Friday, January 25, 2013

Letter to English-speaking linguists after a physics-humanities seminar

Letter sent to two English-speaking linguists individually, and now posted for general viewing on the 25th of January, a special day for me because on 25 January 1980, six weeks after defending my doctoral work, I noticed the positive polarity copula, which appeared to falsify all the theories then current; to this day, I have not seen my mainstream friends even try to provide an account of the positive polarity copula -- an intriguing fact about research priorities from 1980 to 2013; but that's an aside, revenons à nos moutons:

Dear ---,

I just got back from a seminar where physicists were brainstorming with people from the humanities about the status of wave-particle duality, its interpretations, its analogues and so on.  In this context, sitting there, I came up with this quick take (please scroll down to see the very short abstract), and would like to ask if it works for you.  Since the Bangla data will be opaque to you (if you have not been actively thinking about classifiers and about relative constructions), let me make this quicker by asking you if a somewhat similar English phenomenon is observable in the English you speak. Consider a context where two English-speaking goats are chewing the remains of a couple of books, regarding the material they are chewing as an unindividuated book-substance rather than as countable book-items. In this spirit, goat A says the following to goat B: 

(x) I've had too much book; I'm leaving

To my ear,  (x) sounds fine. Is it okay for you?

Now imagine goat B saying this to goat A:

(y) Well, we won't get as much book tomorrow as we are getting today, so make the most of it

There may be some difference, but I am still able to accept (y); your judgment, please?

My third example, in the same context, mixes mass reference and count reference:

(z) We are getting much more book today; next to this, the book we got yesterday was nothing

I find (z) distinctly unacceptable.  Do you agree with this judgment in the context I've set up? And does any of this look remotely relevant to the wave-particle duality business in your view? As I see the matter, the data in Bangla quite distinctly (and the data in English variably, in case there is variation in judgment) suggests that natural language doesn't like to mix a count reading and a mass reading of the same noun in the same sentence even when a pragmatically marked context allows a count noun to take on an exceptional mass reading; and this to my mind suggests that the same stretch of reality can be encoded as a count noun or as a mass noun, but not both at once -- which is reminiscent of duality.

Take care


Abstract of what I said at the brainstorming:

Natural language identification devices offer a model partly isomorphic to wave-particle duality

Probal Dasgupta

Abstract of 23 January lecture at the Eighth Nalanda Dialogue on Language, Logic and Reality, 21-24 January 2013, Dept of Philosophy, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Nalanda, Bihar


(A) The study of subject-verb agreement and other forms of predication that involve a predicate segment sharing features with a pivot noun phrase has made significant progress. Mark Baker’s (2008) book provides a key that helps address the problem of anomalous non-third person agreement in correlative structures. Relatives in general are constructions that display coindexing devices that link two nominal positions, co-identifying them.

(B) Beyond inflectional agreement lies the use of classifiers in languages devoid of number agreement and gender. Recent advances in our understanding of classifiers help distinguish devices that identify individual entities from those that identify unindividuated masses. In one classifier language, Bangla, it is useful to contrast /paMcTa am/ ‘five mangoes’ with /eiTuku dudh ~ ei dudhTuku/ ‘this bit of milk’. The individuating classifier /Ta/ is neutral as regards animacy; /Tuku/ is a massifier or a mass-denoting classifier.

(C) Consider the exceptional option of applying the massifier /Tuku/ to the countable noun /thala/ ‘plate’ in the contextually licensed sentence /oke ki ei thalaTuku diteo parbo na?/ ‘Can’t I even give him/her this little plate?’ What brings out the duality effect is the ill-formedness of the correlative construction combined with this exceptional application of the massifier: */oke ami je thalaTuku diyecilam Se thalaTuku o phele dilo/ ‘which little plate I had given him/her, that little plate s/he threw away’. If natural language encodes it, perhaps duality is at some level not as counterintuitive as we take it to be.


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