Monday, July 21, 2008

The logicians have lost.

As some people interested in English history know, there was a movement a few hundred years ago to make English a logical language, in the sense of obeying the rules of predicate logic. One example of this is the attempted eradication of double negation. In symbolic logic, ~p means "it is not the case that p is true" regardless of what p is. It could be a whole series of statements, and the one negation negates them all. This was not true in English until the logicians made it so. Many people still use double negation, but now it's a marked variant, a non-standard dialect. Another example is the use of the nominative case for verbs of being, i.e., "It is I". Logically, the logicians said, the copula there ("is") represents "=", and thus the word preceding and following it should have the same case. It seems, however, that ultimately the logicians have lost.

The token that really brought this home to me is the Godspeed You! Black Emperor song "motherfucker = redeemer". I was puzzling over what the song title could mean, and realized that one reading that was certainly not possible was that every motherfucker is a redeemer and that ever redeemer is a motherfucker, which in logic and math is what the symbol "=" is used for. 2+4=6 is a truth, no matter how you look at it. However, using the equal sign in English generally means that the left hand item is equivalent to the right hand item, but not vice versa. The copula works the same way. If I say "Computational linguists are jerks", I don't mean that every jerk is a computational linguist, but I probably mean that every computational linguist is a jerk (I didn't say it was an accurate statement; it's just an example). Sorry, logic. Natural languages don't really like you.

3 comments:

Alex said...

So... wait. Does this mean that there's a particular motherfucker the singer has in mind, who also happens to be a redeemer?

The song appears to be instrumental, which doesn't help my puzzlement much.

N said...

If I say "Computational linguists are jerks", I don't mean that every jerk is a computational linguist, but I probably mean that every computational linguist is a jerk

So 'to be' is the equivalent of an if-then statement:

CL(x)-->J(x)
is someone is a comp. linguist, then they're a jerk

if we wanted to do a full "=," we could just say "all comp. linguists are jerks, and all jerks are comp. linguists." (CL(x)<-->J(x))

Same with the song title, it seems to only work on one direction, one or all mf'ers are redeemers, but not visa-versa

JG said...

So 'to be' is the equivalent of an if-then statement:

CL(x)-->J(x)
is someone is a comp. linguist, then they're a jerk


Well, another difference in the natural language example is a presupposition (however one treats it theoretically) that the antecedent has a referent. The logical conditional would simply be true if no computational linguists existed, whereas the English copular sentence would be clearly aberrant.