The semantics thread

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Re: The semantics thread

#41  Postby John Platko » Feb 17, 2016 4:46 pm

don't get me started wrote:There are many and varied threads that involve posters discussing the meanings and usages of words. I thought I’d start a thread dedicated to discussions of words and their meanings.

I’ll get the ball rolling with something that came up here:
http://www.rationalskepticism.org/news-politics/richard-dawkins-has-suffered-a-stroke-t51659.html

The word meaning that came under scrutiny here was the word ‘hope’, and to a lesser extent the word ‘wish’.

As is so often the case native/proficient speakers have an intuitive sense of the meaning(s), but it might be more difficult to tease out the actual meanings of any given word when pressed. My Japanese students often quiz me on the meanings of these two words and it is often difficult for them to make a clear distinction between the two. (The way Japanese expresses these kinds of ideas is a bit different, often using the word 夢 Yume = dream, and having a fuzzier relationship between factuals and counterfactuals in some situations where English is precise.)

So, let’s start with ‘hope’. The example in the thread in question was ‘I hope he has a full recovery.’ I usually explain to my students that ‘hope’ is rooted in future possibilities. That is, there is more than one possible future outcome. In this case it would be Richard Dawkins making a full recovery or not making a full recovery. The speaker recognizes both outcomes as being possible, and states that the situation referred to with the ‘hope’ clause is preferable to any other situation. Tacit within this utterance is the admission that the speaker is essentially powerless to bring about the desired situation.


Yet when I have a similar hope while blowing out the candles no one ever asks, "What did you hope for?" :nono:
Are you sure you're not looking for more precision from language than it can deliver?



If we contrast this to ‘wish’ in its verb form we can notice several differences. If we take an example sentence such as ‘The Republicans wish that the abortion issue would go away’ (Selected at random from a corpus search) we can see that the situation is different. Whilst still expressing preference for some future state of affairs, in this case there is no suggestion that this outcome is at all feasible or likely or even possible. (E,g. I wish I was a bird.)
The counterfactual nature of ‘wish’ is also illustrated in the way it can be used to refer to past events as well. E.g. (Again, selected at random from corpus): ‘I wish that Andrew and Grace and I had never moved to Denver.’ It is to enter the realm of the counterfactual to state that an extant past (moved to Denver) is the dispreferred situation, and that the now unrealizable situation (we didn’t move to Denver’) is the preferred one. The word ‘Hope’, because it deals with plausible and possible situations cannot be applied to the past. (I hope that we had never moved to Denver. ???)

An interesting thing to note here is that the word ‘wish’ generally collocates with past tense (or so called past tense forms of the verb. E.g ‘I wish I was a fly on the wall, not ‘I wish I am a fly on the wall.) This is a point of English grammar that I find fascinating. Rather than being called the ‘past tense’, this form of the verb has sometimes been referred to as the ‘remote tense.’ We find it in counterfactuals such as ‘wish’ statements and also in the contrast between 1st and 2nd conditionals. Compare: ‘If it rains tomorrow, we will cancel the picnic’ and ‘If it snowed in July, I would be surprised. The use of the past tense form of the verb (snowed) indicates the speaker’s view of its counterfactuality. That is, the situation is removed, distant, remote from reality.

We also find it in English in modality used to express politeness. Compare ‘can you open the window’ with ‘could you open the window.’ The second version, using the form ‘could’ is generally perceived to be more polite, that is, to indicate a distance of social relationship.

And in time relationships, it is not when the action happened (past, present or future) that is the only consideration, it is also its connectedness to the here and now. Compare A: ‘I drank a load of beer last Saturday’ and B:‘I have drunk a load of beer.’ Although the drinking of the beer in both cases was in the past, the connectedness to the present is manifest in the tense choice. One would feel safer getting in a car with A than B. A’s drinking is removed/ distant / far from the present.

Back to the word ‘hope’. Apart from its semantics, there is also its social function to be considered. When we talk about hoping that someone makes a full recovery, we are going on record as saying that the outcome of full recovery is the desirable one. We are engaging in a finely tuned piece of social action, demonstrating our affiliative, sociable and positive orientation towards others, asserting that other’s wellbeing is important to us.
Although our big brains and opposable thumbs are very important to us, it is our extreme sociability, our ability and even need to constantly ratify our membership of co-constructed social groupings that most define us, I believe.
I hope that any readership has found this a worthwhile read….
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Re: The semantics thread

#42  Postby DougC » Feb 18, 2016 1:21 am

[quote="Alan B";p="2375966"]"Can I go to the loo?"
"Yes, you can. But you may not."[quote]
'Too late.'


'Ahhhhhhhh.' :oops:
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To be, is to do (Sartre)
Do be do be do (Sinatra)
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Re: The semantics thread

#43  Postby don't get me started » Feb 25, 2016 2:20 pm

John Platko wrote:

Yet when I have a similar hope while blowing out the candles no one ever asks, "What did you hope for?" :nono:
Are you sure you're not looking for more precision from language than it can deliver?



Yes, John, I'd agree that much of language is pretty fractal edged, but I still like to explore those edges and see if there is some kind of finer understanding that can be gleaned.
Regarding your situation of blowing out candles and making a wish/ wishing for something, I think a further distinction between hope and wish is this: The word hope is propositional in nature, that is, it describes a future situation. This situation is possible (at least to the person expressing the hope). The word describes the attitude of the speaker to this situation (i.e. positive). No claim is made about the speaker's ability to bring this situation to pass.

However, the word 'wish' seems to be more performative. By this I mean the philosophical view taken by J.L. Austin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._L._Austin

Austin understood that contrary to traditional concerns of linguistics, which focus on the truth values of utterances, many utterances can more rightly seen as actions. The easiest examples are such performatives as 'I now pronounce you man and wife', 'We find the defendant not guilty', 'I name this ship HMS Post Imperial Hubris' and such like.

In these examples the truth condition of the world is realized by making the utterance. It is the performance of the utterance that makes reality. The couple do, in fact, become legally married at the moment the sentence is uttered by a competent person, the innocence of the defendant is established at the moment the jury foreman utters the words, and the ship is actually called this at the moment Mrs Windsor says so.

So, with the word wish, there is a performative aspect. The wishing of it is supposed by some mentalistic power to contribute to bringing about the desired situation. It is akin to prayer, but instead of asking a third party (deity) to use its power to bring about the desired outcome, the wisher himself/ herself is seen to contribute positively to the outcome by the act of wishing.
The ritualistic nature of canonical wishing bears this out. Wishing upon a star, blowing out candles, tossing coins in a fountain and the like all suggest that in some way the act of wishing contributes to the outcome.
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Re: The semantics thread

#44  Postby don't get me started » Feb 25, 2016 2:40 pm

The_Piper wrote:
don't get me started wrote:
[Reveal] Spoiler:
The_Piper wrote:Thanks for the responses.
The_Piper wrote:

Is I used when I am referring to myself from my own "point of view", and me used when referring to myself from an outside "point of view"?

The difference between 'I' and 'Me' is to be found when one considers the concepts of 'subject' and 'object' in language.
Basically, the subject of a sentence is the the person or thing that performs the action. The object of a sentence is the person or thing that receives the actions.
So, if we take a sentence like 'The dog bit the man'. We know that it was the dog doing the biting and the man getting bit.
English indicates these relationships primarily by word order. That is, the person who does the action comes first, then the action, and the the receiver of the action. If you change the word order, you change the meaning. (Consider 'The man bit the dog'. Same words, different order, different meaning.)

How about saying "The man was bitten by the dog"? Now the man is the subject, but it still means the same thing as the dog bit the man.




Now I've strayed from the I/me discussion.


When you say 'The man was bitten by the dog', this is what is known as a passive construction. In this construction, focus and importance is given to the receiver of the action, not the doer. This sentence is perceived as being about the man, not the dog.
Putting the object first requires English speakers to mark the sentence so that the listener can figure out who is the doer and who is the receiver because the normal word order rules don't apply in this case.
English does this by placing a 'be' verb after the first noun, then using the verb in it's third form (bite, bit, bitten), then using the preposition 'by' to further show that the following noun is the doer of the action.
The man WAS BITTEN BY the dog. Three big signals that the normal word order rules don't apply.
Different languages do this in different ways.

In German it is like this: Der Mann wurde von dem Hund gebissen.
After the first noun there is a form of the word 'werden' (become) then a preposition 'von' (like English 'by') then the article also shows that the following noun is an doer of an action. (Der Hund is 'The Dog', but in this case it changes to 'Dem Hund') and finally there is a form of the verb 'Beissen' changed to 'gebissen'. All together this adds up to a passive, so Germans can work out who is doing the biting and who feels the pain.

Japanese doesn't mark in this way. Rather, they have verb endings that specifically show that this is a passive construction.
This the verb for 'eat' is TABERU (食べる) but the way to express 'is eaten' is to change the ending of the verb. Knock off the 'ru' to give the stem 'TABE' and then add 'RARERU', giving TABERARERU.(TABERARETA in the past)
男はバナナを食べる (Hito wa banana wo taberu = the man eats the banana.)
バナナは人によって食べられました (banana wa hito ni yotte taberareta) (I changed to the past tense RAREU = RARETA)

As far as I am aware, it is a linguistic universal that active sentences are the unmarked , 'normal' way to express actions in all languages and that passives are derived from actives, and indicated by special marking, addition of extra words, changes in word order from the normal, active way to express actions in the world.

(Apologies for any minor errors that might be spotted by native speakers of German or Japanese. The principles are correct, I believe.)
:cheers:
When you say passives are derived from actives, do you mean in a previous sentence?
For example "What happened to him? He was bitten by a dog"


Apologies for late reply. I've been off at a conference.(Giving a talk on semantics actually)

No, I don't mean that passives are derived from a previous utterance as in the example you gave. I mean that human languages seem to have certain default settings and these are universal. As far as I am aware active sentences are the default way of describing events and states. If there is no pressing reason to do otherwise, then sentences are constructed in the active style. If the focus is shifted to the receiver of the action, for whatever reason, then the active style is manipulated, altered, expanded to show this. Adding extra words, shifting word order or adding suffixes to create passives all support the idea that the passive is an alteration to the active.

The dog bit the man = 5 words
The man was bitten by the dog = 7 words

食べる (TABERU = EAT) 3 syllables
食べられる TABERARERU = is eaten) 5 syllables

The passive is always more complex and/or longer than the active in every language, to the best of my knowledge.

In the same way that negatives are longer and more complex than positives.

The dog bit the man = 5 words
The dog did not bite the man = 7 words

食べる (TABETA = Ate) 3 syllables
食べなかった (TABENAKATTA = didn't eat) 5 syllables (Actually 6 for complex reasons to do with Japanese pronunciation)
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Re: The semantics thread

#45  Postby The_Piper » Feb 25, 2016 5:30 pm

don't get me started wrote:
The_Piper wrote:
don't get me started wrote:
[Reveal] Spoiler:
The_Piper wrote:Thanks for the responses.

How about saying "The man was bitten by the dog"? Now the man is the subject, but it still means the same thing as the dog bit the man.




Now I've strayed from the I/me discussion.


When you say 'The man was bitten by the dog', this is what is known as a passive construction. In this construction, focus and importance is given to the receiver of the action, not the doer. This sentence is perceived as being about the man, not the dog.
Putting the object first requires English speakers to mark the sentence so that the listener can figure out who is the doer and who is the receiver because the normal word order rules don't apply in this case.
English does this by placing a 'be' verb after the first noun, then using the verb in it's third form (bite, bit, bitten), then using the preposition 'by' to further show that the following noun is the doer of the action.
The man WAS BITTEN BY the dog. Three big signals that the normal word order rules don't apply.
Different languages do this in different ways.

In German it is like this: Der Mann wurde von dem Hund gebissen.
After the first noun there is a form of the word 'werden' (become) then a preposition 'von' (like English 'by') then the article also shows that the following noun is an doer of an action. (Der Hund is 'The Dog', but in this case it changes to 'Dem Hund') and finally there is a form of the verb 'Beissen' changed to 'gebissen'. All together this adds up to a passive, so Germans can work out who is doing the biting and who feels the pain.

Japanese doesn't mark in this way. Rather, they have verb endings that specifically show that this is a passive construction.
This the verb for 'eat' is TABERU (食べる) but the way to express 'is eaten' is to change the ending of the verb. Knock off the 'ru' to give the stem 'TABE' and then add 'RARERU', giving TABERARERU.(TABERARETA in the past)
男はバナナを食べる (Hito wa banana wo taberu = the man eats the banana.)
バナナは人によって食べられました (banana wa hito ni yotte taberareta) (I changed to the past tense RAREU = RARETA)

As far as I am aware, it is a linguistic universal that active sentences are the unmarked , 'normal' way to express actions in all languages and that passives are derived from actives, and indicated by special marking, addition of extra words, changes in word order from the normal, active way to express actions in the world.

(Apologies for any minor errors that might be spotted by native speakers of German or Japanese. The principles are correct, I believe.)
:cheers:
When you say passives are derived from actives, do you mean in a previous sentence?
For example "What happened to him? He was bitten by a dog"


Apologies for late reply. I've been off at a conference.(Giving a talk on semantics actually)

No, I don't mean that passives are derived from a previous utterance as in the example you gave. I mean that human languages seem to have certain default settings and these are universal. As far as I am aware active sentences are the default way of describing events and states. If there is no pressing reason to do otherwise, then sentences are constructed in the active style. If the focus is shifted to the receiver of the action, for whatever reason, then the active style is manipulated, altered, expanded to show this. Adding extra words, shifting word order or adding suffixes to create passives all support the idea that the passive is an alteration to the active.

The dog bit the man = 5 words
The man was bitten by the dog = 7 words

食べる (TABERU = EAT) 3 syllables
食べられる TABERARERU = is eaten) 5 syllables

The passive is always more complex and/or longer than the active in every language, to the best of my knowledge.

In the same way that negatives are longer and more complex than positives.

The dog bit the man = 5 words
The dog did not bite the man = 7 words

食べる (TABETA = Ate) 3 syllables
食べなかった (TABENAKATTA = didn't eat) 5 syllables (Actually 6 for complex reasons to do with Japanese pronunciation)

:lol: No problem, thanks.
I see what you meant now. :)
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Re: The semantics thread

#46  Postby don't get me started » Mar 16, 2016 9:27 am

Splitting off from the ‘colour’ thread in the Philosophy forum, I thought that the linguistic aspect of colour might be worth a look.
There are a number of different articles and books that deal with colour as a linguistic/ cultural phenomenon.
I found ‘Through the language glass’ by Guy Deutcher http://www.amazon.co.jp/Through-Language-Glass-Different-Languages/dp/0099505576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458116448&sr=8-1&keywords=through+the+language+glass
to have a good account of the physiology of human colour perception and a wideranging discussion on the way different languages chop up the colour spectrum. (For example, Russian has two different words for blue: синий for dark or navy blue, and голубой for light blue/sky blue).
In Japan, people describe the signal for ‘go’ in traffic lights as 青(aoi= Blue) not 緑 (Midori = green), even though to my mind the colour is more green than blue.

Deutcher also describes the case of colour in Homer, as put forward by Gladstone, who besides being Prime Minister, was something of a Homer nut. He noticed the lack of colour terms in the Iliad and Odyssey ( he was reading it in the original, not a translation.) He also noticed that Homer used strange circumlocutions such as ‘wine dark sea’ but never ‘blue sea’. This theme is taken up by Harry Ritchie in ‘English for the Natives’. http://www.amazon.co.jp/English-Natives-Discover-Grammar-Dont/dp/1848548397/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1458117554&sr=8-3&keywords=English+for+the+natives

On page 106 he states:

“…Homer never mentions the colour of the bright blue Mediterranean sky. And it’s not just blue that is missing in Homer, he does occasionally use words that would later denote yellow and green, but very, very confusingly.
It’s not just Homer. There is no blue in the Old Testament (composed mainly from the sixth to third centuries BC) or the Indian Vedic Epics (composed between 1,500 and 500 BC.) And, like Homer, who could describe honey as green, the Bible manages to come up with green gold.
It seems that in those BC years ancient Greek, Biblical, Hebrew and the Sanskrit of the Vedic epics only had three definite colours- black white and red. Yellow was next to appear, then green, and blue was the last of the primary colours to be specified.
[ ]
….Of the 119 languages analysed by the World Color Survey, 10 still had just three natural colour categories- black, white and red or occasionally a red/ yellow composite. [ ] just under half the languages surveyed had at most five colour categories- usually black, white, red, yellow and one grueish, bleenish word for green and blue. English belongs to the 10 percent of languages that have eleven colour categories- black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, grey, orange and pink.” (pp. 106-107)

It is argued that it is not the case that prehistoric peoples had different sensory equipment to us moderns, but that they simply did not attend to the categories that closely and made do with ‘Grue like the sky, not grue like fresh foliage’ type constructions in cases of specificity.
It is also suggested by Deutcher that colour terms emerged in order of dyeing technology, red being one of the easiest dyes to make, and thus emerging early, and blue being the most difficult, and thus emerging later. (I’d need some convincing of this TBH, but I’m open to the concept.)

Whatever the case, it’s a fascinating aspect of the cultural/ linguistic framing of the external world. And that is before we even consider the verbs of vision (See, look and watch in English, which, as any EFL teacher will tell you, are among the difficult words to define, as when students make errors such as ‘Yesterday I looked a movie’ or ‘I see out of the window.’ and then they ask you why it's wrong)
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Re: The semantics thread

#47  Postby don't get me started » Apr 28, 2016 1:21 am

Begin and start

Split from here:

http://www.rationalskepticism.org/general-chat/in-the-beginning-t52203.html

The original thread dealt with these concepts in a philosophical manner. Here I will try to flesh out some of the semantic aspects of these two words. I have often been asked by students what the difference between these two words is and have struggled to come up with a clear explanation. However, simply dismissing them as meaning the same thing is a poor way out. Usually, if there are two words, then there are two meanings. Even if the difference between them is hair-thin, there is usually some distinction between them.

Now, rather than giving up on the question (actually, it’s part of my job to answer these kinds of questions, not swat them away) I have tried to make sense of the words in a way that is accessible to students and avoids the pitfalls of obscurity, circularity or translation.

So, let’s begin.(Or start!)
If we take the word ‘start’ and consider its common opposite, then one possible candidate is ‘stop’. In small scale tests I have carried out with native speakers, ‘stop’ seems to be the most commonly perceived antonym. So, the cognitively salient dimension here seems to be the distinction between action and inaction.
By contrast, the commonly chosen opposite for ‘begin’ is ‘end’. Here the salient aspect seems to be process and completion, (i.e. telic).
So, to use the word ‘start’ seems to highlight the transition from a state of inaction to a state of action. ‘He started walking’ shows that whatever he was doing before (whether sitting or standing or whatever…) is no longer the case, and the action of walking is now the case. It is the transition from one condition or state or activity to another, this second activity being the main focus of the word. What occurs afterwards is made explicit, but what was occurring before the transition occurred is not made explicit, but may be inferred.
By contrast the word ‘begin’ downplays or dissattends to the transition and what was occurring before. It seems to pay attention to the action itself ('He began walking' is about a state of walking being the case) and state that from this point onwards such and such an action was taking place, or such and such a state existed, and possibly that that action is moving towards some goal or endpoint.
So, to sum up, it seems to me that ‘start’ is transition focused and ‘begin’ is process focused.

This is what I have come up with so far. If anyone else can shed further light on the issue, I’d be very interested.
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Re: The semantics thread

#48  Postby don't get me started » May 15, 2016 4:04 am

I can’t remember where it was but in another thread the question was raised about religious terminology for the other. It was proposed that Islam has its word for other (Kuffar) but Christianity does not, and a subsequent post proposed terms such as pagan and heathen as Christian alternatives.
(If anyone can remember where this exchange took place, I’d be grateful for the link…)
In addition, we also have had many many posts and threads over the years dealing with the tired old trope of atheism being a religion/ideology/ etc just like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.
I thought it might be interesting to try to tease out some of the underlying meanings of these kinds of words.

Note:
I do not speak Arabic, Farsi or Hebrew. (English, Japanese and German are the languages I speak) so, if I mischaracterize words and usages from languages I don’t speak, I will gladly defer to those that do.

Anyways, to the matter in hand.
My understanding of the word ‘Kuffar’ (and its parallel in Jewish culture ‘Goyim’) is that it is used by members of the in-group to describe people who are NOT members of that group, regardless of what other group they are from. It appears that the salient feature in using these words is to describe what people are NOT, rather than what they are. And what they are not is ‘us’.

The parallel terms from the Christian viewpoint are posited as ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’,
These words also describe others primarily in terms of what they are NOT, rather than what they are. That is, an African animist, a Sunni Muslim and a Hindu could all be subsumed under the words ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’.
I carried out a quick corpus search of these words in the British National Corpus. For the word ‘heathen’, in the 100 million words of the BNC there were 109 instances. None of the occurrences were tagged as ‘conversation’, with most being tagged as ‘fiction-prose’ and ‘humanities-arts. This suggests that the word is quite rare in daily English usage. My sense is that it has spread beyond its original religious meaning and now refers to uncultured people, those who do not appreciate art and high culture.
The word ‘pagan’ threw up 483 instances per 100 million words, so that is also quite low in frequency. Again, none of the instances were tagged as conversation, with the huge majority being fiction-prose and humanities-arts, that is, written, not spoken language.

The word atheist seems somewhat different in its usage. Firstly it can be used by people to self-describe, rather than being a term used only to describe the other. Atheists are usually quite happy to call themselves atheists. I don’t feel that a Muslim amongst, say, Hindus would describe himself as being the only ‘unbeliever' in the room. (Similarly, Japanese would probably not refer to themselves as Gaijin, even if they were outside Japan and in the midst of natives of that country. There would be no real equivalent to saying ‘well, I’m a foreigner here myself’.)

Secondly, the word atheist is based on a negative orientation, i.e. not believing in god(s). Now, the amount of things that a person is not is potentially unlimited. One can not be a ballerina, a Star Wars fan, a Sushi eater, a video game player and so on. Referring to oneself as an atheist only reports one aspect of what one is not. I think the problem may arise for some who are religiously minded in that their multiple identities are all subsumed under the broad heading of religion; one is a Christian ballerina or Christian Star Wars fan or Christian whatever. So, given the religious nature of some groups’ and individual’s identity, when they consider the atheist standpoint they may have a tendency to transfer their own stance to that of the atheist and assume that the atheist is an atheist in all aspects of their existence and identity. I cannot speak for others here, of course, but my stance on supernatural entities plays no role in my clothing choices, food and beverage choices, choice of marriage partner, place of employment etc. If a religious identity plays an important part in choices such as these, it may be hard for religious people to fully accept or understand how non-religious people can go about organizing such quotidian things.

The ways in which the term ‘Atheist’ is often mischaracterized by people of a religious persuasion may be revealing of their world view, not the atheist’s.
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Re: The semantics thread

#49  Postby zoon » May 15, 2016 8:09 am

don't get me started wrote:....the word atheist is based on a negative orientation, i.e. not believing in god(s). Now, the amount of things that a person is not is potentially unlimited. One can not be a ballerina, a Star Wars fan, a Sushi eater, a video game player and so on. Referring to oneself as an atheist only reports one aspect of what one is not. I think the problem may arise for some who are religiously minded in that their multiple identities are all subsumed under the broad heading of religion; one is a Christian ballerina or Christian Star Wars fan or Christian whatever. So, given the religious nature of some groups’ and individual’s identity, when they consider the atheist standpoint they may have a tendency to transfer their own stance to that of the atheist and assume that the atheist is an atheist in all aspects of their existence and identity. I cannot speak for others here, of course, but my stance on supernatural entities plays no role in my clothing choices, food and beverage choices, choice of marriage partner, place of employment etc. If a religious identity plays an important part in choices such as these, it may be hard for religious people to fully accept or understand how non-religious people can go about organizing such quotidian things.

The ways in which the term ‘Atheist’ is often mischaracterized by people of a religious persuasion may be revealing of their world view, not the atheist’s.

I'm not entirely happy with this insistence that "atheist" is purely negative, though I know many people here agree with it, mostly as a result of arguing with theists, where I'm not so experienced. Strictly, yes, "atheist" would include Buddhists and people who believe in ley lines or wishing wells or ghosts and pixies, but in practice people who self-identify as atheists are likely to be opposed to all forms of supernaturalism. For example, I think it's core to Buddhism that evil deeds are likely to be followed by some sort of retribution organised by the universe at large rather than by flesh-and-blood people; this is strictly an atheist view, as it doesn't involve a god, but it's not scientific, there's no good experimental evidence that it happens. I think it's fair to say that most people who actively self-identify as atheists in the modern world also follow the scientific view, that almost certainly, as suggested by experimental evidence, everything follows mathematical laws of physics and chemistry. This is in fact not a simple default claim that hunter-gatherers could have worked out, it's a tremendously ambitious and powerful one (crystallised by Newton, using highly sophisticated mathematics and vast quantities of accurate measurements made by other people) which without the mass of evidence unearthed in the last few centuries would be as wooish as any claim for a god or gods - it was essentially woo when the Pythagoreans made a similar claim more than 2 thousand years ago.
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Re: The semantics thread

#50  Postby Fenrir » May 15, 2016 8:17 am

I find it interesting that if I denote atheism as not accepting gods exist then the implied negativity is removed.

Is this supposed negativity derived from the word atheist or from the word believe?

I'd suggest it attaches to the percieved qualities of belief.
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Re: The semantics thread

#51  Postby don't get me started » May 17, 2016 12:01 am

zoon wrote:
don't get me started wrote:....the word atheist is based on a negative orientation, i.e. not believing in god(s). Now, the amount of things that a person is not is potentially unlimited. One can not be a ballerina, a Star Wars fan, a Sushi eater, a video game player and so on. Referring to oneself as an atheist only reports one aspect of what one is not. I think the problem may arise for some who are religiously minded in that their multiple identities are all subsumed under the broad heading of religion; one is a Christian ballerina or Christian Star Wars fan or Christian whatever. So, given the religious nature of some groups’ and individual’s identity, when they consider the atheist standpoint they may have a tendency to transfer their own stance to that of the atheist and assume that the atheist is an atheist in all aspects of their existence and identity. I cannot speak for others here, of course, but my stance on supernatural entities plays no role in my clothing choices, food and beverage choices, choice of marriage partner, place of employment etc. If a religious identity plays an important part in choices such as these, it may be hard for religious people to fully accept or understand how non-religious people can go about organizing such quotidian things.

The ways in which the term ‘Atheist’ is often mischaracterized by people of a religious persuasion may be revealing of their world view, not the atheist’s.

I'm not entirely happy with this insistence that "atheist" is purely negative, though I know many people here agree with it, mostly as a result of arguing with theists, where I'm not so experienced. Strictly, yes, "atheist" would include Buddhists and people who believe in ley lines or wishing wells or ghosts and pixies, but in practice people who self-identify as atheists are likely to be opposed to all forms of supernaturalism. For example, I think it's core to Buddhism that evil deeds are likely to be followed by some sort of retribution organised by the universe at large rather than by flesh-and-blood people; this is strictly an atheist view, as it doesn't involve a god, but it's not scientific, there's no good experimental evidence that it happens. I think it's fair to say that most people who actively self-identify as atheists in the modern world also follow the scientific view, that almost certainly, as suggested by experimental evidence, everything follows mathematical laws of physics and chemistry. This is in fact not a simple default claim that hunter-gatherers could have worked out, it's a tremendously ambitious and powerful one (crystallised by Newton, using highly sophisticated mathematics and vast quantities of accurate measurements made by other people) which without the mass of evidence unearthed in the last few centuries would be as wooish as any claim for a god or gods - it was essentially woo when the Pythagoreans made a similar claim more than 2 thousand years ago.


Yes, Zoon, I think you touch on an important point here. Although the word 'atheist' is primarily used to stake out a position vis-à-vis a deity or deities, the rejection of claims made about other supernatural phenomena (as in the examples you gave) are probably concomitant with the world view of any person self-identifying as atheist. Perhaps it is because the super-naturalism of religious thought holds real power in society and therefore impinges on the lives of those who are non-believers, whereas proponents of ley lines, pixies, wishing wells etc generally have little political power and can be safely ignored by those who do not accept the claims made by such people.
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Re: The semantics thread

#52  Postby igorfrankensteen » May 17, 2016 5:15 am

don't get me started wrote:Begin and start

Split from here:

http://www.rationalskepticism.org/general-chat/in-the-beginning-t52203.html

The original thread dealt with these concepts in a philosophical manner. Here I will try to flesh out some of the semantic aspects of these two words. I have often been asked by students what the difference between these two words is and have struggled to come up with a clear explanation. However, simply dismissing them as meaning the same thing is a poor way out. Usually, if there are two words, then there are two meanings. Even if the difference between them is hair-thin, there is usually some distinction between them.

Now, rather than giving up on the question (actually, it’s part of my job to answer these kinds of questions, not swat them away) I have tried to make sense of the words in a way that is accessible to students and avoids the pitfalls of obscurity, circularity or translation.

So, let’s begin.(Or start!)
If we take the word ‘start’ and consider its common opposite, then one possible candidate is ‘stop’. In small scale tests I have carried out with native speakers, ‘stop’ seems to be the most commonly perceived antonym. So, the cognitively salient dimension here seems to be the distinction between action and inaction.
By contrast, the commonly chosen opposite for ‘begin’ is ‘end’. Here the salient aspect seems to be process and completion, (i.e. telic).
So, to use the word ‘start’ seems to highlight the transition from a state of inaction to a state of action. ‘He started walking’ shows that whatever he was doing before (whether sitting or standing or whatever…) is no longer the case, and the action of walking is now the case. It is the transition from one condition or state or activity to another, this second activity being the main focus of the word. What occurs afterwards is made explicit, but what was occurring before the transition occurred is not made explicit, but may be inferred.
By contrast the word ‘begin’ downplays or dissattends to the transition and what was occurring before. It seems to pay attention to the action itself ('He began walking' is about a state of walking being the case) and state that from this point onwards such and such an action was taking place, or such and such a state existed, and possibly that that action is moving towards some goal or endpoint.
So, to sum up, it seems to me that ‘start’ is transition focused and ‘begin’ is process focused.

This is what I have come up with so far. If anyone else can shed further light on the issue, I’d be very interested.


I want to add an alternate observation from my own perhaps quirky viewpoint. I have always dealt with the world from a more or less mechanical point of view. I am very process oriented.

Therefore, if you ask ME what the opposite of "START" is, I will tell you that it would be a word which means "remain at rest." To "STOP" is just as much of an energy intensive action as to "START" in my existence. In fact, it is only possible TO stop, if you are already doing something. If STOP and START were human beings, they would probably be either a married couple, or business partners working together.
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Re: The semantics thread

#53  Postby The_Piper » May 17, 2016 6:20 am

To remain at rest is to not start. Sounds like an opposite perhaps, but I disagree. Something that is not a tree is not the opposite of a tree. That would include everything that is not a tree. Btw, what's the opposite of a tree? A bare patch of ground? There's no opposite of a tree! :smile:
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Re: The semantics thread

#54  Postby don't get me started » May 29, 2016 1:32 am

Igorfrankensteen, I see what you are saying about a mechanistic view of the world, and your take on start and stop makes a lot of sense. However, we have to remember that natural language is the product of the crooked timber of humanity, so the way that language chops up reality may or may not accord with the actual facts of the matter pertaining in the real world.
I’ll explain what I mean here.

In a classic paper, Vendler (1957) looked at the cognitive structures that underlie English verbs. He categorized them as follows:

1) States
These are words like love, know, and believe. These are deemed to be unvarying, unintentional and without any internal structure. They are not perceived of as being dynamic or goal oriented. Thus we do not say ‘I am believing in god’ or ‘I am loving my son’.

The other three categories are built around the combination of two features, durativity and telicity. Durative refers to events that take time, that are perceived to unfold over a certain time period. Telic events are events that move towards some goal or endpoint that brings about a change of state.

2) Activities
These are events which are durative but not telic. Discuss is an activity. It takes time, but has no internal structure. It is happening from the moment it starts until the moment it stops, but no conclusion or goal is implied. No matter if it lasted a minute or an hour, we still discussed.

3) Accomplishments
These are events that are both durative and telic. They take time and stop when they have reached a certain point. ‘Run a mile’ is seen to take time to accomplish and once the runner has passed the mile mark the action is complete, but not before. Even if he continues running after reaching the mile mark, he has still run a mile.

4) Achievements
These are telic but not durative. That is they are seen as happening instantaneously, and bring about a change of state. Start and find are examples of accomplishments. We cannot say ‘I am finding my keys. The transition from not having found to having found is instantaneous and complete.


This system is encoded into the language, but it throws up some problems when we consider the world from a mechanistic rather than purely human-cognitive point of view.
The verb ‘kick’ may be seen as an achievement. That is, it is perceived as taking no time. ‘He kicked the ball’ is an instantaneous action, even though high speed cameras could capture the duration of the kick (If we defined ‘kick’ as the moment a boot came into contact with the ball until the moment contact ceased- other definitions are possible.) The high-speed camera may reveal that the kick lasted a certain number of milliseconds, but humans do not attend to this aspect and collapse the action to zero time duration.
Consider the durative nature of ‘he was waiting for 20 minutes’ compared with the non-durative nature of ‘he was kicking the ball for 20 minutes’. The former refers to a single continuous event (It is an activity), while the way that we interpret the latter is to say ‘he kicked the ball repeatedly for 20 minutes’, not that it took 20 minutes from the moment his foot contacted the ball until the moment contact ceased.

In a further example consider the verbs of visual perception in English. The verb watch is an activity. ‘He was watching the movie for 5 minutes’ shows continuous watching. The event is bounded only by its onset and termination. Whenever one stops watching is immaterial to the fact that one has watched. The verb ‘see however is an achievement. It is perceived as instantaneous and has telicity. If one says ‘I saw the movie’ it means that you perceived the movie in its entirety and a change of sate has ensued (You now know that Darth Vader is Kaiser Sose’s son or somesuch It is no coincidence that ‘I see’ means ‘I know’ in English). Even though it is understood that the process involved took time, this aspect is entirely dissatended to by speakers. To all intents and purposes the event took place instantaneously.

So, as Locke famously stated ‘Languages are not so constructed as to the rules of logik’. A mechanistic view of reality does not always match the peculiarities of the way we express that reality to one another.

The Vendler paper can be found here. http://semantics.uchicago.edu/scalarchange/vendler57.pdf

For another good read on the mismatch between human cognition and the scientific reality of the world I’d recommend:

Uncommon sense: The heretical nature of Science by Alan Cromer

http://www.amazon.co.jp/Uncommon-Sense-Heretical-Nature-Science/dp/0195096363/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1464483749&sr=8-10&keywords=uncommon+sense
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Re: The semantics thread

#55  Postby don't get me started » Jul 10, 2016 3:25 pm

In the philosophy thread jamest raised the issue of numbers and counting. http://www.rationalskepticism.org/philosophy/some-bollocks-about-nothing-ones-and-twos-t52728.htmlI thought it might make a good topic from the standpoint of linguistics, as there are plenty of unusual things in the world’s languages when it comes to numbers and counting.
I’ll start off with English as it is the language I know best, but I will also refer to some other languages.

When it comes to quantifying aspects of reality, English makes a basic distinction between countable and uncountable items.
Countable items are perceived as stand alone, separate items and can be ascribed a number value. One book, two dogs, three apples, four chairs etc.
The uncountable category contains are a rather loose collection of items that seem to fall into the this category mainly because they are not in the countable category, rather than because they have any internal consistency with other items in the category.
Firstly, there are items that consist of a single substance:
Gases, (smoke, air, oxygen, steam), liquids (water, blood, beer), pastes and gels, (mud, cream, toothpaste) and non-shape solids. (Cheese, chocolate, wood, metal etc.)
Then there are aggregates. These are substances that consist of a large number of separate distinct items, but the large number of individual items appearing together renders counting impractical. (Rice, sand, gravel, sugar, hair.)
Then there are certain abstract items that are not perceived to be countable. (Information, love, furniture, money).

Other languages may differ on the countable/ uncountable categories. In Latin, information comes in the countable category; it has both singular and plural forms (datum/data). In English, information is uncountable; one does not talk of ‘two informations’.
This brings us to the way in which English makes a sharp distinction within the countable category: Singular or plural. In English one cannot avoid stating either singular or plural when referring to countable nouns. One can say: “I bought a/the/this/that/his/ her book” OR “I bought the/ these/those/his/ her/ some/ a lot of books.
What one cannot say is ‘I bought book’. This is in line with what is known as the Boas-Jacobson principle which holds that languages differ not so much in what they can say (any thought that can occur to any human can be expressed in any language) but rather in what they MUST say. English regards making the distinction between singular and plural as a necessity when talking about countable nouns. Japanese does not have this aspect.

In Japanese it is entirely possible to say ‘I bought book’ without indicating whether one bought one or more than one books.
私は本を買った。

私Watashi = I
は Wa =topic marker
本 Hon = book
をWo = object marker
買ったKatta= bought

It is possible to add the number, if so desired (本二冊 Hon ni satsu= two volumes of books) but it is not necessary to mention the number or amount, as it is in English.
In Japanese the countable/uncountable distinction is absent as is the singular/ plural distinction, for the most part.

So, the ways in which English categorizes numbers and amounts, with an often blurry line between countable and uncountable ("There was a hair in the sink= one hair. I got my hair cut= lots of them.) and a fairly strict line between singular and plural is a peculiarity of that language. For native speakers of English the system seems natural, logical, even inevitable, but when compared with the number/counting systems of other languages, it becomes clear that it is arbitrary, has contradictory elements and can be thoroughly confusing to non-natives learning the language. ("I got my hairs cut last Saturday and barber used a big scissors.)
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Re: The semantics thread

#56  Postby scott1328 » Jul 10, 2016 4:19 pm

And don't get me started about pants
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Re: The semantics thread

#57  Postby don't get me started » Jul 12, 2016 4:30 am

Continuing with the theme of singular and plural, I’ll look at an aspect of the English counting system that often confuses my students: singular and plural zero. (I posted this on another thread a few years ago, but I’ll put it here again as it fits with the theme of numbers and counting in languages)
So, as mentioned above, English sees it as important to mention whether there is one of a thing or more than one. Thus there are (usually) two forms of countable nouns. Cat/Cats, Dog/Dogs, Person/People, Foot, Feet, Ox/Oxen. (Sheep/Sheep. Fish/Fish)
In a somewhat bizarre parallel in the case of zero number, there is also singular and plural conceptualization.
Imagine a classroom devoid of human presence. English speakers can say; “There isn’t a teacher in this classroom.” They can also say “There aren’t any students in this classroom,” The number for both categories of persons is zero, but it is conceptually a different zero, in linguistic terms. It is a single teacher who is absent. (Classrooms usually having just the one teacher) and it is a plurality of students that is absent (Classrooms usually having more than one student.)

Contrast this with Japanese:
先生がいない Sensei ga inai ( Teacher, topic marker, exist not)
学生がいない Gakusei ga inai (Student, topic marker, exist not)

There is no marking at all as to singularity or plurality, just the negative of the be verb (Iru = Inai)

So, not only does English demand of its speakers that they mark singular or plural in all cases of countable nouns, it also has a way in which speakers can mark singular zero or plural zero.

This is my attempt to tease out the underlying meaning of ‘any’ in negative sentences. If anyone has any other interpretations, I’d be very interested to hear.
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Re: The semantics thread

#58  Postby Thommo » Jul 12, 2016 7:39 am

don't get me started wrote: English speakers can say; “There isn’t a teacher in this classroom.” They can also say “There aren’t any students in this classroom,” The number for both categories of persons is zero, but it is conceptually a different zero, in linguistic terms.


I enjoy your posts here and often read them without comment, but are you sure about this one? I've never heard that form used (here in England). "There is no teacher in this classroom", sure. "there isn't a teacher in this classroom", definitely no. There are idioms that spring to mind that have similar forms though, such as "there isn't a problem in sight" or "there isn't a cloud in the sky".
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Re: The semantics thread

#59  Postby don't get me started » Jul 12, 2016 12:57 pm

Thommo wrote:

I enjoy your posts here and often read them without comment, but are you sure about this one? I've never heard that form used (here in England). "There is no teacher in this classroom", sure. "there isn't a teacher in this classroom", definitely no. There are idioms that spring to mind that have similar forms though, such as "there isn't a problem in sight" or "there isn't a cloud in the sky".


Thank you for the positive comments Thommo. I do have a tendency to go on about linguistic (and other) stuff I find interesting, hence my user name. It's gratifying to know that others find my monologues enjoyable.
Anyways, I gave your comments a bit of thought and did some searching of data sources to see what the picture is vis-a-vis "There is no..." versus "There isn't a..."

The British National Corpus shows the following frequencies for the expressions:

"There are no..."= 2,512
"There is no..." = 11, 585
"There aren't any..."=145
"There isn't a..." =206

So, yes, there are some pretty major differentials in frequencies of the forms. (This is all a bit rough and ready. A more nuanced investigation may throw light on the situation.)

"There is no.." would probably have such a high frequency as it can be used with countable nouns as in:

"Surely science must be close to forecasting such natural catastrophes? There is no pattern to earthquakes. They are caused by the giant plates which carry the continents bumping and grinding into each other as they float around the Earth's molten centre." (Line 15 of the concordance result)

"There is no..." can also be used with uncountable nouns as in:
"There is no heating because there is no fuel, and..." (Line 39 of the concordance)

Here are the fist 10 examples from the corpus search for "There isn't a..." (as is usual with concordance lines, don't read just skim.)

1. 'll have to admit I do like that (pause) a lovely (unclear) (pause) there is n't a fridge in er (pause) in a my (unclear) either. (SP:PS02H) What about one
2. a horse box for carrying horses around. But it's empty. There is n't a horse in it. If I can get across this road (pause) and the
3. (unclear) (pause) (SP:PS04Y) (unclear) (pause) (SP:PS04U) I think that's a good idea there is n't a (unclear) bet there be a real seller (pause) those boxes (unclear) they, I
4. it on. (SP:PS088) I had a (pause) different one. (SP:PS087) Well there is n't a different one darling. (SP:PS0XR) It'll be all different this from what you
5. . We've got the two most important ones. (SP:PS09E) I suppose there is n't a little knob on it that would just happen to work zeros? (pause) (SP:PS09G)
6. English, Polish (pause) erm (pause) ooh (pause) and French (unclear) cemeteries. There is n't a German one. (SP:PS09T) No. No. (SP:PS09X) No. (SP:PS09T) (unclear) (laugh) (SP:PS09W) Now
7. winkles her way in if there's a free lunch going. (SP:PS0C1) There is n't a free lunch on it, it's company internal software. (SP:PS0BY) Oh.
8. , (unclear)2. (SP:PS0CG) That is a Sycamore cos it isn't a, there is n't a conker tree around here that's Sycamore, there they are, that's
9. yeah! (SP:PS0EB) And you look at the chair just to make sure there is n't a pool on there! (SP:PS0EC) (laughing) Yeah! (SP:PS0EB) And you walk away going
10. worked out. (SP:PS1BU) I'll have the crusts. (SP:PS1BS) No, but there is n't a crust. (SP:PS1BU) Oh oh! (SP:PS1BS) Well if you, he's developed

It must be noted that the instances of "there is no..." seemed to be largely drawn from the written form of the language, while the form "There isn't a ..." were likely to be from spoken interactions. Your intuition about "There isn't a..." seems to be borne out by it's relative infrequency in corpus compared with some other forms of negative existential phrases. Thanks for raising the issue...more food for thought.
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Re: The semantics thread

#60  Postby Thommo » Jul 12, 2016 1:27 pm

Well, thanks for that detailed answer, I find this stuff fascinating but I'm very poorly equipped to discuss it, since we had about (literally) 3 hours of formal grammar in my entire education, so I really lack the tools to analyse the rules I've subconsciously accumulated.

I did wonder after I posted though whether there was actually a difference in meaning between "there isn't a ..." and "there is no ...", which is reflected in speech by emphasis in a way that doesn't exist in the written word.

For example in a conversation:
Person A: "I need a tool for this, I think there's a wrench in the garage"
Person B {upon looking}: "There isn't a wrench, there are hundreds!"

You could not use "there is no..." in this way.

Obviously the dispreference in general for "there isn't a..." doesn't seem to apply to figures of speech though, "there isn't a cloud in the sky"/"there's not a cloud in the sky" sits perfectly naturally. Oddly, I don't think anyone would say "there is no cloud in the sky" though. Or maybe it's not the fact it's a figure of speech that distinguishes the situations? I'm not sure.
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