Monthly Archives: October 2013

Semantic Paradoxes Intro

We talked about some semantic paradoxes and their attempted resolutions, which Michael McCourt will continue with next week. Pretty much everything was based on this paper. Please read it if you weren’t there — it’s not long, but it’ll take some thinking about, so probably budget 20-30 minutes. Try talking each paradox out to yourself as you go along, and reference the notes below as needed. The slideshow (follows pretty directly from the paper) is here.

The paper mentions two interesting paradoxes that it doesn’t go into much detail on, but we talked about a little more. One of them is Yablo’s paradox, which you can read about in this (single-paragraph) journal article.

The other is Curry’s paradox. Take this sentence (call it S): “If this sentence is true, then ducks are blue.” How would we go about deciding if S is true?

Well, S is a statement of if-then form; it’s saying A -> B, where A is “this sentence is true” and B is “ducks are blue.” Whenever we want to prove an if-then statement, we assume that the antecedent (A) is true and try to prove the consequent (B). For example, if we were proving “If 2x + 2 > 8, then x > 3”, we would assume 2x + 2 > 8, then reason that 2x > 6, and therefore that x > 3.

So let’s assume A is true. Then we’re assuming “this sentence is true”. That means “A -> B” is also true, since that’s what the sentence means. Therefore, B is true. We’ve found that if we assume A, then B is true; therefore, A implies B; therefore the whole sentence is true.

So “If this sentence is true, then ducks are blue” is true. The sentence is true, so ducks are blue.

The paradox there is that we can use this logic to prove any sentence whatsoever, which can’t be right — but none of the steps we used were weird; they’re all ideas that are used all the times in proofs. So what’s the problem?

Formal Extensional Semantics (Semi-Guest Speaker William Rose, 10/16/13)

Mr. Rose told us about Formal Extensional Semantics, which is the study of how words in a sentence come together to form meaning.

NOTES (thanks to WL — to be completed):

  • This stuff might be slightly out of date
  • Semantics is about meaning. This is important, because the whole reason we use langage is that it has meaning.
  • The form that sentences take is based on their meaning
  • To know the meaning of a sentence is to know its truth conditions (when it is true)
  • (1) There is a bag of potatoes in my pantry.
  • Truth conditions: what must be true about the world for this sentence to be true
  • Awkwardness of studying objects made of words using words. Distinguish between object language (language of the object under study) from metalanguage (langauge used to study the object).
  • The sentence “There is a bag of potatoes in my pantry” is true if and only if there is a bag of potatoes in my pantry.
  • Quotes signify element which is being studied
  • Problem: It’s just unsatisfactory to say that the sentence “_______” is true iff _______. Doesn’t explain anything or give predictions.


Pittsburgh Dialects (Daniela Ganelin, 10/2/13)

We talked about Pittsburgh speech and dialects in preparation for Daniel Ginsberg’s visit next week. Unrelated — register for NACLO!

The talk was based on this paper. Please take a look, especially if you couldn’t make the meeting. Most of it’s pretty easy to read; you can safely ignore any sentence that starts with “ethnometapragmatically.” There were no slides.


Let’s talk about Pittsburgh. But first, let’s take a tanget and talk about England. A couple of centuries ago, the people in SE England spoke a certain way. A lot of those people were rich and upper-class. Over time, the way they spoke (“dialect”) came to be associated less with the geographic region and more with the socioeconomic status. Today, BBC announcers speak in this way, no matter where they’re from. People perceive it as a more “proper” or “upper-class” way to speak.

In Pittsburgh, the opposite happened. Features such as saying “hass” instead of “house” and using “yinz” to mean “you” (plural) were originally used by people of lower class (archetypally, working-class males of Scottish origin). Over time, this dialect came to be associated less with social class and more with Pittsburgh as a whole. Today, someone from Pittsburgh will probably be able to draw a distinction based on class — but to someone from outside the area, the speech is just “Pittsburgh”, not “working-class white male from the Pittsburgh area whose ancestors or associates are Scottish”.

And that brings us to a very interesting way to think about language features. Features that you use all the time, regardless of circumstances, are first-order; you don’t think about them, you don’t adjust them based on your conversation partner, and you probably couldn’t change them even if you wanted to. For example, somebody who has spent their whole life associating exclusively with a certain ethnic group in a certain geographic area won’t really think about their manner of speech.

But at some point, people start thinking about how they talk — we’ll call that second-order. For example, say our somebody from above suddenly moves to a community with a very different way of speech. He’s going to become much more aware of his speech features, and might talk differently depending on whether he’s talking to his new neighbors or to his family back home.

And beyond that — what’s we’ll call third-order — people start making generalizations about how groups talk. So Mr. Somebody’s new neighbors might associate Mr. Somebody’s way of talking with everybody of Mr. Somebody’s ethnicity, geographic origin, or social class. And Mr. Somebody hismelf might consciously think about how people react to his manner of speech. And so on and so forth — depending on which obscure school of sociolinguistics you subscribe to, you might stop with three levels or just keep adding on.

Things to think about:

  • What is a “dialect”, a “language”, or an “accent”?
  • How much do you think about the way you speak?
  • What factors determine the way people speak?
  • Why do people change the way they speak in different circumstances?

BONUS: Read this. It’s excellent.