Reviewing a new book on semantics

I will review Peter Lasersohn’s book ‘Subjectivity and perspective in truth-theoretic semantics’ for The LINGUIST List. Since I am interested in the study of truth-conditional semantics and its comparison with alternative frameworks (e.g., cognitive semantics), I am looking forward to receiving this book. I will post the link to the review as soon as it is published. Stay tuned!

A logical pitfall in academic writing

When I was a student, it was not infrequent for me to have an idea and write an essay in one go. In the phase of editing, I could not see any faults in my essay because I knew what I wanted to say. Much to my disappointment, when I had my essay read by somebody else, sometimes I found out that I had communicated something quite different from what I had in mind. I believe this is one of the most insidious pitfalls in essay writing. Indeed, your intentions are unfathomable (and irrelevant) to the reader: s/he will only know (and be interested in) what you have actually written. In other words, a poor word choice can fatally undermine the logic of your argument. I will now clarify this point with the aid of a simple example.

Let us suppose that you are describing an entity, which is made up of three elements standing in a given relationship with each other: your description of this scenario must be careful and consistent; otherwise, you may find yourself in trouble. Let us also suppose that you have decided to introduce your entity as ‘A’. Later in the text, you want to provide some more details about this entity and say it is made up of the three components ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. A (not so) small oversight has led you to claim, inconsistently, that ‘A’ is at the same time the whole entity and one of its three components. This already amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of your argument and you are also running the risk of going further astray. For instance, you may later term the relationship between the two components ‘A’ and ‘B’ as ‘C’. Then, you would be claiming that ‘A’ is an entity which is made up of itself and two more components, one of which (‘C’) is the relationship between ‘A’ itself and the other component (‘B’). The danger of infinite regress would then be looming large.

You may be tempted to dismiss the present post as ‘stating the obvious’ and/or dealing with a trivial issue. Though perhaps legitimate, this comment does not find support in my experience. It is true that the problem mentioned above can be resolved by rephrasing the concept, so that ‘A’ is an entity made up of three components ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’, with the relationship between ‘B’ and ‘C’ being labelled ‘E’ (for the sake of completeness, let us add that the relationship between ‘C’ and ‘D’ could be labeled ‘F’ and the one between ‘B’ and ‘D’ could be termed ‘G’). However, this is the kind of issue which tends to slip under the radar. Indeed, not only can you find this kind of oversights in student essays, but also academic books. For instance, in an otherwise well-written monograph on English phraseology, an internationally recognized linguist claimed that his analysis was “… expected to reveal very strong qualitative trends rather than statistically measurable patterns” (the emphasis is mine). This assertion is controversial because the notion of ‘trend’ is inherently quantitative, i.e. a trend is a statistically measurable pattern. In a nutshell, the author is claiming that the analysis is expected to reveal ‘As’ rather than ‘Bs’ but he is overlooking the fact that ‘A’ and ‘B’ are extensionally identical.

Putting the above quotation into context, I guess that the author aimed to say that the scope of his study was not carrying out a detailed statistical analysis, but rather identifying general tendencies and then proceeding to carry out a qualitative analysis. However, this is just my interpretation. To prevent misunderstandings in your essays, you will need to put forward sound arguments as clearly as you can. To do so, reflecting on what you want to say will be vital. However, the way you choose to say it is no less important since an unfortunate lexical choice may turn into a serious logical problem. Indeed, it seems safe to state that, in academic writing, logic and word choice must go hand in hand.

The myth of ‘real English’

It happens very often, and it is quite amusing. Speaking about someplace in the English-speaking world, at some point somebody (often a non-native speaker) will say that locals “do not speak ‘real English’ there.” Even if I limit the scope of my attention to England, I have heard this comment about the North West, the North East, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the South, and recently even London! It is funny because it would mean that ‘real English’ is not spoken anywhere in England. I have singled England out because I live there, but of course, I have heard the same comment about the rest of the UK, not to mention the US, Australia, Jamaica, and so on… nobody in the English-speaking world speaks real English! This rather awkward claim makes one wonder what on earth this ‘real English’ is supposed to be.
When a native speaker mentions ‘real English,’ they normally refer to a variety or a cluster of varieties (usually, including their own) which are supposed, for some reason, to be better representatives of the English language than others. Sometimes these comments are made in jest but sometimes they are meant to be taken seriously. When a non-native speaker mentions the phrase ‘real English’ instead, they normally mean a speech which is similar to the English they were taught in school. In European countries, this is usually a standard variety of British English, which is supposed to be close to the variety spoken in London (as if a single, uniform variety of English could be detected in such a diverse megalopolis). Both native and non-native speakers are wrong on this point.
The former are mistaken because although different varieties are more prestigious than others, and more used in formal situations, the English language belongs to the whole English-speaking community. No variety is inherently ‘superior to’ (let alone ‘more real than’) any other: it is a matter of social perception, which depends on variables such as region, class, age, gender, and so forth (the interested reader is referred to the sociolinguistic literature on this topic, in particular, the seminal work of William Labov in the US and Peter Trudgill in the UK) Non-native speakers are mistaken because the variety of English they are taught in school is just a variation-eliminating idealization based on a (rather artificial) variety which is used in the media and other formal contexts. The importance of this kind of language can hardly be overstated, and it has always proved its worth in language teaching. However, standard varieties are largely the result of a process of abstraction, and surely there is no reason to consider any of them as representing ‘real English’.
In conclusion, there is no such a thing as an opposition between ‘real’ and ‘non-real’ English. The English language is a diverse, multifaceted entity, which is characterized by a myriad of (to a large extent, mutually intelligible) varieties whose commonalities and differences cut across a range of dimensions. Of course, non-standard varieties can be hard to understand for the non-native speaker, but there is no reason to claim that these varieties are any less representative of ‘real English’ than more standard ones. Rather, the high level of diversity which characterizes contemporary English reflects the different historical and cultural heritage of the many distinct English-speaking communities around the world. Therefore, while it is a fact that some varieties of English are more standard and/or more prestigious than others, we are not entitled to claim that any of them is ‘real English’. Instead, we should recognize that all these varieties are integral parts of this beautiful, multi-colored entity which is the English language today.

Image credit: Talking People

A joint presentation at ICHLL9

Next June 20-22, Professor Cristiano Broccias and I will be jointly presenting a paper at the 9th International Conference on Historical Lexicology and Lexicography (ICHLL9), which will take place in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy. Our presentation will be entitled ‘On the relationship between V and Ving in the English VVingPP pattern: A historical perspective.’ Stay tuned for more news!

Good and bad (use of the) resources

In a passage of his book ‘Fluid concepts and creative analogies,’ the famous A.I. scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter ridiculed small, pocket bilingual dictionaries while praising thick multilingual thesauri. Although I see his point, I cannot agree with him on this matter (to be sure, the book is fantastic). Indeed, it would be unreasonable to pick up a pocket dictionary of, say, English and expect to find a comprehensive coverage of the English lexicon, let alone an introduction to the language. However, dismissing pocket dictionaries altogether does not seem reasonable. As in the case of any other resources, I believe it depends on the use one makes of them.

It is just wrong to assume that every person who buys a dictionary aims to become a fluent speaker of the language. In my experience as a private language tutor, there are many reasons why people may want to become familiar with a language. Some prospective learners may have family in a country where the language is spoken, some other may just enjoy going there on holiday, yet other may have a passion associated to that country (e.g., in the case of the UK, it is often pop and rock music). In all these cases, they have no ambition to attain a high proficiency level; as a consequence, they will not spend a lot of money on thick dictionaries and grammar books, and/or compelling and expensive courses. As a private tutor, it is crucial for me to always tailor my classes to the individual needs of every single student. The choice of the resources to be used must be maximally functional to reach the goals set at the beginning of the course, which sometimes can be very ambitious (as in the case of an absolute beginner who is planning to move abroad within six months) but are often more humble (as in the case of a learner who enjoys visiting a country for couple of weeks a year).

Of course, a professional linguist and/or language teacher will need many advanced resources. Indeed, we often spend a long time in libraries scrutinizing dictionaries, grammar books, textbooks, exercise books, collocation dictionaries, idiom dictionaries, urban dictionaries, lists of common mistakes, and we do it mostly out of interest. The linguist’s passion, though, is often not the language learner’s. The vast majority of learners will content themselves with carrying out relatively down-to-earth conversations with both native and non-native speakers of the language. Each case will require a careful selection of appropriate tools, possibly a combination of paper and electronic resources. The only really bad resources are those which contain factually wrong information (or are poorly written and/or organized). As for the rest, it depends on the use teacher and learner together make of them.

My AMLaP 2017 poster

Download the poster I presented at the AMLaP 2017 conference, along with the abstract! Although my presentation was much more theoretically-oriented than the vast majority of the other contributions, some colleagues showed interest in my work. It was stimulating to exchange ideas with more empirically-minded scholars on our respective research topics (special thanks to Dr. Hiroshi Nakanishi for also taking the picture).

AMLaP 2017 final programme

posterThe 23rd AMLaP Conference – Architectures and Mechanisms of Language Processing is kicking off at Lancaster University on Thursday, September 7, 2017. Download the conference program on the AMLaP2017 website. On Saturday 9, I will present a poster entitled ‘Concerning the notion of constructional polysemy.’ I will upload both the abstract and the poster shortly after the conference. Stay tuned! 😉