sat here by those nasty prescriptivists every second Tuesday.”

This remains ambiguous, and can also be interpreted in the habitual sense “I sit here by those nasty prescriptivists every second Tuesday.” In other words, the “sat” construction does not necessarily have continuous meaning; and this does not mean quite the same as “I’m sitting here by …” The idea that “sat” is a substandard substitute for “sitting” in these constructions is quite untenable.

EDIT on seeing your last post: the OED is surely wrong in calling this “passive”: it actually contrasts with the passive uses.

Does the OED record the construction as having been in use all along since Old English up until the Age of Misinformed Prescriptivism, or did it disappear and resurface in dialect more recently?

61. ktschwarz says

the use of “be” rather than “have” to form the perfect of intransitive verbs is regular in Old English

Yes, the revised OED brings up that point—but they *don’t* take it back continuously to Old English. I snipped out their comment on the perfect from the quotations above because they were so long; here’s what was cut:

sit 27c. to be sat
Some Middle English and early modern English examples may show either the perfect tense formed with be rather than have or the passive of sense 1b (as in we being sat ‘we, having sat down’ or ‘we, being caused to sit’).
c1300 Childhood Jesus (Laud) l. 1720 in C. Horstmann Altengl. Legenden (1875) 1st Ser. 57 To þe bord huy beoþ i sete.
c1380 Sir Ferumbras (1879) l. 48 Al on murȝþe was he y-sete wiþ a fair baronye.
c1480 (▸a1400) St. Matthew 9 in W. M. Metcalfe Legends Saints Sc. Dial. (1896) I. 190 In þe tolbuth set lewy, þat as a tollare þare wes sate.
1609 W. Shakespeare Louers Complaint in Sonnets sig. K2v Hee againe desires her, being satte.

to sit down 2b. to be sat down
Some early modern English examples may show either the perfect tense formed with be rather than have or the passive of sense 4 (as in they were sat down ‘they had sat down’ or ‘they were made to sit down’).
?1574 tr. H. Niclaes Exhortatio ix. f. 18 My beloued Children and thou Famelye of Loue: when yee are sat-downe at the Table to eate.
1632 J. Hayward tr. G. F. Biondi Eromena 185 As soon as they were sitten down [It. assisi].

They don’t seem to be implying that it’s been in continuous use (or at least, it isn’t clear that it has), and they also don’t make the same note for “to be stood”, which has an earliest citation from 1860:

1860 Rep. Commissioners Corrupt Practices Gloucester Election 461 in Parl. Papers XXVII. 1 I was stood at the door, smoking a pipe along with a friend I knew from Birmingham.

So they seem to doubt that this is a Venerable Survival. The quotation from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the old edition was:

sit 18b. In pa. pple. with is, was, etc. Cf. 23a (b). Now dial.
c925 O.E. Chron. (Parker MS.) an. 922, Him cierde eall þæt folc to þe on Mercna lande ᵹeseten wæs.

That quote is used in the revised edition under the form history for the past participle (or at least, something almost identical dated “anno 918”), but not under “to be sat”. I have no idea what’s up with that.

62. David Eddyshaw says

I’m not sure if “I’m sat” and “I’m sitting” contrast as stative versus dynamic as you suggest, but it’s an interesting thought. Worth pondering … I suspect you’re onto something with that.

Kusaal (I couldn’t restrain myself any longer) body-position verbs, like “stand” and “sit”, are a very distinctive group which is neither fish nor fowl as far as this sort of thing goes. Morphologically, they all belong to the minority imperfective-only conjugation, other members of which are predicate-adjectival verbs like “be long”, “be bitter”, the verbs “to be”, and relationship verbs like “have”, “love”, “be better than.” However, unlike other one-aspect verbs they are dynamic, not stative, syntactically, and can make progressive/continuous forms. Diachronically, I suspect they are remnants of a stage when the language had separate imperfective-habitual, imperfective-progressive and imperfective-stative flexions; in the major conjugation the habitual and progressive flexions now coincide, and the stative has formally fallen together with the perfective.

Not surprised if the “sat” construction doesn’t go back to OE; given that the use of “be” rather than “have” in perfects is still there in Shakespeare and the Authorised Version, you’d have thought that there would have been abundant instances of “is sat” and “is stood” in this sense from Early Modern English if the forms had been in continual use all that time. Thanks for looking it up.

So I will revert to thinking that it is a newish construction, though nevertheless one well grounded in the behaviour of body-position verbs cross-linguistically.

63. what about the hundreds of thousands of papyrological fragments sat in university libraries?

Good point. More epicycles needed …

I don’t see the problem. It’s perfectly normal to say “thousands of papyrological fragments sitting in university libraries” (at least I would say it without a second thought), and since “sat” = “sitting,” Bob’s your uncle.

64. David Eddyshaw says

Also a good point …

However, it at least shows that you can’t just mechanically substitute “seated” for “sat” in these constructions, as I had been implying. And even leaving aside the thought of papyri sitting on their papyric backsides, this “sat” seems to have properties which rule out simply parsing it as a participle of any sort. I think it’s (perhaps) syntactically a derived deverbal adjective only usable predicatively; that would actually go quite nicely with with ktschwartz’s idea that the “sat” construction is stative rather than dynamic, and would account for the fact that you can actually constrain it to a habitual meaning in appropriate contexts: “I’m sat” is not simply equivalent to the progressive “I’m sitting.” There’s also the fact (if it is a fact*) that “sat” in this sense seems to require a complement, which is a thing some adjectives do, whereas “sitting” certainly does not.

* I suspect that this may turn out to be yet another area where our native-speaker intuitions don’t all agree …

65. David Eddyshaw says

Developing ktschwartz’s idea (which I’m beginning to like a lot): “sat” in this sense would mean “in a state of sitting” (much as “asleep” is “in a state of sleeping.”)

That gets round the papyrus rump difficulty and goes with the limitation to predicative uses (though it doesn’t encompass the need for a complement, it that is indeed a real thing.)

66. mollymooly says

I’m searching for [other] intransitive be-perfective verbs to compare with this “sat” and “stood”. Reminiscent of French, English seems to tolerate this for a few verbs of motion: “when I’m gone”; “Christ is risen”. Less relevant are other middle-voice things like “well-spoken” and “all partied out”.

67. David Marjanović says

I think this is an interesting consequence of set no longer being the straightforward causative of sit anymore (that’s preserved better in German), and likewise of stand having lost its causative (uh… “put up”) altogether. The merger of lie and lay is ongoing.

Participles and adjectives with identical meanings but not quite identical usage are already a thing in Germanic and Slavic. I’m thinking of has died vs. is dead, which can’t be distinguished in French. Likewise there’s living vs. (a)live, constructed in German through desperate means: lebend vs. lebendig (adjective suffix tacked on the end of a complete participle).

68. David Eddyshaw says

In Kusaal, adjectives are quite freely derived from verbs, but only with habitual or stative meanings, so you can have e.g. pɛ’ɛlʋŋ “full” from pɛ’ɛl “fill” and kpiilʋŋ “dead” from kpi “die”, but there is no adjective meaning e.g. “seated”, because zin’i “sit/be sitting” is not stative (though there is a perfectly good adjective zin’idir, meaning “habitually connected with sitting”, e.g. kugzin’idir “stone for sitting on.”) In other word, Kusaal has the “live” type of adjective, but not “living”, and there are no “participles” in the SAE sense (the language uses clause catenation for that instead, in the misnamed “serial verb” constructions.)

“Sat” and “stood” in the complained-of sense indeed resemble “full” rather than “filled.”

English seems to tolerate this for a few verbs of motion: “when I’m gone”; “Christ is risen”

“Christ is risen” is a formula borrowed from Early Modern English, when this was still normal for the perfect of intransitive verbs, but “when I’m gone” is an interesting one. (An odd man out among the Kusaal dynamic one-aspect verbs, which nearly all express body positions, is wa’e “travel”, but I think that is mere coincidence.) I suppose “not being there” is a kind of (anti-)state …

69. David Eddyshaw says

Reminds me of the Tathāgata them(not)self:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tath%C4%81gata

70. John Cowan says

you’d have thought that there would have been abundant instances of “is sat” and “is stood” in this sense from Early Modern English if the forms had been in continual use all that time

Not only that, but the absence of is sat (except in the irrelevant causative sense in which babies are sat in high-chairs by adults) from North American English shows pretty clearly that it wasn’t around when anglophones were settling this continent.

71. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

FWIW, Danish has den er stillet/lagt/sat på hylden vs han har stillet/lagt/sat den på hylden. These are the participles belong to the causatives stille/lægge/sætte, the statives are stå/ligge/sidde with participles stået/ligget/siddet. (I suspect suspicious things when the causatives have stronger forms than the base verbs, but there it is).

(Which of the verbs to use for placing a specific item on a shelf is a matter of pragmatics).

(Danish has kept the be-perfect for non-stative intransitives, but extended have-perfects to statives: den har ligget på hylden = ‘it’s been lying on the shelf’ [and maybe it still is, but that’s why it’s dusty]).

Also the “proper” causative of stå seems to have evaporated; I don’t have the reconstructive nous to posit a possible PG form and carry it forward. How about stænde, though? In any case, stille is derived from an LG adjective, akin to E still; I think the causative-of-stand sense was formed in and borrowed from MLG, while Danish (like E) formed another stille = ‘make still’ on its own. (Also stilne = ‘abate’ of winds and the like).

Lastly, har døet is rare, because when is having died (at have døet) different from being dead (at være død)? (ODS takes the position that død is “simply” an irregular way of spelling [and pronouncing] the participle — except in the have-perfect and as a phrasal verb: vinden er døet hen; note be-perfective because change of state). But it’s perfectly cromulent in counterfactuals: jeg kunne have døet hvis der ikke fandtes penicillin — though even there I think current practice would prefer jeg kunne være død nu […]. Adverbs FTW! But I expect this particular verb to exhibit pragmatic lacunae in its conjugation in most languages, because semantics.

(That’s disregarding the jocular use of transitive constructions with verbs that are normatively strictly intransitive, like and : han blev gået or de har gået ham = ‘he was fired/they fired him’; even at gå nogen = ‘to fire someone’. You can supply your own semantics for at dø en mand. The point is that these can’t be mistaken for any intransitive use so you are forced to parse them as wilfully non-standard).

72. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

(Edit timer ran out before I ran out of stuff to run off about: I think Sw jag kunde ha dött is more current than the Danish equivalent, FWIW).

And I got to thinking if død is really that irregular, maybe it’s just a case of being the only verb in its aspect class ending in a stressed vowel. But no, has much the same properties and we don’t say ‡jeg er gåd.,

73. Eliza says

“He was sat there” is often used colloquially in the UK to mean “He was sitting there”. It still sounds wrong to me, but I suspect common usage will dictate when “was sat” is acceptable. On the other hand, “he was stood up” is ambiguous; it could mean either that he was standing up (intransitive) or that his date didn’t turn up (transitive).

Sorry – I’m late to the party but another explanation of “codes that we could read but aren’t” could mean “codes that we could read but aren’t [actually codes] or [actually reading].”

“Could” implies possibility; “aren’t” implies actuality and the two are juxtaposed rather oddly. It’s just not a well-constructed, unambiguous sentence and needs a good copy editor.

I’ve often wondered if a shorthand system based on sound such as Pitmans could be adapted to become a writing system for all languages.

74. David Eddyshaw says

This question of how derived adjectives relate to cognate verbs aspectually is quite interesting in its own right, I think. Obviously it’s highly language-dependent, but it would be nice to have some sort of neat framework of categories to classify the various possibilities with.

I suspect suspicious things when the causatives have stronger forms than the base verbs, but there it is

Kusaal makes inchoatives out of body-position verbs (e.g. “sit down” from “sit/be sitting”) with a derivational suffix -n which not only appears nowhere else in derivation but is the only derivational suffix which regularly alters the tones of the root it’s attached to. Body-position verbs are weird. (Hey! A robust cross-linguistic typological generalisation! Call me Greenberg!)

75. David Eddyshaw says

The trouble with CGEL is there is so damn much of it that you almost need to know the answer beforehand in order to be able to look something up in it. I see, however, that it has an extended treatment of what it calls “adjectival passives” in Chapter 16, 10.1.3 (pp 1436 ff.) The section proposes various distinguishing tests, none of which is a lot of help with “sat/stood” as far as I can see, but it does mention (p1440) “Adjectival passives with specialised senses”, where

There are a few adjectives that are morphologically related to the past participles of verbs but whose meanings have changed, so that they are no longer comparable to verbal passives with the same forms, and their connection with passives proper is purely historical:

She’s bound to win. We’re engaged (to be married.) Aren’t you meant to be working on your assignment? His days are numbered. Are you related? I’m supposed to pay for it. He isn’t used to hard work.

I reckon “sat” and “stood” (in the uses under discussion) belong here (though it seems a bit misleading to call these “passives” at all, really: their historical origin is not relevant to current usage.)

It seems likely to me that OED’s citing of the passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is misleading (well, wrong, in fact.) This is not actually the same usage as the Old English one, which was simply a (perfectly regular) perfect used resultatively à la Swahili. The construction under discussion is indeed a Horrid Innovation (worse yet, a dialect form impertinently encroaching on the sacred profanity-free Standard, and not a survival from the Good Old Days at all. The cheek of it!)

76. drasvi says

“belong here”

Why?
These examples are markedly different in that they allow very straightforward passive interpretation (except maybe “used to”: is it from the noun “use” in the older sense “habit”?). Someone obligavit you, and you’re bound…

Meanwhile there are fallen and risen and drunk(en)…

77. drasvi says

And some of us are even woke….

78. drasvi says

Also done work

79. David Eddyshaw says

These examples are markedly different in that they allow very straightforward passive interpretation

Not in the least; less so than with “sat” or “stood”, if anything.

“She’s bound to win.” Bound by whom? And can you bind someone to win?
“Are you related?” So who related you? (With this ring I thee relate …)

I think you’re confusing diachronic origin with synchronic usage. (Hey, we’ve all been there …)

“Bound” (in this sense, “inevitably destined”) also shares with “sat”/”stood” the property of being predicative-only, I notice, and requiring a complement. Similarly with “supposed” and “meant” in the sense “morally obliged.”

80. David Eddyshaw says

(Though you can say “It’s all meant” if you’re of a Panglossian/Pollyanna-ish disposition.)

81. David Eddyshaw says

fallen and risen and drunk(en)

“Fallen” and “risen” are simply past participles, usable as adjectives Because Participle. Neither can be passive at all, because “fall” and “rise” are intransitive.

“Drunk” is just another case of an etymologically verbal form acquiring a new life as an independent adjective. If I’m drunk, it does not follow that somebody drank me, and there is no way of making “I’m drunk” into a passive. (Except in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”)

82. drasvi says

Neither can be passive at all, because “fall” and “rise” are intransitive.

Yes, exactly. But isn’t it what we need?

83. drasvi says

@DE, in Russian obliged is обязан < об- -вязан (around-tied). An obvious passive form and an obvious calque.

I thought English also calqued it, and the question "by whom" must be addressed to Latins. Also the point of passives is making the noun a patient rather than specifying the agent…

But now I disagree with what I wrote. English “bound to” (as in bound to win) does not feel like an extension of “obliged -> must”, is not identical to anything Russian and I’m not sure about French. Maybe it is “bound” in the sense “ready”, as in “eastbound”. Interference from bound “obliged” could add the sense of necessity…

84. drasvi says

“I think you’re confusing diachronic origin with synchronic usage. ” – I thought that they all are sychronously felt as passives, if it’s what you mean by synchronous usage. I also thought they are literary borrowings (except “meant”, and “bound” )…

85. David Eddyshaw says

No, to both points. Not felt as passives; not literary borrowings. Five are ultimately from French or Latin, but so is a great deal of everyday colloquial English vocabulary (“use”, “very”, “simple” … “language” …)

This is a language which has borrowed personal pronouns

86. I thought that they all are sychronously felt as passives

No, as DE said.

Compare “he was bound to lose (concede defeat)” with “he was forced…”. For me the formulation with “forced” implies a more specific external cause or (probably consciously acting) agent, even though the objective reality and the speaker’s intention could be identical in the two cases. Re sat/sitting, can you say “I was sat at the bar, minding my own business / waiting for a friend”? In Irish English I think you can have double participles, e.g., I was standing waiting on a bus.

88. David Eddyshaw says

Indeed: if I say “I’m forced to do that”, you could reasonably ask “Who’s forcing you?”; it’s just a passive.
But if I say “I’m bound to do that”, it makes no sense to ask “Who’s binding you?”

can you say “I was sat at the bar, minding my own business / waiting for a friend”?

Sure. It has no bearing on whether “sat” is actually functioning as a participle there, of course: you can say with equal grammatical propriety “I was miserable, drowning my sorrows at the bar” or “I was drinking Guinness, drowning my sorrows at the bar.”

89. drasvi says

Я стоял ждал автобуса…

90. drasvi says

Indeed: if I say “I’m forced to do that”, you could reasonably ask “Who’s forcing you?”; it’s just a passive.

@PP, DE, but passives do not require agents:-/ English is full of impersonal passives…. As I understand it is not a problem for DE, but DE implies that for each impersonal passive construction there exists a verb (in its other forms), and moreover, each user of an impersonal passive construction believes that naming the agent is in principle possible even if she does not know him.
This looks like an abstract logical requirement:/

91. drasvi says

You don’t know who are “they” in “they say”, you don’t know what is “it” in “it’s raining”, but you can’t claim that “say” does not have verbal semantics and is not a “a verb”.

Of course, “the rumor is” equals to “they say” at some level (and “would you like a pint of Guinness?” equals to silently pointing at a barrel), but not at other levels.

92. This looks like an abstract logical requirement:/

It sounds to me like it is you who are being abstractly logical; to a native speaker of English, these do not feel like passives.

93. drasvi says

About literary borrowings: Book worms converse too… we even reproduce.

I didn’t mean anything highfalutin’ like “words that a literate schoolboy won’t use in an informal conversation with his classmates”. Rather “words and expressions that an illiterate speaker would not use some time ago”.

In modern Russian there is a stratum of words and expressions that I expect to hear from the later, and a stratum that I expect to hear from the former.

E.g. the usual word for “a relative” is родственник, where род- is the root and -ственник is a pile of suffixes. The word is old enough (17th century?) but I suspect that this pile of suffixes (one of them abstract/collective) was produced by literate people and modelled after Slavonic words. It is long enough for me to use it less often than I would use a shorter word. And also cold (not warm) and formal enough, which means I associate it with more formal contexts.

94. drasvi says

“It sounds to me like it is you who are being abstractly logical; to a native speaker of English, these do not feel like passives.”

@LH, but I was commenting on DE’s (logical) test.

I was not telling that you (or DE) were wrong:/ DE supported his interpretation with an argument and I am surprised by this argument.

95. David Eddyshaw says

English is full of impersonal passives

If you mean, passives with no agent expressed, sure. Indeed, that’s often the whole point of using them. (It’s incorrect to call this “impersonal”; it’s quite hard to come up with cases where a passive subject actually is impersonal in English, although it can be done: “It’s said to rain very little in the Sahara.” It’s definitely far from common. Latin and Welsh are better at it …)

But it makes no sense whatsoever to call a construction “passive” if there is no corresponding active construction. Perhaps you would call “I’m bound to …” constructions “deponent”?

Rather “words and expressions that an illiterate speaker would not use some time ago”

These expressions just don’t fall into that category in English. They really don’t. They are not literary in the slightest.

96. ktschwarz says

DE: “It seems likely to me that OED’s citing of the passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is misleading (well, wrong, in fact.) This is not actually the same usage as the Old English one, which was simply a (perfectly regular) perfect used resultatively à la Swahili.”

That was the old OED (from 1911) that cited it; if it’s unambiguously a perfect, that explains why they dropped that quotation in the revision. They also dropped another early quotation:

c1290 St. Brendan 281 Þo heo weren alle i-sete Þare cam on and seruede.

… presumably for the same reason. Also, the old OED didn’t give any grammatical interpretation to their sense 18b; they just identify the form, “In pa. pple. with is, was, etc.”, without classifying it as passive, perfect, or whatever. They also didn’t give a definition, implying it meant the same as the preceding 18a, “To seat oneself; to take a seat; to sit down”—and that, I think, implies in turn that all the quotations must have been interpreted as perfects in 1911, since they were read as actions. (Burchfield (1996) and Butterfield (2015) apparently overlooked the be-perfect interpretation.) The revision re-interprets the remaining Middle and Early Modern English quotations as ambiguous and possibly continuous with the present-day “is sat”.

If that’s what they were thinking in 1911, then they were mistaken in including this Lancashire dialect quotation in the same category:

1864 J. Ramsbottom Phases of Distress 12 At th’ eend o’ th’ day..aw’m sat at whoam.

… since that *does* seem to be the same as the present-day “is sat”, especially with more context:

At th’ eend o’ th’ day, mi wark o’ done,
An’ quite content, aw’m sat at whoam;
Mi childher brimmin o’er wi fun,
Ull singin’ reawnd abeawt me come.

(EDIT to add:) So I wonder if this “is sat” was still regional/rare/new/stigmatized enough in 1911 that it wasn’t recognized yet in Oxford as a separate thing from the archaic perfect. They also didn’t notice “is stood” at the time.

97. David Eddyshaw says

Thanks, kt.

The spelling “childher” is odd. I wonder what it is intended to represent?

It must be difficult to impossible in texts from the period when the be-perfect was still in use to differentiate between an ordinary perfect used resultatively and this new-fangled sort of “is sat.” In fact, I’m not even sure that there is meaningful distinction: the “sat” construction is perhaps only identifiable as such at all after the demise of be-perfects. It does make one wonder again about whether the construction was – originally – a survival.

98. David Eddyshaw says

Interestingly, such an origin would be impossible for any of the examples that CGEL gives.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean I can’t lump this “sat” and this “stood” in with “bound” etc as being, synchronically, the same sort of animal: it would just mean that the various constructions in question had arrived at this point (viz looking like passives, but not actually being passives) via different pathways: in CGEL’s examples, by a meaning shift from an original past participle into something which can no longer by analysed that way, and in the “sat/stood” case by reinterpretation of an old active intransitive perfect as a “passive.”

And interpretation of this “sat” and this “stood” as (predicative-only) adjectives syntactically distinct from the homophonous past participles seems to fit very nicely with the actual usage, and the stative quality that you pointed out.

99. Jen in Edinburgh says

Someone who knows more of the technical language than me might want to have a look at https://dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/sit_v

p.t. and p.p. forms in set, etc. = sat, seated, without causal implication are included in Sit v.’, it says.

Is this the kind we’re looking for?

1617 Misc. Abbotsf. C. 311.
This witt was sett smoaking … in ane obscure chymney corner at Leethe

100. David Eddyshaw says

Interesting stuff! DM alluded to this set/sit business in passing above, as well. I hadn’t quite grasped what he was driving at before.

So: another potential source of the condemned “sat” construction: from an actual passive of “set” reinterpreted as a form of “sit.” (Some of the OED’s premodern examples look rather as if they might belong to “set” rather than “sit”, too.)

It wouldn’t explain the “stood” version, though analogy with “sit” might have been involved there too. On the other hand, “stand” itself is used as the causative of intransitive “stand” in modern English; I can’t remember (if I ever knew) what the equivalent in older English was, but if there was a distinct causative verb I imagine that it too would have been liable to get confused with the intransitive simplex verb.

[It’s all a lot simpler and clearer in Kusaal: zin’i “be sitting”, zin’in “sit down”, zin’il “sit someone down”; zi’e “be standing”, zi’en “stand up”, zi’el “stand someone/something up.”]

101. ktschwarz says

I can’t say what the spelling “childher” represents, but the author is very consistent in replacing t/d with th/dh before r or -er. Just flipping through the first few pages, I noticed: sthrivin, sthrife, sthrings, sthrippin’, sthreams, sthraw, counthry, betther, facthory, thrials, disthress; dhrops, dhrives, dhress, dhresser, dhreadful, wandhert, wondhrous, cindher. Could it be what phoneticists call “anticipatory retroflexion”? Or affrication of t and d before r? Is that a thing in Lancashire dialect?

102. David Eddyshaw says

Affrication of the stop in /str/ seems weird, though I suppose anything is possible …

I wonder whether (per contra) the spelling might actually represent dental rather than alveolar stops? Traditional Irish English does (contrary to the stereotype) distinguish the original pairs t/θ d/ð, but the original fricatives have become dental stops. That might have provided a prototype for using the graphs th/dh for dentals.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th-stopping

Father Jack: “Dhrink!”

104. David Eddyshaw says

The WP page on th-stopping links to an interesting if vaguely depressing paper about what sort of foreign-learner errors (both of pronunciation and grammar) particularly irritate L1 English speakers, and/or lead to actual misunderstanding; much of it is interestingly counterintuitive. It makes the point that the strategy of adopting renderings of difficult phonemes like /θ ð/ as stops or as /f v/, which some L1 speakers themselves do, may actually run afoul of the fact that such pronunciations are stigmatised among native speakers. And

There is even some indication that some pronunciations associated with Ireland or Scotland (see 4.6) were not judged more leniently by respondents from those areas

I think people can have quite firm ideas of what foreigners ought to sound like, which do not always coincide with talking exactly the way that they themselves do (I mentioned elsewhere that I was myself on the receiving end of this attitude with Hausa.)

A surprising amount of politics; in particular, pointing out that the facts underlying Jennifer Jenkins’ concept that native speakers don’t own English and have no title to control “International English” are not always all that factual.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2004/jan/22/tefl.wordsandlanguage

From van den Doel’s paper I glean the exciting factoid that, while Dutch learners of English mostly believe that UK speakers are more critical of the learners’ English than Americans are, the reality is actually strongly the other way round.

https://dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/13381/Doel-13-completetext.pdf

105. Noetica says

Heh, the system here reported back first that I can no longer edit my rather long comment (after just a couple of minutes). Then it failed to show my comment, but adjured me not to duplicate it!

Well, now I add something that OED now says about its set entries:
• For many years the verb to set has been cited as the longest entry in the OED. But a recheck shows that it has at last been toppled from this position. The longest entry in the revised matter is represented by the verb to make (published in June 2000). However, it is quite possible that set will regain its long-held position at the top of the league of long words when it comes itself to be revised.
• In ranking order, the longest entries currently in the online Third Edition of the OED are: make (verb – revised), set (verb), run (verb), take (verb), go (verb), pre- (revised), non- (revised), over- (revised), stand (verb), red, and then point (the noun – revised).

Now I’ll attempt to post my original comment within this one. LH might remove duplicates:

David Marjanović said:
• I think this is an interesting consequence of set no longer being the straightforward causative of sit anymore (that’s preserved better in German), and likewise of stand having lost its causative (uh… “put up”) altogether. The merger of lie and lay is ongoing.

Jen in Edinburgh cited a site:
• “p.t. and p.p. forms in set, etc. = sat, seated, without causal implication are included in Sit v.”

The Guinness Book of Records (“in cervisia veritas”) weighs in:
• “The word with the most meanings in English is the verb ‘set’, with 430 senses listed in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989. The word commands the longest entry in the dictionary at 60,000 words, or 326,000 characters.”

David Eddyshaw remarked, before moving on to analysis:
• Interesting stuff!

Yes, and a nest of etymological tangles. It is well to set out more of the evidence.

The first entry for set as a verb in OED gives this etymology:
• Common Germanic: Old English sęttan = Old Frisian setta (modern Frisian sette), Old Saxon settian (Middle Dutch, Middle Low German setten , Dutch zetten), Old High German sezzan beside sazzan (Middle High German sezzen, German setzen), Old Norse setja (Swedish satta, Danish sætte), Gothic satjan; causative of *setjan (sitjan) to SIT v.

Followed by this highly relevant note (pay no attention, David E):
• Confusion between set and sit arose as early as the beginning of the 14th cent., owing partly to the identity or close similarity of the forms of their past tenses and past participles, and partly to the identity of meaning in some uses, as between to be set (= seated) and to sit; compare SIT v. (etymological note and 5a note). For cases of mere substitution of forms of sit for forms of set, see 1 γ. , 2 ζ. forms. The spelling sett is still sometimes found in technical senses; compare SET n.1

That OED entry gives this broad meaning first, again followed by a useful note:
• I. To cause to sit, seat; to be seated, sit.
The intransitive sense ‘to sit’ (5) was apparently developed out of the reflexive and passive uses of the original transitive sense of ‘to seat’. Set, being thus used synonymously with sit, became capable of taking its other senses and constructions (see 5d, 5e, 6, 7).

Earlier I had said, before we spiralled even further from the original topic, in time-honoured Hattic tradition:
• To explore further I would substitute a regular verb for read, and try for a convincing parallel that does without the modal ambiguities of could, issues with that, forms of to be that are not common to we and to they [the codes], and so on.
And I stand by that principle. In the present case (set, sit, seat v., stand, etc.) progress is bound to be held back because we can’t readily simplify anything with parallels. The complexity is baked in.

Perhaps there are mix-ups involving passivity. Many French constructions with auxiliary être don’t feel at all passive: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” (Camus); “Je suis venu”; “Nous sommes descendus du train à Marseille”. No agent “meurt maman” (“dies my mother”), or “me va” (“comes me”), or “me descend du train” (“gets me off the train”). But of course, many other constructions are passive: “Nous étions assis pour dîner a six heures” (“We were seated for dinner at six”). There is likely to have been an agential host, who reports: “Je les ai assis pour dîner a six heures” (“I sat them down for dinner at six”). Yes, asseoir works like that. The reflexive gives instances of its working like that: “Nous nous sommes assis pour dîner a six heures” (“We sat down to dinner at six”; “We sat ourselves down for dinner at six”).
Now, in English too “we were sat” need not suggest passivity, just as a good number of Googled forms (mostly pre-20C) don’t suggest it: “Here I am arrived at Hauraki”; “And when so general an odium was risen against them …”; and Tennyson’s “I am become a name”, in “Ulysses”.

Finally, for what it’s worth to seat (as in “we were seated for dinner at six”, with either passive or non-passive meaning) is quite a latecomer. OED’s first example, in all the many meanings at “seat, v.”:
• 1577 B. GOOGE tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry IV. f. 172 Euery house is not so seated, as it hath earable ground about it.
(We love earable, yes? Recalling Shakespeare’s “uneared womb”.)

106. Noetica says

Correction:

or “me va” (“comes me”) > or “me vient” (“comes me”)

Shakespeare prefers to be with arrive:

BRUTUS. Hark, he is arrived.
March gently on to meet him.

MALCOLM. I would the friends we miss were safe arrived.

Just as with become and return:

PHILO. … And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust.

BENEDICK. Look! Don Pedro is returned to seek you.

But he has also to have:

LUCENTIO. And happily I have arrived at the last
Unto the wished haven of my bliss.

107. David Eddyshaw says

Perhaps there are mix-ups involving passivity

Well, yes. That’s what I’ve been saying.

French (now you mention it) uses être instead of avoir to make the compound tenses of reflexive verbs and a few (extremely common) others, mostly verbs of motion, but also including naître and mourir; maman est morte is active passé composé and not passive at all:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pass%C3%A9_compos%C3%A9#Auxiliary_%C3%AAtre

This is not dissimilar to the rules for older English and Germanic in general; the periphrastic perfect seems to be a Western European Sprachbund thing. I blame the Romans (and possibly the Greeks.)

It’s pretty clear that, regardless of its actual origin, “I’m sat at the table” (in the sense we’re discussing) is not passive. It may conceivably have arisen from a passive historically, like “I’m bound to …”; this is where the sit/set confusion could be relevant. Or it may have arisen from a perfect with the auxiliary “be”, as the older OED entry seems to imply; or it could be just an independent new formation leveraging the cross-linguistic weirdness of body-position verbs. None of this affects the analysis of the contemporary construction, interesting though it is in itself.

(pay no attention, David E)

Hah! I see through your transparent reverse psychology. I won’t pay attention. So there!

108. Noetica says

I won’t pay attention. So there!

(I’ll ignore that.)

Well, yes. That’s what I’ve been saying.

It would save us a great deal of research effort if you could tell us at the time what you were saying. Still, better lace than leather.

This is not dissimilar to the rules for older English and Germanic in general; the periphrastic perfect seems to be a Western European Sprachbund thing. I blame the Romans (and possibly the Greeks.)

I blame the Croatians, and a whole wardrobe-shelf-full of odd Slavs:

Nacrtao sam krug.
drew [perfective] [I] am [a] circle
I drew a circle.

109. David Eddyshaw says

It would save us a great deal of research effort if you could tell us at the time what you were saying

https://languagehat.com/ancient-greek-shorthand/#comment-4493796

where I vouchsafed: “the OED is surely wrong in calling this ‘passive’: it actually contrasts with the passive uses.”

What can I say? I lack the gift of lucid exposition. In my defence, this is due to years of deliberate obfuscation in my professional capacity. (“Bedside manner” is the technical term.)

110. Noetica says

What can I say? I lack the gift of lucid exposition. In my defence, this is due to years of deliberate obfuscation in my professional capacity. (“Bedside manner” is the technical term.)

Running that through Google Translate, um … as we speak.

Correction:

drew > drawn

Nacrtao sam krug.
drawn [perfective] [I] am [a] circle
I drew a circle.

Of course, others here would remind us that Bulgarian does it without the auxiliary:

Начертах кръг.

(Along with a side-table-drawer-full assortment of other such tongues.)

111. Y says

DE, you write lucidly. I don’t know why Noetica was harshing you.

112. ktschwarz says

Noetica: “I add something that OED now says about its set entries … it has at last been toppled …”

Naturally, Language Hat posted about that when it happened: “SET” UPSET. (And you were there!)

113. AntC says

I don’t know why … was harshing you.

Seconded. Clearly there was an exploration going on, then a hypothesis, then a search for supporting and counter- examples.

‘Bedside manner’ my foot! Patients might not follow the jargon, but they know when they’re being patronised. DE was not patronising with sat/stood, but thinking out loud.

114. Noetica says

ktschwarz:

Ah yes! I must get my memory assessed. I was right in the thick of that discussion of set fifteen years ago, with my single comment: “Yes, the OED spelling is tit-bit or tid-bit, with a hyphen. …” I grow old, as Hat is wont to say of himself. Anyway, it’s good that you have now updated the former thread with OED’s current text about record-holding entries.

Y:

DE, you write lucidly. I don’t know why Noetica was harshing you.

AntC:

Seconded.

(Settling a pillow by my head:) That is not it at all. I have observed that David E likes a bit of a fun-and-bustle rollick around the threads, so I continued certain themes he had begun, such as “I lack your human concept of ‘relevance’.” I join him in wondering at the ways of you humans, so I ran with the joke. And yes: he writes lucidly. But there were subtleties, twists, caracoles, the odd reversal, and a slew of interstitia; so it was hard to discern what the current message was. For me it was, en tout cas. (Did I say? I grow old …)

115. Eliza says

I’m all for a bit of plain English. Say what you’ve got to say, shut up and sit down. After umpteen lengthy posts nobody seems to agree on anything, or if they do, they take so long to say so that my tiny brain can’t work out what they actually are saying. Take that as a failure on my part rather than on yours.

So, to help me, please answer with a simple “yes” or “no”: Is the sentence “There are codes that we could read but aren’t” (1) grammatical (2) unambiguous (3) simply colloquial? No explanation required, just simple one-word replies to numbers (1) to (3) (if possible).

116. David Eddyshaw says

Yes! Yes! O YES!

(YMMV.)

117. Noetica says

1. Sometimes.
2. No.
3. No.

118. January First-of-May says

I’m all for a bit of plain English. Say what you’ve got to say, shut up and sit down.

For what it’s worth, I do have to admit that Noetica’s posts tend to stray quite a bit farther from the plain side than usual on LH. Which has its own charm, of course, but it does make it noticeably harder to figure out the actual intended point sometimes.

(This might have contributed to my apparently-mistaken perception of them as female. Though the last letter of the username was probably more important.)

So, to help me, please answer with a simple “yes” or “no”

1) Yes, but I’m not sure if it’s grammatical in the intended meaning
2) Technically no, practically probably yes
3) I wouldn’t say “simply”…

119. ktschwarz says

David E: “well grounded in the behaviour of body-position verbs cross-linguistically”

Hmm, but Northern England English *doesn’t* do this with body-position verbs generally, does it? That is, these aren’t possible, are they?

I’m laid on a beach towel enjoying the sun.
He’s leaned against the wall smoking a cigarette.

At least, I’d think that if these were possible, they would have been brought up by now.

Trying to think of other body-position verbs… let’s try sprawled. (Originally a body-position verb in Old and Middle English, according to the OED; other uses are later extensions.) Sprawled passes all of CGEL’s tests for “adjectival passive” (thanks for the pointer!), i.e. it’s an adjective, passive only by historical derivation. (There’s no active and transitive counterpart to e.g. A familiar, peaceful scene was sprawled out in front of him, though it could be reflexive, sprawled itself out.) It can even appear in attributive position: they stepped over the sprawled bodies.)

CGEL also notes that such adjectives always have a stative meaning (they may be used with change-of-state verbs like become, but then it’s the verb that’s dynamic, while the adjective describes the resulting state). And yes, sprawled describes the state resulting from the action of sprawling.

So if sprawled (and likewise stretched) made the transition to adjectives in standard English, why not sat? Still puzzling over that.

120. ktschwarz says

Let’s try sat and stood with CGEL’s tests for “adjectival passives”. They fail two of the tests—very stood and unstood are impossible (right?)—but those conditions are sufficient, but not necessary. They *do* pass the one test that they say is necessary, the use with remain and similar verbs (I have no intuition for this, but Google provides examples; native speakers please check):

So the builder remained sat on his bar seat when Fred introduced the girl to him (Tottenham)
we remained sat on the runway awaiting a slot to return to London (UK)
You could have remained sat, strapped in place, tears streaming down your face whilst the staff attempt to pry you from your paralysed position (UK)
leaving Havertz on while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remained sat on the bench. (Evening Standard, UK)

he remained stood with his back to us all the time we were in the cafe (TripAdvisor, Newark-on-Trent, England)
the female police officer remained stood at the rear of the police van. (Scotland)
their stars remained stood while Barnsley’s players did continue to take the knee (The Sun, UK)
Fans remained stood despite the continuing rain and no play during India vs New Zealand (picture caption on shutterstock; match at Nottingham, England)
A group of Christian leaders then prayed over Donald Trump, heavily praising the US President, while the majority of the crowd remained stood. (Irish site)
For the next half hour there was a stand-off. We remained stood in the middle of the road (Liverpool)

Granted, all of CGEL’s examples are from verbs that are definitely transitive, while sit and stand most often aren’t. But we could speculate that sat and stood are adjectives that developed from the transitive uses of the verbs.

121. AntC says

I’m not sure I’m following all of kts’s drift but either of

I’m laid/sprawled on a beach towel enjoying the sun.

seem unexceptional. (And handily avoids me having to stress about ‘laying’ vs ‘lying’. One of those is for cutlery on the picnic-cloth beside the beach towel.)

122. David Eddyshaw says

But we could speculate that sat and stood are adjectives that developed from the transitive uses of the verbs

Yes, that’s why Jen and DM’s points about sit/set confusion seemed pertinent.

It seems more likely on first principles than isolated survival of be-perfects; apart from anything else, I would have thought that a be-perfect-in-resultative-sense origin would have given rise to e.g. “I’m sat down at the table” and “I’m stood up at the bar.” Those are both possible, but the “down” and “up” seem fully dispensible-with.

I’m laid on a beach towel enjoying the sun.
He’s leaned against the wall smoking a cigarette.

Actually, yes: both of those are grammatical for me. [EDIT: ninja’d by AntC.]

Mind you, what counts as a body-position verb is pretty language-dependent: Kusaal has, for example, separate one-aspect verbs for (at least) “sit”, “stand”, “lie prone”, “lie supine”, “kneel”, “squat”, “have the neck extended”, “have the neck bent”, “hide behind something”, “lean” (of a person), “lean” (of a thing), “hang”; “be stuck to” behaves like these verbs too, both morphologically and syntactically. “Be awake” is a one-aspect verb, too: I suppose you could construe that as a body-position verb if you squint hard enough.

123. AntC says

remained stood/sat

[Native speaker here, about a third Yorkshire]

Those examples I’d call acceptable but a bit jarring: ‘remain’ is formal register; ‘stayed sat’ sounds more natural.

124. David Eddyshaw says

In fact, thinking about it, the acceptablity of “I’m laid on a beach towel enjoying the sun” supports the idea that “I’m sat at the table” is a repurposed* passive of a causative “sit.” There is, similarly, no implication at all that some external agent laid me on the beach: I bear sole responsibility for it myself. Formally, however, the construction is indistinguishable from a passive.

* I think “repurposed” is the key point in this. Ultimately, I don’t think anything much turns on whether you call this a syntactic innovation (so it isn’t actually “passive” any more) or just an extension of the semantic role of a body-position causative-passive to cover this kind of “deponent” use where no external agent is actually implied at all.

125. David Eddyshaw says

Interestingly, you can’t use the inchoative derivative of a Kusaal body-position verb in the perfective with a stative meaning.

You can say

O kpi nɛ.
he die STATIVE

interpreting the confusingly multipurpose particle as a stative marker, which is its default meaning when it immediately follows a verb perfective.

But it is not possible to take in this sense after digin “lie down”:

O digin nɛ.
he lie.down FOCUS

This is precisely because, in Kusaal, body positions aren’t “states.”
Instead, the has to be taken as marking constituent focus: He’s lain down.

My informants, who were very good at thinking up imaginary contexts where you could say something that at first blush seems ungrammatical, suggested: “Someone calls at your house; he thinks you’re out but I’m explaining that you’ve gone to bed”; and “You’ve said: the child looks filthy. I’m replying: He’s been lying down.”

an extension of the semantic role of a body-position causative-passive to cover this kind of “deponent” use where no external agent is actually implied at all

Which is what drasvi was driving at, now I think of it. Apologies, drasvi!

126. drasvi says

“who were very good at thinking up imaginary contexts where you could say something that at first blush seems ungrammatical,”

After having seen many essays by Russian learners and corrections by Russian speakers, I would say, we are good at inventing interpretations that make absolutely perfect Russian ungrammatical.

127. drasvi says

@DE, I absolutely spoke about semantical passivity.

But I said that constructions like “you are supposed to…” (but not “bound to”) are different in that they obviously have a passive interpetation.

128. David Eddyshaw says

Thinking about “I’m laid on a beach towel enjoying the sun” even more …

There actually is a problem with interpreting this as passive, even leaving aside the question of agents.
The problem is aspect.

If it’s taken as passive, then it’s not continuous/progressive aspectually (that would be “I’m being laid on a beach towel”, which is actually unambiguously passive.) If you interpret it as passive, it has to have a habitual/timeless meaning:

“I’m laid on a beach towel [by my trusty retainer] every Wednesday.”

If you add adjuncts to force a “just this present moment” interpretation, it seems to make the passive reading awkard-to-impossible:

“I am laid on a beach towel at present, reading a book.”
* “I am laid on a beach towel [by my trusty retainer] at present, reading a book.”

This (I think) is what ktschwartz was onto in saying that the “I’m sat” construction has a stative quality. It’s actually, like “I am suntanned”, aspectually neutral, and compatible with either a just-at-present reading or a timeless one: the distinction that in dynamic verbs is made by contrasting the “present continuous” with the “simple present.”

So: if taken as passive, the form distinguishes

“I’m laid on a beach towel [by my trusty retainer] every Wednesday.” – habitual/timeless

“I’m being laid on a beach towel [by my trusty retainer].” – continuous/progressive

In other words, the passive construction is dynamic, and changes for aspect.
But in the complained-of anti-Soanesian sense, there is no such distinction:

“Every Wednesday, I’m laid on a beach towel in Hartlepool thinking about transitivity.”

“At this very moment that I’m texting you, I’m laid on a beach towel wishing you were here so that we could talk about transitivity together like we used to.”

So the construction does not distinguish simple from continuous present.
Tipped off by this, I found CGEL p1431 on “Verbal passives and adjectival passives”

The verb be serves, of course, not only as a passive marker but also as a copula, taking a predicative complement in the complex-intransitive construction. And there can be ambiguity between the two constructions:

The vase was broken. [be-passive or complex-intransitive]

As a passive (of the short variety) this describes an event, as does the active clause Someone broke the vase. As a complex-intransitive clause it describes a state – the state resulting from someone or something breaking the vase. In the first interpretation broken is a bare passive clause consisting of just the head, the verb broken; in the second, broken is an adjective. We will follow the widespread practice of describing broken in the second sense as an adjectival passive, but it is to be emphasised that this represents an extended and derivative sense of the term ‘passive.’

So I think that what is going on with the “I’m sat” construction is that a straightforward verbal passive (of a position verb used causatively) has been reanalysed as an adjectival so-called ‘passive.’ (This is just a wordier version of ktschwartz’s original insight.)

Relevant to the sit/sat thing is CGEL p307

With a relatively small number of verbs the intransitive denotes a state and the transitive the bringing about of that state: I leant the ladder against the wall. This is found with verbs of position, such as hang, rest, sit, stand, and a few others …

129. But I said that constructions like “you are supposed to…” (but not “bound to”) are different in that they obviously have a passive interpretation.

The interesting thing there is that the passive interpretation implies a completely different meaning: “You are supposed [by someone] to do X” means “[someone thinks that] you [in fact] do X,” whereas the normal usage means “You should do X [which you are not in fact doing].” And (in my dialect, anyway) there’s a phonetic difference as well: the passive is /səˈpoʊzd/, whereas the normal usage is /səˈpoʊst/.

130. David Eddyshaw says

Yes, there seems to be a regular cottage industry of English past participles deciding that they want to break out on their own and become Real Adjectives. They may decide to change their (phonological or syntactic) look to symbolise their new lives.

131. drasvi says

@DE, I hope we both agree that the adjectves … participles is a scale or a range. On the left we have adjectives that feel and behave as adjectives, but have the form of a participle. Often a form is somewhere between the extremes. It retains some verbal properties.

132. David Eddyshaw says

Indubitably.

133. David Eddyshaw says

I see that CGEL does in fact discuss this very issue of stative versus dynamic in passives (p1437f.) They point out that what they call “adjectival passives” are indeed always stative, but go on to warn that

It must be emphasised, however, that adjectival and verbal passives cannot be distinguished simply by asking whether the interpretation is stative or dynamic – it is for this reason that we have not included it among the tests for adjectival status.

They make two points: firstly, verbal passives may have a stative meaning if the verb itself is stative: “She is loved by everyone.” Secondly, adjectival passives can function as predicative complements of dynamic verbs: “it became magnetised.” (Neither of these cases apply with the “sat”, “stood” or “lain” types we’ve been talking about, though, so for the purposes of our discussion it probably is a valid test.)

I think that one can say of English core adjectives (i.e. not pariticiples), that like all Kusaal adjectives, they can only be aspectually habitual or stative, not progressive or perfective. Part of the journey for a participle of an English dynamic verb setting out to become a “real” adjective is shedding any other aspectual quality than habitual or stative.

134. David Eddyshaw says

My mistake of putting “lain” for “laid” in the above comment is my subconscious being helpful again …

“I am laid on a beach towel.”
(equivalent to Soanesian “I am lying on a beach towel”, though it could be timeless/habitual passive: “Who lays you on a beach towel? Why?? What nameless rite is this?”)

“I am lain on a beach towel.”
Wardour Street English for “I have lain on a beach towel.” “Fie! how improper of you, Jane. You Jezebel!”

So: in this case, the “sat” construction requires the past participle form of the transitive-causative “lay”, and doesn’t work with the past participle of the intransitive “lie.” So it must have originated via a shift from verbal/dynamic passive to adjectival/stative passive, and cannot possibly be a survival of an intransitive be-perfect.

Therefore, if this is indeed analogous to “I’m sat at a table”, “I’m stood at the bar”, which seems very probable to me, the unSoanesian “sat” construction did indeed develop from a passive (and might still be called “passive” at a pinch, though as CGEL says, this is a bit of a stretch for the terminology), and has nothing to do with the be-perfect and the construction seen in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

[I have studiously avoided citing any “get” passives of “lay” here, as ambiguity often offends and this is a family blog.]

135. drasvi says

@DE, what I just wrote was the first paragraph of a very long comment meant to explain why I can’t agree with your “makes no sense whatsoever to call a construction “passive” if there is no corresponding active construction”.

I think I must edit (and shorten) it before sending, but in light of what you just wrote, the second paragraph:

‘some examples:

рассерженный “angered”. In this case there is a corresponding verb рассердить “to make angry”.

When I use “рассерженный”, I still can feel its perfective aspect (from the prefix): the person underwent a transition from calm to angry. I don’t feel that the described person is a patient of something. This may have to do with both existance of intransitive рассердиться “to get angry” and the causative semantics of сердить (and general understanding that the person who angered you might have no intent to do that) – but I do feel that there was an external trigger.

“Aspect” is a verbal property. Thus when I use it, I can use it attributively as I use adjectives, but it still retains some verbal semantical properties. ‘

136. David Eddyshaw says

Russian may very well work quite differently from English in this regard, as in so many others. I don’t begin to know enough about Russian to say anything about it, really.

I will say that the Russian aspect system (despite being the poster child for grammatical aspect) actually works rather differently from English aspect, which is much more like the systems you typically find in West Africa (and in Biblical Hebrew, too.) In particular, in West African systems the perfective is normally the default unmarked aspect, not the imperfective as in Russian. English uses the same forms for perfective and habitual (the “simple present”, in the present tense) but otherwise has a system much more like Kusaal than Russian.

Aspect surely is primarily a verbal property; nevertheless, I think it does make sense to talk about aspect in adjectives, at least in some languages (especially, of course, those like Classical Greek with exuberant systems of participles.)

I think you can reasonably ascribe aspect to deverbal nouns (like gerunds) in some languages, too.

[I see have gratuitously muddied the waters by using “stative” in two different senses above, too. They overlap but are not the same thing. English “stative verbs” in their usual senses can’t form continuous/progressive tenses; but “stative” as a property of constructions is an aspect and even dynamic verbs can be used in stative constructions. Apologies …]

137. drasvi says

@DE, what I think is that “passivity” (that is being a patient) is a semantical property, moreover, a “verbal” semantical property. It can be felt (not in the word рассерженный).

What if a word is “between” the two extremes (which may mean: (1) is not fully independent of verbs, (2) has certain verbal properties) but there is no corresponding active construction?

It seems to exclude (1) “is not fully independent” but it does not seem to exclude (2). At least a claim “when there is no active construction, passive semantics must be absent from the adjective/participle” does not sound as something a priori true. It sounds like a generalisation that can be dispoven or confirmed by observations.

138. drasvi says

“Russian may very well work quite differently from English in this regard”

DE, true. But “makes no sense whatsoever to call a construction “passive” if there is no corresponding active construction” sounds as a general terminological proposal (a definition of “passive”) applicable to any langauge…

I am just explaining why I still may need the word “passive” in absence of verbs. “Patient” is a semantical property. “Passive” participles tell that the referent is a patient of some action.

Also paradigms have gaps. It is normal…

139. drasvi says

If we need examples:

мы помолвлены “we’re engaged”
мы обручены “we’re engaged (with specifical reference to the exchange of rings)

We also have reflexive мы обручились (we [exchanged-rings-[as-a-symbol-of-engagement]]) and there is an uncommon transitive обручить, but I don’t say “нас обручил Х” because there was no X:-)

No one around me says “помолвились” or “помолвил”. Still I reconstruct this verb with such an ease that I am sure that some speakers must use it (we can google помолвились and see if I’m right).

And I think the ideas of both “change that happened in past” and “something was done TO us” are at some level present in помолвлены.

In English I would suspect some verbal properties in “destined to…” and “born to…”, but the semantical side of it (if it exists) only accessible to native speakers (otherwise formal combinability with “to” is a verbal property, of course)

140. David Eddyshaw says

I’m distrustful of properties that can only be “felt.” Sprachgefühl, like its cousin Common Sense, is not always a reliable guide.

I also think it’s important (do as I say, not as I do!) not to get confused between form and meaning.

In this particular case we’re talking about forms which – as they stand – are indistinguishable from passives. The feeling one has as a native speaker that they are not actually passive, but a distinct construction, is an important starting point for investigation (especially when, as here, actual significant ambiguity is detectable), but unless you can correlate this subjective difference with potential formal differences you haven’t really got anywhere with the analysis yet.

In this particular case, there turn out to be quite a number of formal differences once you start playing with the forms a bit: if you interpret these “passives” in one way, you find that you can’t inflect them for progressive aspect without losing that possible interpretation, for example. The possibility of adding an agent or its impossibility is just another way of playing with the construction to find out if your subjective impression (that there are two distinct constructions involved which just happen to look identical in some cases) is really objectively valid. In this case, this too obligingly turns out to correlate with the subjective meaning difference quite neatly.

None of this means that everything can be fitted into neat boxes. Of course it can’t: as the Wise Grammarian said: All grammars leak.* But that doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve anything at all.

At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether you call a construction “passive” or not, so long as you’ve explained clearly enough what you mean by “passive” for the purposes of your investigation and displayed your evidence properly (which is exactly what CGEL does in the passage I quoted.)
.
Though it’s a kindness and courtesy to your readers not to use terms in such a gratuitously nonstandard way that they can’t understand you without looking up your idiosyncratic definitions at every turn … **

* In this particular case, the leakage is manifest in Latin and Greek grammars with their “deponent” verbs. They’re passive … except they’re not … but if we slap a name on it, we can plug that leak. Maybe.

** Hands up everyone who immediately understood why CGEL says of the “verbal passive” The vase is broken: “broken is a bare passive clause consisting of just the head, the verb broken“? CGEL is actually very consistent in its analyses of such things, and does explain what it’s doing very clearly, but I do feel there is a certain Hermetic quality to some of its terminology at times …

141. David Eddyshaw says

otherwise formal combinability with “to” is a verbal property, of course

Not at all; “near to”, “superior to” …
If you want “to” preceding an “infinitive”: “prone to”, “liable to” …

142. drasvi says

that they can’t understand you without looking up your idiosyncratic definitions at every turn …

and

In this particular case, the leakage is manifest in Latin and Greek grammars with their “deponent” verbs. They’re passive … except they’re not … but if we slap a name on it, we can plug that leak. Maybe.

@DE, linguistics does recognise existance of semantics. I know that some people believe that syntax IS linguistics – but even Chomsky recognise that semantics exists. Thus your “deponent” verbs.

My definition is entirely normal.

WP:

“In a clause with passive voice, the grammatical subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb – that is, the person or thing that undergoes the action or has its state changed.[2] This contrasts with active voice, in which the subject has the agent role.”

Emphasis mine: agent and patient are semantical roles.

WP:
“Some languages (such as Latin and Russian) have distinct participles for active and passive uses. In English, the present participle is essentially an active participle, while the past participle has both active and passive uses.”

What do you think they mean by “passive use”?

@dravi
Maybe they mean
I have been hurt (passive)
Ihave hurt myself (active)

144. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

Those guys from Alpha haven’t really figured out how to make humans at ease yet.

145. David Eddyshaw says

@drasvi:

I wasn’t aiming the “idiosyncratic definition” thing at you (CGEL, wonderful though it is, is a much more suitable target for that.)

If anything, I think that your definitions aren’t idiosyncratic* enough

I don’t think “active” and “passive” are labels that you can simply apply across all languages in the same sense. “Agent” and “patient” (even) are quite slippery notions once you start comparing across languages, for all that there are obvious huge areas of common overlap, and as for “subject” and “object” …

Is the subject of “love” an “agent”?

Kusaal can make an “agent” noun from the copula … (“one who is something …”)

* You say that like it’s a bad thing …

146. linguistics does recognise existance of semantics

Of course, but you seem to be saying semantics is the only thing that matters.

147. David Eddyshaw says

Illustration of the difficulty with “active” and “passive” from the One True Language (other than Welsh, obvs, which actually also could provide examples of Problems with the Passive):

M nu daam la. “I’ve drunk the beer.”
M nuud daam la. “I drink the beer.”
M nuud nɛ daam la. “I’m drinking the beer.” (The particle after an imperfective makes it continuous/progressive.)

Daam la nuya. “The beer has been drunk.” [This -ya is automatically attached to clause-final perfectives in positive indicative main clauses: it’s not an aspect flexion or a voice marker but part of the system for marking (in)subordination.]
Daam la nuud. “The beer gets drunk.”
Daam la nuud nɛ. “The beer is for drinking.” (Not, e.g. washing the car with. The sentence cannot mean “The beer is being drunk”, and the particle cannot be interpreted as marking continuous/progressive aspect but is forced into the role of constituent focus particle.)

Are the latter three sentences “passive”? There is no way to express an agent, but that’s true of passives in quite a few languages, in fact, so that doesn’t rule out a passive interpretation. There’s no formal mark of a voice change, but I suppose that’s not conclusive either. But why can’t the “passive” forms have continuous aspect? Contrast

M bɔdig daam la. “I’ve lost the beer.”
M bɔdigid daam la. “I lose the beer.”
M bɔdigid nɛ daam la. “I’m losing the beer.”

Daam la bɔdigya. “The beer’s got lost.”
Daam la bɔdigid. “The beer gets lost.”
Daam la bɔdigid nɛ. “The beer is getting lost.” (No problem with as continuous.)

Is this “passive”? If so, why does it behave differently aspectually from the first set of examples?

Lots of West African languages do this sort of thing in fact, though the particular aspectual restrictions are a Kusaal peculiarity; it may be more widespread in Oti-Volta, but the existing grammars don’t go into enough detail to tell.

Swahili (like many other Bantu languages) does it, not with objects, but with locatives
Would you like to hear about Tagalog?

148. Y says

Do these examples work as well with the verb for ‘buy’ (which to my mind is even more clearly instantaneous than ‘lose’)?

149. drasvi says

Well, sorry if I sounded angered in my comment above. I do not feel so (though one may say that what mattes is my distribution and not my feelings…):(

I did think that “idiosyncratic” refers to my understanding of passivity. But it is not why I felt the need to protest. DE correctly corrected my use of “impersonal” above and he was right!

I protest against the idea that Serious linguistics is Syntax. I misinterpreted DE as saying that “passive” is a primarily syntactical concept intended for “passive constructions”.

150. drasvi says

@LH, conversely.

I explained why I need this word for describing semantical properties.
But I am not saying that it is an error to speak about “passive constructions” and otherwise apply it to syntax.

For all I know, the concept is rooted in both syntax, semantics and morphology.

151. David Eddyshaw says

Do these examples work as well with the verb for ‘buy’

Da’ “buy” behaves like nu “drink.”

I protest against the idea that Serious linguistics is Syntax

Me too (though I do find syntax very interesting.) I think we’re fundamentally in agreement …
In particular, I think that the attempt to understand syntax while sidelining meaning is the Original Sin of Chomskyism. I think form and meaning are firmly linked all the way down, from text to morpheme: so you can’t meaningfully (hah!) study one without the other.

152. David Marjanović says

Yup, I had to learn the English and the Russian aspect system completely separately, from scratch; they’re orthogonal to each other.

The Slavic composite past with “be” (or without it in Russian, where “be” has basically disappeared, or in the 3rd person in Polish…) is a great mystery to me at least in historical terms, because the participle it uses (in *-l-) doesn’t occur as a participle anywhere else in IE, and there’s not even any room for it to occur outside that tense in the Slavic system that already has four other participles (present, past × active, passive). I don’t think this has much to do with the Romance and Germanic composite perfects that ultimately seem to come from a Greek construction with an active and/or aorist participle (I forgot, and I don’t know enough Greek to reproduce the idea).

At least some of the “South Slavic” languages also retain simple past tenses; Noetica’s Bulgarian example is an aorist AFAIK.

“when I’m gone” is an interesting one

That’s “gone” fossilized as an adjective meaning “away”, I would say.

“Christ is risen” is a formula borrowed from Early Modern English

Twice I wanted to say that, and both times I decided against it because I’m wondering if it’s been reinterpreted as an adjective of that sort…

Tathāgata

The galaxy-brain pun.

Also the “proper” causative of stå seems to have evaporated; I don’t have the reconstructive nous to posit a possible PG form and carry it forward.

Actually, it’s stellen in German, so the extreme irregularity of it all can be safely dropped into the memory hole of time immemorial. Though Stall “stable” has to be related somehow. It never occurred to me that still “silent” should be related, too – but it should…

(We also have the jocular “was disappeared”-type forms ist gegangen worden and ist zurückgetreten worden [“was resigned”], but that must be a lot more recent…)

I’ve often wondered if a shorthand system based on sound such as Pitmans could be adapted to become a writing system for all languages.

Of course, for some value of “adapted”.

Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics is in fact developed from Pitman’s.

This question of how derived adjectives relate to cognate verbs aspectually is quite interesting in its own right, I think.

Oh, that reminds me. My dialect has lost the present participle – except for a handful of lexicalized relicts of which some have become ordinary adjectives but others are used in a non-productive mini-aspect that doesn’t exist in Standard German: *wenn es kochend/regnend wird “if/when it starts to boil/rain”. “Raining” doesn’t seem to be used anywhere else in fact.

And (in my dialect, anyway) there’s a phonetic difference as well: the passive is /səˈpoʊzd/, whereas the normal usage is /səˈpoʊst/.

And that’s not neutralized by the following to?

(…If not, that might actually explain that commenter on a webcomic out there who always spells “have to” haft to. Partly anyway.)

153. Y says

I first saw “was disappeared” in Catch-22, a repeating ominous occurrence.

154. And that’s not neutralized by the following to?

Nope; if it’s the (rare) genuine passive, I would pause momentarily before the “to” to prevent that assimilation and make the sense clear. But I’m not sure I’ve ever actually used that in speech. It’s quite rare.

155. David Eddyshaw says

I’ve seen hafta for “have to” quite often as eye-dialect representing Low-Status White American (in texts written by Not-so-low-Status White Americans.)

I don’t think I devoice the /v/ in this sequence myself, but introspection on such matters is hardly a safe guide …

156. Noetica says

DM:

At least some of the “South Slavic” languages also retain simple past tenses; Noetica’s Bulgarian example is an aorist AFAIK.

You’re right of course. I should have chosen a different example like Polish, Russian, or Czech. The indicator would be variation by gender (as in southern forms that retain the auxiliary). Czech:

Nakreslil kruh.
He drew a circle.

Nakreslila kruh.
She drew a circle.

157. Brett says

@David Marjanović: And that’s not neutralized by the following to?

No, and this is often the case when dealing with two words that are transparently etymologically identical, but not quite homophonous.* Since the adjectival construction with supposed to is so much more common, using the true passive version invites particularly clear enunciation. If the voicing is completely neutralized, it just sounds wrong. The /z/ has to remain voiced, although the /d/ can potentially be devoiced to /t/. On the other hand, if a speaker’s enunciation is especially strong, the /d/ could feature anything up to full fortition.**

* Have I mentioned that homophone is my least favorite sounding English word? I don’t tend to develop word aversions—and there are no words that I dislike the “sound” of because of what they mean. However, from the day that I first encountered homophone in third grade, I have disliked the way it sounds. My dislike has diminished quite a bit over the intervening decades, but it is still there a bit. Conversely, my favorite-sounding English word is erythropoietin.

** In English, because there are no normally voiced aspirated stops, and lenis-fortis distinctions are basically never phonemic, a /d/ can be emphasized*** (especially at the end of a word or syllable) by fortition to /dʰ/. The same goes for the other stops, although I think it is less common with them. But is this true in all Germanic languages?

*** “Fortisfied”?

158. David Eddyshaw says

Fortitionerated.

159. David Eddyshaw says

This might have contributed to my apparently-mistaken perception of them [Noetica] as female. Though the last letter of the username was probably more important.

Neuter plural, obviously. (Same as Us.)

[On the Internet, nobody knows you’re an eldritch abomination.]

160. ktschwarz says

AntC on remained sat/stood: “Those examples I’d call acceptable but a bit jarring: ‘remain’ is formal register; ‘stayed sat’ sounds more natural.”

Excellent point, my American brain was blind to that nuance. It’s OK for CGEL since they’re only trying to cover fairly standard forms of the language, but I can see how it could interfere here. Here are some examples of “stayed sat/stood”. Do they sound natural?

What’s the longest you’ve stayed sat in an uncomfortable position to avoid waking a partner who has fallen asleep on you? (twitter; Warwick, England)
it was a Christmas present but with nowhere to go has stayed sat in it’s box until today! (Facebook; Hampshire, England)
Some stayed sat, James stayed sat, he didn’t know what else to do, what the rules were, what would happen if he got up (self-published fiction; British)
We looked for our pulse either on our neck or on our wrist. We stayed sat down and counted how many beats we could feel. (children’s school website; Lancashire)
I was sat alone in my bedroom. I felt claustrophobic, as if the space which I could potentially occupy in the limited time I had left was shrinking … I stayed sat that way for a long time. (blog; Manchester)
Knight’s music is a mix – much of it is sit-down music, whilst some of it is groovy, yet most of the audience stayed sat for the full duration of the show. (The Mancunion)

they then stayed stood about until paramedics arrived which was around 20mins. (TripAdvisor review; Middlesbrough, UK)
Ruud came a bit later and Djokovic stayed stood talking to them for ages after finishing his food before he left the site for the day (twitter; sportswriter, Brighton, UK)
Molly’s Lips followed Katie and I [a band], but everyone stayed stood for them. (music review, Liverpool)
They had gone to wrong address even though clarified where we were, i stayed stood outside in cold (just-eat.co.uk)
I stayed stood there until hubby was almost out of sight. (blogger, Manchester)
Mrs Ridgard replied: “Yes, we all got down, apart from my boss Jeffery (Walton) who stayed stood up.” (Yorkshire Evening Post)

There are other verbs that take predicative complements, chiefly look, appear, seem; I would guess these won’t work with sat/stood? (Of course, there’s stuff like “that sandwich looks sat on”, but that’s different.)

161. AntC says

What’s the longest you’ve stayed sat in an uncomfortable position to avoid waking a partner who has fallen asleep on you?

I was asking myself that only yesterday. All those examples seem entirely natural.

Hartlepool: come for the shipyards, stay sprawled for the beaches.

162. Brett says

They had gone to wrong address even though clarified where we were, i stayed stood outside in cold

What’s going on with that “clarified”? Is it a passive, with a nonstandard object; that is, would an example of a corresponding active construction have the object of the transitive clarify be the person to whom the explanatory information is being given?

Of course, clarify can be transitive, with roughly the same semantics as make clear:

The next thing the recipe says is we should clarify the butter.
I paused to clarify the definition for the class again.

but not

*I wrote out the definition again, to clarify the class.

@ DE: [I have studiously avoided citing any “get” passives of “lay” here, as ambiguity often offends and this is a family blog.]

Gee, and I was very much looking forward to that analysis with the beach towel example.

164. ktschwarz says

Maybe, or it’s a typing error for “even though I clarified”. It’s a pizza review that looks like it was tapped out on a phone in a hurry, with some words dropped.

165. Eliza says

I often hear constructions such as “I’m sat here” where the meaning is to establish exactly where I’m sitting, not where somebody has seated me. It’s not passive. It’s simply idiomatic use of the past tense and not standard English.

166. drasvi says

The vase was broken. [be-passive or complex-intransitive]

As a passive (of the short variety) this describes an event, as does the active clause Someone broke the vase. As a complex-intransitive clause it describes a state – the state resulting from someone or something breaking the vase. In the first interpretation broken is a bare passive clause consisting of just the head, the verb broken; in the second, broken is an adjective.

“The show is over” is suspiciosly similar…

167. Trond Engen says

David E.: Kusaal makes inchoatives out of body-position verbs (e.g. “sit down” from “sit/be sitting”) with a derivational suffix -n

Needless to say, so does Scandinavian. Not on body-position verbs, synchronically, but arguably borderline productive on root adjectives:.

Established pattern:
lys/i> a. “light”, lysne v. “become light”
gul a. “yellow”, gulne v. “become yellow”
syk a. “ill”, sykne v. “become ill”
myk a. “soft”, mykne v, “become soft”
hard a. “hard”, hardne v. “become hard”
etc.

(Eng. lighten, harden, soften, etc. are regularly transitive. That’s not automatic in Scand.)

røff a. “rough” (> Eng “rough”), ?røfne v. “become rough”
kul a. “cool” (> Eng “cool”), ?kulne v. ” become cool”
sløy a. “slick” (> Eng, “sly”), ?sløyne v. “become slick”

which not only appears nowhere else in derivation

Also on some noun roots:
dagne v. (arch.). “dawn”

Historically it has to be (at least partially) patterned on verbs derived from the perfect participle in -n(-).

drukne v. “drown”
tagna v. (Nyn.) “become silent”
segne v. “fall together, faint”

but is the only derivational suffix which regularly alters the tones of the root it’s attached to.

No, that’s confined to the Trans-Saharan branch.

168. ktschwarz says

Jen in Edinburgh:

Is this the kind we’re looking for?

1617 Misc. Abbotsf. C. 311.
This witt was sett smoaking … in ane obscure chymney corner at Leethe

OED also has that under sit, in the form history for one of the Scottish branches of the past participle, but they don’t use it for any of the definitions, so we don’t know how they interpret it. It could theoretically be a be-perfect, or a true passive of set “without causal implication.” The context is from an “Answer to the Satire Against Scotland” attacking some satirist:

What pitie it is, that this witt was sett smoaking among the dryed whyttings in ane obscure chymney corner at Leethe: he could haue taught ʒow ane hundrethe fyne knakis to entertayne ane king, schowis and pageantrie, and puppett playis : if he would haue bein but a lytle idolatrous, he had mad ʒou famous for ewer. As it was, he confessed a great schowe off wynen of charge ; ʒour weaponschawe and ʒour fireworkis cost ʒou nothing, whilles (I warrant) this snake will newer be worthe the wearie coales ʒou spent in bonfires.

… well, I don’t really follow that, but I don’t think this can be equivalent to modern standard English “was sitting smoking”; it sounds like it’s most likely a passive of set.

169. AntC says

Thank you @ktschwarz for those excellent examples. Does your repository include Aus/NZ data?

Away up-thread there were suggestions stative ‘I’m sat/stood’ also appeared there. I noticed at one workplace I visited in NZ there was someone who almost went out of their way to use it. I put it down to him having UK parents, although there was nothing Brit about his accent, and his workmates didn’t bat an eyelid.

170. David Eddyshaw says

Needless to say, so does Scandinavian

Thanks, Trond.

In view of such detailed correspondences at every level of the grammar, it is remarkable that Ethnologue continues to misclassify the Scandinavian branch of the family. There can be little doubt that the so-called “Germanic” features of these languages are due to contact.

@trond
the corresponding transitive verbs in German would seem to be formed as be-[NOUN STEM]-ig-en, where en is the standard infinitive suffix. Some of the [NOUN STEM]-ig forms are adjectives, but not., e.g., *friedig, *sänftig. There are also some forms with er- instead of be-. Although English forms like harden, soften, moisten seem to be formed directly from the adjective, I think it is possible there were originally noun forms analogous to German Härte, Sänfte etc., that formed the basis for the English transitive forms (compare AS (be)notian = “make use of, employ, enjoy”, (be)sidian = “make or to become wide, ample”).

172. Trond Engen says

Yes, the infinitive suffix is surely in the mix, as is the -n- of the present participle. The duality transitive/inchoative (esp. in English) could well be due to a lost suffix.

173. January First-of-May says

Neuter plural, obviously. (Same as Us.)

[On the Internet, nobody knows you’re an eldritch abomination.]

Unless they tell you; I’ve met a few that did, though of course maybe some of them weren’t and just wanted me to think they were.

However, as it happens, my linguistic competence (such as it is) is rather limited on neuter plurals. English and (post-1917) Russian don’t (appear to) have any gender agreement on plurals, and AFAIK the former has no neuter as well; French and Hebrew have no neuter, and use the masculine plural as the neutral form.
Unfortunately my meager knowledge of German is not enough to tell what (if anything) it does with neuter plurals, and my even more meager knowledge of Spanish is not enough to tell whether it has any neuter forms. Latin probably has some neuter plurals but offhand I can’t think of any…

(Kusaal has no gender at all – or, rather, it has about a dozen, which bear no relation to human genders. Welsh is in the same category as German.
Pre-1917 Russian distinguished masculine and feminine plurals, but still not neuter, AFAIK.)

EDIT: wait, is being an abomination a necessary condition of being eldritch? The aforementioned beings I have previously conversed with online certainly seemed quite eldritch, but I wouldn’t have called any of them an abomination, as such, so I’m not sure if the term quite applies.

174. Trond Engen says

Speaaking of the present participle, was sat etc. reminds me of two different-but-related Norw, constructions:

1. ble + pr.part.:

Jeg var så trøtt at jeg ble sittende i bilen mens de andre gikk og handla.
“I was so tired that I stayed in the car while the others went shopping”

Vi kjøpte plankene, men de ble liggende i kjelleren i årevis før vi satte i gang.
“We bought the planks, but they were left in the basement for years before we started the job.”

De kom en time før det begynte, men likevel ble de stående i kø halve formiddagen.
“They came an hour before it started, but still spent half morning waiting in line.”

Ingenting var klart da vi kom, så vi ble gående og slenge i flere dager.
“Nothing was ready when we came, so we were just hanging idly around for days”

2. kom + pr.part.:
(This translates more directly to English)

Han kom kjørende med hele familien i baksetet.
“He came with his whole family in the back seat of the car.”

De kom flyttende med en gang.
“They moved here immediately.”

Vi sto der og ante fred og ingen fare, og så kom plutselig læreren gående.
“We stood there suspecting nothing, and suddenly the teacher showed up.”

I don’t have time to sort out the aspectual difficulties.

175. January First-of-May says

(post-1917) <…> Pre-1917

1918, of course. (The reform was introduced in 1917, by the Temporary Government, but not implemented until 1918.)

176. David Eddyshaw says

Kusaal has no gender at all – or, rather, it has about a dozen, which bear no relation to human genders. Welsh is in the same category as German

As far as agreement (which appears only with pronouns) goes, Kusaal has just animate versus inanimate genders, and the plural makes no gender distinctions at all. The system is “natural”, meaning that you can simply infer the agreement gender from what the noun refers to in the real world. The inherited noun class system is alive and well, with five count-noun classes and two mass-noun, but only as morphology: there is no actual agreement by noun class any more, though there are a few stranded relics of it here and there. As in Niger-Congo everywhere, actual sex has never had any consequences for how the system operates; one class is “human”, in the sense that all nouns in that class refer to people, but it doesn’t include all human-reference nouns. Elsewhere in Niger-Congo that class has often expanded to include all sorts of non-human nouns, quite often as the default class that loanwords go into, but no Oti-Volta language has done that so far.

Loss of agreement is an areal thing within Western Oti-Volta; agreement of pronouns, adjectives and numerals by noun class is very much still the thing elsewhere else in Oti-Volta, and in the geographically separated Western Oti-Volta language Boulba (way over in Benin) it’s still fully operational. Proto-Western must have had class-based agreement gender, and it’s been lost in the individual languages after they became distinct from one another.

Welsh has masculine and feminine as grammatical genders, but makes no gender distinctions in the plural. You have to go back to Old Irish for a neuter in Celtic.

There are quite a few Latin neuter plurals in English: data, media, Americana, arcana …

is being an abomination a necessary condition of being eldritch?

Well, these things depend rather on your point of view. And on the whole, I prefer to appear in a form people are comfortable with.

177. Brett says

@January First-of-May: “The Seven Geases” demonstrates that an entity may be eldritch while not being an abomination, an abomination but not eldritch, both, or neither.

178. drasvi says

“[On the Internet, nobody knows you’re an eldritch abomination.]”

I would not be so sure. (substituting me for “you”).

179. Hans says

Re neuter plurals in German: In German, no gender distinctions are made in the plural of adjectives and pronouns. Of course, neuter nouns have plural forms, and there is a plural formation that is more typical for neuter nouns (umlaut plus -er), but it’s also used for male Mann / Männer, and there are many neuter nouns that have other plurals.

180. January First-of-May says

Re neuter plurals in German: In German, no gender distinctions are made in the plural of adjectives and pronouns.

So it’s like (modern) Russian, then. About what I expected (vaguely recall that this might be a SAE thing?) but I wasn’t sure.

181. David Marjanović says

But is this true in all Germanic languages?

Some – in particular almost all of southern German – lack voiced obstruents entirely, so I’m still unfamiliar enough with the whole concept that I have to ask about the last few details.

[b d g] are the most difficult sounds in the entire French language, followed by [z ʒ]…

dagne v. (arch.). “dawn”

Oh. German (arch.) actually has tagen “dawn”, but it never occurred to me it’s the cognate of dawn!

(There’s another tagen, which remains in common use, but it means “be in session”.)

Generally in German, this -n- seems to have been completely confused with the infinitive/1pl/3pl ending, except for rechnen “calculate, reckon” < noun prefix Rechen-* and zeichnen “draw, sign” < Zeichen “sign”.

*…but not Rechen “rake”.

segne v. “fall together, faint”

Likewise it never occurred to me that sacken (zusammensacken) is the cognate of sag, despite the identical meaning. The ancient loan Sack must have gotten completely in the way.

and my even more meager knowledge of Spanish is not enough to tell whether it has any neuter forms.

Nope. Basic Romance – everything is m or f, and that’s kept in the pl.

182. David Eddyshaw says

About what I expected (vaguely recall that this might be a SAE thing?) but I wasn’t sure

No, I think it’s a cross-linguistic tendency. Fulfulde has twenty singular noun agreement classes and “only” five plural.

Hausa distinguishes masculine and feminine grammatical genders in the singular but not in the plural, and this seems to go all the way back to Proto-Chadic (a lot of Chadic languages have given up grammatical gender altogether, though, including the whole of the Biu-Mandara/Central branch.)

Dagaare, which like most of Western Oti-Volta has abandoned noun-class-based grammatical gender for a natural animate/inanimate system, bizarrely only distinguishes gender in the plural. I can’t actually think of any other language which distinguishes more agreement genders or classes in the plural than the singular. Weird.

183. anhweol says

It is interesting that plurals almost always show the same or fewer gender distinctions than singulars, when ‘logically’ there would be an obvious motivation for having more, to cover groups of mixed gender (particularly if you distinguish different human genders in the singular). Dropping distinctions in the plural allows you to sidestep the issue, but in some ways it is odd that no one traditionally has a contrast of m/f in the singular versus m/f/mixed in the plural.

184. Etienne says

David M., David E.: Neuter nouns are indeed unknown in Welsh or Spanish, but Modern Spanish does have neuter forms directly inherited from Latin: neuter singular forms of the definite article and of the demonstratives (when used pronominally): they are distinct from masculine and feminine ones, and their forms go back to Latin: “lo” for the neuter article, “el” for the masculine and “la” for the feminine article (all singular), for example.

David M.: Actually, Modern Romanian has a full-fledged neuter nominal gender (AKA “ambigeneric”), which is alive and kicking, as is shown by the fact that numerous modern anglicisms are assigned this gender. The neuter also remains alive in a number of other Romance varieties (not in the national languages other than Romanian, admittedly).

(However, not all that glitters is gold: (some forms of) Asturian could be said to have a neuter (AKA “mass gender”), but it has recently been shown, conclusively to my mind, that this must be an Asturian innovation, due INTER ALIA to analogical extension to adjectives of the neuter /o/ ending which must originally have been found solely on the definite article and demonstrative pronouns, just like in Spanish).

It is thus clear that the neuter (as a noun gender) was alive and well in Proto-Romance, and that its disappearance postdates the loss of Romance (or even Italo-Western Romance) linguistic unity. Incidentally, neuter forms can also be found in adjectives in some modern or attested Romance varieties: In Old French there was an opposition between nominative singular masculine CLERS, feminine CLERE, and neuter CLER, for instance (from CLARUS/CLARA/CLARUM, respectively).

David E.: In this light, Middle Welsh had neuter forms of demonstrative pronouns (identical to plural forms, but in Proto-Brythonic masculine singular, feminine singular, neuter singular and plural forms were each distinct from the other three), so technically you do not need to go all the way to Old Irish to find neuter FORMS, as opposed to neuter nouns in Celtic.

(Incidentally, the loss of the neuter in Brythonic must have taken place very shortly before its break-up: the oldest stratum of Latin nouns in Old Irish must have been borrowed indirectly, via Brythonic (the phonological evidence is unequivocal) , but the Latin gender is (as a rule) preserved in Old Irish, including the neuter: for the Latin neuter nouns to have become neuters in Old Irish despite being borrowed by way of Brythonic only makes sense if you assume Brythonic, at the time it mediated these loanwords, still had a nominal neuter).

Whether the typological similarity between Proto-Brythonic and conservative Romance languages such as Spanish (both with a binary masculine/feminine nominal gender system, and both with a neuter form found with pronominal demonstratives which also had distinct masculine and feminine forms) is a coincidence or a sign that Proto-Brythonic was more heavily Romance-influenced than has perhaps been hitherto acknowledged remains unclear. I freely admit I lean towards the second alternative.

185. David Marjanović says

At least some of the older Germanic languages used the neuter plural for mixed groups… because, by coincidence, the masculine dual had ended up as identical with the neuter plural before it otherwise disappeared from declension (before Proto-Germanic times).

Modern Romanian

That phenomenon (also found, unproductive IIRC, in Italian) is what I tried to talk around by saying “basic”… :-] Yes, I’ve seen the Spanish generic pronominalized article in action (lo que es “that which is”).

The neuter also remains alive in a number of other Romance varieties

Are they all “ambigeneric”, or…

In Old French there was an opposition between nominative singular masculine CLERS, feminine CLERE, and neuter CLER, for instance

Of that I had no idea. That’s fascinating.

186. ktschwarz says

David M: The English cognate of German tagen is not dawn, but daw (now obsolete except in Scotland). How that turned into dawn is slightly complicated: daw (v.) > dawing (n.) > somehow dawning (n.) > dawn (v.) by back-formation.

187. David Eddyshaw says

Jarawara (the Arawa language) has masculine and feminine grammatical genders, gender assignment being essentially unpredictable for inanimates; it uses feminine plural for mixed groups. Feminine is the default gender for words like “child” if the sex is not known, and all pronouns, regardless of their actual reference, take feminine agreement.

(Also, inalienably possessed nouns take the gender of their possessor; one of those things where, after being initially nonplussed, you eventually go “Yeah, I see that.”)

188. David Marjanović says

> somehow dawning

Oh, following the link I see the Vikings can be blamed. Excellent.

Feminine is the default gender for words like “child” if the sex is not known

Compare Geschwister “sibling(s)” and a similar phenomenon in Finnish that I shouldn’t look up at this hour.

189. Noetica ők, őket, övék says

And girl originally meant a young of your species of either gender, as has no doubt been noted innumerable times before chez Chapeau.

190. David Eddyshaw says

Is Hungarian a Form they are Comfortable With?

191. drasvi says

@DE, I checked CGEL, and I don’t understand some things.

(1) what are adjectives and participles (or in their syntax-freindly formulation “verbal passives” and “adjectival passives”)? They offer a test (‘very’, substituting ‘be’ with ‘become, look, seem’) but these are tests. They help you classify something, but they don’t explain where this distinction comes from.

Is “reporting an event” vs. “state” the base of distinction or what? (it is actually a somewhat subtle distinction, I already mentioned Russian words like устал “[am/got] tired” and other words where -l is productive participial suffix, where I often can’t tell if I am reporting an event or state as a native speaker!)

(2) part of speech (adjective or participle) and syntax.
These two distinct categories. And I don’t really understand how these two relate to each other in CGEL.

One can say that a “participle” is what appears in “verbal” positions/constructions and what appears in verbal positions/constructions must be a participle. This way one can made one category fully subordinate to the other.

Then if you define what are verbal constructions, you know who are “participles” (but the notion is then fully subordinate to syntax), and if you define what are participles, you know how are “verbal” passives (but the notion is then fully subordinate to lexicon) and if you define both… Well, you either propose a law (that a lexical and syntaxtical category perfectly correspond) that can simply be wrong, or you note that this correspondence mostly works well, but there are some words for which the law does not work well.

But both adjectives and participles can be used attributively or predicatively!

192. drasvi says

In other words, I would love to see (in the CGEL) a bit more explicit discussion of these two things:
(1) the nature of the distinction between the adjectival and participal categories (lexical and syntactical) (2) how syntax relates to lexicon (again in the context of our adjectives).

193. drasvi says

Sigh. I was seeing a space opera dream (which does not happen often to me) set in a space like in the Little Prince (where “planets” were mere tens meters from each other and I could jump from a planet to planet) and our (I was with some lady) adversaries just blew up a base of some mighty animal-like (bird or frog or both -like) species – and right next to the home of that species! – which clearly meant a war and someone described as “the legendary killer from the [TV] series ‘Avesta’ ” was about to arrive when something woke me up.

On the other hand, if I did not wake up so abrubtly I would have forgotten everything.

194. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

FWIW, Standard Danish is the proud possessor of a robust neuter noun gender (opposed to the common) that forces agreement in attributive and predicate adjectives. And demonstrative pronouns that have to agree with the referenced noun and forces predicate agreement.

But only in the singular. There is no fixed relation between noun gender and the form of the noun plural, unlike what seems to be the case in Nynorsk; adjectives and pronouns also have just a single plural form. Maybe the three-gendered dialects do a better job, but I don’t think so.

(There is a noun class with zero plurals that only contains neuters but the converse does not hold).

195. David Eddyshaw says

@drasvi:

In a way, the distinction that CGEL is drawing is not so much between participles and (other) adjectives but between two different uses of the verb “be”: in the first case, it’s an “auxiliary” forming the passive (though CGEL doesn’t use this terminology) and in the second it’s a copula. Among other differences, in the first use it can form a progressive, and in the second it normally doesn’t, so e.g. “I’m being married” can only be taken as passive, because it’s dynamic (as they mention, this by itself is not an adequate criterion for distinguishing the two constructions, because the passive of stative verbs is also stative anyway, and thus usually doesn’t form a progressive.)

The dynamic/stative thing pervades the English verbal system; I don’t think that there is anything really similar in Russian (though I know much too little about Russian to say if does something analogous by a quite different grammatical route.)

you either propose a law (that a lexical and syntactical category perfectly correspond) that can simply be wrong, or you note that this correspondence mostly works well, but there are some words for which the law does not work well

Part of the excellence of CGEL is that it specifically doesn’t claim that everything is neat and tidy in English grammar, but happily discusses edge cases and peculiarities that don’t fit well into the common patterns. Their discussion on “adjectival passives” is a good example. They don’t claim that any of their tests can actually resolve all ambiguities. However it’s not necessary to do this in order to say that there actually are two different constructions lurking under one surface form: just because there are ambiguous cases, it doesn’t mean that the distinction itself is a mirage. (English gender is still sensibly called “natural” and not “grammatical”, despite the fact that traditionally, ships are “she.”)

196. David Eddyshaw says

I think I’ve confused the issue by attributing the dynamic versus stative distinction to the participle/adjective itself rather than to the construction as a whole, which is not what CGEL is doing. That was me, not CGEL.

I think that this is legitimate, myself, but it’s not a fundamentally different analysis: it’s more of a complementary way of looking at the same phenomena. (I was encouraged to look at it this way by comparison with Kusaal, which has productively formed deverbal adjectives but no participles*, and with classical Greek, in which aspect is clearly a feature not only of participles but even of infinitives.) If you don’t like attributing aspect to English adjectives/participles you’re in very good company: I’m not offended if you atttribute it to the verbs instead …)

* Like Welsh …

197. David Eddyshaw says

Urs Niggli’s dictionary of Burkina Faso Toende Kusaal, which in most respects is pretty good, has an odd frequently-repeated error which evidently arose from automated text substitution* with no subsequent checking of the text. Repeatedly, nouns are tagged as “imperfective aspect.” While I’m sure that this is an error, I did initially wonder whether it was some kind of arcane grammatical point: after all, ordinary non-deverbal nouns are “imperfective aspect”; stative, even …

* Someone has mechanically replaced something like “inflected forms:” with “imperfective aspect:” throughout, forgetting that it’s not only verbs that inflect.

198. Is Urs an actual given name or is it short for something?

199. David Marjanović says

Urs is a very common first name in German-speaking Switzerland, straight from Latin ursus.

The rest of the German-speaking area only has Ursula to offer. Compare the Swiss-only Beat & Renat (initial stress of course).

200. John Cowan says

An actual Swiss German given name, etymologically from ursus. It is the masculine version of Ursula. St. Ursus was martyred in Solothurn (of which he is the patron saint) around the year 303.

201. David Marjanović says

classical Greek, in which aspect is clearly a feature not only of participles but even of infinitives

Same in Russian, BTW. Imperatives as well.

202. David Eddyshaw says

Same in Russian, BTW

Kusaal doesn’t have infinitives, but almost all verbs have gerunds, which are quite similar. They are assigned to various noun classes according to fairly reliable rules; interestingly, all gerunds in the -m “liquids, substances, abstractions” class come either from imperfective-only one-aspect verbs or from imperfective forms of two-aspect verbs. There’s an association in there between “imperfective”, a verb aspect, and “mass”, a noun category.

[It doesn’t carry through completely: two-aspect root-stem verbs usually form their gerunds in -b(ɔ), a class whose only other members are “war”, “porridge” and “soap”, and one or two gerunds in -m have developed concrete senses that can pluralise, like sʋ’ʋlim “possession.”]

There is also an association between definiteness, a noun-phrase category, and mood, a verb category, with irrealis going with indefinite and indicative going with definite:

Ba na yɛlif on na niŋ si’em.
they IRREALIS tell.you she.NOMINALISER IRREALIS do how
“They’ll tell you what she’ll do.”

Ba yɛlif on niŋ si’em la.
they tell.you she.NOMINALISER do how the
“They’ve told you what she’s done.

203. Etienne says

David M.: Romance varieties with the neuter typically have both “ambigenericity” (for obvious diachronic reasons: the final /a/ of the neuter plural being identical to feminine singular final /a/, it would be amazing if neuter plurals had not been analyzed as (in some ways) grammatically feminine) and various other markers which are specifically neuter. Standard Romanian has plural -ă for one noun, “ou”, egg (neuter ) (Yes, straight from Latin OVUM/OVA), and in some varieties of non-standard Romanian this ending is found with a great many neuter nouns, to the exclusion of masculine or feminine ones. In Neapolitan, along with ambigenericity-type phenomena with inherited neuters, the definite article and demonstrative, in the singular, trigger gemination of the initial consonant of the following noun if said noun is neuter, and never for masculine and feminine nouns. So: it is a mixed bag.

On the name “ursula”: its roots go back further than Latin! There is a well-known Late Latin inscription-

https://edh.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/edh/inschrift/HD077356

-which refers to a mother named “Artula” and a daughter named “Ursula”: “Artula” being the Gaulish word for “she-bear”, it has been argued that, in the context of language shift from Gaulish to Latin, the daughter was named after the mother.

204. David Eddyshaw says

Artie!

205. Noetica says

Good 2020 discussion of PIE *rkto- at LLog, reminding us that ursus, artula, and arctic are all one. (See also the earliest Medvedic sutras.)

206. David Marjanović says

The last comment there links to this LH thread which discusses ursine etymology in great detail (and links back to the LLog thread, not to mention to itself extremely often). Complete with a Rakṣasa-sūtra.

207. drasvi says

Same in Russian, BTW. Imperatives as well.

Use of aspectual forms in Russian imperatives is material for more than one thesis.

Sometimes they work just like any other aspects, namely when you ask to do something habitually (“[always] start your letters with….” has ɪᴘꜰ because habitual) or to keep doing something (“speak slower” is ɪᴘғ * because ᴘʀᴏɢ).

But when you ask to initiate an action (“jump”! prototypically perfective)….

* toying with a small cap generator…

208. rozele says

not sure if it’s a related phenomenon, but i just saw this sentence here:

“If the musician is bored, so too will the audience.”

it rings as wrong to my ear in a similar way to “we could read but aren’t”.

209. Same here. Great find!

210. Noetica says

“If the musician is bored, so too will the audience.”

Interesting. Consider various substitutions that make an acceptable sentence:

“If the musician gets/becomes/grows bored, so too will the audience.”

Or even:

“If the musician waxes/proves/appears/seems/looks/feels/acts/leaves/stays/retires/behaves bored, so too will the audience.”

it rings as wrong to my ear in a similar way to “we could read but aren’t”.

Now that’s interesting too!

211. Eliza says

Not wishing to flog a dead horse, but wouldn’t it be simpler to change it to “we could, but aren’t, reading” ?

213. January First-of-May says

If anything, it’s significantly worse (to me, anyway).

214. David Eddyshaw says

I notice a whole paper on this subject in a fairly recent Language:

https://www.linguisticsociety.org/sites/default/files/e05_97.1Geiger.pdf

(I’ve kinda given up on Language as a regular thing, on the grounds that too many of the articles seems to be of interest only to Chomskyite initiates, but this one doesn’t seem to fall into that category, anyhow.)

215. Noetica says

I assemble these three texts for comparison:

1. But the project was abandoned due to technological challenges and a shortage of funding. / What this means, then, is that there are codes inscribed in ancient manuscripts that we could read but aren’t.
[From the original post, with the wording of most interest in italics.]

2. If the musician is bored, so too will the audience.
[Adduced later by Rozele, and I commented that various substitutions for is make a more acceptable sentence.]

3. [I]t rings as wrong to my ear in a similar way to “we could read but aren’t”.
[Rozele’s comment on 2.]

What interests me now is the matter of saving context. The italicised core of 1, in a different setting:

1a. While more recent and accessible codes are fascinating reading, there are codes inscribed in ancient manuscripts that we could read but aren’t. Most record ordinary commercial transactions.

A little clumsy, but far more acceptable now. We can give 2 a saving context also:

2a. The critics will leave if the performance is substandard. If the musician is bored, so too will the audience.

A meaning different from the one intended, but an acceptable sentence at least.

Now, I remarked that 3 was interesting. Why? Because like 1 and 2 it strikes me as borderline at best, combining two constructions that appear incompatible:

3a. It rings as wrong to my ear as “we could read but aren’t”.
3b. It rings wrong to my ear in a similar way to “we could read but aren’t”.

And I cannot immediately find a new context for 3 that will save it. Just saying, is all. But now I see that I was hasty with a certain assumption. In 3 and 3a the as may have a role that I failed to notice, like this:

3c. It rings as wrong to my ear.

I had assumed that this was the only normal usage:

3d. It rings wrong to my ear.

I prepared this comment before looking at the paper linked by David E, which as I now see deals explicitly with context – in a different way? I’ll read it soon.

216. Noetica says

In support of my somewhat hasty assumption, ngrams for “it rings true” (common) and “it rings as true” (quite rare; nothing like it found in the full text of OED except something that confirms my take: “1872 … I…heard it ring as true as tested gold.”). And ngrams for “rings wrong” (found) and “rings as wrong” (not found). Indeed, “open-ended” ngrams for “rings as true *” give further support for my assumption about the role of as.

217. rozele says

my “rings as wrong” was definitely not the comparative “as [wrong as]”, and may or may not be pure idiosyncrasy. i wouldn’t use “rings as true”, except in the comparative construction, but “rings as” is definitely a cromulent form for me with many other adjectives (though not, i think, with ones that are actually about sound).

i wonder how other northeastern-u.s. anglophone folks feel about it? it’s quite possible that it works for me because of yiddish “klingt vi…”.

218. Brett says

“If the musician is bored, so too will the audience,” just looks like an editing error to me, where “gets” (or equivalent) was changed to “is.”

However, my reason for commenting on that sentence is actually not linguistic. I just wanted to push back against the idea the sentence expresses—that performers and audiences frequently share an implicit emotional bond during a live performance. I know from experience, that the audience’s perceptions of how a musical performance goes are often starkly at variance with the feelings of the performers. Objectively terrible (and unpleasant for the musicians involved) performances can nonetheless go over really well with audiences, and the reverse happens as well, with the performers feeling that they were really into it but the evoking a lackluster response from the audience.

There certainly can be situations in which that kind of communion between musicians and audiences can happen, and it is probably easier with smaller groups of musicians—such as solo acts—who can more clearly display their emotional investment. It is part of being human that people very naturally want to latch on to superficial indicators of shared emotional response. However, the outward signs of that investment are also things that can oftenly be relatively easily be faked. Consider Leonard Bernstein’s absurdly over-the-top conducting style, particularly later in his career. Or note that people find sitcom jokes funnier when they are accompanied by a chorus of canned laughter.

219. David Marjanović says

i wonder how other northeastern-u.s. anglophone folks feel about it? it’s quite possible that it works for me because of yiddish “klingt vi…”.

Interesting – I (would) render that as sounds like, not as rings as (which I’ve never encountered either).

But then, what the telephone does is läuten over here.

220. David Marjanović says

…ordering it, that is. But that’s never said; after a long dramatic pause, the speech continues with “because”.

(…Rhyme not intended.)

221. Noetica says

Brett:

“If the musician is bored, so too will the audience,” just looks like an editing error to me, where “gets” (or equivalent) was changed to “is.”

Plausibly, in which case all bets are off. But we can’t be sure. Cases like this are common in conversation:

“I hope you’ve got the tickets, because I don’t.”

Or more frequently with two speakers:

“Got time for a cuppa?” “No I don’t. Emails to finish.”
“Have you got the tickets?” “No, I thought you did.”
“Audrey Tautou was adorable in Amelie.” “I do! I loved her in Priceless too.”

I notice this especially across the US–UK+ boundary. But examples like the last were a feature of conversations I had with a highly articulate native speaker (non-US) graduate with a major in English literature.

222. rozele says

i think this is a bit different, maybe in a way that’s specific to the verb/situation.

in the first two exchanges, “[have you] got” is being parsed as “do you have”, which are in fairly free alternation, which allows the object to be dropped. a response with “got”, especially a negative one, would have to be longer and would feel a bit repetitious: “i’ve got time”/”i haven’t got time”.

the Amelie example feels different, and sounds a bit off to me (though it would fly right by in conversation), in a ‘replying directly to an implicit question’ way (“don’t you think?” or “do you like her?”).

223. Noetica says

Rozele:

A bit different but not so easily dismissed – and equally interesting at the contested boundaries of “grammaticality”.

in the first two exchanges, “[have you] got” is being parsed as “do you have”, which are in fairly free alternation, which allows the object to be dropped.

If parsing is a matter of finding the grammatical roles of a word or words in a string, then what you give is not an example of parsing. The semantic content is the same in “[have you] got” and “do you have”, though their syntactic structures (and parsings) are at odds. Isn’t that the point with the earlier examples too?

the Amelie example feels different, and sounds a bit off to me (though it would fly right by in conversation), in a ‘replying directly to an implicit question’ way (“don’t you think?” or “do you like her?”).

Or the verb root of adorable is taken as presented, and assumed in the reply “I do [adore her]!” Again, I don’t see these as essentially different from the earlier “off” examples. Maybe just a further (or differently positioned) remove from canonically structured discourse, and amply attested.

224. rozele says

i meant “parsed” a bit more broadly: ‘structurally understood’ (but not in terms of the specific words’ roles, which i don’t think non-linguist speakers think about unprompted), in this case not as phrasings whose only relationship is being semantically substitutable* but as more and less formal syntactic alternatives for handling a question & answer using “have”.

and the difference, to me, in the Amelie example is that i don’t see “i do” as having any connection to the preceding statement except a semantic one (created entirely by juxtaposition), while the others here (and in the earlier examples) are all parallel constructions with a shared verb**, whether the parallelism is between clauses or speakers.

.
* as “got time [for a cuppa]? / i can’t stop [for refreshment] right now.” would be.
** taking the “got” and “do” constructions as interchangeable alternatives using “have”, that require somewhat different sentence structures.

225. Y says

I personally think sentences like “I have already eaten, but he still is” or the Amelie sentence are in this intermediate zone, where the supposed logic of language is unquestionably violated, but where the meaning is clear. To me this logical laxity allows for more sstraightforward and clear language, and is admirable and worth imitating, in speech at least.

226. AntC says

@DM (…Rhyme not intended.)

But those don’t rhyme – at least not in my English.

‘Pause’ is a homophone with ‘paws’.

Vs ‘becos’. Only if I was making some extraordinarily emphatic connection would I drawl ‘becaws’ to that extent.

I’m afraid the claims here about what is and is not interpretable/parseable have gotten beyond the point of my having reliable intuitions.

The “…, but he still is.” example I had to do a double-take. Oh: still is eating. Of course I’d get it in context, but it still doesn’t ring right.

227. Of course I’d get it in context, but it still doesn’t ring right.

Same here. I’m fascinated by the widely varying acceptability of these sentences among native speakers, and wonder what it means for the confident placement of asterisks by linguists.

228. Keith Ivey says

The Amelie exchange just sounds like the second person didn’t hear the first properly but got the general meaning. It’s hard for me to imagine they’re actually treating “adorable” as a verb form.

229. David Marjanović says

Only if I was making some extraordinarily emphatic connection would I drawl ‘becaws’ to that extent.

Ah, I figured that would happen here because it’s stressed and prepausal.

230. Y says

I’m fascinated by the widely varying acceptability of these sentences among native speakers, and wonder what it means for the confident placement of asterisks by linguists.

I’m not native, but still…
One big problem with the asterisk notation is that it’s too laconic. It encompasses too wide of a range of reactions, from “huh?” to “illogical but kinda neat” (mine) to “of course I’d get it in context but it still doesn’t feel right” (AntC’s).

231. Exactly, but linguists (at least when I was in grad school, back in the Cretaceous) treated them as a yes-or-no indicator. (I used to torment the professor in the Chomskyite course I was forced to take by saying sentences he was marking unacceptable were fine in my dialect.)

232. Keith Ivey says

Ah, I figured that would happen here because it’s stressed and prepausal.

The rhyme works fine for me (American).

233. David Eddyshaw says

Exactly, but linguists (at least when I was in grad school, back in the Cretaceous) treated them as a yes-or-no indicator

This article of Geoffrey Pullum’s (which I strongly suspect that I must have linked to before) is very much concerned with this very same major defect in the Chomskyite/generative systems:

http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/Consigning.pdf

Take the section of my article in which I point out that GES grammars define only a binary grammaticality distinction. They classify everything as either perfect or nonexistent—the only alternative to being grammatically impeccable is being nonlinguistic garbage and not having grammatical properties at all. But in reality, I point out, ungrammaticality seems intuitively to be a matter of degree: some utterances are much more ungrammatical than others. So there is a gulf between the phenomena and the theoretical account.

All Neeleman says to this, really, is that he doesn’t intend to worry about that. The matter can be treated as relating to performance rather than competence. The judgments of grammaticality people make are a matter of performance, and ‘we expect, irrespective of the nature of the competence grammar, to find variation in grammaticality judgments.’

(This reply to Neeleman is a good bit more digestible to groundlings like me than the original paper that N was – according to P – inadequately responding to, and conveys the point well enough.)

234. Y says

Still. A bunch of people figured on solving this problem by using a range of numbers between 0 and 1 to assign to acceptability, instead of just 0 and 1. That is still an engineer’s solution. “Acceptability” covers a range of qualitatively different psychological reactions to an utterance, and scalar acceptability or whatever they call it does not address that.

235. Noetica says

Keith:

It’s hard for me to imagine they’re actually treating “adorable” as a verb form.

No one has suggested that.

David E:

Pullum is just as militantly binary-thinking, in the domain of prescriptivism versus descriptivism. Any attempt to improve text that goes beyond appeals to grammaticality is to be suppressed with extreme prejudice, it often seems.

236. David Marjanović says

“Acceptability” covers a range of qualitatively different psychological reactions to an utterance, and scalar acceptability or whatever they call it does not address that.

seconded

237. Noetica says

seconded

Thirded. (See my preference for scare quotes when writing of the “grammatical”, and my “more acceptable” rather than “more grammatical”.)

238. David Eddyshaw says

Pullum is just as militantly binary-thinking, in the domain of prescriptivism versus descriptivism

Citation needed.

239. Noetica says

I would cite an exchange at Language Log concerning “that” and “which”, concerning which Pullum has very strong views; but unfortunately the non-Pullum side of the exchange was later discreetly and entirely expunged from the record.

240. David Eddyshaw says

My impression of the Mighty P has always been that he’s chill with prescriptivism so long as it knows its place and doesn’t get uppity. Nothing wrong with teaching children how to abide by certain linguistic shibboleths when desirable in order to live long and prosper, so long as you don’t mistake the shibboleths for Rules of Thought or moral imperatives.

241. Noetica says

My impression of the Mighty P …

“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.” But like you I have high respect for CGEL, which has its place on my shelves. I interrogate it often (sometimes critically), in hard copy and in searchable PDF.

242. David Eddyshaw says

One of the things I like about CGEL (if not the very thing I like most) is that it is written (mostly) in a way that positively encourages you to read it critically. Extensive discussion of controversial points, frank admission of uncertainty and incompleteness … excellent. No chance at all of mistaking it for an Infallible Guide.

Incidentally, I was just reading P’s Rarely Pure and Never Simple again

http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LTTCpaper.pdf

and was struck (again) by

… as a brief and admittedly very programmatic statement I would say the following. A human language, far from being a tight-knit redundancy-free formal system, is more like a sprawling library of interlocking construction types with a wide range of different productivities, frequencies, and vintages. Like any library, it has contents of very different ages: some constructions are essentially borrowings from centuries ago (as it were, or would to God, or be it ever so humble), while others are brand new (How cool is that! or Oops, my bad!).

The enormous library in question is capable of being acquired, internalized, and used — to varying degrees for different people — through a process involving massive exposure leading to ingrained familiarity and ultimately a degree of automaticity. The mental storage load is moderated by the sporadic presence of indefinitely large equivalence classes of words or phrases with fully shared syntactic behaviours (this point is made in a little more detail in the final section of Pullum and Scholz 2007).

This is very broadly the view taken by the proponents of construction grammar: Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay, Arnold Zwicky, Adele Goldberg, and also Ivan Sag and others in the HPSG tradition. There are many open problems about how construction grammar might be made fully explicit (Paul 2002 makes a start on the problem of devising a formalization), but the top-level insight seems to me broadly the right one.

Developing the construction-grammar view fully is of course a research programme to be worked out over decades. CGEL can be seen as a step in the direction of providing the descriptive basis for such a research programme, and a move away from the kind of theoretical linguistics that leans toward radically selective attention and purely fictive regularity …

I’d forgotten that he was so positive about Construction Grammar. I agree with him that its approach seems basically right, but that there is an awful lot of work waiting to be done on the detail …

243. AntC says

more like a sprawling library of interlocking construction types with a wide range of different productivities, frequencies, and vintages.

For example: slap in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift, would Generativists be forced to describe English as two languages?

Presumably speakers from opposite ends of the country could understand each other, though each would be producing a different set of phonemes. Putting all that down to ‘performance factors’ seems preposterous.

244. drasvi says

“My impression of the Mighty P has always been that he’s chill with prescriptivism so long as it knows its place and doesn’t get uppity.”

Hm.
I do think that schooling is not innocent. I think (1) a hour of a child’s time is no less valuable than a hour of an adult’s time (2) school and its endless evaluation of language form the position “correct or not?”, and corrections and grades do affect (or shape) us.

245. drasvi says

It is not just Pullum of course.
But “is not ready to comment on school education” is hardly a compliment (from my point of view).

246. I think (1) a hour of a child’s time is no less valuable than a hour of an adult’s time

This is one of the main points of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.

247. AntC says

One of the things I like about CGEL (if not the very thing I like most) is that it is written (mostly) in a way that positively encourages you to read it critically.

Before we get too carried away praising Pullum, remember Huddleston the (equal if not greater) co-editor. Perhaps the dialectic just reflects those editors couldn’t agree — which absolutely deserves admiration.

248. David Eddyshaw says

remember Huddleston

True that. (But I hadn’t forgotten …) CGEL is a work of many hands, in fact.

249. drasvi says

This top-level insight sounds a bit like an attempt to explain language (rather than a humble model that helps to work with some aspect of it).

250. David Eddyshaw says

I don’t think the two are disjoint: pure evidence-collection without any kind of theory about what you’re investigating is impossible. (If you think that that is what you are actually doing, it’s because you are blind to your own unexamined assumptions.) Problems come when the theory starts leading you to spend most of your time in picking your data to support it, and when you refuse to accept that your theory needs modification – or even complete abandonment. But you’ve got to start somewhere. There’s no tabula rasa.

Theories (however) can be so ill-judged from the outset that they fatally blind you to what’s in front of your very eyes. Chomsky’s various protean theories (before he helpfully divested his programme of all actual potentially refutable content) do this – and this is a good instance. The theory itself makes it impossible to cope in any principled way with the fact that grammaticality is not all-or-nothing.

Even on the level of simply trying to write a useful descriptive grammar of a single language, it’s not possible to be completely atheoretical. The idea reminds me of the quip that “common sense” is, in point of fact, usually based on quite complex premodern scientific theories, which have been discarded in actual science because they don’t actually work.

Decent modern descriptive grammars* often pray in aid R M W Dixon’s “Basic Linguistic Theory” for reasons like this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Linguistic_Theory

I have some doubts, myself, about the actual existence of this particular unicorn (languages vary too much among themselves) but I understand the point of the idea well enough.

* i.e. those that you can actually get useful information out of regarding the language in question, as opposed to those written primarily to display the great power and wonderfulness of the One True Programme, and the author’s corresponding suitability for publication, employment and honour.

251. Y says

How does Quirk et al.’s grammar hold up next to CGEL? Is there a significant element of equal but competing approaches, rather than just of one being newer and so more complete?

252. Y says

R M W Dixon’s “Basic Linguistic Theory”

For all the good that Dixon has done, he is not famous for his self-effacing shyness.
BLT (the book, not the sandwich) is great for what it is. However, the sad truth is that if you want to delve into the syntax of complex sentences, there is still nothing to guide you usefully that doesn’t derive from the generative tradition. IIRC Haspelmath mentioned years ago that he was going to do one of his treatments of the concept of “consituent”, but that hasn’t happened yet. That, unfortunately, is the state of the art on our side.

253. David Eddyshaw says

How does Quirk et al.’s grammar hold up next to CGEL?

I’m not nearly as familiar with the “other” CGEL (which I also have a copy of, though by no means as well-thumbed.)
[One of the authors was a friend of a relation of mine …]

It’s certainly very good indeed, but my (fairly uninformed) opinion is that it’s a good bit less bleeding-edge, as it were, in the sense of being more narrowly descriptive, and less concerned with trying to understand how things work. H & P is more into theoretical issues as such.

That’s why I tend to look at H & P much more often, really; I’m often looking at it, not so much to find out about a fine point of English grammar, but to see how some real experts have dealt, in a familiar language, with a cross-linguistically common problem in grammatical analysis.

I reference H & P in my Kusaal grammar several times, not because Kusaal is much like English, but in order to make sure that my own analyses are not getting too far out of step with the sort of thing that the experts have thought possible (and, I hope, to give readers a relatively familiar point of comparison.) As a particular instance, I found H & P’s notion of “catenative” constructions (which does a lot of work in their analyses) very fruitful in getting a handle on the complicated issue of clause subordination in Kusaal. Quirk et al doesn’t really lend itself to that sort of use (and why should it?)

254. John Cowan says

I wonder whether (per contra) the spelling might actually represent dental rather than alveolar stops?

I wonder if the appearance of childher shows that this verse is not quite traditional Lancashire dialect, but proto-Scouse, which is a mixed Hiberno-Lancashire variety.

[W]ait, is being an abomination a necessary condition of being eldritch?

Definitely not. The OED defines eldritch as ‘weird, ghostly, unnatural’ and only then ‘frightful, hideous’. An alternative form is elphrich, and so the word is probably connected with elf, as in Stewart’s 1535 translation of Boethius: “Thair cleithing quhilk [which] wes of elritche hew.” The un-updated OED’s latest quotations are “Truth is appalling and eltrich, as seen By this world’s artificial lamplights.” and “Joy that had something eldritch and unearthly in it.” But in the DSL, we find it as recently as 1992: “A corncrake — that’s what it is. God, that’s rare nowadays. Very few left, I was reading. What a lonely, eldritch kind o a sound it is. Krekk!”

Of course whether you feel the unearthly, or at any rate unhuman, is abominable depends on your general view of the Other: whether its power to fascinate is science or horror. Elves are about as Other as there can be.

255. David Eddyshaw says

The fairy king in the excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is pretty damn eldritch, but not at all Lovecraft-abominable … (still a good idea to run away fast, though. The worst thing is if he actually likes you …)

256. drasvi says

@DE, well, for example: if “classes of words with similar syntactic behaviour” are due to what he said, so is syntax as a whole (and grammar as we describe it as a whole). Which implies two very bold statements:

– it is possible to communicate without what we know as grammar, the only problem with such communication is what he said (maybe, but could he, please, demostrate what such communication could look like with a conlang?)
– he knows why we use grammar.

257. John Cowan says

I left out the OED final dates for eldritch: they are both in the 1860s.

258. David Eddyshaw says

it is possible to communicate without what we know as grammar

Sure we could, if only our poor monkey brains had the capacity.

The idea (I think) is that “syntax”, far from being some genetically determined thing mysteriously lodged in our brains, is actually a bunch of heuristics we’ve come up with so we don’t have to memorise every single utterance separately, which we can then leverage to make even more utterances (should we be so disposed.) Different people may well use different heuristics to achieve the same ends, and even individuals may have a range of heuristics that they use at different times or for different exact purposes.

If so, you’d expect these heurisitcs, for the most part, to be instances of the more general capacities that we have for pattern recognition and so forth. To me, at any rate, that seems very plausible.

You’d probably still be left with some language-specific stuff; personally, I’d expect that to be more at the phonology level. The human ability to segment speech into phonemes, for example, is positively uncanny, given the fact that in terms of actual sound, they don’t exist …

259. David Eddyshaw says

Conlang to demonstrate, as requested:

A: “I’m going to Wigan on Thursday.”
Ba: “Do you want any ice cream, or would you rather have an elephant?”
Ca: “I’ve never really felt that Chomsky’s work was the breakthrough that his acolytes claim.”
Da “Bang!”
….

and so forth. (The general principles are simple, of course, and clear, I hope.)
The only real problem with this conlang is learnability*, but I think that is true of Lojban, too.

* Well, OK, the dictionary is very expensive – and even the pocket edition is quite heavy.
But it’s worth it For Science!

260. Y says

Problem is, a child would never get past the impossible-to-answer Ba.

261. drasvi says

Ca

@Yyy (but I am afraid, @ too must be incorporated. And maybe even “drasvi says
November 24, 2022 at 8:11 pm” etc.).

And I don’t know what to do about click to edit 13 minutes and 58 seconds…

262. David Eddyshaw says

You ChomskYites and your recursion combinators!

263. drasvi says

DE, I’m not sure how coining/aquisition etc. are going to work. Also numbers (and also quotemarks etc.) illustrate the problem: we actually can name indifinitely many numbers.
Yes, what Ch. calls the Galilean challenge. You devised a conlang that does not have this property.

It seems Pullum means that in natural languages/idiolects (with a given size of the lexicon) “classes” arise for only one reason. This “only” is going to bother me irrespectively of what he means, but if* without classes we actually have no grammar, a valid example would be a conlang whose lexicon has the same size as yours, and whose expressive power is also the same. Just without grammar.

And I just don’t understand how such a thing could work….

* we have words #1, #2, #3 and constructions xxxxx ____ xxx, yyyy _____, zzz _____ zz z.
And we observe two properties

– we can fill in the blank in xxxxx ____ xxx with any of words 1, 2, 3. There is more than one word that can be used in this construction, in other words.
– if we can fill in the blank xxxxx ____ xxx with some word, we can also fill in blanks in yyyy _____, zzz _____ zz z with the same word.

I think P has in mind the second property or both of them. When both are true, we have a table 3×3 where all possible combination work. When none is true I just don’t see what is left of our grammar.
But does the former property alone makes words 1, 2, 3 a “class” in his understanding?

264. drasvi says

Sorry Stu:(

265. drasvi says

In other words, I understand Pullum as saying that when a language instead of tables m×n has tables 1×n it is inconvenient. I’m saying that it is inconvenient for many reasons (why call one of them the main reason and dismiss others?) and that 1×n seems to create his classes as well (and I can’t imagine a 1×1 language).

266. David Eddyshaw says

There’s nothing in (what I take to be, possibly wrongly) to be the Pullum Programme that precludes really any kind of mental construct getting incorporated into language as a subsystem.

In fact, with numerals, it seems impossible to me on first principles that their manifestations in language are primary at all: they arise from other parts of human cognition, and get language labels slapped on them secondarily. (Bear in mind that speakers of Australian languages with “no words” for numbers after “three” or so may still be able to count perfectly well using gestures.)

More broadly, all sorts of traditional syntactic apparatus can find a place in the New Order: it’s not that it’s forbidden from existing at all, more that it’s demoted from being some sort of built-in “optimal”-because-ANC-says-so design feature of the human mind to a set of mental constructs on a level with how we recognise and manipulate patterns of all kinds, not just of words.

The Construction Grammar people call pretty much anything a linguistic “construction” if it links form and meaning*; although the simplest case is a morpheme, much more complicated things, even word order, can qualify. The tricky bit is saying how it all fits together. Very tricky. The task is much harder than Chomskyite projects of describing Platonic-ideal pretend “language(s)”, not least because the whole point is describing all of a real language As She is Spoke (including things like “As She is Spoke.”) Hence Pullum’s ETA of “decades.”

You devised a conlang that does not have this property

Not a bit of it. It has a unique word for every number, and indeed for anything you might say about numbers. It’s just that these words don’t actually have any recognisable relationship to one another: there’s no syntax, so they can’t have any.

I’m not sure how coining/acquisition etc. are going to work.

It can’t work. The language is not learnable by human beings. That doesn’t mean it’s not a language at all: it’s just that the constructions of which it is made, linking form and meaning, are all completely unanalysable into smaller constructions.

Obviously no child could learn a language like that, although in the very early “holophrase” stage, that is exactly what a child takes language to be. But once it progresses beyond that, it begins to start spotting patterns and regularities in the speech it hears and analysing them into more than one construction apiece, and eventually using this to produce new utterances never heard before by creatively recombining constructions.

It can do that exactly because no human language can ever consist just of strings of unanalysable monolithic constructions: the parents themselves could never have learnt such a language. But there is no point that this analytical process must get to: some constructions actually never get analysed down to verb/subject/whatever level, and others are only partly amenable to analysis: that’s just the way they are. (The Construction Grammar people have lots of pet exhibits of such things in English.)

* I think this is actually a weak spot in their system(s). As a good (later-period) Wittgensteinian, I am very wary of ideas that seem to imagine that the link between form and meaning is at all simple, even in principle, let alone in messy real-language/real-world cases.

267. D.O. says

DE, are you sure you want to get the definition of language that expensive? Usually, the way to understand something is not to take the broadest possible view, but to limit oneself to something manageable. Like free fall motion without air friction. But there is air friction! Well, too bad, let’s first figure out what happens when we ignore this pestilence. But the real world! We’ll get to it in due time. First, let’s understand at least something.

By the way, would you consider traffic signs a language? I bet most linguists wouldn’t and for a good reason.

268. Hans says

By the way, would you consider traffic signs a language? I bet most linguists wouldn’t and for a good reason.
Why not? They form a system for communication, they have categories / classes (e.g. red circles mean prohibition) and syntax (placing something inside the red circle indicates what is prohibited, rectangular tables below limit or specify the validity of a sign), etc. The system is limited in what it can (and is meant to) express, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be called a language.

269. David Eddyshaw says

are you sure you want to get the definition of language that expensive?

Sure, why not?

You can indeed then go on to take a particular interest in actually-existing human languages, with interesting contingent properties like being extremely analysable into smaller chunks, and having a physiologically fascinating basis in sound perception and production (usually.)

But the advantage of having a very broad a priori conception of “language” is that when you do study such languages, you haven’t already smuggled in limitations on what you think that they can possibly be like; limitations which in fact flow from your definition of “language” rather than observing how people actually communicate. And your discoveries about human language will be real discoveries about real-word contingent facts, rather than mere reflections of your own hidden assumptions.

270. D.O. says

Why not?

In the first instance, people are usually not allowed to put up they own traffic signs. I also have a bit of a problem with imagining traffic signs’ dialog.

DE, the problem is not that people cannot limit themselves to study a paricular language or a group of languages. In these cases the general definition what is language is basically irrelevant. If someone doesn’t want to call whatever someone else is studying “language” there’s not much of a problem. I mean, grants, academic positions etc. will be a problem, but not a scientific one. The real question is what can be lerned cross-linguistically and there I think some limitations and simplifications are inevitable. All or almost all languages have something recognizable as syntax. Fine, let’s study syntax and worry about counterexamples and edge cases later.

271. drasvi says

@DE, I just think it is not what Pullum means…. I think he means there could be a language with vocabulary as large as ours with the same expressive power as our.

272. David Eddyshaw says

The real question is what can be learned cross-linguistically and there I think some limitations and simplifications are inevitable

Exactly so: that is the veritable origin story of syntax. We need (and create) syntax so that we can learn a language at all, and then go on to use it creatively; the stark limitations on our memory capacity alone, let alone anything else, make this inevitable.

Syntax is the limitations and simplifications we need to be able to cope with the task. (If Martians were cleverer than us, maybe their languages would need less syntax …)

Fine, let’s study syntax and worry about counterexamples and edge cases later

The problem with that is that it can readily lead to thinking of regular syntax as primary and the edge cases as deviant. The basic idea of Construction Grammar (I think) is that it’s fundamentally deviance all the way down, and the regularities are created by induction over the deviants and subsequent analogical levelling. That doesn’t mean that the regularities are imaginary or unimportant (grammar-writing would be kinda pointless if it were so) but it does mean that Chomsky-like speculations about the actual nature of human language capacity are chasing the wind: it doesn’t arise from some genetically inbuilt perfectly-optimal facility corrupted by mere “performance” at all, and any attempts to force it into that mould will prove sterile (as indeed, they clearly have done.)

The idea that the regularity really is the “real” grammar is also hard to square with how children really learn language, and probably also with neurolinguistic findings (not that I know much about that, and I suspect that in any case a lot of the data get overinterpreted to fit whatever mental model of “language” the researchers began with.)

In practical terms, it means that in describing an individual language it may not be a good idea to postpone looking in depth at edge cases and exceptions, or confine them safely to an appendix. The edge cases may well have something important to teach you about the underlying way the language works. This would be the more important the more “exotic” the language appears to the researcher, because the researcher, try as they might, is going to be preferentially looking for regularities of a kind that appear in languages they are already familiar with. But the language being looked at may keep its deviancies in a quite different part of the grammar.

273. David Eddyshaw says

Ideophones are a case in point; they are usually treated very cursorily and inadequately in grammars of African languages (including mine, alas) because they don’t correspond nicely to familiar SAE categories:

Li anɛ pielig fass fass.
“It’s very white.”

Li anɛ sabilɩg zim zim.
“It’s very black.”

Li anɛ zin’a wim wim.
“It’s very red.”

So what’s the Kusaal word for “very”?
Ideophones are far from marginal in many African languages (Kusaal is actually fairly stingy with them, comparatively.)

274. drasvi says

As for your conlang, I don’t see how a child can understand that Ba is “Do you want any ice cream, or would you rather have an elephant?”, or how you can inform someone (who does not know that already!) that “drasvi is a natural phenomenon observed in Russia”.

they arise from other parts of human cognition, and get language labels slapped on them secondarily.

I mean, your conglang is incompatible with mathematical notation or, say quotemarks. When we use quotemarks – or a blockquote like here – we mark a fragment of text by specific means. And can a speaker of such a langauge run a short computer program in her mind, as you do when you write them?

Your conlang looks like telepathic communication. With a difference. Imagine a person who can just upload her mental state in your mind. But your conlang contains requests and questions – quite specific mental states… Can such a person think “328782”? Or “328782 – 234 = 328548”?

It is a very productive example leading to many interesting ideas, and it inspires Chomsky too. But I don’t think it can work as a [counter-]example for a specific syntactical point. E.g. if we consider a smaller conlang, designed like yours but with vocabulary similar to that of your normal idiolect, among many questions to such a language there will be expressive power and how it can be acquired.

275. David Eddyshaw says

I don’t see how a child can understand that

As I say, it can’t. The language is not learnable by humans (or possibly by anybody, short of godhood.)

My remark about Lojban was a joke. Probably …

What I do think is that my impossible conlang is a limit case of a sequence of actual possible languages where successive languages in the sequence put more and more into the lexical meaning of individual formally unanalysable words and less and less into compositional syntax. Real languages do actually vary along this axis, at least in certain domains; Saussure himself pointed out that German vocabulary is (on average) more “motivated” than French, in the sense that words are more often analysable into their parts: einäugig versus borgne

276. Stu Clayton says

Saussure himself pointed out that German vocabulary is (on average) more “motivated” than French, in the sense that words are more often analysable into their parts: einäugig versus borgne

Seems as if “motivated” is being used here to politely suggest “elaborate”. Where one Lego brick suffices for a French notion, you need a whole set of them to build a German equivalent.

Finalement, tout le monde peut faire du foin, du moment que le ciel fait pousser l’herbe.

Perhaps more straightforwardly:

Trois jours après la mort, les cheveux et les ongles continuent à pousser mais les appels téléphoniques se font plus rares.

277. drasvi says

@DE, I just think it is not what Pullum meant….

What bothers me is the tone: it sounds to me not as one more possible model or angle of looking at language but as an explanation what language is and why. This tone makes me jumpy: I want more humble linguistics:)
His explanation of existence of classes seems to confirm my suspicion. It looks like he wants to discourage people from following the one true way… and offers another true way.

278. drasvi says

Apart of your conlang we can consider a language that does have grammar, but whose words can appear at ANY position. The Cat loves Masha. The Cat Mashas Love. Masha Thes Cat Love.

279. David Eddyshaw says

Sounds like Warlpiri.

280. Stu Clayton says

Sez here that Warlpiri has a “perlative”. What the dickens is that ? A special case for talking about oysters ? A timorous comparative ?

281. Y says

‘Along’. It’s just another thing treated as a case where we would use a preposition.

282. Stu Clayton says

Aha. Another case of misleading nomenclature. “Along” as in “along the path” ?

DeWiki says:

#
Perlativ: Bewegung durch etwas
“durch das Haus hindurch”

[Tocharisch, Grönländisch, Warlpiri]
#

283. Stu Clayton says

How often does it happen that an expression pattern in a language is given a grammatical name, although no one is sure of what it means ? Is there an ignoramus case ?

284. drasvi says

I found that I can’t literally translate по диагонали.

It is not diagonally, по is along/across and against the surface. But “along the diagonal” is вдоль диагонали.

По appears where English has “down” as in “down the road”.

285. drasvi says

And of course по-английски, på engelsk:)

286. Stu Clayton says

I found that I can’t literally translate по диагонали

Why do you want to “literally translate” it, whatever that means ? Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that English is not one of your native languages.

You yourself wrote at that thread: “In Russian it is just an idiomatic way to say ‘inattentively’. It can mean skipping a couple of pages here and there, for example”, and D.O. wrote: “It’s just an expression for scanning or glancing over the text.”

That should be the end of the story, unless you’re not sure what “glance over” means.

287. drasvi says

Russian grammarians now borrow English names.
Thus we have безличный “impersonal”, неопределённо-личный “indefenitely-personal” and impersonal.

288. David Eddyshaw says

@Stu:

I think drasvi is deploying Russian perlatives, as proof-of-concept.

289. drasvi says
290. Stu Clayton says

@David E: proof-of-concept

What concept is being proved ? The concept of assigning a grammatical category to something not understood ? The concept of “along” ? Humble linguistics is expected, but not proffered.

At the moment, the use of “perlative case” has been explained in two different ways: as meaning “along”, and as meaning “through”. My question was about that. Until somebody says straight out “nobody knows”, glossy-eyed diversionary tactics will be rejected.

291. David Eddyshaw says

“Along” and “through” are merely complementary manifestations on our earthly plane of the One True Platonic Perlative.

292. Stu Clayton says

Form is emptiness, emptiness is bad form. I believe I would prefer an echo chamber to a hall of mirrors. A good five-cent cigar would be better than either, humble-wise.

293. Why not?

You mustn’t mind Stu; “contrarian” is his middle name. He’s like a Zen master who sneaks up to you with a stick: beware!

294. Stu Clayton says

Speak in riddles and carry a big stick. The essence of Teddy Zen ! No sneaking, though.

The disciple has to want the stick. Many people don’t know what they want, so the master reminds them.

295. drasvi says

Our Old Irish professor did threaten us with a stick. But never used it.

(namely she said that before students were seduced and lured into doing something Celtic, but now Celtic studies will work as a Buddhist monastery where they beat everyone with sticks…)

296. drasvi says

@LH, no problem here. Stu’s contrarianism is partly similar to that of “mathematical” subculture here, and thus familiar (partly, again).

As for me and contrarianism: when something is both true and absurd, it is funny. Funnier than false and against the common sense or true and known.

297. Hans says

In the first instance, people are usually not allowed to put up they own traffic signs. I also have a bit of a problem with imagining traffic signs’ dialog.
For me, any system that conveys meaning by the combination of arbitrary signs in accordance with a set of rules is a language. Everyone being allowed to use it or bidirectional communication are not necessary parts of the definition for me. Even for spoken human languages, we have examples for languages not everyone is allowed to use (languages that can be used only by those initiated in a cult, languages limited to being spoken by one sex). And I have seen cases where people put up unauthorized traffic signs in neighbourhoods in order to slow down or keep out traffic.

298. David Marjanović says

Half a year ago I came across a conference abstract that said the Germanic cognate of по is the b- in bring and maybe a handful of other verbs.

299. David Eddyshaw says

Wiktionary, bless its cotton socks, links the English “bring” with the Lithuanian branktas “whiffletree” …

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bring#Etymology_1

(Astonishingly, Welsh hebrwng “iead”, really is cognate, per GPC, fishy though the comparison looks: the first bit is *sem- “one/together.”)

300. David Marjanović says

…and a whiffletree is a whippletree, which is “a wooden crossbar for a plough or carriage, pivoted in the middle, from which traces are fastened to a draught animal.” OK then.

301. Noetica says

Ah, “perlative”. I love all of those -lative and -essive case terms. So pellucid in their meanings. I have only a few regrets in this domain, including:

• Far too little mention of the “circumlative”. It would be best stressed antepenultimate, though OED gives antepenultimate and penultimate for “translative” – also a case in the “lative” series. OED has only an obsolete verb “circumlate”: “transitive. To carry or bring round; spec. to turn or ‘fetch’ round (a limb). Also intransitive”, and derivatives “circumlation” and “circumlatory”. One very rare mention at the Wiktionary entry for Old Armenian “զ-“:

7. (with instrumental) round, around, about (this usage was called “circumlative case” by older grammarians)
շուրջ զքաղաքաւն էին ― šurǰ zkʿałakʿawn ēin ― they were around the town
արկանել զնովաւ ― arkanel znovaw ― to put on him
զայնու ժամանակաւ ― zaynu žamanakaw ― around that time
զհասարակ գիշերաւ, զմէջ գիշերաւ ― zhasarak gišeraw, zmēǰ gišeraw ― around midnight
զինն ժամու ― zinn žamu ― around 9 o’clock
անկաւ զպարանոցաւ նորա ― ankaw zparanocʿaw nora ― fell around his neck

• The illative might sometimes be taken in its other meaning “concerned with inference”; nothing much can be done about that.

• I’d like to see “pellative” as a variant of “perlative”, just as “pellucid” (beloved word) can appear instead as “perlucid”. Similarly, I want to see “perfer” (infer : illative :: perfer : perlative) appearing somewhere – other than in (perhaps someday) Lyre’s Dictionary.

302. Y says

Furthermore, under Prolative case, I read that “In grammar, the prolative case, also called the vialis case, prosecutive case, traversal case, mediative case, or translative case, is a grammatical case of a noun or pronoun that has the basic meaning of ‘by way of’ or ‘via’.” As they explain it, the meanings are actually more varied than in that simple explanation.

303. Noetica says

Furthermore, under Prolative case, …

Heh. OED hasn’t caught up there either. For “prolative” in grammar, nothing to do with case:

2. Grammar. Having the function of extending or completing a predication.

1965 Harvard Stud. Classical Philol. 69 39 Tetigisse and inseruisse are prolative infinitives after cupiam.
1997 S. J. Harrison Aeneid 10 82 In poetry this ‘prolative’ infinitive replaces the prosaic gerundive after nouns expressing wish, desire, and other verbal notions.

304. drasvi says

Can add nothing,.apart of maybe Russian zaplativ “having paid” (and pereplativ “having overpaid”, doplativ “having paid an additional sum” etc….)

305. Y says

Those are not noun cases.

306. drasvi says

But:
– their right part is -lativ (Russian ablativ “ablativus” does not have -e)
– their left part is some prefix….

Which is how circumlative etc. are formed. The -p- in the middle is a minor detail.

P.S. just fooling around

307. drasvi says

Actually I’m imagining some provincial Russian boy, taught by a French teacher some 200 years ago, and looking at all those French -tif terms as something deeply foreign. This joke (reinterpreting Russian деепричастия (adverbial participles?) like поколотив or озолотив as Latin case names) makes me think of that time.

308. January First-of-May says

As I say, it can’t. The language is not learnable by humans (or possibly by anybody, short of godhood.)

I do recall that a certain Ireneo Funes has proposed a very conceptually similar project…

Regarding numbers, in particular, a quick complexity argument proves that, in the general case, you can’t really do better (beyond a constant factor) than just spelling out the numbers in your preferred base.
In other words, perhaps your favorite conlang has a very short term for the number 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 [insert your own favorite long number here; I used one that actually does have a very short name in some conlangs], but most other numbers of similar size would by necessity have long terms.

(In practice most natlangs end up introducing structural bits like “septemoctogintillion” that ultimately result in an extra logarithmic multiplier. But in a conlang it’s perfectly possible to get away with RFC 2550-style shenanigans that can provide structure while staying within the constant factor.)

309. David Eddyshaw says

a certain Ireneo Funes has proposed a very conceptually similar project

Yes; I may call the language Borges (or possibly Borgne.)

310. Stu Clayton says

Far too little mention of the “circumlative”.

And of the circumlocutative, although it is omnipresent.

311. “Halte! Le mot de passe?”

“Les borges sont borgnes ce soir.”

312. Brett says
313. D.O. says

Hans, obviously any definition is somewhat arbitrary, but as I tried to say if traffic signs are included in the definition of language it becomes harder to say something useful about languages in general. Where I live people put up “traffic signs” all the time. Most frequent ones are baloons to indicate a party or a child with a flag to slow down. Maybe I should revise my objection 🙂

314. D.O. says

Everyone who lived in 1990s Russia knows that there is always a special case for handling money.

315. drasvi says

Ah, yes. Briefcase (nuclear), attaché case…

316. drasvi says

J1M, I suspect this language has infinitely many phonemes…

317. David Eddyshaw says

Not at all. That would be silly.
However, some of the words are quite long.

(There is not time to utter the word for “ice cream sundae” before the heat death of the universe.* But we are not concerned with mere performance here.)

* Unless you gabble.

318. drasvi says

@DE, I understood Pullum differently, as speaking about a language with vocabulary of the same size as yours and the same expressive power as yours – but without word classes.

But you tried to construct an extreme example… Should not we, for consistency, also avoid phonology? Else it is vulnerable : phonemes can become morphemes.

319. David Eddyshaw says

No, I don’t think that’s what Pullum means at all; he explicitly says that the classes are needed to moderate the demand on memory:

The mental storage load is moderated by the sporadic presence of indefinitely large equivalence classes of words or phrases with fully shared syntactic behaviours

My conlang is merely an attempt at sketching the kind of language that might be possible if (per impossibile) this constraint did not exist at all.

Incidentally, I don’t think that Pullum is by any means a paid-up Construction Grammar Person; but (like me) he feels that their basic approach is probably along the right lines, but needs a huge amount of fleshing out before it can really produce adequate full-dress language descriptions.

I have the impression that most CG people wouldn’t disagree, at that … it’s very much a work in progress, but, unlike Chomsky’s Program (or whatever it is), it’s actually progressing

The Chomsky thing is perfect instance of what Imre Lakatos called a “Degenerating Research Programme:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lakatos/

[The cheeky characterisation as a “Research Program” is ANC’s own]

320. drasvi says

@DE I understand Pullum as speaking about a language whose vocabulary has the same size as yours.
Maybe I am wrong.
But whether this conlang has a vocabulary “of the same size” or much larger, there are many issues with such a conlang.

321. David Eddyshaw says

I understand Pullum as speaking about a language whose vocabulary has the same size as yours

Sure: but he wasn’t speaking about a language with no syntax. That was me (in response to your request …) Pullum is innocent. Innocent, I tell you!

Construction Grammar does not picture language as being without syntax. It’s more that it conceives syntax as arising in a sort of bottom-up manner by induction over concrete instances, whereas Chomsky devotees think of it more as top-down, magically imposing structure on all potential “grammatical” utterances.

As a Nominalist (in the mediaeval sense) I’m philosophically a lot more comfortable with this way of thinking about syntax. “No ideas but in things”, as William Carlos Williams says: in this case, “No syntax but in actual utterances.” As I’ve said before, in my view, syntactic rules are not real: you can happily swap one set for another if it accounts for the data just as well and you find it more aesthetically satisfying. There’s never only one “correct” analysis.

322. drasvi says

But his words imply that there is only one problem with a language without classes. That’s where I object: I think there are many problems.

I know two ways to destroy class distinctions:
N classes of size 1 (every word can appear in exactly one construction) or 1 class of size N (every word can be used in any construction). N is the size of our vocabulary.

323. David Eddyshaw says

But his words imply that there is only one problem with a language without classes

I don’t think that they do: all he’s doing is saying that the existence of classes (which he’s taking for granted) moderates the demand on sheer memory.

The question of in what way mental classes are needed to comprehend or interact with the world, and what we actually mean by such “classes”, is much more fundamental than anything addressed by linguistics as such: it belongs with the philosophers, not the linguists. When my hero St Ludwig addresses this (which he does, a lot) he’s not really talking about anything linguistic (in the usual technical sense of the term) at all. The characterisation of Anglophone 20th-century philosophy as having taken a “linguistic” turn is misleading, I think: for the most part, it’s only really “linguistic” inasmuch as, as Sweeney says: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”

324. drasvi says

@DE, if so, I have no objections (apart of technical maybe). I thought his exact goal is discouraging other approaches.

325. Noetica says

The characterisation of Anglophone 20th-century philosophy as having taken a “linguistic” turn is misleading, I think: for the most part, it’s only really “linguistic” inasmuch as, as Sweeney says: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”

If only, Eddyshaw Agonistes. The linguistic turn – issuing in linguisticism, see below – was all too real (sic) and radical, and it takes its toll even now. I’m with John Heil. Worth quoting at some length (my bold, at the end):

In an effort to avoid messy ontological considerations, philosophers in the twentieth century have engaged in what, in polite circles, is called “semantic ascent.” Substantive ontological issues are transmogrified into issues concerning language and its application. In this way, talk of states of mind, for instance, is replaced by talk of mental attributions; talk of properties is replaced by talk of predicates; talk of causation is replaced by talk of theories; and talk of objects or states of affairs is replaced by talk of statements, propositions, or sentences.
Linguisticism – our preferred label for this approach – regards ontology with suspicion. Ontology is unwholesome, dubious, something to be avoided or, if that is inconvenient or impossible, to be minimized. Linguisticism finds expression in the quasi-technical shift from the “material mode” to the “formal mode,” and is linked to the old idea that reduction requires entailment or translation. This has allowed philosophers to argue that, because physical object statements do not entail statements about (actual and possible) sense experiences, physical objects are not reducible to (actual and possible) sense experiences, although the “information content” of physical object statements is exhausted by statements about actual and possible sense experiences (see Martin 1997, 214–15).
There is a natural bond between linguisticism and species of antirealism, and indeed these can shade off imperceptibly into one another. The flight from ontology, however, is scarcely more than an institutionalized form of repression. If we replace talk of properties with talk of predicates, for instance, we are left with the question of the ontological status of predicates. If properties strike you as odd or ungainly, surely predicates are worse. Are predicates concrete particulars? Classes of particulars? Abstracta? In comparison, being square and having mass 9.11(10)^–28 g (the mass of an electron) seem utterly transparent.
Linguisticism does not succeed in replacing or eliminating ontology, but only diverting attention and postponing the hard questions. The mistake is to imagine that it is philosophically innocent.
[CB Martin and John Heil, “The ontological turn” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 23 (1999), p. 36]

In philosophy of mind over the last three decades there has been a great deal of analysis founded on logical and other species of possibility. Squarely in the “linguisticist” camp (in the Heil sense, but my own diagnosis here), it is technically brilliant and probably immune against refutation on its own ground. But is that ground the proper arena for establishing facts about mind in the world, or about anything else in the world? I think not.

326. AntC says

immune against refutation on its own ground. But is that ground the proper arena for establishing facts about mind in the world,

You don’t need to loiter round here for long to become deeply suspicious of claims there are ‘facts about mind’ (or even facts in the world) that aren’t so much mediated by the language they’re expressed in (and its worldview) that there’s no independent way to ‘establish’ them in the sense you’re striving for.

[Speaking as a fully paid-up fan of late Wittgenstein.]

I get your point about “immune against refutation”; but any other predetermined framework (such as Logical Positivism/sense data) turns out to be equally metaphysically immune.

The Hattery I find invaluable for substantiating comparativity on a day-to-day human level rather than the Philosophers’ too-abstract Platonic ideal.

327. AntC says

The mistake is to imagine that it is philosophically innocent.

Eddyshaw is clearly guilty, I’ll readily confess to being a conspirator. Pullum and Huddleston also. Are you seriously suggesting anyone round here _doesn’t_ acknowledge a predisposition?

As somebody said up-thread (or up another current thread), it’s those claiming to have no predisposition to beware of as lacking self-awareness.

328. AntC says

(This is Language Hat not Philosophy/Epistemology Hat; otherwise I’d be inclined to reduce Heil et al to mincemeat. Good grief such naivety! – about how science works in general, let alone Philosophy or Linguistics.)

Oh and before you start telling me about Heil’s academic chops: they’re as nothing to ANC’s – which also impresses no-one round here.

329. Noetica says

Cute!

330. David Eddyshaw says

I had hoped to guard against this misinterpretation with my parenthetical “in the usual technical sense of the term”; perhaps I should have bolded it, or something.

Wittgenstein (not really an “analytic philosopher” at all, though I presume he falls under Heil’s anathema), as Hat Himself once pointed out, has nothing of any significance to say to a linguist qua linguist: he just isn’t concerned with that at all. Indeed, about the only “analytic” philosopher I can think of who did have anything much to say of interest to a working-stiff linguist was Grice, and even his work is quite independent of any one individual language. (I admit that e.g. Austin tried, but entertaining as his work is, I don’t think it really led anywhere, either in philosophy or linguistics.)

“The mistake is to imagine that it is philosophically innocent” is an interesting turn of phrase. While I appreciate that “innocent” is here used in a technical sense, even so …. but (like AntC) I actually glory in the implied guilt: Proud to be an antirealist! Proud, I tell you!

“Immune against refutation on its own ground”: well, yes. I have not, so far, heard of an experiment which could refute Platonism (much less, verify Logical Positivism.) If metaphysical theories were susceptible of refutation they would be physics. That’s not the arena where the game is played.

331. I love these ontologico-philosophical exchanges, and find that what I used to think were fairly well established conceptions of the world become more and more obviously ignorant misconceptions, and since I no longer know what to think, I wave with pride my banner of Total Ignorance. I, at least, am not a criminal!

332. David Eddyshaw says

Among the many frankly ludicrous claims in the almost psychotically hagiographic WP page on Chomsky is that he is “a major figure in analytic philosophy.”

The kindest explanation is that the author of the shameless puffery has never got round to actually clicking the handy link to “Analytic Philosophy” provided there.

333. David Marjanović says

If metaphysical theories were susceptible of refutation they would be physics.

Even these?

334. David Eddyshaw says

Sure. If you could refute Christianity by pointing to contradictions in the Bible, it would be physics. (Also, false.)

[The particular one flagged up there comes up quite a bit in actual Christian circles (usually as a discussion of the propriety of “putting out a fleece”, if you’re interested in googling not-very-illuminating intra-Christian arguments on the issue: I wouldn’t recommend the exercise.) My own feeling is that the “yes” answer is based on grievous misunderstanding of what the texts in question are actually about. YM, however, MV. However, there are much more clearcut contradictions than that, but I suppose those are among the previous 147.]

335. David Marjanović says

I don’t mean the contradictions; I mean the stories in themselves. (I was just too lazy to link to them individually.) They describe tests of metaphysical theories, don’t they?

there are much more clearcut contradictions than that

Oh yes, but, again, that’s beside my point.

336. David Eddyshaw says

They describe tests of metaphysical theories, don’t they?

Well, no, I don’t think they do. The existence of God is taken entirely for granted throughout the Bible, and not argued for at all.

If they are tests of anything about God, it is of the reliability of God; this is why the idea is problematic, in fact. Christians who disagree with me would say that that is not in fact what Gideon (say) was up to: this reflects his lack of faith in himself rather than in God; they would argue that such behaviour is OK if done in that spirit.

In fact all three stories can be pretty naturally interpreted as pleas to God to help out. They’re not anything like testing a hypothesis.

337. Stu Clayton says

psychotically hagiographic

This cracks me up, especially that “probably”:

# Between 1963 and 1965 he consulted on a military-sponsored project “to establish natural language as an operational language for command and control”; Barbara Partee, a collaborator on this project and then-student of Chomsky, has said this research was justified to the military on the basis that “in the event of a nuclear war, the generals would be underground with some computers trying to manage things, and that it would probably be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program.”[76] #

338. David Eddyshaw says

I clicked on the Chomsky (disambiguation) link, but, disappointingly, it didn’t disambiguate Chomsky at all.

339. David Eddyshaw says

Admirals, at any rate, can learn to program:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper

(Unfortunately this example is not as clearcut as I might wish. However, COBOL did provide lucrative work for elderly programmers in the period leading up to 2000. That’s got to be good, right?)

340. Brett says

Don’t take Wikipedia articles about controversial figures too seriously. At the moment, Paul Allen’s Wikipedia page says that he was beheaded by the American Psycho guy.

341. David Eddyshaw says

The Chomsky article is indeed so over-the-top that I did initially wonder whether it was a spoof. However, on reflection, it was clear that there are quite enough true believers in the Master’s fundamental solarity to account for the phenomenon satisfactorily without making this assumption.

342. the Master’s fundamental solarity

I initially read this as “the Master’s fundamental sodality” and I suspect it works either way.

343. Noetica says

David E:

I had hoped to guard against this misinterpretation with my parenthetical “in the usual technical sense of the term”; perhaps I should have bolded it, or something.

Apart from the fact that there is more than one “technical sense of the term” out there, with the interpretation of “usual” depending on context, you go on to use the distinct expression “linguistic turn” in a way that appears to revert to a broader and more conventional understanding:

The characterisation of Anglophone 20th-century philosophy as having taken a “linguistic” turn is misleading, I think: for the most part, it’s only really “linguistic” inasmuch as, as Sweeney says: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”

As I note upthread, it would save us a great deal of research effort if you could tell us at the time what you were saying. This applies also to your oblique references to the Army Nurse Corps, whose ferociously polemical engagement in linguistics and philosophy will come as a complete surprise to most readers – once they’ve figured out that you didn’t mean African National Congress. That said, I do appreciate your emulation of Ancient Greek shorthand.

Where to begin, in critiquing what more you have to say? In medias res:

Indeed, about the only “analytic” philosopher I can think of who did have anything much to say of interest to a working-stiff linguist was Grice, and even his work is quite independent of any one individual language. (I admit that e.g. Austin tried, but entertaining as his work is, I don’t think it really led anywhere, either in philosophy or linguistics.)

Where I come from it was common for philosophers and academic linguists to attend each other’s seminars, and for philosophers squarely in the dominant anglophone tradition to contribute with enormous sophistication in major areas of linguistics. What you find yourself unable to think of perhaps carries less evidential weight (absence of evidence famously not being evidence of absence). Grice? Good. As for Austin, many an academic linguist specialising in pragmatics might disagree with your blithe dismissal. If his thinking was superseded, this is progress that he enabled. He was an initiator on whose shoulders others could clamber. At least in that sense his work “led somewhere”.

If metaphysical theories were susceptible of refutation they would be physics. That’s not the arena where the game is played.

That depends on how you define (or confine) metaphysics, and physics for that matter. For many the two are seamlessly connected. It is mysterious that David Lewis’s modal realism is hardly ever mentioned alongside physicists’ multiverse theories. There might be far more progress in thinking about the broadest plenitude of “worlds” if the two camps would communicate better. Lewis was no slouch scientifically (or “linguistically” of course). There are some who think that Lewis’s “metaphysical” and “metalogical” arguments for the equal reality of all possible worlds are indeed susceptible to investigation by means more commonly used by physicists, allied to more traditional analysis. I am (in my humble way, unpublished by explicit choice) of that opinion; Lewis himself was arguably not.

Proud to be an antirealist! Proud, I tell you!

Much good may it do you! Myself, I gave up years ago on all of the sterile and interminable debates that are conducted in such terms, virtuosic though they be. (Lewis himself soon came to regret the phrase “modal realism”.) I find no connection with the riches offered by the remainder of human life, and would rather curl up with a compendium of new findings concerning Zinn’s zonule. With the cat on my lap.

344. David Eddyshaw says

What you find yourself unable to think of perhaps carries less evidential weight

So true.

345. Brett says

@Noetica: I don’t think there is anything mysterious about physicists not being interested in modal realism, which posits the reality of many consistent worlds as a starting point. Physicists are interested in multiverses when they are not axioms but consequences—outgrowths of what we otherwise think we understand about physics. They arise naturally in the contexts of inflationary cosmology or the interpretation of quantum mechanics (via Many Worlds). That the other universes tend not to be amenable to direct testing and observation is viewed as unfortunate, but that does not mean that their correlates (the other consequences of particular theories that predict multiverses) are not measurable—so multiverse theories may be indirectly investigated, tested, and (if appropriate) discarded.

Modal realism seems to come from an entirely different direction, motivated by notions of esthetics or a very different view of what constitutes existence. The only physicist I have ever met who advocated for something like that was Max Tegmark, and he was widely mocked by other scientists for the shallowness and pointlessness of his ideas about all possible worlds—based on all possible mathematical systems—existing. When called on to explain what he meant by some of these worlds “existing,” he admitted that all he really meant was that they “could” exist (somehow). David Lewis’s view was somewhat more sophisticated, but he still posited that “possible worlds” were, in a sense, “real” if they were merely logically consistent—apparently because he felt that they needed to be that “real” if they were to be exhibited in the form of counterfactuals. I think this ultimately originates as an esthetic judgement and is not generally useful as a frame for understanding anything physical; indeed, there is a small but carefully developed literature on what counterfactuality should really mean in quantum mechanics (particularly the Many Worlds interpretation, which is by far the best supported interpretation of quantum mechanics), and they actually turn out to look nothing like Lewis’s counterfactual but “real” alternate universes.

346. Noetica says

Brett:

I don’t think there is anything mysterious about physicists not being interested in modal realism, which posits the reality of many consistent worlds as a starting point.

Let’s fill in some detail. David Kellogg Lewis (1941–2001) posits the reality of every world whose complete description does not yield a contradiction. Each of the worlds has the same ontological status as the actual world, which is distinguished simply by being this world (so actuality, but not reality, is indexical). Also for Lewis (in his usual and preferred account), anything that is spatially, temporally, or spatiotemporally related to anything at a world W1 is a part of W1. Note that for Lewis there are infinitely many worlds, not just “many”.

Given that some version or variant of the physics we know (through a glass darkly) and love presumably applies at every world, it is perhaps mysterious that physicists typically evince little interest in Lewis’s very detailed account, as delivered in On the Plurality of Worlds, widely regarded as a philosophical tour de force and full of content relevant to the concerns of physicists.

Physicists are interested in multiverses when they are not axioms but consequences—outgrowths of what we otherwise think we understand about physics.

Motivations and starting points are not especially relevant. Lewis is an ontologically serious philosopher in Heil’s sense; whatever reasons he started with for proposing a plenitude of concrete worlds, he is firmly committed to their reality.

That the other universes tend not to be amenable to direct testing and observation is viewed as unfortunate, but that does not mean that their correlates (the other consequences of particular theories that predict multiverses) are not measurable—so multiverse theories may be indirectly investigated, tested, and (if appropriate) discarded.

Many may be surprised at the suggestion that Lewis’s worlds can also be “indirectly investigated, tested, and (if appropriate) discarded” in ways similar to physicists’ ways. A minority of philosophers argue for that. Lewis does not, generally.

Modal realism seems to come from an entirely different direction, motivated by notions of esthetics …

Aesthetics? I think not, except in the sense that philosophers, like physicists, strive for elegant solutions. Lewis’s account is delightfully elegant, and waaay harder to undermine than is commonly supposed.

… or a very different view of what constitutes existence.

Different from a typical physicist’s account? Again, I think not.

When called on to explain what he meant by some of these worlds “existing,” he admitted that all he really meant was that they “could” exist (somehow).

If that is so (I don’t dispute the details; I haven’t checked on Tegmark lately) it sounds as if a close reading of Lewis’s theory might be just what he needs. He is aware of Lewis, and yes: his theory is said to resemble modal realism.

David Lewis’s view was somewhat more sophisticated, but he still posited that “possible worlds” were, in a sense, “real” if they were merely logically consistent—apparently because he felt that they needed to be that “real” if they were to be exhibited in the form of counterfactuals.

Nothing scarequotish or mere about it: they are all real, for him. That’s the whole point. Logical consistency? He didn’t just “feel” that they needed to be real to underpin counterfactuals: he argued with devastating cogency (read his book, if you have not done so). And if they are first appealed to in the course of accounting for the truth of counterfactuals, this is far from being the end of the matter.

… and they actually turn out to look nothing like Lewis’s counterfactual but “real” alternate universes.

Disregarding the incautious wording here, note first that the matter of spatiotemporal relations between different universe members of the multiverse is a complex matter indeed. So is their putative causal independence (which is by the way guaranteed for Lewis’s world, for good reasons). If a proposed mutliverse is constrained by physical theory that is believed to be contingent (so other physical theory “could” hold but “just happens” not to hold), then Lewis’s worlds should be thought far more inclusive than any parts of such a multiverse. There would be a Lewisian plurality that included an infinity of multiverse worlds.

347. drasvi says

A minor quibble: I don’t think physical theories predict (that exact word) multiverses…

348. Brett says

Noetica: Given that some version or variant of the physics we know (through a glass darkly) and love presumably applies at every world, it is perhaps mysterious that physicists typically evince little interest in Lewis’s very detailed account….

I’m not trying to be flippant, but I just don’t understand why you would think that is compelling reason for physicists to be interested in Lewis’s ideas. You seem to be coming from such a totally different philosophical jumping off point. In other words, I have to disagree very strongly with your assertion, in that I think I indeed do have a “very different view of what constitutes existence” from you or Lewis. Moreover, I suspect that most physicists have views fairly similar to my own (although there clearly are outliers, like Tegmark, with very different opinions).

@drasvi: You will notice that I first used the word “arise,” to cover a more general case, in which they are not firm predictions. However, I would say that there are specific theories (such as specific models of eternal inflation) that by according to any reasonable sense do “predict” types of multiverses. It is not a testable prediction, but it falls within with meaning of “predict” as I normally use it. (This is the OED‘s sense 1. b. of the verb predict: “Of a theory, observation, scientific law, etc.: to have as a deducible or inferable consequence; to imply.”)

349. AntC says

inferable consequence

On which note I find it strange @Noetica quotes Heil taking mass of the electron as “utterly transparent”.

Any perusal of a modern treatment of ‘the’ electron will tell you an inferable consequence that it’s equally a particle _and_ describable by a wave equation. Under various uncertainty theories we can predict its position or its spin, not both at the same time.

I’m entirely comfortable with the idea an electron is an abstraction within a system of equations that make observable predictions. I see nothing “transparent” in claiming electrons exist/are real.

So it is with the ‘existence’ of phonemes or inferred/unattested historical forms. They make the system of equations work. Some other system of equations from which those forms are not an inferable consequence might work as well. Then we might use meta-observational/aesthetic grounds to choose between them.

Having to posit abstractions as ‘real’ doesn’t help nor make anything more “transparent”.

350. drasvi says

@Brett, I thought that the popularity of the word in hard sciences is due to the prototypical class of situations: “I will drop this weight from this tower and it will land in N seconds”, and that its extension to another class of situations, where the prediction can only be tested in a thought experiment is a secondary development (still with the former class in mind).
Here it is not even the second class: we are speaking of “existence” of worlds.
But I don’t insist.

351. Stu Clayton says

Having to posit abstractions as ‘real’ doesn’t help nor make anything more “transparent”.

Now you’re in hot water, AntC. Them’s my sentiments. I will just add that the “reality” word/notion itself is a Tar Baby. [hattic lightning expected, avoid oaks]

352. Noetica says

Them’s my sentiments. I will just add that the “reality” word/notion itself is a Tar Baby.

Quite, which is why I lost patience with the whole realism–antirealism merry-go-round some time ago. Still, we may want to say there is a world, right? Or several, if our understanding of “world” permits plurality. Whatever exactly that means, there’s a cogito-like certainty hereabouts (justifiable or not, like the Ur-cogito).

Brett, Lewis’s understanding of existence is as physicalist as you can get. If the actual world is a large and complex causally connected concrete particular, as most physicists will want it to be, he is saying that there is an infinite number of those. However anyone wants to cash out the terms I have just used, they have some sort of defensible meaning for pretty well everyone. The onus is on you, not me or Lewis true-believers, to show how these notions differ between modal realists and right-thinking physicists.

353. Noetica says

Stu, I meant to add a note of caution about “them sentiments”. AntC refers to one small part of my large Heil quote (not all of which I need to endorse), but gets it wrong. Heil was explicitly making a relative point about the mass of an electron, not an absolute one. And the exact status of the whole electron notion is not relevant. There is a good sense in which electrons do have measurable mass, and that sense is better established, thinks Heil, than many linguisticist claims.

354. AntC says

the “reality” word/notion itself is a Tar Baby.

Sure. It was Noetica first used it; and continued to use it.

@Noetica Heil was … the exact status of the whole electron notion is not relevant.

Heil is using “ontology” in that quote. Is that supposed to be an improvement? His onts reside in some non-reality?

If this species of (not-really) realist is just going to steer clear of any specific examples of abstracta/notions in their ontology, they would appear to be making a distinction without a difference.

I suggest we’ve no need to use up valuable cycles at the Hattery with such sophistry. We can leave it as the proper work of the General Union of Philosophers, Sages and Thinking People.

Noetica, are you suggesting DE is doing anything actually _wrong_ as a consequence of his self-confessed guilt? What? Be specific: name something in this ‘ontology’.

355. it is perhaps mysterious that physicists typically evince little interest in Lewis’s very detailed account, as delivered in On the Plurality of Worlds, widely regarded as a philosophical tour de force and full of content relevant to the concerns of physicists.

No more mysterious than the parallel lack of interest evinced by linguists in the supposedly vital contributions made by philosophers. The last-named group, however worthy, has no more to contribute to the sciences than do theologians.

356. David Marjanović says

Note that for Lewis there are infinitely many worlds, not just “many”.

Eternal inflation, specifically, predicts infinitely many words. Any theory that posits a beginning for the multiverse, however, predicts that the current number of universes is high indeed, and growing at a very high rate indeed – but cannot possibly be infinite.

357. Many the moons since I tried to understand Lewis or Humean supervenience. The boundaries of forking path to new verses lost me. I flip a coin, heads here; tails, new place. But a flipped coin landing on its edge, rolling across the room, caught in the fur of a sleeping shaggy dog?

@noetica
When you say that particular philosophical investigations are relevant to the concerns of physicists or reply to one such (Ok , Brett says his work is more mathematical these days, but the physicist training remains) that “the onus is on you [physicists?] to show how these [Lewis’] notions differ…”, it strikes this reader as somewhat hubristic. It is possible that those who are not working scientists/mathematicians (and a few who are) exaggerate the importance of foundational questions (requiring philosophical considerations and argument) for proper scientific training and work. I think you would have a better point if you argued that scientists participating (or refusing to participate) in public debates or offering expert advice about new technologies enabled by scientific advances, or working on technology projects, would benefit from a course in professional ethics with a strong philosophical base.

359. David Marjanović says

It is possible that those who are not working scientists/mathematicians (and a few who are) exaggerate the importance of foundational questions (requiring philosophical considerations and argument) for proper scientific training and work.

What comes to mind is the stunning irrelevance of “what is life?” to biology. As a matter of empirical fact, we didn’t need to define our subject matter before we were able to start working on it; in hindsight, it would even have been counterproductive to de- and confine biology first.

360. John Cowan says

The notion that word classes relieve a strain on the memory can’t possibly be right. Let us ask ourselves why are there never more than a few grammatical allomorphs in any given language. If there are a dozen ways to express the plural of nouns (neglecting unassimilated borrowings and relic conjugations), that’s a lot. But if we have N distinct nouns whose meanings must be learned, it just isn’t that much harder to learn the meanings of 2N (or 3N in languages with duals) distinct nouns: dog:dogs, cat:cats, tree:trees is only a linear factor easier to remember than an all-suppletive system like dog:foo, cat:baz, tree:quux.. And yet such systems are not to be found.

361. David Eddyshaw says

I think that what Pullum is driving at is not so much morphology as syntax. If there was no rhyme or reason to how actions were expressed, with every word expressing an action having a completely individual way of marking associated agents, patients and what have you, then surely that would impose a considerable additional load on memory?

(Apparently Ket is rather more like that than most languages, with numerous different verb classes, each with its own way of referring to arguments, the differences between verbs in this respect being purely lexical and not semantic.)

But I’m not sure that I agree even about morphology. Your “regular” plural examples are only possible because English has a category “noun”, comprising a whole lot of words that pattern similarly in grammar. Moreover, number in nouns is a pretty easy case; imagine a language in which all verbs have idiosyncratic forms for every subject agreement, differing in every tense.

It is not at all unusual for languages to have verbs with dozens or even hundreds of different inflected forms. We’re not talking a mere 2N or 3N forms to remember (N being the number of verbs.)

And doesn’t the fact that is a limit to how much pure suppletion is to be found in real languages support the notion that grammatical regularity exists to ease the load on memory, rather than refuting it?

However, there are real languages with a great deal more unpredictability in even noun flexion than familiar SAE languages (even Welsh):

https://archive.org/details/nuer-noun-morphology-department-of-linguistics-university

362. David Marjanović says

only a linear factor easier to remember

Why “only”?

363. D.O. says

I am partial to the notion that people have about 5000 lexemes in they basic everyday vocabulary. Enlarging it requires significant mental effort. So you have a choice, memorize 5000 distinct words with all their meanings and forms or create some mechanism of extending your vocab on the fly.

364. David Eddyshaw says

Not even limiting your affixes to a manageable number will save you.

Sticking with my Awful Warning language, Nuer: this language actually has only two-and-a-half suffixes for noun flexion. The trouble is that it deploys them more or less at random … (along with just a touch of unpredictable stem change):

Just think what Nuer would be like if it had unpredictable grammatical gender too …

There is an ancient proverb among Africanists regarding the analytical difficulties facing the descriptivist in the case of a close relative of Nuer:

Dinka is a Stinka.

(Note that the SOAS dialect of Early Modern English is employed here.)

365. January First-of-May says

dog:foo, cat:baz, tree:quux

Yet пёс:псы, котёнок:котята, дерево:деревья, all using a pattern that is limited to just this word and maybe a few other words [OK I’m kinda cheating with the second one because 1) it means “kitten”, not “cat” and 2) it’s a productive pattern for baby animals, but it’s still very peculiar].

And of course irregular verbs can get even more ridiculous than that. And then there’s sandhi…

It is not at all unusual for languages to have verbs with dozens or even hundreds of different inflected forms. We’re not talking a mere 2N or 3N forms to remember (N being the number of verbs.)

Indeed some languages have verbs with thousands or (reportedly) even millions of different inflected forms; you can get a long way into combinatorial explosion if you’re just piling up morphemes for every category.
(This is traditionally argued for agglutinative languages, but is of course even more true for polysynthetic languages, such as French or indeed Sanskrit.)

366. David Eddyshaw says

Someone (unfortunately I can’t remember who to give the credit to) memorably described Navajo as a “verb-centred language in which all the verbs are irregular.”

It is doubtless well that there has never been a colony of Nuer trappers who took Navajo wives, and whose children ended up speaking a Michif-like language with Nuer nouns and Navajo verbs. The children would have conquered the world by now.

367. David Marjanović says

Sticking with my Awful Warning language, Nuer: this language actually has only two-and-a-half suffixes for noun flexion. The trouble is that it deploys them more or less at random … (along with just a touch of unpredictable stem change):

Ah, like German.

(I am not clicking on that link at this hour, though. I can’t currently use nightmares.)

Just think what Nuer would be like if it had unpredictable grammatical gender too …

…like… …German.

or indeed Sanskrit

Not polysynthetic. Plenty irregular, though not like Old Irish.

368. David Eddyshaw says

Ah, like German

It makes German look like Esperanto. In Nuer, it’s not enough to memorise plurals individually for every noun: in practice, you need to memorise the case forms individually too. Singular and plural forms in the same case need not show any particular formal analogy with one another or with other case forms. That would be boring.

Much of Nilotic is like this, if not to quite the same degree. Moodie and Billington’s grammar of Lopit doesn’t even try to give rules for the formation of cases; that clever man Gerrit Dimmendaal does manage it for Turkana, and in a mere ten pages of tonal formulae at that. You get the impression that the Turkana aren’t really trying. They do have unpredictable grammatical gender, though, so they deserve some credit for that.

369. Y says

Not many cases, but 25 “suffixation patterns”, half of which only apply to one or two nouns.

370. David Eddyshaw says

The suffixation patterns, of course, are the easy bit (I mean, that’s only a dozen declensions, admittedly with rather a lot of nouns that don’t fit into any of them); worse, the same suffix may have quite different effects on the form of the preceding stem, and the alternations also occur (unpredictably) when no suffix is present.

The phonological and morphological diversity of the stem alternants is particularly rich, and the brief survey here cannot pretend to do it justice. However, there is no evidence that the phonological shape of stem alternations has any bearing on suffix assignment …

… the nouns in Frank’s corpus displaying up to five distinct stems, falling into forty-eight different patterns …

(The “brief survey” has 30 pages …)

371. David Eddyshaw says

Ingush is no slouch when it comes to declensions: Johanna Nichols gives sixteen. It’s not anything like as exuberant as the Nuer system, though: although there are eight cases, the variation is pretty much all between nominative stem forms versus The Rest within each paradigm, and the actual flexional suffixes themselves are nearly all predictable (how unimaginative!) Plural stems are not predictable in general from the singular, but the oblique cases are always regular. Bo-ring! On the other hand, Ingush has five genders, which require agreement when there is an r in the month and also on Thursdays (I paraphrase Nichols’ explanations slightly for simplicity.)

372. Noetica says

Hat:

No more mysterious than the parallel lack of interest evinced by linguists in the supposedly vital contributions made by philosophers. The last-named group, however worthy, has no more to contribute to the sciences than do theologians.

Interesting to see that assertion of your belief, Hat. But I would point out that philosophy (like the US) is vast and various. If you define (confine) philosophy as sealed away from the sciences – a recent idea in the scheme of things (Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton would find it odd) – then sure: philosophers qua philosophers can easily be said not contribute to the sciences. Nor do they breathe, qua philosophers. But many real, living, breathing philosophers do so contribute, using philosophical insights and methods of inquiry. Take as an example Prof Kim Sterelny (first to spring to mind, for me), an eminent Australian philosopher. See the areas of expertise at that link, and browse through the publications (such as Sterelny, K 2012, “Language, gesture, skill: The co-evolutionary foundations of language”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, vol. 367, no. 1599, pp. 2141–2151). Here is his current list of funded research involvements:
• ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) (Secondary Investigator)
• The Origins of Inequality, Hierarchy, and Social Complexity (Primary Investigator)
• From signs to symbols: language, mind and niche (Primary Investigator)
• Evolvability and the Evolution of Complexity (Primary Investigator)

It would hard for an unprejudiced reader not to be swayed by such evidence, or by more that could be adduced concerning other philosophers. Go next to David Dennett perhaps, and continue from there.

PP: It is possible that those who are not working scientists/mathematicians (and a few who are) exaggerate the importance of foundational questions (requiring philosophical considerations and argument) for proper scientific training and work.

DM: What comes to mind is the stunning irrelevance of “what is life?” to biology. As a matter of empirical fact, we didn’t need to define our subject matter before we were able to start working on it; in hindsight, it would even have been counterproductive to de- and confine biology first.

Fine. The first engineers got by without a heavy-duty theory of metallurgy, and of structural mechanics. But enormous progress came about with an infusion of hard and hard-won science, to help with foundations and guiding frameworks. So with cosmology, areas of linguistics, biological evolution, with respect to philosophy. I deal a lot with engineers, and I have yet to encounter one who is not also a card-carrying scientist. I deal a lot with philosophers; many are also highly competent in linguistics, physics, mathematics, computer science, psychology, and so on. There is no reason to suppose that they make sharp distinctions within their own program of inquiry, and much reason to believe they do not.

David M, you may be familiar with the physicist Schrödinger’s What is life?. We might also think about his Nature and the Greeks and Science and Humanism. If physicists can contribute like this (I know another who researches causes of fatigue in the human brain), why exclude philosophers as having something to contribute in hard science? I have attended philosophy seminars presented by and attended by physicists, linguists, psychologists, computer scientists, and biologists. Some call themselves philosophers first of all, others do not.

… that “the onus is on you [physicists?] to show how these [Lewis’] notions differ…”, it strikes this reader as somewhat hubristic.

To be clear, I issued the challenge to Brett because of his claims, not to “physicists”:
“Brett, Lewis’s understanding of existence is as physicalist as you can get. If the actual world is a large and complex causally connected concrete particular, as most physicists will want it to be, he is saying that there is an infinite number of those. However anyone wants to cash out the terms I have just used, they have some sort of defensible meaning for pretty well everyone. The onus is on you, not me or Lewis true-believers, to show how these notions differ between modal realists and right-thinking physicists.”
What strikes me as hubristic is the assumption that a carefully phrased challenge of this sort need not be given a properly attentive reading, let alone a response (which it lacks, so far).

I think you would have a better point if you argued that scientists participating (or refusing to participate) in public debates or offering expert advice about new technologies enabled by scientific advances, or working on technology projects, would benefit from a course in professional ethics with a strong philosophical base.
I hope will volunteer for that venture then. Myself, I choose the points I want to make, and to articulate with argument and evidence. If you don’t like my point about modal realism and science (having the same general conception of existence), you would do better to take up the detail that I present and show where I am wrong, and not merely “hubristic”.

David M:

Noetica: Note that for Lewis there are infinitely many worlds, not just “many”.
DM: Eternal inflation, specifically, predicts infinitely many wor[l]ds. Any theory that posits a beginning for the multiverse, however, predicts that the current number of universes is high indeed, and growing at a very high rate indeed – but cannot possibly be infinite.

E dopo? Any notion of inflation must (mustn’t it?) involve temporal, quasi-temporal, spatial, quasi-spatial, or at least some other “physical” relations among all of the parts involved in the inflation. This means that in Lewis’s terms all those parts are “worldmates”: they are all at one world only. If there is such a complex as you mention, and if the physics that applies at it is contingent rather than a matter of strict necessity (or even if only the detailed history is contingent), then Lewis will have it that there is an infinite number of complexes of that general sort. If this conclusion is false, in that there are no “physical” relations among the parts in question, in what sense are they parts of the same “multiverse”?

373. Y says

Baerman also gives the somewhat painful example of Latvian case and number suffixes, but adds, “Of course, what is disproved [the “Paradigm Economy Principle”] by Latvian is triply disproved by Nuer.”

374. David Eddyshaw says

Yes, the point of the paper is not really to describe Nuer but to use the Nuer data to show that common theories of morphology Don’t Actually Work:

While we know of systems like that of Turkish, with a straightforward mapping of functions to forms, and those like German, with greater morphological complexity, the full diversity of inflectional systems remains poorly understood, so we should not be surprised if we find facts at variance with our theoretical models.

… and good luck to him in this noble work of scientific refutation, too. But for his particular purpose it’s the suffixation patterns that are most immediately useful, which is why he rather skates over the real practical problem with learning Nuer nominal morphology: stem variation.

The Paradigm Economy Principle* seems to be yet another metastasis from the Chomskyan miasma. Carstairs, its originator, apparently asserted that “all languages exhibit the minimum number of paradigms that is arithmetically possible.”

This is the sort of gubbins one is up against:

https://home.uni-leipzig.de/muellerg/mu273.pdf

It’s so elegant … pity it has so little connection with, like, facts.

Part of

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributed_morphology

* The occurrence of the word “principle” in a language-theoretical work is pretty much always a danger sign; if it’s capitalised and preceded by a modifier, no need to read the paper at all …

375. Y says

I am a bit mystified by what it is morphologists do, in particular the Sussex lot, including Baerman. On the one hand, this paper is typically brilliant in showing patterns where one would normally give up on seeing them. On the other hand, I doubt that these patterns exist in the minds of speakers of these languages (Nuer/German/Ingush/Latvian), and I don’t know if the morphologists think so either. So is the point just to have linguists and linguaphiles look and say, isn’t this neat? Fine by me, but is that all that’s intended?

376. AntC says

I doubt that these patterns exist in the minds of speakers of these languages

I doubt that NounPhrase or tensedVerb exist in the minds of speakers either.

I don’t think economy of description/depiction is any sort of desideratum for speakers — languages seem to revel in irregularities, ossified phrases that don’t match any current construction, etc.

Only a Realist (or Chomskyan) would want to give abstracta some mental depiction.

@Noetica
“But enormous progress [in metallurgy, also engineering?] came about with an infusion of hard and hard-won science, to help with foundations and guiding frameworks. So with cosmology, areas of linguistics, biological evolution, with respect to philosophy.”
There is a bit of a jump with this “So” (I think we discussed this in another thread). In cosmology, it is true that a more accurate Ptolemaic framework was replaced by a less accurate Copernican one (Copernicus’ insistence on circular orbits was a defect). But I would not read this as a timely injection of Philosophy to benighted Science. Scientists at the time, e.g., Brahe, understood that the frameworks (apart from the insistence on circular orbits) were interchangeable, i.e., either could lead to a valid description with identical predictions. I would read the adoption of the Copernican framework as predicated on internal scientific considerations like “we keep having to add another ad hoc constant to make the Ptolemaic theory fit new or better data” or “there is less retrograde crap when we describe planetary motions wrt the Sun instead of the Earth”, rather than on philosophical considerations.

378. drasvi says

It’s so elegant … pity it has so little connection with, like, facts.

The paper you linked offers a different principle… sorry, theorem. It says the following about the principle:

Concluding so far, given the concept of macro-paradigm (or macro-inflection class), apparent counter-examples to the Paradigm Economy Principle can be explained away. On this view, if a different inflectional pattern can be described by invoking gender features, semantic features (like animacy), phonological features, or if it involves non-affixal inflection, it is irrelevant for paradigm economy: Only those differences count which are absolutely irreducible (p11)

379. David Eddyshaw says

The key words are, of course, “explained away.”
(None of the proposed get-out-of-jail-free cards works for Nuer, as it happens.)

It’s difficult to enter into the mindset of authors, journal editors or referees who imagine that this kind of thing is some sort of contribution to science.

380. David Eddyshaw says

I doubt that these patterns exist in the minds of speakers of these languages

I think something like them exists, whether one calls it a “pattern” or not. As evidence I’d adduce things like the way Kusaal fits loanwords into its seven noun classes, e.g. the ultimately Arabic loans

maliak “angel”, plural malia’as; cf zak “compound”, plural za’as;

malif “gun”, plural mali; cf mɔlif “kob”, plural mɔli.

There must be some mental starting point for the analogical plural formations. On the other hand, you could just as well say that the flexion of the loans is modelled on that the individual words that I cited, without hypostatising entire “declensions.”

381. David Eddyshaw says

Come to think of it, I can exhibit a case where analogical modelling on the basis of a single word is quite certain: lɔr “motor vehicle” can have the plural lɔya, following a pattern (sorry) seen in dozens of words, e.g. kʋkɔr “voice”, plural kʋkɔya; but it can also have the plural lɔɔm. There is only one (other) word in the entire language that inflects like this: Mɔr “Muslim”, plural Mɔɔm.

382. drasvi says

@DE, I don’t know. Even if this paper is not attacking the principle, it offers an alternative to it, the author is not interested in explaining the motivation for the principle.

But I can think of some motivations. We can create many classes by using several forms in various combinations in the spirit of German adjectives (the strong declension). That is, German has a few of them (associated with gender) and we could instead make many of them using the same set of {-e, -er, -en…..}, and without any connection to gender, just at random.

The idea is that this occupation is somehow unnatural.

383. drasvi says

…and that is what Nuer (as presented in the paper) is doing:/

384. David Eddyshaw says

I think the motivation ultimately comes from ANC’s latest wheeze, viz that Language (thus reified) is “optimal in its design and exquisite in its organization.” This “insight” is, of course, transparently false, so the game is to devise ever more abstract models of Language that can make it appear to be true in some way not apparent to non-initiates, whose opinions are of course, merely ignorant and misguided.

In other words, it’s epicycles all the way down. The paper I linked to adds an epicycle to preserve the “truth” of the Paradigm Economy Principle, a generalisation over a set of languages carefully selected to exemplify it, which falls apart royally when tested against a wider selection of languages. This is just pseudoscience.

Another manifestation of this mindset is

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimality_Theory

against which I bear a personal grudge, having recently been extracting tonal data from an account of an Oti-Volta language couched in term of this framework. The framework adds nothing whatsoever to the actual data in terms of enabling you to predict forms (it’s just making pretty patterns out of the data), and the effort the author has expended in shoehorning his data into the theory has diverted him from asking obvious questions along the lines of “so how does that tone pattern surface in this different context?” It’s such a wasted opportunity.

385. AntC says

This just in: How Physicists Proved the Universe Isn’t Locally Real 2022 Nobel Prize.

The Amalgamated Union is certainly going to start a demarcation dispute.

386. David Eddyshaw says

387. drasvi says

@DE, yes, likely the original motivation is generativist. But you can always reinterpret a universal in the spirit of Greenberg, and find a more humane motivation. Also I must admit that Nuer declensions as presented in the paper do look weird. Even if this “weird” is based on my Indo-European experience, I’m still a European, and everything subjectively weird is instructive. Maybe Carstairs just captured this specific (correct or not) idea of weirdness. (I still wonder if this weird distribution reflects the situation with stems somehow – this way it would be less weid)

388. drasvi says

Though I agree that searching for universals is dangerous.

We know many counter-intuitive properties of langauges, and there are, of course, some simple properties not found in any known language. Among them there must be some counter-intuitive properties. If we find one, we will be tempted to say : “because it is counter-intuitive!” and have an illusion that we know something about the space of possible languages (learnable, speakable, achievable in the course of natural evolution, achievable in the course of natural evolution with the actual proto-language as the starting point)

389. David Eddyshaw says

I’m not opposed in principle to looking for linguistic universals, especially in the Greenbergian sense of actually looking. I just think that the lookers in question tend to underestimate the problems involved in comparing languages without inadvertently assuming your supposed conclusions, and to be sometimes insufficiently aware of the defects in their source materials. And like all would-be systematisers they can be tempted to find what they’re looking for whether it’s there or not, but that’s a human built-in thing …

I’m particularly not opposed to implicational universals, especially when expressed as statistical tendencies rather than Laws. A lot are clearly valid in those terms, and must surely mean something about language in general. The rub is working out what

The Chomskyan approach is quite different. You sit in your study devising the exceptionless Principles of Language by pure ratiocination, and then send forth your flying monkeys to amass the evidence that Proves them.

390. David Marjanović says

Prof Kim Sterelny

Fair enough: here we have a philosopher contributing to science, and that’s how our esteemed host perhaps unfortunately worded the issue. But do we have here philosophy contributing to science, or are we simply looking at a philosopher and a scientist in personal union?

David M, you may be familiar with the physicist Schrödinger’s What is life?.

Sort of. It’s not read anymore because it’s simply a hundred years out of date.

If this conclusion is false, in that there are no “physical” relations among the parts in question, in what sense are they parts of the same “multiverse”?

As far as I’ve understood the theory of eternal inflation, there’s this eternally inflating quantum field, and every once in a while a part buds off and expands as its own spacetime. Nothing can get in or out, so it’s its own universe. If Lewis posits that there are infinitely many eternally inflating quantum fields (and therefore infinitely many multiverses as physicists seem to use these terms), that’s pure speculation and useless to science as far as I can see.

I would read the adoption of the Copernican framework as predicated on internal scientific considerations like “we keep having to add another ad hoc constant to make the Ptolemaic theory fit new or better data” or “there is less retrograde crap when we describe planetary motions wrt the Sun instead of the Earth”, rather than on philosophical considerations.

The internal scientific consideration here is the principle (!) of parsimony – a philosophical consideration. Specifically, it belongs to science theory, which is a branch of philosophy.

Science is an application of philosophy. Engineering and medicine are applications of science.

I doubt that NounPhrase or tensedVerb exist in the minds of speakers either.

Up to a point, some of them do. For example, all German word orders are built on the concept that finite verbs are a class of some sort and that infinite verb forms (including participles, separated prefixes and more) are another.

On the other hand, you could just as well say that the flexion of the loans is modelled on that the individual words that I cited, without hypostatising entire “declensions.”

I’ve previously come across the idea that – synchronically – such analogies are all that flexion classes really are, and I tend to agree.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I deal a lot with engineers, and I have yet to encounter one who is not also a card-carrying scientist.

Then you’ve been really lucky. Thanks to the Dunning/Kruger effect, pseudoscientists are overrepresented among engineers (…and physicians, and surgeons…) and have been for over a century.

Perhaps similarly, it’s not hard to find scientists who are worthless as philosophers. But they also tend to regard philosophy as worthless, so they don’t talk about it. I’ve seen one paper, probably not even peer-reviewed, that said as an aside that (at least) its particular field of science should be based on hermeneutics rather than falsification; that’s all.

391. Fair enough: here we have a philosopher contributing to science, and that’s how our esteemed host perhaps unfortunately worded the issue. But do we have here philosophy contributing to science, or are we simply looking at a philosopher and a scientist in personal union?

Yes, my wording was unfortunate. I meant that philosophy itself does not contribute to science; a philosopher can, of course, also be a scientist, just as an actress can also be an inventor. I have never known a linguist who paid any attention to philosophy other than recreationally.

392. drasvi says
393. David Eddyshaw says

That’s the first one I linked to.
The final part of the conclusion says, very sensibly:

The above discussion is not intended to imply that these studies were misguided simply because the Nuer data eludes them. But their ideas do not transfer well to Nuer, nor were they intended to. It is only to show the difficulty in accounting for Nuer in morphological theory. Perhaps this is because linguists’ theories of morphology are fundamentally designed to account for regularity, whether through derivation, optimal candidate selection, or transformation. Nuer’s noun morphology has a fundamentally irregular component to it, so most morphological theory doesn’t have much to say about Nuer nouns beyond the statement of the productive (regular) rule and the enumeration of irregular forms. If the goal of linguistic inquiry is to show regularity where none was previously visible, then a highly irregular system is going to be uninteresting except to the extent that regularity can be found.
If linguistics is a “classificatory science” (Hockett 1942), then analysis of a system not yet classified is enlightening regardless of whether or not it can be made to look orderly.

Preach it, Brother!
Zero mentions of Chomsky; but Hockett, Wittgenstein and (of course) Evans-Pritchard all feature. Now that’s the way to do it!

394. David Eddyshaw says

I have now observed AntC’s link, so now it is locally real:

395. Y says

The only usage of OT which I thought might, just might be useful for anyone is Crowhurst and Michael’s analysis of a horrifically complex stress system. That is, if OT was stripped of its obtuseness and claimed to universality, down to a system of ranked constraints and no more. But, it’s been a while since I tried to delve into this paper. If someone reworks that analysis into an easy to understand plain ol’ rule system, I’ll take it and not look back.

396. jack morava says

I’m afraid that AntC’s link, about the reality’ of the universe, is an example of a meaningless Wittgensteinian language game; cf eg

Re Schr\”odinger’s What is Life’: I would argue that it’s no more outdated than Newton’s Principia – a breakthrough classic and a beautiful example of insight. Freeman Dyson’s Origins of Life’ is a more recent contribution to the subject.

The term natural philosophy’ seems to have been forgotten… Others in that tradition include D’Arcy Thompson and Ren\’e Thom…

397. David Eddyshaw says

The main point of OT seems to be an antipathy to rule ordering. Presumably this is because, for reasons best known to OT persons, they feel that rule ordering is unrealistic in a picture of how humans actually produce and understand language, whereas their much more elaborate systems are entirely plausible. Or (perhaps more likely) just because the One True Research Program somehow implies that rule ordering Cannot Be.

Witness this beautifully simple account of the problematic (to OT persons) French h aspiré:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285280003_Silent_onsets_An_optimality-theoretic_approach_to_French_h_aspire_words

(This issue has been of interest to me because Kusaal has two prefixes a-, with identical surface form but different preceding segmental sandhi. I spent some time grappling with the Theory of this before I was Enlightened and discarded such concerns as maya.)

398. drasvi says

His regular conjugation is nom. sg., oblique sg., plural.

Irregular conjugations can be obtained from the regular conjugation:
– some forms are not marked externally.
– some forms are also marked internally.

One really wants to know what variation looks like….

399. January First-of-May says

dog:foo, cat:baz, tree:quux

Now that I think of it, we can get an approximate idea of what a system like this might be like by looking at terms of venery: it is completely unpredictable that a group of lions would be called a “pride” and not a “flock” or a “lionery” or something.

(Unfortunately for many quite common animals or objects those terms are exceedingly obscure. I had to look up what a group of cats was called. Apparently it’s a “clowder”.)

Come to think of it, I can exhibit a case where analogical modelling on the basis of a single word is quite certain

In English, the word meese, one of the many common plurals of moose, is almost a perfect example (the single word being goose, plural geese), but that particular declension pattern does have at least one other example – namely tooth, plural teeth.

400. drasvi says

in Johnson (1997)’s study of prophets in Nuer society. ” – made me realise that I rarely see “prophet” as applied to anything outside of the Middle East.
biiεl, ‘bee.nom.plur’“. – a funny typo. It is not ‘bee’…

401. David Eddyshaw says

@January:

The Kusaal “gun” example (malif, plural mali) that I gave is not too far off that, either; although there is a perfectly good Kusaal fʊ/ii class, it’s small and (generally) unproductive, and quite a few nouns that comparative work shows used to belong to it now only belong to it in one number, or have shifted altogether to other classes. Moreover, its other members exclusively refer either to animals or to small round things (like seeds.)

But the analogy of mɔlif “kob”, plural mɔli was evidently just too hard to throw off. I suppose it’s rather like “Unixen” and “boxen.”

402. David Eddyshaw says

in Johnson (1997)’s study of prophets in Nuer society.

Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer Religion paints a picture surprisingly similar to the sort of monotheism familiar to Europeans. (For all that the work is a classic of anthropology, it does make you wonder about E-P’s preconceptions a bit.)

The Kusaasi and their cultural neighbours don’t have anything like that. In the Kusaal and Mooré Bible translations “prophet” is rendered using the word for “chief’s spokesman.”

You can see why, though it’s not altogether an apt choice: such spokesmen are hereditary nobles and royal councillors in their own right, and the “spokesman” role arises because the convention is that the chief never addresses his people directly on formal occasions.

The Akan term is okyeame; in Ghanaian English, the term used is “linguist.” The custom may go back to a time when chiefs actually needed an interpreter to speak to the plebs, but although this is still actually sometimes so in some communities in northern Ghana, and probably was indeed once the case with the Mossi-Dagomba kingdoms, AFAIK there is no tradition that Akan chiefs were once foreigners.

403. drasvi says

It did not occur to me, but it totally makes sense if a figure as sacred as say Japanese emperor can’t speak the same language as others.

And all those jobs created for people who translate for us thoughts of our extra-terrestrial masters…

404. drasvi says

Following this methodology, I invented a number of words which fit the phonotactic constraints of Nuer as I understand them, and asked my consultant if these words were already Nuer words. If they were not, I asked if they could be. Of course, many were existing Nuer words, and this proved to be an interesting method of eliciting data.

405. drasvi says

Apart of variation, this is one more question: does the fact that Nuer words are 1 syllable has to do with the situation with conjugation?

406. David Eddyshaw says

Conjugation as such is relatively simple, using clitic pronouns and VP particles rather than flexion, but the appetite for random alteration of stems comes out again with a pervasive distinction between transitive and intransive forms; many verbs alter form if there is no overt object

c-ə maat̯ kɛ pi̱̠w
PFV-1SG drink.INTR OBL water
‘I drank (the) water (and not the wine)’

c-ə pi̱̠w mat̯
PFV-1SG water drink.TR
‘I drank (the) water’

This works the other way round from most languages (e.g. Swahili): it’s the formally intransitive one where the effective object is marked or definite.

Derivatives like causatives and anticausative involve messing about with the stem at random(ish) again.
Purloined from

407. Stu Clayton says

Is this a fair summary of what has been learned so far ?

You can always find an explanation, but it’s never clear whether it’s the only or best explanation, or even an explanation at all.

That’s my explanation, at any rate.

408. David Eddyshaw says

or even an explanation at all

Don’t be silly. Of course it’s an explanation. It’s just that it may not necessarily explain anything.

409. drasvi says

I meant “declension”:-( I’m getting sleepy…

410. Stu Clayton says

Of course it’s an explanation. It’s just that it may not necessarily explain anything.

Ah, that explains that. Doctor subtilis to the rescue !

It is clear, I hope, that my summary points a moral: forbearance is the better part of valor.

411. David Eddyshaw says

Following this methodology, I invented a number of words which fit the phonotactic constraints of Nuer as I understand them, and asked my consultant if these words were already Nuer words. If they were not, I asked if they could be. Of course, many were existing Nuer words, and this proved to be an interesting method of eliciting data.

Puts me in mind of the narrator’s encounter with Martin Finnucane in The Third Poiliceman:

Ask him his name and occupation and inquire what is his destination.

‘I do not desire to be inquisitive, sir,’ I said, ‘but would it be true to mention that you are a bird-catcher?’
‘A tinker?’
‘Not that.’
‘A man on a journey?’
‘No, not that.’
‘A fiddler?’
‘Not that one.’
[…]
After an interval I made another attempt to find out what his business was.
‘Or a man out after rabbits?’ I asked.
‘Not that. Not that.’
‘A travelling man with a job of journey-work?’
‘No.’
‘Driving a steam thrashing-mill?’
‘Not for certain.’
‘Tin-plates?’
‘No.’
‘A town clerk?’
‘No.’
‘A water-works inspector?’
‘No.’
‘With pills for sick horses?’
‘Not with pills.’
‘Then by Dad,’ I remarked perplexedly, ‘your calling is very unusual and I cannot think of what it is at all, unless you are a farmer like myself, or a publican’s assistant or possibly something in the drapery line. Are you an actor or a mummer?’
‘Not them either.’

He sat up suddenly and looked at me in a manner that was almost direct, his pipe sticking out aggressively from his tight jaws. He had the world full of smoke. I was uneasy but not altogether afraid of him. If I had my spade with me I knew I would soon make short work of him. I thought the wisest thing to do was to humour him and to agree with everything he said.
‘I am a robber,’ he said in a dark voice, ‘a robber with a knife and an arm that’s as strong as an article of powerful steam machinery.’

412. David Eddyshaw says

does the fact that Nuer words are 1 syllable has to do with the situation with conjugation?

I meant “declension”

Ah.

Yes, I think it probably does, from a historical standpoint. I haven’t seen an internal reconstruction of Nuer or Dinka, but Mechthild Reh has written a highly impressive if deeply intimidating grammar of the fairly closely related Western Nilotic language Anywa. Anywa, too, is designed to break the spirit of any would-be learners, with extensive unpredictable root-internal vowel changes: Reh does quite extensive reconstruction, partly internal, partly from comparative work, in order to explain the forms via suffixes that got deleted on the way to the language getting so monosyllabic and all, leaving stem changes in their wake. (A bit like umlaut in Germanic, but – rather more extensive …)

Over on the other side of Africa, Central Chadic languages often show palatalising prosodies fronting all of a word’s vowels and/or changing all its laminal consonants to post-alveolars; it’s been hypothesised that this is due to lost y suffixes, but the work is pretty preliminary at this stage.

This very impressive thesis sums up the state of the art with reconstructing Proto-Central Chadic:

https://scholarlypublications.universiteitleiden.nl/handle/1887/30139

413. Noetica says

Hat:

Yes, my wording was unfortunate. I meant that philosophy itself does not contribute to science; a philosopher can, of course, also be a scientist, just as an actress can also be an inventor. I have never known a linguist who paid any attention to philosophy other than recreationally.

I see: you meant that abstraction called philosophy, and that other one called science. And you define (confine, silo, limit) the first so that none of its contents can conceivably contribute to anything in the second. Newton (an alchemist and highly accomplished QAnon precursor) would be surprised that his deliberations on space and time would be considered other than hard science and hard philosophy. See the Leibniz–Clarke correspondence, where Newton’s ideas (surely dated ideas, like those of boundary-crossing amateurs like Schrödinger and Kant) are pitted against those of the fringe-dwelling dilettante (and possible-world theorist) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. I see it now: Kant’s capricious speculations concerning space, time, and the universe at large are as unconvincing for my case as Hedy Lamarr’s prowess as an inventor and an actor. Wikipedia on Kant and science:

“In the Universal Natural History, Kant laid out the Nebular hypothesis, in which he deduced that the Solar System had formed from a large cloud of gas, a nebula. Kant also correctly deduced that the Milky Way was a large disk of stars, which he theorized formed from a much larger spinning gas cloud. He further suggested that other distant ‘nebulae’ might be other galaxies. These postulations opened new horizons for astronomy, for the first time extending it beyond the Solar System to galactic and intergalactic realms.”

Must be wrong. Resplendently wrong.

In haste, because just now heading off to have carpal tunnel surgery. That might slow me down for a couple of days with this thread. But I’ll be thinking about you all.

414. Kant?! I thought we were talking about today. Sure, the farther back you go, the less distinction there is between the various forms of intellectual activity and the more interpenetration there was. If that’s what you mean, I have no objection.

415. Noetica says

Hat:

So neither living examples like Kim Sterelny (and Dennett et alia) nor founders of modern scientific and philosophical thinking (like Newton and Kant) do anything to shift your opinion one millimetre? Fine, if for you it’s a firm conviction of THAT sort.

Signing off (from a hospital waiting room) …

416. David Marjanović says

meese

Glaswegian is based on some strange analogy to Norwegian.

An inhabitant of Michigan is a Michigander… if male; Michigoose has 2390 ghits, the first of them its Wiktionary entry, and Michigeese even 7100.

The term natural philosophy’ seems to have been forgotten…

It is well known as part of the history of science.

Others in that tradition include D’Arcy Thompson

The idea he’s most famous for is quite wrong, though, and I’ve never heard of René Thom.

Newton […] would be surprised that his deliberations on space and time would be considered other than hard science and hard philosophy.

Of course. This is simply something that has changed since his lifetime, thanks in no small measure to him: we can now separate philosophy, pure reason, from science which has to test its hypotheses against the world outside of my skull.

the farther back you go, the less distinction there is between the various forms of

Ooh, that reminds me of a bit of philosophizing I quoted at the start of my largest paper:

This ancient inhabitant of the coal swamps of Nova Scotia, was, in short, as we often find to be the case with the earliest forms of life, the possessor of powers and structures not usually, in the modern world, combined in a single species. It was certainly not a fish, yet its bony scales, and the form of its vertebræ, and of its teeth, might, in the absence of other evidence, cause it to be mistaken for one. We call it a batrachian, yet its dentition, the sculpturing of the bones of its skull, which were certainly no more external plates than the similar bones of a crocodile, its ribs, and the structure of its limbs, remind us of the higher reptiles; and we do not know that it ever possessed gills, or passed through a larval or fish-like condition. Still, in a great many important characters, its structures are undoubtedly batrachian. It stands, in short, in the same position with the Lepidodendra and Sigillariæ under whose shade it crept, which though placed by palæo-botanists in alliance with certain modern groups of plants, manifestly differed from these in many of their characters, and occupied a different position in nature. In the coal period, the distinctions of physical and vital conditions were not well defined—dry land and water, terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals, and lower and higher forms of animal and vegetable life, are consequently not easily separated from each other.

Dawson JW. 1863. Air-breathers of the Coal Period: Descriptive Account of the Remains of Land Animals Found in the Coal Formation of Nova Scotia. Montreal: Dawson Brothers.

417. David Eddyshaw says

René Thom was basically a topologist, mainly famous in his day for the role his work plays in Catastrophe Theory; it’s quite a good specimen of how it’s unwise to assume that any example of “pure” mathematics can never have any useful applications. I didn’t know he’d turned to philosophy in his old age, but then mathematicians are prone to outbreaks of Platonism.

(I had heard of him, but not of D’Arcy Thompson. Just goes to show. Thom’s Semiophysics, though, I know from nothing. Googling seems to turn up only woo, but it may not be connected with Thom’s version.)

418. David Eddyshaw says

Ah:

(I see that the man himself wrote a book Semio Physics: A Sketch, too.)

According to WP, Thom objected to Derrida’s honorary doctorate from Cambridge. Seems a bit cheeky if this paper accurately reflects Thom’s own views – which it may not; the style does not inspire me to credulity. His groundbreaking linguistic ideas (“topological semantics”) seem to have been largely rejected by the hidebound linguistic community. How like them.

419. drasvi says

“Sure, the farther back you go, the less distinction there is between the various forms of intellectual activity and the more interpenetration there was. ”

Firstly, I disagree.

Secondly, the quiestion is “should there be a gap” rather than whether there is a gap (even though actual examples of productive exchange would show that there shouldn’t be a gap).
The term natural philosophy’ seems to have been forgotten” says jack morava – and yes, you notice that it ceased to be a thing in 20th century already in school (or I noticed it as a schoolboy) and start wondering why. Why?

420. drasvi says

I know about nothing about Lewis’s and quantum* multiverses, but if they both exist (a pun, actually: exist on paper and exist in terms of this discussion), it is natural to ask why they are [thought to be] mutually useless.

Also I wonder if the appearance of multiple/alternative worlds in physics was inpired by multiple world elsewhere… in fiction for example.
—–
P.S. * and the inflatory multiverse discussed here.

421. AntC says

@Noetica Newton?! Kant?! I thought we were talking about today. …

Indeed, and exactly. Do we have to stop and ask for each of your posts whether you’re using words in archaic senses?

I hope the surgery goes well.

422. jack morava says

Natural philosophy is alive and well in biology, though perhaps not by that name; cf eg

Travis, John (1995). “The Ghost of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: Frog and Fly Genes Revive the Ridiculed Idea that Vertebrates Resemble Upside-Down Insects”. Science News 148 (14): 216-218.

Re D’Arcy Thompson: “A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life”.

Show his ink-drop experiment to your children.

423. David Marjanović says

1995 is not alive and well. The idea is back to being ridiculed, to the extent that it hasn’t simply been forgotten. Also, I’m not sure why you call it philosophy to begin with.

424. It’s nostalgia, a longing for that time when all who speculated about the natural world held hands and danced around singing the same tunes. That time is long past, and a good thing too, because although it produced some wonderful prose (and if you go back far enough, poetry), those kindly and eloquent folk didn’t know much at all about the universe. Now, with our depressingly bad prose and incomprehensible specialized terms, we know a whole lot more. I’ll accept the tradeoff.

425. David Eddyshaw says

I think the issue of past intellectuals who contributed both to what we now call science and to what we now call philosophy is tangential to the question of whether philosophy has any bearing on science at the present day; likewise with more recent scientists who dabble in philosophy, or indeed in other fields in which they are incompetent, wrongly supposing that their genius is simply transferable (in linguistics, Gell-Mann, and evidently also Thom, alas.)

Personally, I do think it has a bearing: for example, in the vital question of demarcating science itself from pseudoscience. In linguistics, for example, Esa Itkonen has astutely skewered the invalid philosophical assumptions at the basis of the Chomskyan edifice.

Chomskyanism, like psychoanalysis, can be made to work, on its own terms, with sufficient effort: pointing out that the whole endeavour fails to meet fundamental criteria needed for it to be “scientific” necessarily involves metascientific arguments. You can’t refute Chomskyanism: there are always more epicycles. Chomskyan devotees, indeed, regard the production of epicycles as research.

426. jack morava says

(Arguably, of course) there’s a clear line of conceptual descent from St Hilaire to

427. jack morava says

“I don’t call it anything” said Frankie Lee with a smile [R Zimmerman]

I’m arguing for the continuing vitality of natural’ philosophy w.r.t. the other kind…

428. David Eddyshaw says

Unnatural philosophy?

429. David Marjanović says

I wouldn’t call that “philosophy”, I’d call that “history of science”. And Hox genes aren’t conceptually descended from anything – they’re discovered. Give me access to the right lab, and I can bring you a Hox gene on a plate.

430. What DM said. I don’t quite understand the apparent need to forcibly weld science to other forms of thought it has long departed from.

431. drasvi says

No, I don’t think that the nature of the gap between modern philosophers and modern natural scientists is trivial.

Also I know why we don’t have philosophers in Russia: because we found the one true thought (that of Karl Marx) and thinking again would be idiotic. (since then we discovered that it was not true).

I honestly don’t remember how this situation (when all philosophy exists in Greece or in 19th century) looked from USSR, but think it looked natural.
Just as the western situation looks for LH.
What I remember is the great perplexion that everyone who didn’t study at a philosophical faculty felt about people who study there. What do they do there? Do they philosophise? Are they taught to philosophise? How do you teach people to philosophise?
Obviously not this. Don’t make me laugh. Greeks philosophise and Germans. People don’t do this. How do you imagine it – I look in your eyes and.. say something Super Clever? Like this?
Constructive philosophising happened in ancient world, now we have science.

What I mean: it is easy to imagine that philosophy is outdated occupation when you don’t seen an example before your eyes. It is just as easy to imagine that natural sciences are outdated: any person in a world where people ceased to practice them can imagine this.
Because she can’t imagine how she can write a scientific book. How? You take a pen and write something smart and contribute in our knowlege of the world with something truly impressive? All discoveries have already been made… Until someone starts working and making new discoveres.
But can you contribute in modern science (I assume in this world our scientific knowlege is available) in an impressive way alone? Without the whole ecosystem, without teachers (who tell you where to start), without others who work on similar problems, and without factories to make modern equipment?
It’s easy for any human society to get stuck.

I am sceptical about arguments for impossibility of any human creative endeavour based on its absence. I am sceptical about claims that a certain situation in human society is “natural”. Has nothing to do with nostalgia (honestly, I am not that interested in philosophy)
When I see why there can’t be a bridge between philosophy and natural sciences, I will believe that there is an obstacle.

432. jack morava says

Arguably space-time’ is a ding an its own sich, but I think it’s reasonable (from a history of science viewpoint, if you wish) to consider it a descendant of older ideas. You sometimes find what you look for – Rutherford’s atoms, the positron, cf

[In my department, Wei-Liang Chow (one of the fathers of modern algebraic geometry) long taught a geometry service course for the University’s distinguished lacrosse team. He was known to prove the existence of the line at infinity on the projective plane by going to the window and looking out of it.]

433. Stu Clayton says

`space-time’ is a ding an its own sich

I love it. Recently I have been weighing further variants:

Ding-außer-sich
A woke individual, often “beside himself” with outrage.
Er war außer sich vor Wut.

Ding-unter-sich
An echo chamber population.
Auf Facebook ist man ganz unter sich.

Ding-an-und-Pfirsich
A desert with raspberries and vanilla ice cream.
Bringen Sie mir bitte ein Pêche Melba.

434. Stu Clayton says

Also, it’s good to see that someone else here, apart from yours truly, has read some Bachelard. Luhmann put me on to him.

435. But can you contribute in modern science (I assume in this world our scientific knowlege is available) in an impressive way alone? Without the whole ecosystem, without teachers (who tell you where to start), without others who work on similar problems, and without factories to make modern equipment?

Well, sure. But you’re kicking a straw dog — nobody’s saying people can work alone. What does any of that have to do with philosophy?

436. jack morava says

@ Stu Clayton: Bachelard seems to me really interesting; he deserves to be better known. He’s made a few appearances here, most recently at

I learned about him from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lina_Fruzzetti

437. Noetica says

Well, home and away from surgery. All’s well, and I can mouse and type with just my right hand. I come here first to express my mortification at having tapped on my phone under duress “et alia” where of course I meant “et alii” (see earlier). While I’m here though, and brevi manu like Greek shorthand:

you’re kicking a straw dog

Hat, if dravsi was doing that then it would be no match for your own straw-manic and prejudicial asseverations in this thread. Nor the strident ad hominems from others that I prefer not to engage with.

Elsewhere you found me prejudiced, when I said that all reports I have heard about coffee in America were unfavourable. Yet you offer sweeping assertions about the territory that is my academic homeland. You cherry-pick points that you seem to think are easily rebutted (they are not), and stay silent (as Brett has, it seems) or appear to shift ground to avoid what is harder to answer.

Elsewhere you have suggested that fully fledged PhDed academic linguists have greater authority than the “rabble” (once or twice your jesting term for the likes of me). You are as renowned for your tolerance as for your hospitality, but there are striking lapses.

Earning a PhD in philosophy, I have researched deeply in the area I write about above. This involved sustained dialogue with physicists and mathematicians, and much concerning logic and language. What I achieved was well received. I then set it aside. I moved on, but continued teaching – then focused on academic editing. I didn’t publish because I reject most published philosophy in our time as futile and disengaged, and had no interest in being associated with it. I only work with academia anonymously: to improve others’ work for publication, and to clinch research funding for them. I leave philosophy in the academy to the true aficionados who enjoy such a life. Not all of philosophy is like that though. Of course!

Appeals to authority, like straw men and ad hominems, diminish those who offer them. Over-reliance on one’s own necessarily limited experience as authoritative is no exception, and I don’t seek to engage in that. Grist for the mill of discourse, and no more. If you say that in your experience linguists treat philosophy as recreational at best, then my experience differs (as explained upthread). For both of us a selection effect should be taken into account. I, for example, have encountered linguists participating with full commitment at philosophy seminars and conferences – but perhaps you have not.

You dismiss Newton (mixed up, like David M’s engineers and some philosophers I have known, with pseudo-science and manifest folly as I show above) as old hat for the present discussion? His work is subjected to lively debate and research in current philosophy, and not just historically. So of course is Kant (peremptorily swept aside also), and the Kant–Laplace model is respected in modern astrophysics as a foundation for much later theorising. Do you also dismiss the examples of Darwin, Einstein, Schrödinger, Sterelny, Dennett, Tegmark, and Heisenberg as irrelevant and uninformative for this discussion? And Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (died 2007), with his work on nuclear physics, the formation of the solar system, and pioneering efforts in more fundamental physics that are avowedly Kantian (drawing on Kantian metaphysics)? Right or wrong, superseded or not, even Nazi-sympathiser or not, such examples of a more unified science–philosophy can properly be dismissed only through painstaking argument that we have not so far seen from you.

That’s all. For now, that’s all I can manage single-handedly against light treatment of weighty philosophical or metaphilosophical issues. To do justice on this side of complicated questions is beyond my present capacity, so you’ll understand if I now say little more. I’m sure things will move forward anyway.

438. Now, now, you mustn’t mind my shots from the hip — I’m quite willing to concede you know far more about philosophy than I ever will. I may have been bitten by a philosopher as a wee lad, who knows? But if I confined myself to unimpeachable statements of fact, I wouldn’t have a blog, so you just have to put up with my bloviating. I never represent myself as a fountain of truth, just as a trickle of surmise.

439. D.O. says

It would actually be a good idea if someone explained (in a book form, I guess) how philosophical ideas of some philosopher-scientists influenced their scientific work. I have no idea how Newton’s personal philosophy influenced his work in physics. Clearly, he worked within the experient+theory paradigm, but he didn’t invent it. Or Kant, even better example. He had quite specific epistemology all of his own creation. Did it influence his scientific work in any way? What particular philosophical views of Darwin led to his insights? He was an atheist, which helped him to dismiss the theory of specific creation, but that is not very interesting. From Noetica’s list I am aware only of Heisenberg’s philosophical views helping him to ditch dogmas of classical physics, but he had a lot of collegues who probably hadn’t shared them, but somehow muddled along. Einstein was an absolute genius in his ability to seize onto some key idea and then derive the whole physical theory from it, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a philosophy is it?

440. Hans says

@D.O.: I think it was Keynes who said that most economic policy was based on the ideas of long-forgotten, obscure economists – meaning that these ideas had been read and assimilated, but the people basing their actions on them mostly weren’t even conscious of their sources. I guess that is also true of scientists and philosophy – philosophers’ ideas are digested by generations and the minds of everyone (including most scientists) are filled with the resulting cud. Very few people actually study philosophy or follow a cohesive philosophy.

441. drasvi says

@LH, I am just not going to believe that productive collaboration between science and philosophy is impossible based on that it does not happen. This seems to be your argument, but it is the error we all keep making: what is habital must be “natural”.

I can absolutely imagine a society where everyone believes that science has already discovered everything. A soceity that knows the results of ancient (3d millenium AD) scientists but does not practice sciences may feel so.

@Hans, yes and I thought about this too, but the problem is that it is difficult to trace the origin of ideas.

442. John Cowan says

The [OT] framework adds nothing whatsoever to the actual data in terms of enabling you to predict forms (it’s just making pretty patterns out of the data), and the effort the author has expended in shoehorning his data into the theory has diverted him from asking obvious questions along the lines of “so how does that tone pattern surface in this different context?” It’s such a wasted opportunity.

Only if you assume that the purpose of the paper is the advancement of knowledge rather than the advancement of the author’s career. On the latter hypothesis, the more genuflection to the currently fashionable paradigm the better, and the fewer facts presented in any paper, the more room there is to write another paper, until with advancing age it becomes possible to publish “scientific” papers with no empirical content at all.

I don’t quite understand the apparent need to forcibly weld science to other forms of thought it has long departed from.

The argument, for what it is worth, is that Science As We Know It is at present forcibly welded to a particular philosophical position (the label for this position varies: positivism, naive realism, whatever), and that this particular dogmatism needs to be loosened. Some hold that it should be replaced by a different dogmatism ((non-Rene) Thomism, Aristotelianism, Zen Buddhism, or whatever), but this is by no means a universal view. My father’s tradition, for example, considers it dogmatic to claim that data is sacred and theory should always bend to it. In particular, working scientists are quite willing to discard what they consider bad data points because they differ too much from theory (see Jefferson’s skepticism about meteorites, which is not quite what it is usually thought to have been). This does not of course imply a dogmatic belief that observation is worthless in general.

443. @LH, I am just not going to believe that productive collaboration between science and philosophy is impossible based on that it does not happen. This seems to be your argument, but it is the error we all keep making: what is habital must be “natural”.

It is certainly not my argument; I rarely use the term “impossible” and I certainly wouldn’t call productive collaboration between science and philosophy impossible. I was simply saying that as far as I know, it hasn’t been happening for over a century. Noetica disagrees, as he has every right to.

The argument, for what it is worth, is that Science As We Know It is at present forcibly welded to a particular philosophical position (the label for this position varies: positivism, naive realism, whatever), and that this particular dogmatism needs to be loosened.

I’m sorry, but that just sounds like woo to me. Science works, which is why it is done the way it is done. If it were done according to Thomism, Aristotelianism, or Zen Buddhism, it wouldn’t work as well. I’m pretty sure scientists aren’t wedded to any particular philosophical position, they just do science as they were taught to do it, and they were taught to do it that way because it’s been shown to work. If people working on Zen principles of science (whatever those might be) started making fundamental discoveries about the universe and winning Nobel prizes, scientists would start working along those lines. That’s the difference between science and other forms of intellectual activity like religion. I have no patience for postmodern “it’s all how you look at it, maaan” bullshit. Science works.

444. And by one of those marvelous coincidences that constantly surround us (whether we notice them or not), I just ran across this extremely relevant post by Peter Vickers; after an account of the continuing influence of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, he writes:

If the two most famous philosophers of science of the twentieth century ruled out “scientific facts,” perhaps we should take that very seriously. And it has been taken seriously: for several decades, philosophy departments around the world have taught their undergraduates Kuhn and Popper, and generally have not taught the idea that there are genuine “future-proof” scientific facts. Indeed, it has been more fashionable to teach the virtues of epistemic humility. We all know that humility is a virtue. That would apparently make a belief in future-proof scientific facts a vice, tantamount to arrogance or hubris. Certainly some would consider it unprofessional, for example because it reflects a “shocking ignorance of the history of science,” a history where scientific ideas have so often been overturned by shifts in thinking, and even grand large-scale revolutions.

This story ends with an extraordinary clash of perspectives. In 2015, a doctoral student at the LSE—educated in the classic tradition of philosophy of science—surveyed geologists. He asked them, “Because we cannot directly observe entities and processes in the geological past, some philosophers of science contend that they cannot be said to exist in reality. Do you think they are correct?” Now, professional geologists know—without any doubt—that the Earth has experienced past ice ages. Some geologists dedicate their entire career to specialising in the details of a particular ice age, such as the Late Paleozoic Ice Age. Imagine, then, how such a geologist would react to the idea that many philosophers of science muse that such ice ages probably didn’t exist and are just “nice ideas” that are currently popular amongst scientists who have been indoctrinated into a particular paradigm. Indeed, the doctoral student behind the survey reports, “Some were affronted by the suggestion that what they were studying might not be real in some way.”

The truth is, there are many established scientific facts, and scientists know this well. The claim that dinosaurs roamed the Earth many millions of years ago is one such example. This was already beyond reasonable doubt 100 years ago; today, in 2022, it is far beyond reasonable doubt. It is only uncertain in the tedious, academic sense that one can doubt almost anything if one tries hard enough. And there are many such examples: scientific ideas that were once hypotheses, and gradually transitioned—as a result of scientific labour—to become far beyond reasonable doubt. The fact that the Sun is a star, continental drift, and the high-school textbook account of human respiration, are three very obvious examples.

I stand with the geologists and the established scientific facts, and I cock a snook at the fashionable propagandists of “how can we ever know anything, maaan?”

445. drasvi says

@LH,

and a good thing too, because although it produced some wonderful prose (and if you go back far enough, poetry), those kindly and eloquent folk didn’t know much at all about the universe.

This sounds as if collaboration between science and philosophy is somehow associated with ignorance. And clearly not just historically – else you would not say that absence of this connection is a “good thing”. You speak as if productive science is incompatible with philosophy, you don’t merely observe the situation.

Now, with our depressingly bad prose and incomprehensible specialized terms, we know a whole lot more. I’ll accept the tradeoff.

446. drasvi says

I don’t quite understand the apparent need to forcibly weld science to other forms of thought it has long departed from.

Let’s omit the part about “forcibly” (even if Noetica or I wrote an utterly chimeric and useless book where we do it, “forcedness” of the text would be a flaw of the text – not necessarily the intent. It would simply mean: we failed. As for the intent, this “forcibly” implies that you think that welding them is an unnatural idea).

The need is intuitive. Just intuitive. 1. It happened in past. 2. “Philosophy” studies ourselves the researchers and philosophy includes epistemology. It is like math: thinking about thinking. How come that unlike math it can’t contribute? It is counter-intuitive.

447. It may have contributed once, but it doesn’t any more. See my earlier comment: science works.

448. drasvi says

@LH, I agree with you.

I can’t speak for Noetica, but I don’t really want to weld anything to anything. And in terms of my rather superficial education I represent the scientific side. I’m just curious why we have this gap.

449. David Eddyshaw says

established scientific facts can be identified via a solid (>95%) international scientific consensus, born of scientific labour, in a community that is large and diverse

Newtonian physics met these criteria very well, as did classical electrodynamics. Maxwell’s equations are so beautful that they pretty much must be true … except …

Vickers is simply ignoring the problem, very loudly. That doesn’t count as solving it.

Popper is not exactly state-of-the-art in this; though he tends to be the only philosopher of science that scientists have actually heard of. He paints a picture of how science functions which is greatly at variance with how it really functions, which is reassuring for those who want to believe that philosophy is quite irrelevant and that the problems it raises can safely be completely ignored.

450. Vickers is simply ignoring the problem, very loudly.

No he’s not. He may be overstating his proposed solution, but who isn’t guilty of that? His overall point is unimpeachable, unless you want to go back to the world on the back of a turtle.

451. drasvi says

Better:
“He paints a picture of how [….] functions which is greatly at variance with how it really functions, which is reassuring.” Period.

452. David Eddyshaw says

He may be overstating his proposed solution

His proposed solution has spectacularly failed to work in the past. What makes us think that it won’t fail to work in the future? That is the problem. He seems (to be fair) to be completely unaware of it (saying he’s ignoring it is perhaps going too far …)

453. drasvi says

“Popper is not exactly state-of-the-art in this;”

@DE, what is? (a honest question, I just wonder where I should look / what names I would need if I want to learn what’s the state of the art).

It is true that I occasionaly eet scientists who refer to Popper (though most just work:) References to Popper etc. appear when it is a discussion about science-versus-something-else)

454. David Eddyshaw says

Imre Lakatos addressed some of the more obvious problems with Popper’s description of how science functions:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lakatos/

and I find a lot of his ideas quite illuminating; but Lakatos is far from the last word in this himself. I think he’s a good starting point, though.

Incidentally, If you haven’t read his friend Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, I recommend it: not so much because it makes what I would call a positive contribution, but because he has an extremely entertaining way of undermining your certainties … (it’s not a heavy read …)

455. January First-of-May says

The truth is, there are many established scientific facts, and scientists know this well. The claim that dinosaurs roamed the Earth many millions of years ago is one such example. This was already beyond reasonable doubt 100 years ago; today, in 2022, it is far beyond reasonable doubt.

I guess the claim that the Rumanian language is Romance – to use a topic from another thread – would be another good example of that sort of thing…

456. Yes, exactly, and the commenter who was so strenuously objecting to it is on the same page as creationists, flat-earthers, et sim.

457. David Eddyshaw says

…. and a self-confessed practitioner of philosophical logic.

458. Hans says

@LH: So we have a professor of philosophy driven to trying to develop a theory of when we can speak about established facts by a clash of attitudes between 20th-century philosophers of science and actual scientists. Shouldn’t we simply ignore him because philosophy cannot contribute to science, as “science works”?
Snark aside, a lot of what Vickers writes looks like misunderstanding and misrepresentation of at least Popper, by whom I have read some writings. I don’t think that Popper would claim that, say, creationism and evolution are equally valid explanations of current life forms or that he would bet serious money on that there never were ice ages. But he would be open to the idea that there may be wrong parts in current theories and some things which seem incontrovertible now may be superseded by better explanations. DE mentioned Newtonian physics. If you had polled physicists ca. 1910 à la Vickers, they would have confirmed as incontrovertible facts a lot of things that we now know to be correct only under certain circumstances. It’s not that many of its observations have been refuted, but they have been incorporated in a more comprehensive model. Or take a field closer to home – ca. 1930, 95% of IEanists would have seen it as fact that PIE had roots of the shape *do: / də- and a past formed with an augment; nowadays, the former is basically assumed by no-one due to acceptance of the laryngeal theory and the latter is certainly not generally accepted anymore. I understand the appeal of forestalling a general nihilism based on “philosophy says we never can know anything for sure, so all opinions are equally correct”, but explaining to the bewildered layman that science is actually quite confident about a lot of things despite the philosophical hedging and spirit of humility is one task and doesn’t warrant throwing overboard the idea that we must always be ready to doubt even what seem to be the hardest facts when strong enough counter-evidence comes along.
As for the contribution of philosophy to science, it has contributed ideas like Popper’s and Kuhn’s, which were even treated in economics text books when I was studying at university; and while I haven’t progressed much further from that, I wouldn’t want to mistake my own ignorance of contemporary developments in philosophy for a lack of contributions by philosophy to contemporary science. And to repeat my thought from up-thread, a lot of contributions may be not directly, from scientists reading and applying specific works, but by philosophical ideas being digested and blended by society and becoming part of the intellectual background of scientists.

459. But he would be open to the idea that there may be wrong parts in current theories and some things which seem incontrovertible now may be superseded by better explanations.

But so are scientists! That’s the whole point of science: it accepts that current theories are only theories and that further discoveries may change everything. If you decide you know everything and there is no room for alteration, you have given up science. Sure, scientists can sound overconfident in what they know; that’s because they’re human. The principle holds. And I continue to maintain that scientists can do science perfectly well without reading Popper or Lakatos.

460. D.O. says

DE, Newtonian mechanics is not a counterexample to anything. Theories are not facts. Tides are a fact, the idea that tides are caused by Moon’s gravity is a theory. There is an interesting question (among many) if our knowledge of something depends inextricably on a blend of facts and theories how sure we can be about that piece of knowledge. But in any event an (the complex of climatic events conventionally called) ice age either happened or not and it is not a theory. Unfortunately, philosophy is no help. Saying that our views of ice age are liable to a large degree of revision because they are heavily dependent on theory by pointing out to Newtonian mechanics failures is not help, it’s muddying waters rather than clearing them. Even greater problems are with current climate change projections for which scientific consensus is dependent on theories and modeling to such a degree that no honest person can call it “fact”. So what exactly is it? Here a more detached and abstract thinking might have helped, but does it?

461. ktschwarz says

Shouldn’t we simply ignore [Vickers] because philosophy cannot contribute to science, as “science works”?

Is Vickers claiming to contribute anything to science? Maybe he does in later chapters of his book; he doesn’t in the opening. He is definitely claiming to contribute to the public understanding of science.

462. David Eddyshaw says

Newtonian mechanics is not a counterexample to anything. Theories are not facts. Tides are a fact, the idea that tides are caused by Moon’s gravity is a theory

Very well. So if I say that the tides are cause by angels, is that also not a counterexample? I am not denying the fact of tides in making this assertion. Would Vickers agree that this statement is perfectly compatible with his own worldview?

By “the high-school textbook account of human respiration”, does Vickers mean to imply no more than, that it is a “fact” that we breathe? Or does he actually mean to say that a particular explanation of this phenomenon is an incontrovertable “fact”?

Surely when Vickers talks of “facts”, he doesn’t just mean “data”: he mean particular explanations of the data.

It is a fact that there are fossils. That dinosaurs walked around is an explanation of this fact. We can’t actually observe the dinosaurs doing it (more’s the pity.)

His general position reminds me rather of G E Moore’s:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._E._Moore#Proof_of_an_external_world

The trouble with “common sense philosophy” is that “common sense” is quite often wrong; and that although it seems like something innately “given” to us, it’s often actually based on outdated philosophies and theories which live on as folk wisdom long after they have been abandoned by philosophers and scientists. Common-sense physics is Aristotelean ….

463. David Eddyshaw says

The idea that all that is actually “factual” is what is potentially directly observable is untenable, and I am sure that Vickers no more thinks that than I do (in fact, probably less so, given my nominalist proclivities.)

I do in fact sympathise with (what I take to be) Vickers’ point: that it is unfortunate if we can’t rank the degree of factitude we attribute to our theories and explanations in a plausible and consistent way. He may have in mind the sort of Creationists who think that they’ve made a valid point in saying: “But look! It’s only the Theory of Evolution! Just a theory!”

But I don’t think the solution is to deny that it is a theory at all: it’s to display a proper way of showing that one theory is much more worthy of belief than another. I think that is what he is really after, and good luck to him. But it just confuses the issue (and plays into the hands of flat-earthers and creationists and Republicans) simply to assert that your theory is a fact.

464. Stu Clayton says

The idea that all that is actually “factual” is what is potentially directly observable is untenable

I cannot directly observe you making that claim. All I observe is pixels on a screen (actually I observe no such thing, but I have leaned to describe my experience that way). At any rate, it seems your claim about untenability is untenable, for the reasons it gives. Now what?

Tip: it doesn’t make things any clearer to put “factual” in quotes, no more than it does to put “real” in quotes. Completely eliminating, from one’s mind and speech, words/notions such as “fact” and “reality” opens the door to happiness, although just a crack.

Who the hell needs these notions in everyday life and work ? Not me. Philosophers maybe, but that’s their lookout. The closest I get to that kind of talk is when I admonish someone to be pragmatic, and I do that only to intimidate them.

465. The idea that all that is actually “factual” is what is potentially directly observable is untenable

Fine. Now, how exactly does that help scientists do science?

466. David Eddyshaw says

(I appreciate that I have actually shifted my ground somewhat between my last two comments. The latest pronouncement renders all previous statements null and of no effect, going forward.)

Fine. Now, how exactly does that help scientists do science?

Not at all. I was quibbling about the notion of “fact”, but managed to confuse the issue by using the term in two different ways myself.

At any rate, it seems your claim about untenability is untenable, for the reasons it gives. Now what?

We cultivate our garden.

(But they weren’t scare quotes: they were quote quotes. Punctuation is so hard.)

467. Stu Clayton says

Let’s all forgive and forget, and be nice to each other. Christmas is knocking at the door.

468. drasvi says

I was quibbling about the notion of “fact”, but managed to confuse the issue by using the term in two different ways myself.

Here*:

The idea that all that is actually “factual” is what is potentially directly observable is untenable, and I am sure that Vickers no more thinks that than I do
?
Actually I don’t understand what you mean here.

*(clearly not here: “(in fact, probably less so, given my nominalist proclivities.)”)

469. Stu Clayton says

But they weren’t scare quotes: they were quote quotes

Was it Empson who, in some book, used subscript numbers to distinguish various uses and meanings of words ? Of course others have done that as well. Trouble is, sometimes the subscripts should be subscripted, for excruciating clarity.

470. drasvi says

Anyway, DE can potentially be potentially directly observable (repetition of the word potentially intended)

P.S.Just realised that -able in “observable” makes “potentially” redundant…

471. David Eddyshaw says

I don’t like to limit my options.

472. Stu Clayton says

And you are well within your rights there. It would be unreasonable to expect that you opt out of your options.

473. I feel obliged to point out that opt means ‘eight’ in Romanian.

474. David Eddyshaw says

But “Romanian” does not exist. It’s just a conspiracy theory.

(Scare quotes, this time.)

475. drasvi says

I read Vickers’s post. It looks as if he wanted to stress importance of scienfitic facts [in the sense: claims about the state of the material world] but instead told the he does not understand the other side and does not think they have a point and mostly finds eggheads tedious.

476. David Eddyshaw says

I thought that initially, but the man is actually a real live professor of philosophy, so I imagine his tolerance of eggheads is well above average. I suspect his actual thoughts on the matter are a good bit less simplistic. (After all, it’s just a plug for his book, not an academic article.)

477. drasvi says

On my part I also don’t understand many people who take a part in the evolutionist-creationsit fight, on both sides.

It seems “reality” is very important for them. I mean reality of dinosaurs or reality of Noah and the deluge.

478. drasvi says

” so I imagine his tolerance of eggheads is well above average.” yes, but… I didn’t change his own words much.

479. David Eddyshaw says

It seems “reality” is very important for them. I mean reality of dinosaurs or reality of Noah and the deluge

I don’t think that’s really it.

First of all, my impression is that (as with a lot of such things) any real substantive issues have almost entirely been sidelined: the thing has become a totem, a mere flag behind which We can muster in opposition to the wicked Them. If you asked a typical Creationist, “Yes, but exactly what difference does it make, anyway?”, I suspect that many would struggle to find an answer.

The actual issue that was the grit around which this particular pearl grew is: how do you interpret the Bible? Specifically, if it contains statements that are factually untrue, how can we treat it as a source of correct belief about anything at all?

The laziest way out is to deny that the Bible does contain statements that are factually untrue, and to accuse those who disagree with you of being opposed to all the doctrines that you want to preserve and of arguing in bad faith because they are opposed to those doctrines.

I think some of the vitriol historically has spilled over from what were originally intra-Christian disagreements on such issues; actual believing Christians are not invariably stupid and many have been thinking about such questions since before Darwin was ever thought of. Their reasoning has not always met with universal approval.

More recently, it has been stoked mightily by the way that Christians have been suckered into supporting quasi-fascist (and indeed actual fascist) politics by politicians who don’t give a damn about their doctrines but have observed how very easy it is to push their cultural buttons.

480. It seems “reality” is very important for them. I mean reality of dinosaurs or reality of Noah and the deluge.

For my part I don’t understand people who don’t care about reality. That’s how you get Trumps and Putins. Reality is real, and it’s important. Fuck postmodernist quibbles.

481. Hans says

But so are scientists! That’s the whole point of science: it accepts that current theories are only theories and that further discoveries may change everything. If you decide you know everything and there is no room for alteration, you have given up science. Sure, scientists can sound overconfident in what they know; that’s because they’re human. The principle holds.
Well, that part of my response was more concerned with Vickers portrayal of Popper’s ideas and with his proposed solution than with your original point.

And I continue to maintain that scientists can do science perfectly well without reading Popper or Lakatos.
Well, they can do science perfectly well without reading probably 90% of what has been written in their own field, because it’s outdated or not relevant to their specific project. That doesn’t mean that these writings they can ignore in their day-to-day business aren’t relevant for science – they brought the field to where it is now. You can do IE studies without ever having read Bopp, Schlegel, or even Brugmann, because what’s still relevant of their writing has been distilled into text books and has become part of the background knowledge that IE scholars absorb with their education and practice. Most IE scholars don’t read much, if anything, written by Romanists in their field, but some do and the methodological discussions in both fields do influence each other.
So for philosophical discussions to have relevance for science, it’s sufficient that some scientists are interested, the discussion influences their methodological approaches, and these approaches spread to other scientists by teaching and other forms of intellectual exchange.
Now, you seem to say that doesn’t happen in any meaningful way, but how do you know? Noetica seems to have experienced that kind of exchange. I mentioned Popper’s ideas being referenced in my economics text books. Do you want to say that this never influenced any economist’s approach to methodology? Kuhn’s ideas were discussed in popular science magazines I read in my youth. Do you want to say that no future (now current) scientist ever read that and was influenced in how they work with models and paradigms? I remember discussions in IEanist journals from the 1980s about the status of reconstructed PIE (real language or just an assembly of placeholders) that referenced philosophical positions, and I still sometimes find echos of these discussions in papers published and discussions ongoing today. And that’s only what I can see from my frog’s perspective; do you know for sure that there isn’t more cross-pollination ongoing between philosophy and science?

482. David Eddyshaw says

I think the Trumps and the Putins care a great deal about reality*. What they do is interfere with others‘ ability to perceive reality, an endeavour in which both have been enormously successful.

Supposing that they themselves don’t care about reality is like supposing that an axe murderer is indifferent to getting hurt himself.

* Of which, admittedly, they have a somewhat basic notion: as a source of gratification of their appetites. But they are not under any sort of illusion in this: their appetites really do get gratified. Indeed, you could probably maintain that the reality they experience is quite a bit more concrete than a typical Hatter’s. Postmodernist, they are not.

So for philosophical discussions to have relevance for science, it’s sufficient that some scientists are interested, the discussion influences their methodological approaches, and these approaches spread to other scientists by teaching and other forms of intellectual exchange

Yes indeed. I agree wholeheartedly with your whole post in fact. I think that’s a very good parallel.

483. drasvi says

“Our plant is a concrete plant. Our brigade is a concrete one. Our plant is a concrete plant. And our task is concrete. Concrete, concrete, concrete, concrete…”

P.S. from

484. drasvi says

It seems some of my views are very similar to DE’s, because several times today (including this comment about Putin) he wrote something I considered writing myself (there were/are other ideas, though)

485. David Eddyshaw says

Great minds, drasvi. Great minds.

486. Well, they can do science perfectly well without reading probably 90% of what has been written in their own field, because it’s outdated or not relevant to their specific project. That doesn’t mean that these writings they can ignore in their day-to-day business aren’t relevant for science – they brought the field to where it is now.

But what brought the field to where it is now is not relevant for science; it has become history. Similarly, the fact that you can do IE studies without ever having read Bopp, Schlegel, or even Brugmann means that those admirable scholars are no longer relevant for linguistics. Science is not like poetry, where Homer never goes out of date. Of course scientists are free to take an interest in the history of their science, but that doesn’t make it relevant in the relevant sense.

Supposing that they themselves don’t care about reality is like supposing that an axe murderer is indifferent to getting hurt himself.

But I didn’t say they themselves don’t care about reality, I said “That’s how you get Trumps and Putins.” I thought that was clear, but since I have to spell it out: the more people are indifferent to reality, the more likely it is that Trumps and Putins will succeed. If people care about facts, they are going to respond with “Shut up, the election wasn’t stolen” or “Shut up, NATO isn’t trying to practice genocide on us and Ukraine isn’t a Nazi state” (as applicable). Alles klar?

487. David Eddyshaw says

Völlig klar.

You were describing the victims rather than the perpetrators.
I repent in dust and ashes.

488. drasvi says

У дураков мысли сходятся, если по-русски:)

489. David Eddyshaw says

I learnt the word дурак right here on LH!

Are many Trump or Putin supporters postmodernist?

My impression is that US Trumpites generally subscribe to a distinctly classical concept of truth, as being both knowable and objective, and quite definitely Out There, though wicked Radical Socialist Democrats are doing their best to keep it from the People.

Russians may well be more sophisticated when it comes to philosophy.

490. I learnt the word дурак right here on LH!

A truly basic word. Back when I had a Russian girlfriend I lost my temper and yelled “дура!” at her, and she smiled broadly and said “Now you sound like a Russian!”

Are many Trump or Putin supporters postmodernist?

Irrelevant and immaterial. One more crack like that, counsel, and we’ll have to have a talk in my chambers.

491. drasvi says

@LH, there is an issue with the Russian-Ukrainian war. Namely: it is a war. It is a serious issue.

I disagree with the action rather than with the excuse.

492. David Eddyshaw says

As it happens (or perhaps by Morphic Resonance) I recently came across a particularly annoying deployment of the Postmodernist mindset here, while I was googling (as one does) to confirm my prejudices and presuppositions:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/2743641

The actual paper is not irritating in the least, quite the contrary: the offending part is Peter Crawford’s comment, which happily treats the question of whether Beek is actually correct as completely unimportant. It’s enough to make you turn conservative. (Kidding!)

493. drasvi says

Back when I had a Russian girlfriend …

… the expected continuation “she called me дурак! when she lost her temper”.

I lost my temper and yelled “дура!”

Oh. So it was LH who said that, not she…

at her, and she smiled broadly and said “Now you sound like a Russian!”

Aha:)

494. I disagree with the action rather than with the excuse.

The point is that people are willing to go along with the action because they believe the excuse, which is not based in reality.

495. David L says

So for philosophical discussions to have relevance for science, it’s sufficient that some scientists are interested, the discussion influences their methodological approaches, and these approaches spread to other scientists by teaching and other forms of intellectual exchange

But are there any good examples of this happening? Ernst Mach, for example, was a physicist who became a sort-of philosopher, and his philosophy led him on a lifelong campaign arguing against the existence of atoms because they couldn’t be directly detected.

I can’t think of any case where a scientist took up a philosophical position that led to useful or productive changes in the way science was done. J.D. Bernal, to take another example, was enamored of various Marxist beliefs, and they influenced his views on how scientific knowledge should be funded and exploited, but I don’t that know they altered his views of how science itself should be done, or had any wider influence on his scientist colleagues.

And I continue to maintain that scientists can do science perfectly well without reading Popper or Lakatos.

Indeed. I knew more than the average physicist about Popper and Lakatos but only because my second-year undergraduate room-mate decided to study History and Philosophy of Science, or Hiss and Piss as we True Scientists called it. I found some of the ideas interesting and illuminating, but I couldn’t say that they affected how I conducted research in my (admittedly brief) academic career.

As Paul Dirac once said (I can’t lay my hands on the source just now) “Philosophy is just a way of talking about things we already know.”

496. Sometimes I ask myself “How did we get from ancient Greek shorthand to a discussion of the reality of reality?” And then I say “Forget it, self, it’s Chinatown.”

497. David Eddyshaw says

Seems an obvious connection of thought to me. I imagine all discussions of Greek shorthand lead to speculations on the nature of reality sooner or later. It’s inevitable.

498. David L says

Who was it who said that all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato? (Whether the footnotes should be written in shorthand I don’t know).

That seems like a terrible indictment of all philosophers since Plato, but that’s a whole nother issue.

499. David Eddyshaw says

Plato (this is me, not ANW) asked all the important questions, and gave a whole lot of obviously wrong answers.
Aristotle began the process of finding less obviously wrong answers, which continues to this day.

500. Noetica says

Hat:

And then I say “Forget it, self, it’s Chinatown.”

But was it you or yourself who said that? Either way it rings [as] dangerously realist. Dualist at least. I may have to refer you to the Committee. Whatever they decide, you (both of you if necessary) are now forgiven. I hope I (sc. we, ők) am too.

David E:

I have alarming intelligence. The Committee knows about the turkey and they’re asking for details. We may have an informant on the thread. Just a heads up. I think I can keep it under control, so long as no whisper gets to them about the helicopter. OK?

501. David Eddyshaw says

@N: Fear not. The Archdruid has already obtained the materials. Soon we shall be invincible.

502. ktschwarz says

DE: By “the high-school textbook account of human respiration”, does Vickers mean to imply no more than, that it is a “fact” that we breathe? Or does he actually mean to say that a particular explanation of this phenomenon is an incontrovertable “fact”?

The first chapter of Vickers’s book is at his website, and it confirms it’s the latter: “Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body” is on his list of scientific facts. Indeed, another on the list is “The Moon causes the tides”.

to display a proper way of showing that one theory is much more worthy of belief than another. I think that is what he is really after

Definitely.

But it just confuses the issue (and plays into the hands of flat-earthers and creationists and Republicans) simply to assert that your theory is a fact.

Well, the book is about what you have to do rather than simply asserting, but I think you’re saying that using the word “fact” broadly enough to include “The Moon causes the tides” isn’t a helpful strategy even if you do have stringent criteria for it?

503. Noetica says

“Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body” is on his list of scientific facts. Indeed, another on the list is “The Moon causes the tides”.

Progress at last!

504. David Eddyshaw says

@kt:

I don’t see any harm in doing so in any ordinary context, but it seems unfortunate not to be more careful over terms in a work specifically discussing the philosophy of science.

You could, of course, counter that Moore’s “Here is one hand” is on the same level as “The Moon causes the tides”, if you contend that Moore’s intended intuitively obvious sense doesn’t work, and the “hand” itself is an elaborate theoretical construct on the basis of various qualia, though even then “causes” introduces a whole new set of problems.

But unless one is prepared to go that route, it seems to me unhelpful to use “fact” in a sense which effectlvely begs the question by taking for granted the very thing that you are supposedly demonstrating: as if it were interchangeable with “theory that no sensible person can possibly be in any doubt about.” Instead, you need to unpack just what you mean by saying that no sensible person could be in doubt about it, and on what basis you decide that someone is “sensible.” It strikes me that this is not a trivial task …

It sounds like Vickers is well aware of that and indeed attempts the task. But he shouldn’t be looking up the answers at the end of the book.

505. AntC says

‘ang on, ‘ang on (and apologies, I’m trying to catch up several days of intense debate …) @Hat quoting Vickers

In 2015, a doctoral student at the LSE—educated in the classic tradition of philosophy of science—surveyed geologists. He asked them, “Because we cannot directly observe entities and processes in the geological past, some philosophers of science contend that they cannot be said to exist in reality. …”

To claim/contend the ice ages _didn’t_ happen is not a fact “in reality”: it is testable just as much as the claim they did happen.

I’m not surprised this doctoral student caused affront if that’s what the student thinks “some philosophers of science contend”. Vickers is making himself ridiculous by mentioning this survey.

@DE it seems unfortunate not to be more careful over terms in a work specifically discussing the philosophy of science.

Indeed. It’s not that Newtonian Mechanics is wrong/not ‘fact’: it’s a durned good approximation within a wide (but limited) set of conditions. We now have better approximations that can proscribe those conditions and explain why/how Newtonian Mechanics becomes a poor approximation.

(Although I’m struggling to see Newton as making claims that anything ‘exists’ or otherwise. There’s no fluxions(?).)

506. Hans says

Of course scientists are free to take an interest in the history of their science, but that doesn’t make it relevant in the relevant sense
Ok, looks like you and me have different ideas of what “relevant” means.
Lots of what Brugmann wrote is still valid. Other parts of it have been superseded. Now, you don’t have to read Brugmann to get to know the still valid stuff, because it’s in the text books, but that doesn’t mean that his ideas have become irrelevant – in my understanding of the word “relevant”, that would only be the case if all his ideas would have been superseded. I posit that the same is true, mutatis mutandis, for the influence of philosophy on science.
@David L: I gave some examples from fields I know. Maybe physics are indeed immune to philosophical influence. Maybe there indeed the influence is only the other way round – philosophers take their ideas from physics and nothing goes the other way. Or maybe the influence is so indirect, routed mostly through implicit assumptions and the tradition of taught practice, that physicists mostly don’t notice it, except in some egregious cases where it goes wrong, and it would take serious works by historians of science to show it. I don’t know enough to say.
That made my day 🙂 But I’m bound to disappoint you, I so rarely have ideas that I find worth putting down in writing that you’ll certainly have to wait a long time for the next issue.

507. David Eddyshaw says

Incidentally, given this clear demonstration of what Vickers means by “fact”, his

established scientific facts can be identified via a solid (>95%) international scientific consensus, born of scientific labour, in a community that is large and diverse

does indeed run into the problem that this has been abundantly true of prior “facts” which are now known to be false: the very question that motivated Kuhn etc etc.

The only way I can see of dodging this bullet is to maintain that there is no actual discontinuity or “revolution” at all; that quantum mechanics (say) is simply a refinement of Newtonian physics, and not some sort of “new paradigm” at all, and that it doesn’t mean that Newtonian physics is “wrong” (even when it makes false predictions.)

But then you need to explain what constitutes the common thread between them: how, exactly, are they the “same” thing? In other words, you need to show how to demarcate science from pseudoscience. If Vickers has a magic bullet for that, he certainly deserves acclaim; and (anyway) if that is what his book is actually all about, good luck to him. (And then the plug on the OUP page is seriously misleading, which I actually do hope is the case.)

508. David Eddyshaw says

While in general I think Asimov should have stuck to fiction, this did remind me of his defence of this very notion that scientific progress is (in some sense) continuous rather than a succession of exciting revolutions:

(Trying to find this took me in the first instance to the website of the Flat Earth Society. Just as well I block tracking … what would Google have tried to sell me?)

509. D.O. says

I think, Hans is right. After the experience of the first half of 20th century, Popper, Kuhn, and Lakatos (and presumabl others not as well known) distilled the lessons and presented it in the form more or less absorbed by the physics (or even wider scientific) community in the background. Most of the working scientists rarely, if ever, go back to these ideas explicitly. This is all well and good. It would be even better if the philosophy of science were doing some useful work now. Or maybe philosophy of science is a bit like a doctor. You wouldn’t go to it for an advise if there are no sympoms of something being wrong.

510. David Marjanović says

Do you also dismiss the examples of Darwin, Einstein, Schrödinger, Sterelny, Dennett, Tegmark, and Heisenberg as irrelevant and uninformative for this discussion?

Erasmus Darwin probably qualified as a philosopher. But Charles?

I’m not aware of any philosophizing Einstein did either, nor of any contributions by Dennett to science (as opposed to science theory: Quining Qualia).

The other three, as far as I know, happened to be scientists and philosophers in personal union.

I cannot directly observe you making that claim. All I observe is pixels on a screen (actually I observe no such thing, but I have leaned to describe my experience that way). At any rate, it seems your claim about untenability is untenable, for the reasons it gives. Now what?

Now the principle of parsimony.

No, metaphysical certainty cannot be had. But we do have that tool to figure out what to consider more probable.

I think the Trumps and the Putins care a great deal about reality*.

Putin, probably. As far as I can tell, he has a very clear idea of what’s really going on and what really happened, and then he strategically lies about it sometimes. Trump, though? My impression of Trump – not his dupes; him personally – is that he has basically no concept of reality outside of his skull. If Trump tells you the sky is blue, that does not imply he has looked out the window in the last ten days. He has no idea whether it’s blue, and he has no desire to find out. He also doesn’t care what he might have said ten minutes earlier. He just wants you, at this particular moment, to believe that the sky is blue because he believes that would be good for him. Does he think he ought to have won reelection? Yes. Does he think he did, as a matter of the actual count of the actually cast ballots? I’m not sure he has decided; I don’t think he even cares.

And yes, this way he sometimes ends up saying things that are actually to his detriment.

Or maybe the influence is so indirect, routed mostly through implicit assumptions and the tradition of taught practice, that physicists mostly don’t notice it, except in some egregious cases where it goes wrong, and it would take serious works by historians of science to show it.

That’s how it seems to me (in science in general, not just physics). On average you have to wait a very long time for scientists to mention any philosophers of science other than Popper and Kuhn.

But then you need to explain what constitutes the common thread between them: how, exactly, are they the “same” thing? In other words, you need to show how to demarcate science from pseudoscience.

Why? Pseudoscience is orthogonal to all that – it’s dressed up as science*, but (less or more often) fails to apply the scientific method. It uses assumptions that it doesn’t test, it contains gaps plugged with “then a miracle happens”, that kind of thing.

* Whether that’s a lie, a self-deception or just intellectual sloppiness is beside the point, and I’m sure examples of all three exist.

What particular philosophical views of Darwin led to his insights? He was an atheist, which helped him to dismiss the theory of specific creation, but that is not very interesting.

And from what I’ve read about his life, his faith faded away rather gradually and rather late, more likely as a consequence of his scientific theory than as a cause.

511. Ok, looks like you and me have different ideas of what “relevant” means.

It would seem so. I mean, anything can be “relevant” in some generalized sense — August Kekulé famously got the idea of a ring structure for benzene from having a vision of a snake biting its own tail. I’m not sure we can conclude that herpetology is relevant to chemistry. If linguists (or other scientists) enjoy reading the classics of the field and perhaps getting inspiration from them, great, more power to them, but to me the fact that you can do science perfectly well without such immersion in the storied past means that said past is not relevant to current science. YM, as they say, MV.

512. David Eddyshaw says

Or maybe philosophy of science is a bit like a doctor. You wouldn’t go to it for an advice if there are no symptoms of something being wrong

I think that’s a good point. As T S Eliot says in one of his more irritating and distinctly uninspired in-yer-face Christian poems:

It is hard for those who live near a Bank
To doubt the security of their money.

https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/it-hard-those-who-have-never-known-persecution

(I do not endorse this product; the metaphors are better than TSE’s actual point, if you ask me.)

As with Theory, so with metaphysics: if you think you haven’t got any metaphysics, it just means that you are unaware of (or completely incurious about) your fundamental preconceptions, which will make it hard to impossible for you to reconsider (or reject) them if they lead you into a morass. As they may.

Why? Pseudoscience is orthogonal to all that – it’s dressed up as science*, but (less or more often) fails to apply the scientific method. It uses assumptions that it doesn’t test, it contains gaps plugged with “then a miracle happens”, that kind of thing.

Well, yes: but what you are saying there is a criterion for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. But the difficulty is greater than you imply, surely – to the degree that it has not yet been satisfactorily overcome. That may well not matter much in practice much of the time; but that doesn’t mean that we can be sure that it never will matter.

513. AntC says

the website of the Flat Earth Society.

I hear all the Flat-Earthers have moved on to be election-deniers [***]. So what Google will feed you (he says from bitter experience [**]) is people _still_ arguing with Flat-Earthers — who seem to be as monomaniacal as the target of their scorn.

[**] I at once stage in my naiveté tried to understand why it took until C21st and all its technology for there to be people who would get on an aeroplane/travel across a continent or an ocean to go to a conference of the F E S. As opposed to (scare quotes) ‘primitive’ societies for whom thinking of the earth-as-a-whole/as a globe didn’t arise.

[***] which is why I was particularly alarmed at the prominence Vickers gives to “some philosophers of science contend that they cannot be said to exist in reality.” You can reasonably question whether some particular election is accurate. You can reasonably point out that recounts/count-backs typically produce (small) differences in each count. You can reasonably point out there is some electoral fraud (Northern Ireland in the ’80’s being particularly prone). You can reasonably question whether all such fraud has been detected. What you can’t reasonably do is conclude the ‘real’ winner ‘must therefore be’ exactly the candidate who was well behind at every count, and who lost only because the (alleged without evidence) invisibility of their supporters’ level of fraud ‘must be’ because they committed no fraud.

514. drasvi says

@LH, I in turn am saying that the mythology behind the war is ugly and aggressive.

My friend got in trouble a few times because many people in Maghreb believe in witchcraft. But it is possible to believe in supernatual stuff and still harm no one. I don’t have a theory of how honesty, self-deception and moral qualities relate to each other. It seems self-deception can’t be good. But at least, one of ways not to be an asshole is just not being an asshole. Facts help agaisnt paranoia, but disgust to it helps too, and occasionaly facts are actually disturbing.

Also I am not sure if believing in unicorns has anything to do with the kind of inaceptance of reality you are speaking about. I asked my another freind, a Russian mathematician if she believes in them, she said “yes, of course, why?” – and I expected this answer.

515. drasvi says

And there is one more problem.

First I think it is fine not to follow the news – and know nothing about this part of reality. No false ideas, no true ideas.
And second I can easily compile a list of actual bad things done by the Ukrainian government and army. The mines that Bathrobe mentioned on another thread are real.

And this often happens in propaganda. “They shell cities and use cluster munitions!”. Yes, they do, but the speaker is does it as well.

You can’t tell people ALL true facts that you know. You choose what truth to tell. And you need to choose etically.

516. drasvi says

@LH, and also specifically in the context of war, I already complained when it began.

I want coverage that makes it clear that war itself is bad. Not that this particular war is fought “badly”. I don’t need the picture where good guys restore order and liberate cities from terrorists and where bad guys raze them to the ground and freedom fighters try to stop them.

Yes, objective coverage is good, but Russian coverage became more objective. Previously government journalists lied just because they don’t care and because lies are cheaper. A biased person who still cares about what happens will pile up actual bad facts about what she sees in bad light. But it is work. Why would you do it, when you can just invent everything? So it was white noice.
Now it is not, because there are many pro-war journalists who are not liars reporting on this war.

517. drasvi, I’m just as antiwar as you. I’m not sure what you’re arguing with me about.

518. drasvi says

@LH, this:

But at least, one of ways not to be an asshole is just not being an asshole. Facts help agaisnt paranoia, but disgust to it helps too, and occasionaly facts are actually disturbing.

I am as antiwar as you. And this does protect me from our pro-war propaganda. I don’t think it fully protects my mind, I have no illusions. But it helps.

But are people who – unlike me – engage in fights over reality of “dinosaurs” and “Noah and the deluge” – are just as much protected? Because as I said: there are more or less honest pro-war journalists.

These people don’t just assume the reality of dinosaurs. They actaully engage in fierce debates and mutual trolling. They clearly care about the question of reality of history a lot..

519. drasvi says

Of in other words: if you believe in unicorns it does not mean that you’re willing to believe in a totally ugly, aggressive and paranoid idea. Maybe you can dismiss it just because it is evil – and keep believing in unicorns, elves and whatever.

P.S. no, I ‘m not arguing. Just philosophising. I think I do not understand the exact relationship between our ideas of reality, honesty and moral qualities and this relationship does not seem straightforward to me.

520. They clearly care about the question of reality of history a lot.

I disagree. They care about imposing their view of history. If they cared about the reality of history, they wouldn’t have such ignorant and simpleminded views.

@drasvi
Right, true, pragmatic, not right, not true, and not pragmatic all have nonempty intersection (except for A not A combinations) 😊.

522. David Marjanović says

but what you are saying there is a criterion for distinguishing science from pseudoscience.

Yes, of course…

But the difficulty is greater than you imply, surely – to the degree that it has not yet been satisfactorily overcome.

Could you give me an example? I can’t think of one.

I should state clearly that the “uses assumptions it doesn’t test” bit means that outdated science can be recycled as pseudoscience, and pretty often is: if you take a perfectly scientific hypothesis that has been refuted, and you simply ignore the refutation (for whatever reason – simple ignorance seems to be common) and argue for that hypothesis anyway, wondering why the experts don’t seem to notice how good your arguments are, that’s pseudoscience.

They actaully engage in fierce debates and mutual trolling. They clearly care about the question of reality of history a lot..

Trolls, by definition, want to make people upset by saying things that are intended to make them upset. The most effective trolls are those who don’t care at all about the questions they’re arguing; that means they don’t need to defend an idea or argue for it in any coherent or convincing way, and that frees them to just spontaneously say whatever upsets their targets the most.

if you believe in unicorns it does not mean that you’re willing to believe in a totally ugly, aggressive and paranoid idea

…of course not, why?

523. David Eddyshaw says

Could you give me an example? I can’t think of one

Chomskyanism.

This presents itself as scientific, and the acolytes evidently believe quite sincerely that it is not only scientific but pretty much the quintessence of a truly scientific approach to language. Moreover, some of what is carried out under this banner actually is scientific.

Yet the accepted wisdom in these parts (which I share) is that the framework systematically fails to be scientific.

On what basis do we make such judgments?
(Not a purely academic concern, incidentally, given that Chomskyanism has wrecked careers and diverted funding from other valuable work.)

@dm
Another problem is that the science can be perfectly valid but the data can be incorrect or misleadingly incomplete. When corrected or supplementary data is made available, there are new studies, but the older published studies are not removed from archives or the original journals.

525. But that’s not a problem, that’s the nature of things. Data are always going to be incomplete. The point is that scientists make course corrections as needed; that’s the difference between science and ideology.

526. David Marjanović says

But that’s not a problem, that’s the nature of things.

Exactly.

On what basis do we make such judgments?

As far as I understand, which you should trust as far as you can throw it, the Chomskyan edifice rests on, among other things, two assumptions that it never tested and that seem to have been pretty thoroughly falsified: the impossibility of learning by analogy, and the poverty of the stimulus. Everything that rests on these assumptions is, as far as I can see, pseudoscience. But the Chomskyan framework is by now so vast that not everything done with that framework in the back of one’s head need actually rest on these two premises.

I suppose what I meant by “problem” is dealing with an otherwise well educated, cogent and intelligent interlocutor, who says that Von Braun (or whoever) wrote in an article published in 1953 (or whenever) that anyone who attempted to fly through the Van Allen Belt would succumb to a fatal dose of radiation….

528. David Eddyshaw says

So why have people who assert that they are, in fact, scientists, not deserted Chomskyanism? Is this simply hypocrisy, or wilful refusal to accept facts? Surely not, in general. They think that the system is still salveageable, indeed extremely valuable, and that it remains as valid as ever. In fact, there is a whole industry devoted to showing (a) that data from a range of languages conform to the theory and (b) that all counterexamples are merely apparent counterexamples.

Are they wrong to do this? On what grounds do we disagree with them?

I agree with Lakatos that in fact it can be quite legitimate to try to “explain away” data that don’t conform to a theory: L’s favourite example was the Precession of Mercury, where it was known for decades long before Einstein that the data were inconsistent with Newtonian mechanics, but this (rightly in his view) did not lead to the abandonment of Newtonian mechanics. It may well very often be more rational to suppose that there are unknown factors that have not been taken into account under your existing theory, accounting for apparent “refutatiion”, than to abandon your theory. Indeed this is one of the very points where working scientists found Popper’s concept of “refutation” wildly at variance with real scientific practice. Scientists don’t give up a theory which has produced sound predictions in the past at the first sign of a falsified prediction: not should they.

But then how do you draw the line? Under what circumstances must you give up your cherished theory, or cease to be a real scientist at all?

529. Stu Clayton says

But then how do you draw the line? Under what circumstances must you give up your cherished theory, or cease to be a real scientist at all?

In all individual cases, nobody knows anything in advance. Generalizing about it gets you nowhere. All you can do is snipe on your own turf as honestly as you can, and hope you don’t live to regret it.

530. David Eddyshaw says

A concrete example which amused me was the list of “achievements” of Chomskyanism which one of the bishops of the sect had on his website (I think it was Bathrobe who put us on to it.)

One such achievement was the proof that is is not possible for a language to compound noun stems with demonstratives. This caught my eye because this is in fact the normal way of construing a noun with a dependent demonstrative in Kusaal and its relatives, so if this “achievement” was (as it was presented) a logical consequence of the Chomskyan edifice (which seemed quite dubious, the proof being presented with the usual Chomskyite obfuscation), the entire edifice has quite simply been refuted, and Chomskyans should all go and retrain as dental hygieinists or something else useful.

However, there actually is something odd about compound noun formation in Oti-Volta languages in many other respects as well, and if I had any interest in bolstering Chomskyanism (or a powerful desire to get published in Language) I could quite easily see my way to demonstrating that Oti-Volta compounds are not “true” compounds at all, for the greater glory of the Project. If the Project were actually truly as productive of insight and valid predictions as its devotees imagine, I would quite possibly have been right to do this, too.

[To any passing Chomskyans: hey, give me a credit, guys, when you get that paper into Language.]

531. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

Something something paradigm shift. Newtonian physics were the old p., Einstein’s the new.

So we’re waiting for the entrenched Chomskyites to die off innit?

532. D.O. says

It was known for quite some time that science progresses one funeral at a time.

533. But then how do you draw the line? Under what circumstances must you give up your cherished theory, or cease to be a real scientist at all?

You talk as if it were impossible to do science without a thorough grounding in the philosophical basis of your subject and a clear delineation of exactly when you are entitled to believe what. If that were the case, there would be no science. That is not how humans work.

534. David Eddyshaw says

It’s possible to practice medicine safely and effectively with no interest in medical research (believe me) but that doesn’t mean that medical research is irrelevant to the safe and effective practice of medicine.

Most scientists basically model their research behaviour on what their peers do, just as most citizens have no interest in politics or ethics and do what they see everyone else doing. Most of the time, that works absolutely fine. But you still need the weirdos who fret about politics and worry about ethical issues. Maybe you don’t need very many; but if you don’t have any, then your society is in deep, deep shit. And doing what you see other scientists doing is mostly just fine. But it won’t always be.

Science has been in the intellectual doldrums since the first half of the twentieth century, running on the momentum of the ideas that arose then and working out the fruitful consequences. We live in an age of great engineers; we do not live in a world of great scientists. At present.

535. Hans says

Most scientists basically model their research behaviour on what their peers do, just as most citizens have no interest in politics or ethics and do what they see everyone else doing. Most of the time, that works absolutely fine. But you still need the weirdos who fret about politics and worry about ethical issues. Maybe you don’t need very many; but if you don’t have any, then your society is in deep, deep shit.
Well said. Let’s exchange newsletters 🙂

But then how do you draw the line? Under what circumstances must you give up your cherished theory, or cease to be a real scientist at all?
I can’t remember where I read it – maybe it was in a discussion about Marcantonio’s attempts to disprove Uralic and Indo-European -, in any case someone remarked that there are people who think about theories as houses of cards, where the house falls down when you remove one card – i.e. making one observation that doesn’t fit the theory / model disproves said theory / model. You also find that kind of thinking among anti-evolutionists or climate change deniers. But that’s not how science works; a theory / model continues to be used until it has so many holes that they can’t be overlooked anymore, or until a theory / model comes along that fits the observations better. When that tipping point is reached varies; some people who are very invested in the old model or set in their ways (or for whose limited objectives the old model fits quite well) will tolerate more holes and cling to it for a long time.

536. But you still need the weirdos who fret about politics and worry about ethical issues. Maybe you don’t need very many; but if you don’t have any, then your society is in deep, deep shit.

That may be true, but it has nothing to do with science. You’re saying people need to be ethical agents as well as worker bees, and with that I certainly agree.

Science has been in the intellectual doldrums since the first half of the twentieth century, running on the momentum of the ideas that arose then and working out the fruitful consequences. We live in an age of great engineers; we do not live in a world of great scientists. At present.

What an odd statement! Or do you not consider astronomers, biologists, and archeologists (to take three fields at random) to be scientists?

537. AntC says

@drasvi I want coverage that makes it clear that war itself is bad.

Yes I too am a Pacifist. That does not mean that all wars and all parties to war are equatable. Pacifists can always blame politicians and their jingoist supporters for not doing enough to avoid war. That doesn’t mean you can continue to blame them and hold yourself aloof from the conflict after war has broken out. Even given that once war has broken out there are likely to be atrocities committed by all sides.

I’m a Pacifist not as an end in itself but because killing people is wrong. The Nazis killing Jews/Poles/Gypsies/etc was wrong. The Imperial Japanese killing and abusing civilians in Korea/China was wrong. I don’t think any amount of politicking alone would have stopped them. If I’d been a Pacifist in WWII (and known of those abuses at the time), that would now be to my shame. I don’t think atrocities carried out by the Allies (Dresden, dropping the second atomic bomb) are equatable.

I think it is fine not to follow the news

Then you can’t use ignorance of the events in the war to claim all sides are equally bad. You must remain silent. (In fact from your comments that followed, clearly you are getting Putin’s side of the news.) I do pay attention to the news. From what I see Putin is not equatable to the Ukrainians. But this is Language Hat, not Pacifist Hat. So I’ll adopt a rhetorical technique from another item in the news. Here’s a blank sheet of paper:

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538. D.O. says

Science has been in the intellectual doldrums since the first half of the twentieth century

Which science?

Most scientists basically model their research behaviour on what their peers do

Yes, sometimes because they cannot come up with anything better and sometimes out of conformity and need of funding. But many actually don’t like it and would have liked to do it differently given a chance. It is also a strange idea that scientists do not think about what they are doing. My experience is in large part with physicists and they are constantly thinking about what it is they do and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the overall picture. They just do not find much use for philosophy (partly being arrogant know-it-alls, of course).

539. David Eddyshaw says

Or do you not consider astronomers, biologists, and archeologists (to take three fields at random) to be scientists?

Of course they are. What I was talking about was great scientists. Nor am I asserting that there are none at all; but surely it is not obviously inane to suggest that our current age does not compare in this respect with the first half of the twentieth century?

We assuredly live in a age of astonishing technological progress. I think that blinds us from seeing that we do not live in an age of great innovations in actual scientific theory. Not so much “footnotes to Plato”: more “footnotes to Einstein, footnotes to Heisenberg, footnotes to Dirac …” (it’s easy to prolong the list.) Nor is this confined to physics, though I wouldn’t go so far as to assert that it’s equally true of all disciplines. (I think it largely is true of linguistics, though that, it may be argued, is due to a major detour down an impasse, due to our local hero.)

The US is contemplating repeating the manned trip to the Moon, achieved fifty years ago on the basis of ideas developed during the Second World War, and with technology which though vastly more sophisticated, is not essentially different.

By all means disagree (I’ve been wrong before, and will be wrong again, God willing, if I’m spared); but I’m not just throwing out paradoxes here.

540. David Marjanović says

I agree that falsification is a much trickier subject than Popper-as-taught-to-science-undergrads makes it sound; in particular, there’s a lot of parsimony hidden in it.

L’s favourite example was the Precession of Mercury, where it was known for decades long before Einstein that the data were inconsistent with Newtonian mechanics, but this (rightly in his view) did not lead to the abandonment of Newtonian mechanics.

As long as no alternative to Newtonian mechanics was available, “abandonment” would have meant “we know nothing, we can’t calculate anything, we can’t figure anything out”. Newtonian mechanics is better than that; it’s a better approximation to reality than just guessing. So, it was parsimonious to try to explain the precession of mercury away (e.g. by looking for Vulcan) or to look for measurement errors. When all that failed – I don’t know the actual history of all this, but what should have happened (and probably did to some extent) was that physicists would have “abandoned” Newtonian mechanics in the sense of keeping it in the knowledge that it was a bit off under some unclear conditions.

Then came relativity and quantum physics, letting us calculate exactly how far off Newtonian mechanics is under exactly what conditions, and allowing us to “abandon” Newtonian mechanics in favor of these better alternatives – except that under many conditions its predictions are identical to those of its successors within measurement error, so it is actually kept in practice because it’s so much easier to calculate.

Science has been in the intellectual doldrums since the first half of the twentieth century, running on the momentum of the ideas that arose then and working out the fruitful consequences. We live in an age of great engineers; we do not live in a world of great scientists. At present.

I’ll sleep over that, but I’m not sure what you mean by “great”. Will it take “great scientists” to solve quantum gravity, for example?

541. David Eddyshaw says

I am magnanimously prepared to vouchsafe the title “Great Scientist” to whoever solves quantum gravity. (Now that prospect will surely get the physicists to pull their socks up!)

542. David L says

I know a few people; I will spread the word…

Seriously, I think we need a Great Scientist to figure out quantum gravity. Forty years of string theory and its offshoots have, in my jaded opinion, landed physics in a swamp. Someone needs to find a way out.

If the way out involves ancient Greek shorthand, all the better.

543. David Eddyshaw says

As long as no alternative to Newtonian mechanics was available, “abandonment” would have meant “we know nothing, we can’t calculate anything, we can’t figure anything out”. Newtonian mechanics is better than that; it’s a better approximation to reality than just guessing

Absolutely. That is indeed really the only rational thing to do; and certainly the only practical thing to do.

But notice that this is not at all what Vickers is representing science to be (at least in his plug: his book may well be better than that.) He doesn’t say “this theory (or set of theories) is the best thing we have for predicting how things will happen, at present”; he says that (so long as 95% of scientists agree) that it gives us “facts”: it tells us how things actually are.

Now imagine asking a Victorian Vickers about Newtonian mechanics in pre-Einstein days, and specifically asking him about the Precession of Mercury.* Presumably he would have vigorously denied that this was in fact a sign of something wrong with the system, and asserted that even if he could not explain it away at that time, such an explaining away would most certainly happen – within the Newtonian system, which was, after all, a “fact.”

* I perhaps should own up to knowing nothing at all about this myself. I’m trusting that Lakatos knew what he was talking about. AFAIK nobody called him out on it, anyway.

544. David Eddyshaw says

In linguistics we have a better model: “All grammars leak.”

545. Nor am I asserting that there are none at all; but surely it is not obviously inane to suggest that our current age does not compare in this respect with the first half of the twentieth century?

Not obviously inane, no, but definitely suggestive (if you will forgive me) of old-fartism: “Back in my day, we had Great Scientists, sonny! Now just look at the pipsqueaks you young whippersnappers ignorantly admire! Let me tell you tales of Bohr and Heisenberg…” I don’t know how you measure or compare Greatness, but I do know that I’m suspicious of all such narratives. I still remember my repressed vexation at a dinner I was at some years ago when aging musicians were agreeing with each other, in a boozy and heartfelt fashion, that there was no such thing as jazz any more and really hardly anything you could call music. I have instructed my wife that if she catches me indulging in such blather she should have me put down.

546. David Eddyshaw says

I have suspected myself that my take on this might be mere laus temporis acti, but I don’t think so, even leaving aside my own remarkable hipness and happeningness (often noted by all my children.) And unless you believe a priori that all times are pretty much alike in terms of intellectual fertility, surely there will actually be times when the old farts are in fact right in moaning that fings ain’t wot vey used ter be, if only on the stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day principle. I maintain that on this occasion my stopped clock is in fact telling the right time. I hope that soon it won’t be.

That’s not to say that I would actually prefer to be living in the first half of the twentieth century, God forbid. (My memories of it are, truth to tell, somewhat hazy.) There is a lot to be said for living in a Silver Age.

547. And unless you believe a priori that all times are pretty much alike in terms of intellectual fertility

I do in fact believe that — not in a “I have the evidence right here in my hand” way, but in the same axiomatic way I believe… well, let me quote myself from a few months ago:

Me, I accept as an axiom that all lives are equally valuable and that there is no such thing as “intelligence” as a single, measurable quantity — different people are intelligent in different ways.

Holding such things to be self-evident helps keep me from indulging in the temptations I deprecated above.

548. I mean, everybody knows for a fact that the Golden Age of Paris or Greenwich Village was a few decades before they themselves discovered those storied hearths of culture. Back in the 1920s they were saying “You should have seen this place when…”

549. David Eddyshaw says

Weel, it’s an axiom for you, and not for me, so all we can do is companionably check each other for failures of logic, mutually agree that our deductions are valid, and agree to differ.

(But I’m not at all maintaining that people were cleverer or better in the first half of the twentieth century: in fact, there seems to me to be pretty good evidence that, if anything, they were stupider [Flynn effect] and worse [evidence, alas, abounds.] As I say, there is a lot to be said for living in a Sliver Age. Intellectual fertility, in the sense I mean here, is by no means the only important thing in life. But at this rate I shall end up sounding like Harry Lime on the Wiener Riesenrad.)

550. Noetica says

a few months ago

Ah, those were the days.

551. David Eddyshaw says

Ah me! Yes indeed. If only we had known what was to come … we would have appreciated that evanescent cultural efflorescence as the very special thing that it was.

552. AntC says

aging musicians were agreeing with each other, in a boozy and heartfelt fashion, that there was no such thing as jazz any more …

1750 is when the best jazz ended abruptly. Nobody has been competent since to complete Contrapunctus XIV.

(There has been some not too bad jazz in more recent times.)

553. drasvi says

@AntC, I live in a coutnry that has just started a war. Without a reason. Just for fun.
When I speak agaisnt war, I have in mind us. Namely that it is a bad idea to start such a war.
I don’t think of you and whether you should be a pacifist when your ally is attacked.

Moreover, this war does not improve my mood at all, and I simply don’t care what impression I make, how my posts affect your attitude to Russia or to me. I wrote above: I din’t think about you (not just you personally, everyone here). I admit that it is rude (inconsiderate), not to think of you. But I have no energy for this (in this context).

I wrote about the war because I thought about the war. I thought about the war because of who I am and because LH mentioned Putin.

But the purpose of the post was solely expressing my current views of the following: “what can protect you from supportign an ugly ideology, and to what extent one’s attitude to ‘reality’ helps”.

554. David Marjanović says

I’ve never defended Vickers…

555. David Eddyshaw says

True; and I suspect that you probably have much the same misgivings about his doctrine, at least as expressed in the plug, as I do.

It occurs to me that to describe your theories (however well-supported) as “facts” is a fine example of missing the point of science altogether. This is why I do genuinely hope that in the actual book he takes the path of defining “fact” as actually meaning “very well supported theory”, with extensive explanations of what “very well supported” means in this context. That would be a very non-standard use of the word “fact” IMHO*, and correspondingly very likely to mislead the uninitiated, but it would at least be compatible with a scientific outlook.

* Though hardly as non-standard as in the Tractatus, for one. The immediate shock of its bravura opening is largely a matter of wondering what the hell W actually means by “Tatsache.” (Nobody has ever exhibited a good real-life example of a Tractatus-style atomic fact.)

Thinking about it, I recant. In Everyday Life, when people talk about “facts”, they probably do actually mean “very well supported theory”, though they might object to the formulation of it that way. People do not regard it as a logical paradox if “facts” turn out to be untrue in the light of further experience. But it seems unfortunate to use the word in that way from the outset in a treatise on the philosophy of science.

556. David Eddyshaw says

This whole question of why we believe some things and not others, and whether we ought to believe some things and have no business believing others (unless we want to give up our claim to be rational at all) is hardly an academic one, as recent political events have reminded us once again. Nor is it a simple one, capable of being resolved by some neat formulation of how we can recognise a “fact” as what it is.

I am emphatically not proposing a Postmodernist “solution”: that is the opposite of a solution, as it consists of simply declaring that the problem doesn’t exist at all, and that the whole concept of objective “truth” is a mistake. Saying that a problem exists and is difficult is not at all the same as declaring that it is intrinsically insoluble, still less of saying that the problem itself is a mere illusion. On the contrary, the difficulty of the problem and its great real-world importance mean that we must not allow ourselves to be fobbed off with pretend answers (like declaring our best theories to be “facts” tout court); instead we must keep on trying: imagining that we have already succeeded when we haven’t is just as bad as running away from the problem altogether, like the Postmodernists.

557. D.O. says

One of the surprising turns in my understanding of the “philosophy of science” (such poor and idiosyncratic as it is) is that definitions really don’t matter. (DM previously mentioned complete irrelevance that the question what is life? [not the famous book with that title] proved to be for biology). Every intellectual discussion begins with people trying to disentangle some murky terms that they use and having a hope that if they only figure them better it would advance their understanding and it doesn’t seem ever to be of an use. Real discussion begins with a good idea, terminology just follows. I am sorry if this offends both Socrates and Confucius.

558. Rodger C says

(Should probably have posted this here rather on the Rus thread) Re blanket snark directed at humanities folks in general and Comp. Lit. folks in particular: I, in fact, have my doctorate in Comp. Lit. To be sure, I was already writing my dissertation when Derrida was translated, and I immediately spotted all that as nonsense, if only because I had an undergraduate STEM background and enough linguistics to know what Saussure was really about. (In fact, I started grad school intending to take a minor in linguistics, but in IU’s then echt-Chomskyan department–well, I’ve told that horror story before.)

559. David Marjanović says

It occurs to me that to describe your theories (however well-supported) as “facts” is a fine example of missing the point of science altogether.

On the one hand, yes. On the other, insert galaxy-brain meme here.

On one level, facts are the atoms of reality, and theories try to explain the facts and the regularities that can be observed in them (laws); they cannot grow up to become facts. But then epistemology sets in. Basic measurements are facts. But many measurements and even qualitative observations in modern physics rely on complex theories about what happens in the huge detector of a collider or a gamma-ray telescope. Even more immediate observations depend on the principle of parsimony and on theories about, say, optical illusions. Maybe Vickers is seeing this as “facts are theories too, so any theory that is good enough is a fact, and here’s which ones I think qualify and why”… I’d be surprised if that turned out to be helpful, though.

560. Noetica says

D.O.:

Real discussion begins with a good idea, terminology just follows. I am sorry if this offends both Socrates and Confucius.

While we’re offending people (good eggs and bad), let’s not forget the almost obligatory allusion here to Humpty Dumpty, whose contribution I wish to incorporate in Hansard:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

What Humpty Dummett and the whole college of more-moderns make of this it skills not to ask. “… the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.” I should be glad of another death. Life’s too short for so tedious a pilgrimage.

As for Confucius, I wonder every few days about the customary inversion in interpretations of the Rectification of Names. (Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is concerned with a similar ambiguity: “Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive.”) Looks to me like a political makeover. Our text, from the Legge translation of the Analects, seems clear enough:

“A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Many insist this means, as a first concern, that matters are to be rectified so they will conform to the true meanings of names, rather than that names themselves should be straightened to fit facts: “the truth of things”. Can’t see it myself, but I’m no Confucian scholar. I can see how in a dictatorship a primacy of words would have more appeal than a primacy of facts that ought to be spoken of as they are. Semantic ascent versus semantic descent.

(How’d I do?)

561. Brett says

@David Marjanović: Yeah, it’s a fact that the sun exists and is a incandescent ball of superheated, fusion-powered gas. However, this fact is nonetheless an inference derived from trillions of observations. Some of those observations have been made and replicated by almost all human beings; some are known directly only to a smaller set of people with access to sensitive instruments; and some are highly technical and mediated by complicated computer operations. (That the computers involved are sufficiently reliable is, of course, another inferred fact, based on a different constellation of observations.) The sun’s existence is so well confirmed that it is actually quite difficult to quantify the level of confirmation. (What is the most likely scenario in which all our apparent observations of the sun are actually illusory?) At this level, it makes no practical sense to worry about the validity of this fact. And there must be less sure propositions that are still sufficiently well confirmed that we can treat them as completely factual. However, at some level of real uncertainty, this kind of supposition of factuality will fail, although where the boundary between facts and non-facts lies is not going to be sharply defined (a sorites problem).

562. David Marjanović says

Exactly.

563. David Eddyshaw says

I wonder if it would be helpful, not only to distinguish (or try to distinguish) between different levels of confidence we can reasonably have in our beliefs, to pay attention also to their level of abstraction

What I have in mind is that (for example) the “fact”* that the Earth goes round the sun rather than vice versa is quite unaffected by the supposed Paradigm Shift or Scientific Revolution that replaced Newtonian mechanics with General Relativity. And the “fact”** that I am sitting in this chair, wearing (as always) my Commenting Hat (the one with the cool tassel), is invariant under any developments in science that may have taken place since Aristotle’s day.

An awful lot of the action in these Scientific Revolutions seems to take place in provinces remote from the Capital, from where we humble citizens can scarcely hear the sound of the shooting at all.

* Provisional quotes. These are neither scare quotes nor quote quotes, but an apotropaic gesture intended to ward off the Evil Eye of petitio principii.

** In this case, the quotes signify that the fact, is, in fact, false.

564. David Eddyshaw says

Or to put it another way: the deeper the explanation, the less trust we should place in it.

565. Stu Clayton says

Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser.

Unfortunately, one great advantage of a deep explanation is that it explains a lot of things at one go, so you don’t need to think about them much any more. It’s a stop rule that frees the mind for other mischief.

566. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

Tillid er godt, kontrol er bedre.

So what Confucius is saying is more or less that if our politicians keep lying to themselves (so they can lie to us), they will destroy social coherence and it will be devil take the hindmost?

More music and more good manners, who can object to that?

567. drasvi says

“Sun exists” is a claim about the state of the world. The law of conservation of energy is something else.

Another possible contrast is between what we have already agreed upon in some context versus what we are discussing in this context. In this latter case, a discussion between an evolutionist who says that evolution is a fact, and a creatinist who says it is just a theory can be translated as “Let’s agree with it” “No, let’s question it”.

568. Noetica says

David M:

Erasmus Darwin probably qualified as a philosopher. But Charles?

Right, let’s start with Darwin and perhaps get to the others later. There is an enormous literature concerning Darwin’s place in the history of thought generally, with philosophy certainly included. An assessment by a philosopher:

Darwin’s conception of life as ceaseless becoming raises questions about being and existence that problematize and inﬂect both analytic and Continental conceptions of ontology and may help to revitalize what is commonly considered a moribund or redundant theoretical category, making it a relevant concern for philosophy, but also for political, cultural, and social theory.
Probably the most central philosophical concern of Darwin’s own writings, one which poses a profound philosophical shift in nineteenth-century thought and whose implications have still not been drawn out and understood even today, is Darwin’s new and surprising conception of life itself. This is, I believe, Darwin’s gift to the humanities and social science, a concept of life as dynamic, collective, change. He has provided a unique concept, his own, to add to and complicate the history of similar concepts that have marked the histories of both biology and philosophy as disciplines.
– Elizabeth Grosz (2005) Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (chapter: “Darwin and the ontology of life”)

An assessment from a palaeontologist:

Ghiselin has also been successful in another of his aims: be convincingly demonstrates that Darwin did indeed have a consistent and conscious philosophy. That is touched on here and there throughout the book, but most extensively in the chapter on teleology and design, curiously titled “A metaphysical satire.” The argument cannot be summarized adequately here and must be read. It concludes as follows:
“It is true that [Darwin] restricted the philosophical pronouncements in his writings to problems closer related to his scientific work. This, however, may be taken as a sign of wisdom rather than disinterest. It is abundantly clear that Darwin rejected questions of ultimate reality as unanswerable … . His position on metaphysics scarcely differs from that of a number of modern philosophers, and we can hardly blame him for being a century ahead of his times in yet another field. Those who condemn Darwin as incompetent in philosophy do so either from ignorance of his ideas, or because they, personally, would prefer to reject his conclusions.”
Darwin’s position is shown to be essentially that of a present-day logical positivist.
– GG Simpson (1970) “Darwin’s Philosophy and Methods”; review of MT Ghiselin The Triumph of the Darwinian Method.

Neither of these assessments proves anything, of course. But what could anyone do to prove Darwin’s inclusion as a philosopher, to someone who defines philosophy as you do? All we can do is show that others – many philosophers among them – work from a different definition. The eminent hardcore military-grade philosopher Kim Sterelny has many publications relevant to his thought. Here are just those titles from his bibliography (linked earlier) that explicitly mention Darwin or Darwinism:

• Sterelny, K & Jeffares, B 2014, “Darwinism and its influences”, in Andrew Gardner, Mark Lake & Ulrike Sommer (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Theory, Oxford University Press, online, pp. 1–14.
• Sterelny, K 2011, “Darwinian spaces: Peter Godfrey-Smith on selection and evolution”, Biology and Philosophy, vol. 26, no. 4, 489–500.
• Sterelny, K 2003, “Darwinian concepts in the philosophy of mind”, in Hodge, Jonathan and Radick, Gregory (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 288–309.
• Sterelny, K 1999, “Dawkins’ Bulldog. An Essay review of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 59, 255–262.

Others have much to say about Kant’s supposed influence on Darwin’s thought. Still others speak of “Darwin’s epistemology”.

569. D.O. says

At first, I thought that the first quote is just blather and the second one makes an unsupportable claim (Darwin, who explained that people breed pigeons and dogs by selecting for traits they want and that nature does essentially the same thing, is logical positivist, really), but now I think both quotes demonstrate a valuable approach. Someone who serves as a jumping board for philosophical thought is a philosopher themself. That should increase the ranks of philosophers tremendously. Maybe it is a good idea to appoint elephant a chair of Zoology.

570. John Cowan says

SGJ more or less nails it:

In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

DM previously mentioned complete irrelevance that the question what is life? [not the famous book with that title] proved to be for biology).

Peter Medawar said, after sitting for an hour in a room full of biologists (or biological philosophers, whatever) debating the point, that all of them knew the difference between a live horse and a dead one, and that they should cease to beat the latter.

Maybe it is a good idea to appoint elephant a chair of Zoology.

Only if you, like Jakobson, respect him (Nabokov) very much.

571. drasvi says

He asked them, “Because we cannot directly observe entities and processes in the geological past, some philosophers of science contend that they cannot be said to exist in reality. Do you think they are correct?”

Imagine, then, how such a geologist would react to the idea that many philosophers of science muse that such ice ages probably didn’t exist and are just “nice ideas” that are currently popular amongst scientists who have been indoctrinated into a particular paradigm.

Not the same.
The philosopher did not suggest that something exists in the past, but not dinosaurs.

He suggests that past in general is not considered a part of “reality” by “some”. I don’t know why a geologist should care what “some” are thinking (I understand that some geologists disagreed, but the guy that I should somehow symathise to their hurt feelings…), but the past that geologists believe in is difficult to manipulate. It is actually distinct from present.

If philosophers suggest that theories about the past should be somehow distinguished from theories about present, I would listen to their arguments. I am particularly curious to know how they understand “present” with respect to Moon (above a light second away) and Altair…

572. drasvi says

Also conservation laws are just nice simplified versions of Noether theorem. For babies.

He has a problem with this “just”.

573. David Marjanović says

Darwin’s conception of life as ceaseless becoming raises questions about being and existence that problematize and inﬂect both analytic and Continental conceptions of ontology and may help to revitalize what is commonly considered a moribund or redundant theoretical category, making it a relevant concern for philosophy, but also for political, cultural, and social theory.

…isn’t “life is change” a bit older…? If you ask me for the most important promoter of “life as ceaseless becoming”, I’ll actually go for Lamarck.

But never mind! Grosz doesn’t say this is an original contribution by Darwin. She just takes his work as inspiration for her philosophical musings, and says other philosophers should do the same. She’s not saying Darwin himself even thought about this at all. If he didn’t, he’s not a philosopher – as D.O. just snarked.

Darwin’s position is shown to be essentially that of a present-day logical positivist.

That’s a philosophy so simple it has turned out to be too simple for science theory.

But what could anyone do to prove Darwin’s inclusion as a philosopher, to someone who defines philosophy as you do?

I haven’t read the Origin, or The Descent of Man for that matter, and was hoping you could save me the trouble. 🙂

My question is whether Darwin ever looked up from trying to figure out how evolution works and tried to get at some larger overarching principle, preferably beyond mere science. Something along the lines of “what does it all mean?“.

Still others speak of “Darwin’s epistemology”.

As a scientist he must have had one. I really wouldn’t say that’s enough to make every scientist a philosopher.

574. David Eddyshaw says

Since everyone has a philosophy (in the sense a set of preconceived ideas), it seems unhelpful to say that merely possessing a philosophy makes you a philosopher: that would just make “philosopher” a fancy way of saying “thinking human being.”

But I’d say that critically thinking about your preconceptions is philosophizing. How much philosophizing you need to do to merit being called a “philosopher” seems to be on of those arbitrary questions (unless somebody is actually paying you to do it, I suppose.)

Constructing a coherent system of philosophy can’t be a necessary requirement, unless one is prepared to refuse the title to Socrates (or indeed, to the later Wittgenstein, who makes quite a thing of saying that such coherent systems are not really on the cards at all.)

Darwin seems to have repudiated an early literalist interpretation of the Bible because of problems of an ethical nature rather than anything to do with the consequences of his views on biology, but he certainly went on to adopt an epistemological standpoint based on his studies which he came to feel was incompatible with Christianity:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Charles_Darwin#Darwin's_loss_of_faith

In the case of a man like Darwin, it seems hard to deny that this “loss of faith” was due to reflecting on his previous philosophical preconceptions and finding them wanting. In the case of a less cerebral man, you could attribute it to other things, and even in Darwin’s case, there may well have been many other factors, but you can hardly maintain that his doubts arising from his work in biology were mere pretexts.

So he philosophized, for sure.

On the other hand, he never seems to have developed any distinctive philosophical views of his own, and there is no tradition of “Darwinian philosophy” (names like “Social Darwinism” are not much more than pop science, and certainly a calumny on the poor man himself.)

Furthermore, I’ve read that the idea of “evolution” had been long familiar before Darwin applied it to biology; this is by no means to detract from his achievements, only to say that he was not a philosophical innovator.

575. Hans says

that would just make “philosopher” a fancy way of saying “thinking human being.”
Well, we know that everyone is a philosopher until they open their mouth to speak.

576. D.O. says

DE, I am confused (don’t worry, it’s my normal state), by your lights, was Darwin a philosopher or not? Or do you think it all depends on the definition?

Maybe it is more fruitful if someone else analyzes your preconceptions. Or only self-reflection makes one a philosopher. Academic philosophers don’t seem to have a problem analyzing other people. Also, because it is “your” pre-conceptions, it is very difficult to think about them because one will use their preconceptions as the basis of thinking.

If I remember correctly, “evolution” was first applied to the Lamark’s approach and Darwin didn’t use this label for his theory of random change + selection. “Evolution” was supposed to be directional and Darwin’s theory didn’t fit.

577. drasvi says

Usually philosophers share their philosophy with others.

I don’t think it is necessary to publish a philosophical book to do that – after all you can teach math in problems.

Also if you have a good reason to think that someone has excellent philosophical ideas but does not share them, then she’s like a person who sings well but does not perform in public (still a singer, I think).

But it seems the question is not about Darwin, but more abou his contribution in science. If one’s contribution in science makes obvious some philosophical problems that philosophers did not notice before, is she a philosopher?

578. David Marjanović says

the idea of “evolution” had been long familiar before Darwin applied it to biology

Yes; Darwin’s contribution there was the mechanism – natural and sexual selection.

The word evolution was originally applied to embryonic development, today called “development” or “ontogeny”, which was understood as a more or less literal unwrapping; Darwin used it in the modern sense only once, at the end of his last book, IIRC, and otherwise spoke of transformation.

579. rozele says

prepared to refuse the title to Socrates

personally, i’m prepared to argue that a large part of the problem with “philosophy” as a (euro-christian) category / field / discipline is that it is historically so inextricably anchored in plato’s version of socrates.

and plato, fundamentally, was writing polemics in defense of his mentor’s political project of replacing the athenian (herrenvolk-)democracy with a dictatorship*. the fact that plato (and, according to him, socrates) wrapped that political project in extremely dubious (and often patently insincere) speculation about The Nature Of Truth And The Good is mostly interesting as historical data, in terms of what discourses allowed what kinds of subversive** arguments to be made without drawing prosecution in that time & place. taking it seriously as writing about Truth (and The Good, and all the rest of it) is like taking a 1/6/2020 coup apologia seriously as a text about reptilian xenobiology becuse it recycles a lot of david icke.

.
* i can’t recommend izzy stone’s The Trial of Socrates highly enough as a lens on plato and socrates, especially accompanied by c.l.r. james’ Every Cook Can Govern, which is a bit on the rose-tinted side but gives a useful picture of the stakes in the game socrates was playing.

** used here as a neutral characterization of the political project of destroying the existing state structures and replacing them with different ones.

580. David Eddyshaw says

I think there’s a good bit more to Plato than his (admittedly repellent) political views, e.g.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theaetetus_(dialogue)

Plato’s at his best in these aporetic dialogues, where he doesn’t claim to have The Answer …
(As I said, he was good at asking important questions, but also good at giving very bad answers to them. Like the Republic: the beginning of which is wonderful.)

If one’s contribution in science makes obvious some philosophical problems that philosophers did not notice before, is she a philosopher?

She might be, but not for that reason, unless she has herself noticed and drawn attention to these problems.

After all, the existence of pain has given rise to many philosophical problems, but Pain is not a philosopher.

Maybe it is more fruitful if someone else analyzes your preconceptions

I suspect that, as with many human activities, a cooperative approach is the most fruitful. It’s certainly difficult to identify your own presuppostions, but it’s also pretty easy to be mistaken about other peoples’.

581. Noetica says

Texts for the day. All four are from Darwin’s The Descent of Man; And Selection in Relation to Sex:

Text 1

Several writers, more especially Prof. Max Muller (62. Lectures on ‘Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language,’ 1873.), have lately insisted that the use of language implies the power of forming general concepts; and that as no animals are supposed to possess this power, an impassable barrier is formed between them and man. (63. The judgment of a distinguished philologist, such as Prof. Whitney, will have far more weight on this point than anything that I can say. He remarks (‘Oriental and Linguistic Studies,’ 1873, p. 297), in speaking of Bleek’s views: “Because on the grand scale language is the necessary auxiliary of thought, indispensable to the development of the power of thinking, to the distinctness and variety and complexity of cognitions to the full mastery of consciousness; therefore he would fain make thought absolutely impossible without speech, identifying the faculty with its instrument. He might just as reasonably assert that the human hand cannot act without a tool. With such a doctrine to start from, he cannot stop short of Max Muller’s worst paradoxes, that an infant (in fans, not speaking) is not a human being, and that deaf-mutes do not become possessed of reason until they learn to twist their fingers into imitation of spoken words.” Max Muller gives in italics (‘Lectures on Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language,’ 1873, third lecture) this aphorism: “There is no thought without words, as little as there are words without thought.” What a strange definition must here be given to the word thought!) With respect to animals, I have already endeavoured to shew that they have this power, at least in a rude and incipient degree. As far as concerns infants of from ten to eleven months old, and deaf-mutes, it seems to me incredible, that they should be able to connect certain sounds with certain general ideas as quickly as they do, unless such ideas were already formed in their minds. The same remark may be extended to the more intelligent animals; as Mr. Leslie Stephen observes (64. ‘Essays on Free Thinking,’ etc., 1873, p. 82.), “A dog frames a general concept of cats or sheep, and knows the corresponding words as well as a philosopher. And the capacity to understand is as good a proof of vocal intelligence, though in an inferior degree, as the capacity to speak.”

Text 2

I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers (1. See, for instance, on this subject, Quatrefages, ‘Unité de l’Espèce Humaine,’ 1861, p. 21, etc.) who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important. This sense, as Mackintosh (2. ‘Dissertation on Ethical Philosophy,’ 1837, p. 231, etc.) remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word “ought,” so full of high significance. It is the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him without a moment’s hesitation to risk his life for that of a fellow-creature; or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause. Immanuel Kant exclaims, “Duty! Wondrous thought, that workest neither by fond insinuation, flattery, nor by any threat, but merely by holding up thy naked law in the soul, and so extorting for thyself always reverence, if not always obedience; before whom all appetites are dumb, however secretly they rebel; whence thy original?” (3. ‘Metaphysics of Ethics,’ translated by J.W. Semple, Edinburgh, 1836, p. 136.)
This great question has been discussed by many writers (4. Mr. Bain gives a list (‘Mental and Moral Science,’ 1868, pp. 543-725) of twenty-six British authors who have written on this subject, and whose names are familiar to every reader; to these, Mr. Bain’s own name, and those of Mr. Lecky, Mr. Shadworth Hodgson, Sir J. Lubbock, and others, might be added.) of consummate ability; and my sole excuse for touching on it, is the impossibility of here passing it over; and because, as far as I know, no one has approached it exclusively from the side of natural history. The investigation possesses, also, some independent interest, as an attempt to see how far the study of the lower animals throws light on one of the highest psychical faculties of man.

Text 3

It was assumed formerly by philosophers of the derivative (41. This term is used in an able article in the ‘Westminster Review,’ Oct. 1869, p. 498. For the “Greatest happiness principle,” see J.S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism,’ p. 17.) school of morals that the foundation of morality lay in a form of Selfishness; but more recently the “Greatest happiness principle” has been brought prominently forward. It is, however, more correct to speak of the latter principle as the standard, and not as the motive of conduct. Nevertheless, all the authors whose works I have consulted, with a few exceptions (42. Mill recognises (‘System of Logic,’ vol. ii. p. 422) in the clearest manner, that actions may be performed through habit without the anticipation of pleasure. Mr. H. Sidgwick also, in his Essay on Pleasure and Desire (‘The Contemporary Review,’ April 1872, p. 671), remarks: “To sum up, in contravention of the doctrine that our conscious active impulses are always directed towards the production of agreeable sensations in ourselves, I would maintain that we find everywhere in consciousness extra-regarding impulse, directed towards something that is not pleasure; that in many cases the impulse is so far incompatible with the self-regarding that the two do not easily co-exist in the same moment of consciousness.” A dim feeling that our impulses do not by any means always arise from any contemporaneous or anticipated pleasure, has, I cannot but think, been one chief cause of the acceptance of the intuitive theory of morality, and of the rejection of the utilitarian or “Greatest happiness” theory. With respect to the latter theory the standard and the motive of conduct have no doubt often been confused, but they are really in some degree blended.), write as if there must be a distinct motive for every action, and that this must be associated with some pleasure or displeasure. But man seems often to act impulsively, that is from instinct or long habit, without any consciousness of pleasure, in the same manner as does probably a bee or ant, when it blindly follows its instincts. Under circumstances of extreme peril, as during a fire, when a man endeavours to save a fellow-creature without a moment’s hesitation, he can hardly feel pleasure; and still less has he time to reflect on the dissatisfaction which he might subsequently experience if he did not make the attempt. Should he afterwards reflect over his own conduct, he would feel that there lies within him an impulsive power widely different from a search after pleasure or happiness; and this seems to be the deeply planted social instinct.

Text 4

… as the German philosopher Schopenhauer remarks, “the final aim of all love intrigues, be they comic or tragic, is really of more importance than all other ends in human life. What it all turns upon is nothing less than the composition of the next generation…It is not the weal or woe of any one individual, but that of the human race to come, which is here at stake.” (1. ‘Schopenhauer and Darwinism,’ in ‘Journal of Anthropology,’ Jan. 1871, p. 323.

Discuss. (Marks will be deducted for failure to make due mention of Wittgenstein, or insensitive mention of elephants.)

582. drasvi says

She might be, but not for that reason, unless she has herself noticed and drawn attention to these problems.

She either
(1) was first to notice/think of some possibility/problem that has both philosophical and scientific consequences.

But she did it in the course of scientific study. Philosophical cosequences are apparently guarranteed.
But possibly philosophers are only ready to think of them if they have to do with the world around them (that is, if there are scientific consequences too). In that case see 2. below.
Or maybe philosophers would think of it anyway, they were just too dumb to come up with the idea.

Or:
(2) she was not first to notice it, but she demonstrated that this possibility is important for scinece/realised.

In other words, the girl triggered some woo-hoo by enormous intellectual effort or by virtue of her unusual imagination.

583. David Eddyshaw says

Sounds like she has a greater claim to recognition than being a mere philosopher …

584. D.O. says

Lemme try.
Text 1: this is a straight up scientific argument.

Text 2: Darwin agrees with some other writers on a question of ethics. I sometimes agree with DE, but it doesn’t make me an ophtalmologist.

Text 3: this seems to be pure philosophy. I don’t know why you haven’t included the next paragraph
“In the case of the lower animals it seems much more appropriate to speak of their social instincts, as having been developed for the general good rather than for the general happiness of the species. The term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by nearly the same steps, it would be advisable, if found practicable, to use the same definition in both cases, and to take as the standard of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation on account of political ethics.”

If I understand what it says, the foundations of ethics should be a goal of maximum number of healthy individuals a society could produce. Well… I mean… nobody knows that Darwin suggested it, right? Shoud we keep it this way on account of political ethics?

Text 4: ? Let me quote Kozma Prutkov. “Man satisfies his desires on both ends of the earth circle.”

585. David Eddyshaw says

The idea that people have an innate desire to help others is one of the things that Mencius insists on

https://iep.utm.edu/mencius/#H5

in contrast to the Legalist view that people need to have it beaten into them.

The Big D seems to be groping towards an evolutionary biological explanation for ethics; nowadays quite popular, of course, what with “genes for altruism” and all. He seems to be objecting to Utilitarianism on the grounds that it is not to be found in earthworms, which have evolved beyond seeking the “greatest happiness” of the earthworm community to seeking their “greatest number and vigour.” I concede that this is indeed a kind of philosophy, though it seems a touch Platonic (in rozele’s sense.) And evidently I must eat my words regarding “Social Darwinism.”

586. Stu Clayton says

@Noetica: good one ! The quotes from Descent were much needed, given the carelessly dismissive tendency of certain comments here as to what Darwin thought and wrote. Nothing like a dose of evidence to purge the system, eh ?

I read the Origin and part of Descent many decades ago, so I was not surprised. I simply didn’t make the effort to pull out my copies and search them. Am I my brother’s prefect?

I prefer to sit in the window of my club, watching it rain on the damned people.

By the by, I was a teenage moral philosophy buff, reading Hare, Mill, Sidgwick, Moore etc etc. Concurrently I led a life in which Sittlichkeit did not figure prominently. I wonder what that was all about.

587. D.O. says

Another thought, just in case anyone reads them. Darwin acted as an honest scientist. He took a task to look at people and animals from the same point of view and discover what can be said about people keeping in mind that we are animals as well. There are many things that can be found out this way, one of them that if we want to take ethics from our animal nature that is what it shoud be. What else was he supposed to say? This is a direct conclusion of the line of inquiry that he sat out for himself. Maybe it is another tally mark into the column why scientists should not be philosophers.

588. David Eddyshaw says

Well, he wasn’t the first to suppose that you can legitimately argue from what is to what ought to be. (Scientists-turned-philosopher are perhaps naturally prone to this.)

It’s a handy doctrine, especially if you can see your way to interpreting “what is” in the light of how you think things ought to be. You can then solemnly explain to doubters that, sorrowfully, any objections they may have to your program are unrealistic – unnatural, even – and that they are merely being obscurantist.

589. I was a teenage moral philosophy buff

That movie was a total failure at the box office.

590. Stu Clayton says

It is more practical to move from what ought to be, to what is. An army, a navy and a Sittenpolizei work wonders. They are arguments you can’t refuse.

591. Stu Clayton says

That movie was a total failure at the box office.

True, but it brought me to the attention of the more discerning critics. You do remember it, after all.

592. AntC says

@rozele i’m prepared to argue that a large part of the problem with “philosophy” as a (euro-christian) category / field / discipline is that it is historically so inextricably anchored in plato’s version of socrates.

No: your claim is just false on its face. Of course intros to Philosophy include Plato’s version of Socrates. They equally include Aristotle in very sharp contrast. My undergraduate intro to (Political) Philosophy also included Plato’s ‘Laws’ , which has a very different tone and much less assurance, his Socratic idealism having been chastised by trying to implement it at Syracuse.

And Euro-Philosophy includes Enlightenment thinking (Descartes onwards) which certainly builds on Greek Classics, but also introduces whole ‘nother things.

You can’t explain Euro-Philosophy’s Empiricism as deriving from Plato-Socrates. Arguably Empiricism is Philosophy’s greatest contribution against Medieval Christian woo (Mysticism).

So not “anchored” at all in Socrates-Plato, let alone inextricably. (Where did you get this idea from?)

593. Brett says

I was just surprised that Darwin was so confident that of the list of “twenty-six British authors who have written on this subject,” it would be true that their “names are familiar to every reader.”

Even less seriously: It should really be no surprise that writing about ethics and ontology came effortlessly to Charles Darwin, for he was a natural philosopher.

It is hard for me to avoid the impression that Darwin thought that he had a mission and a particular gift for performing detailed observations and reasoning inductively from his own and others’ similarly detailed observations. Philosophy was more a tool in confronting opponents who used philosophy to discredit or falsify his scientific assertions, because some of the opponents did not accept either the principle of inductive reasoning or the application to certain questions to which Darwin applied his reasoning. Had Darwin written for, or been read only by, trained scientists who would eschew “destructive” argumentation, he might not have included detailed philosophical counter arguments or buttressing in his published works.

595. David Eddyshaw says

All teenagers are moral phiosophers, with a particularly acute ability to discern the injustice in the heart of Man. Well, Parent.

596. Where did you get this idea from?

Apparently from I.F. Stone, who was a great reporter but an amateur in philosophy.

597. David Marjanović says

Texts for the day.

At first glance, they all look like straight-up philosophy, leaving only the original question open: whether they constitute contributions of philosophy to science.

But…

Text 1 ends in a testable hypothesis. It reads to me like an attempt to take this whole topic out of philosophy and move it into science. Maybe that’s itself a philosophical activity, but if so, it belongs specifically to science theory.

Text 2, after lengthy agreement (which is part of Darwin’s typical mode of argumentation) with a long list of philosophers, ends in this: “This great question has been discussed by many writers […] of consummate ability; and my sole excuse for touching on it, is the impossibility of here passing it over; and because, as far as I know, no one has approached it exclusively from the side of natural history. The investigation possesses, also, some independent interest, as an attempt to see how far the study of the lower animals throws light on one of the highest psychical faculties of man.”

The first sentence first apologizes for talking about philosophy because the readers are going to expect it, and then promises to take the topic out of philosophy and “approach[…] it exclusively from the side of natural history.” This is like solving Zeno’s “paradox” by mathematics (infinite sums) or physics (Planck time, Planck length) and showing it’s not a matter of philosophy in the first place.

The second sentence promises to engage in biology. It assumes the topic has already been moved from philosophy to science at least in part, and promises to find out how far that has actually progressed.

Text 3 rejects various philosophical theories of ethics by offering a testable, scientific argument: humans have instincts, too. The next paragraph then explains where our instincts come from: natural selection.

Text 4 is not even a whole sentence; it presents a quote from a philosopher about philosophy, but from so little context I can’t even tell if Darwin agreed with it.

If I understand what it says, the foundations of ethics should be a goal of maximum number of healthy individuals a society could produce.

Part of the reason why I haven’t read more of Darwin is that, to put it bluntly, you can’t tweet him. Darwin routinely tried to present the complete background and dispose of every conceivable counterargument before coming to his own point. In the course of this, he routinely seemed to agree with positions he thoroughly refuted a few pages later.* In this case, without more context, I simply can’t tell if he took this next step here or went somewhere completely different. I can see some hedging (“if found practicable”, “but”).

* The famous example is the passage in the Origin about irreducible complexity: eyes are complex, and you can’t see or do anything else with half an eye, so eyes can’t possibly have evolved by natural selection, right? Right, says Darwin for so many pages that many creationists have quoted from this to show that Darwin actually agreed with them and contradicted himself within his most famous book; – and then he suddenly begins to build up a scenario for how eyes could have evolved anyway.

He seems to be objecting to Utilitarianism on the grounds that it is not to be found in earthworms

That is clearly not the case. What he clearly did there was to provide a scientific explanation for how humans actually behave; whether he jumped to “ought” (and thus into philosophy) is not clear to me.

598. David Eddyshaw says

That movie was a total failure at the box office

It became a cult classic subsequently, though, and sales of the Director’s Cut on DVD have been steady.

(The restoration of the Spinoza scene goes a long way toward dealing with the plot holes that annoyed critics of the cinema release.)

599. drasvi says

I don’t understand what is “general happiness of the species” :-/

I generally don’t understand what they mean by “happiness”.

Also rearing the greatest number of individuals sounds like r-strategism (in the sense of r/K selection. I have no idea if it is still used in biology, but it’s a good metaphor for a lot of things) practiced at individual level.

600. jack morava says

i) seconding Rozele on I F Stone
ii) seconding Brett on Darwin as {\it natural} philosopher

Further re Ren\’e Thom: his mathematical ideas profoundly changed geometry. In later work he proposed to apply some of them to (e.g. developmental) biology, where they were sometimes misinterpreted or hyped. IIUC he came to linguistics late in the game, where he was maybe naive but was far more insightful than Chomsky.

In his late work he presented himself as a spokesman for Aristotle; I think this is not well-understood. For Aristotle, metamorphosis was the most natural thing in the world, but in the physical sciences metamorphosis is completely opaque. Thom created powerful tools for its study, and argued that Aristotle knew a lot about what he was talking about.

[Among other things he suggested that the neighborhood of the triple point of water is a natural nursery for carbon-based life. I think we should be told…]

601. D.O. says

Philosophy street. Not a good neighborhood for learning.

602. Hans says

for he was a natural philosopher
It took me half a day to get this…
Anyway, some of the posts here seem to assume that philosophy is not defined by its topics, but by its approach – speculation and development of systems of thought and checking the logical consistency of these things is philosophy, but as soon as one tries to test against reality, it stops being philosophy and starts being science. Isn’t that quite a limited view of philosophy?

603. It may be a limited view of philosophy, but it is the one most non-philosophers seem to hold, which is probably one reason for the disjunction of views visible in this thread.

604. drasvi says

Most people also assume that X-ology and Y-ology either don’t overlap or one is a subtype of the other. Even when they don’t know what are logies in question.

605. rozele says

Apparently from I.F. Stone, who was a great reporter but an amateur in philosophy.

nope! i see plato/socrates’ specific (and, again, purely instrumental to achieving his practical goals) categories, questions, and obsession with abstraction as a defining through-line in euro-christian philosophy (and in the shoehorning of other traditions of thought into the terms of that lineage). if epistemology, ontology, etc as they’re currently understood/taught are the core elements/strands of ‘philosophy’, then ‘philosophy’ is stuck in the framework of plato’s socrates’ disingenuous “what is Truth?” and “what is The Good?” and his materiality-erasing “Forms” garbage.

it may be old-fashioned, but when people spend several hundred years saying that their tradition of thought is rooted in specific writers, it’s often sensible to believe them.

606. D.O. says

as soon as one tries to test against reality, it stops being philosophy and starts being science

Test is such a versatile word. I would say that there are modes of thinking and perception etc. that people do actually employ and this is what constitutes “reality” for philosophy. For example, solipsism is a logically consistent system, but it is not employed by anyone because … obviously. One tested philosophical idea down. Logical positivism is a harder proposition, but I guess most philosophers figured out that it is too thin to be used reliably as a mode of thinking, but maybe in some cases one can get rid of the concept of “reality” and go directly from observation to observation through some model without any idea why the model should work. Seems like a test. All of this is too nebulous to be called “science”, but it also is not completely untethered from any sort of reality that it cannot be occasionally checked.

Another approach is pragmatism. A good idea, but is not entirely workable as philosophy of science. But maybe it works as philosophy of philosophy. Maybe a good philosophical idea is the one that is not “true”, but the one that “works” in a sense that it describes modes of thinking that are useful in some sense. I am not deep enough into the field to get any assessment of this approach, but it looks as it might be “testable”.

607. David Eddyshaw says

i see plato/socrates’ specific (and, again, purely instrumental to achieving his practical goals) categories, questions, and obsession with abstraction as a defining through-line in euro-christian philosophy

While I understand what you mean (I think), I am myself extremely wary of any suggestion that formal reasoning and (especially) the power of abstraction are some sort of Eurocentric constructs.

608. David Marjanović says

Isn’t that quite a limited view of philosophy?

Of course. Philosophy keeps shrinking, like religion did before it. 😐

For example, solipsism is a logically consistent system, but it is not employed by anyone because … obviously. One tested philosophical idea down.

Tested, yes, against the principle of parsimony. It can’t be tested against the very reality whose existence it denies and whose existence science presupposes.

609. drasvi says

Well, why people tend to believe that other people (and their children) are somehow different from objects like cups and stones is not fully obvious.

This is why I say that people do believe in supernatural (soul, consciousness, whatever) irrespectively of how they name it.

610. AntC says

it may be old-fashioned, but when people spend several hundred years saying that their tradition of thought is rooted in specific writers, it’s often sensible to believe them.

Which several-hundred-years-worth of people are saying “rooted in”?

I don’t recall “rooted in” from Descartes or Hume or J.S.Mill or Popper or Wittgenstein. Your claims are so false on their face I’m not going to investigate deeply.

Yes all academics, including Philosophers, acknowledge prior art. No that doesn’t mean “rooted in”.

categories, questions, and obsession with abstraction …

are _tools_ not ends in themselves — unless you mean some specific categories and abstractions (which?). Is there any system of thought in _any_ culture that _doesn’t_ use categories/questions/abstraction? Yes Western Philosophy has the ‘Socratic Method’. Q+A as a method of exposition appears in (for example) Confucius and Indian treatises.

… as a defining through-line in euro-christian philosophy

No it doesn’t define anything specifically Euro or specifically Christian or specifically Philosophic.

You need to get out a bit more.

611. Noetica says

Ingonyama yathetha, kwaye sayiqonda into ayithethayo.

612. David Eddyshaw says

(Take that, W!)

I’m fairly certain that rozele gets out more than I do, at any rate.

613. I just found this in Wuthering Expectations, and liked it enough to quote it here: “Philosophy, to me, is a branch of literature, a difficult for one for a number of reasons, one of which is that to most philosophers it [is] something else.”

614. rozele says

i see the usual straw-man-making coming into play, so i’ll just point out that i said absolutely nothing about formal reasoning, referred quite deliberately to plato’s specific obsession with abstraction (not to abstraction in general), made no mention of the socratic method (which is a rhetorical device parallel to card-forcing, not an investigative approach), and didn’t even vaguely imply anything about what is or isn’t in any tradition of thought outside the euro-christian tradition.

and then i’ll laugh at AntC. here, chosen arbitrarily, is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on plato: “But he was so self-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, and what its scope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject of philosophy, as it is often conceived—a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, armed with a distinctive method—can be called his invention.” note the name of the the subdomain for the encyclopedia, as well. but no, how could anyone be so jejune as to think the discipline actually means what it says about its origins!

@rozele
Even if Plato systematised and deliberately concentrated on a subset of pre-Socratic inquiry, subsequent philosophers seem to have felt free to “go their own way”. Do you mean “rooted in” in the sense that philosophers “go their own way” after having read Plato and absorbed (consciously or otherwise) preconceptions and limitations on freedom of inquiry that are inherent or explicit in Plato’s teachings? Are we talking about something like misogyny or elitism here? What would philosophy not rooted in Plato look like?

616. jack morava says

Daoist philosophy? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taoist_philosophy

Tibetan philosophy? https://iep.utm.edu/tibetan/

[Not trying to be snarky, just unsure of what the question intends?]

617. David Eddyshaw says

WP tells me that Life magazine ranked Zhu Xi as the “forty-fifth most important person in the last millennium.” (Sadly there is no link, so the ranking criteria remain mysterious. But I would have liked to know who came in at forty-four …)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhu_Xi

618. Stu Clayton says

Zhu Xi, who he ? So many gradations of importance make importance seem unimportant for practical purposes.

According to B. Pascal: “se moquer de la philosophie, c’est vraiment philosopher.” [he pinched that from Montaigne, sez here]

# [Who he] Influenced
Arthur Schopenhauer, Joseph Needham, Wang Yangming, Toegye, Wang Fuzhi, Qian Mu, Tu Wei-ming, Christian Wolff, Gottfried Leibniz, and modern philosophy[1][2] #

619. AntC says