Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's Twitter good for?

Like many innovations, Twitter is a good angle to use to talk about something that's been talked about a thousand times before. To keep you updated on the "they"-as-a-gender-neutral-pronoun debate, I give you this article from the New York Times Magazine. (HT: Adam from ElShaddai Edwards from Mike Aubrey)

It makes all the claims that have driven the good Professor Liberman to distraction: "Writers as far back as Chaucer used ['they'] for singular and plural, masculine and feminine." "Many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars." Merriam-Webster accepts it. No examples are cited, though, disappointing my hopes of seeing a true clash of the titans as the Times rose to accept Liberman's challenge.

The article's authors (Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman) make an argument I've not heard before, which is that the idea that "he" can refer to both genders stems from "Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book." They cite the delightfully named Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade for this fact (I assume to chase it down and find examples, one would have to read her book. Ooo, it's only $137 at Amazon!)

It seems that it ought to be incredibly easy to decide between O'Conner/Kellerman and Liberman on this point: one side claims that "he" was never used as a gender-neutral pronoun before Anne Fisher; the other claims that "they" was never so used before the mid-20th century. This calls for some collating. This calls for a dissertation.

On second thought, before I send in my application for Ph.D. programs, I can think of one data point off the top of my head that seems to blow O'Conner/Kellerman out of the water: the earliest English Bible translators used "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun. Now, maybe one could argue that that usage was a carry-over from Greek and Hebrew, and that the English Bibles reshaped the language and paved the way for Fisher's declaration . . .

I've been compulsively listening to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me for the last few months (funniest show on radio), and I notice that Peter Sagal always says to the Not My Job guest, "Answer two of the questions correctly and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners: Carl Kassel's voice on their home answering machine." That sheds no light on the subject, I guess, since I think Liberman would accept using "their" with "one."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Husserl and the Hyrax: Part I

First, let me pay my debts. Adam directed me to the Economist article, and my descriptions of Husserl's categories come from James K. A. Smith, "Tongues as 'Resistance Discourse,'" in Speaking in Tongues: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, edited by Mark J. Cartledge.

So what are hyraxes singing about? According to the article, they sing about their vital stats: weight, size, hormones, and status. Not as interesting a topic as the pangs of unrequited love, but musical tastes do differ.

Of course, the article tries to draw inferences about human singing from animal mating calls, eventually suggesting that when you sing about unrequited love, what you're really singing about is yourself--your size, anatomy, and hormones.

Let's consider this understanding of meaning or "aboutness." You see a teenage boy playing guitar and singing "Hey There Delilah" in front of a teenage girl. You could say that his song means "I am a suitable mate," that the song is about his sexual maturity and dexterity. There seems to be something to that understanding, but by itself, it's a very narrow and monochromatic definition of meaning. A richer understanding of meaning would be able to say (at least) that the song is about a woman named Delilah, beloved by the narrator, who is in school in New York City, far from her lover. One should also be able to say that the song means, "Isn't love a beautiful anguish?" or "Remain faithful to me as I remain faithful to you," or any number of other statements.

The first level of meaning, in which the song is about the singer's vital stats, seems much farther removed from the second and third levels (in which the song is about the people named in the song and about other people by extension, respectively).

In future posts we'll explore these different levels of meaning, bringing in some vocabulary drawn from Husserl in particular.

In the meantime, ponder the following ways of referring to meaning or "aboutness," all taken from the article (my italics throughout). Do they all mean the same thing? Do some correspond better to the first level? Others to the second and third?

"Zoologists have worked out the meaning of some [animal] calls . . . the rattle made by a male barn swallow indicates his testosterone levels."

"what hyraxes were singing about."

"correlations between the pattern of a hyrax's song and other details of its anatomy and behaviour."

"Wailing . . . indicates weight."

"A mid-song sound . . . communicates size."

"snorts . . . are connected to . . . hormones."

"peaks in snort-frequency provided information on . . . dominance."

"these are all honest signals."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Husserl and the Hyrax: Introduction

The title of this post alludes to a book by Umberto Eco: Kant and the Platypus, which I picked up one day in the King's Cross bookstore. I knew Eco only from The Name of the Rose (loved it) and Foucault's Pendulum (also great; should be regulated as a mind-altering substance). Oh, and I knew that in his professional life, Eco had something remotely to do with linguistics.

I have no idea what Kant would have to say about the platypus, since I couldn't make it past the introduction of Eco's book. Nor do I understand what it is, exactly, that Eco does and how it relates to linguistics. But I'm a sucker for a catchy title.

The Husserl I refer to is Edmund Husserl, a German philospher. The hyrax (or coney, or rock badger) is, as we all know, this.

In my posts on this topic, I'll try to be easier to read than Eco. Since this is the first post in the series, it's sort of like the first day of a class. You know, the day where the teacher blathers on a bit, asks a provocative question, and hands out the reading. Hence:

Blather #2: A friend of mine used to say that one of the most important questions in a debate was "What's the meaning of meaning?" Ironically, I had no idea what he meant by the question.

Question: "What's the meaning of "meaning"?

Reading: "The song of songs," The Economist, January 15, 2009.