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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:11 am on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english teachers, , language, , ,   

    Speaking with precision 

    (posted by John)

    My first semester of law school is drawing to a close, so I thought I would write about something I heard on my very first day. I’ve been mulling it over since then, partially because at first blush it runs so against my beliefs about prescriptivism and the ‘rightness’ of one person’s language over another’s. Professor John Langbein finished his riveting orientation talk on the history of law schools in America with a lament about the debasement of the English language my generation is committing. My immediate reaction, as you might guess, was a bit of haughty “This old fogey just doesn’t get it. Prescriptivism is dumb!”

    But on at least some level, he was right. Professor Langbein’s point was not that language shouldn’t change because change is bad. His point was that it’s easy to lose some of the aspects of language most valuable—especially to someone trying to become a lawyer. To me his most potent example was the loss of precision in language, which he blamed on the overlarge number of outlets for spewing our thoughts to others. Cell phone, text, facebook, twitter—you catch the drift I’m sure. It seems every major newspaper has a bi-monthly requirement for an editorial talking about the over-share phenomenon of Facebook status and twitter updates.

    Langbein wasn’t quite talking about this, though. Think about a recent conversation you’ve had, in which you related the contents of an interaction with another person. Did it run something along the lines of “I was like . . .Then he was like . . . Then I was just like whatever and left.” It may not have, but if you do some good ol’ eavesdropping on the street you’re sure to hear something like it. (Or if you’re lucky you might get “And I was all . . . Then she was all . . . Then I was all . . . .” ). This is one of the things (<– there’s another one of them) that dismayed Professor Langbein. “Is that really what you were like?” He asked us. He gave other examples, too. Overusing “thing” was one of them. Another was prefacing a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express with “You know, uh, . . . ,” and then proceeding on our muddled way. Another was compensating for a poorly-thought-out sentence by ending it with an “. . . or whatever.”

    We can all get our point across using imprecise language, and the linguist in me recoils at the thought of saying it’s actually ‘wrong’ to do so. But you can be sure that being imprecise is the one of the quickest routes to becoming an inept law student (not to mention a bad lawyer).

    So I’ll cede the point: it is worthwhile to attempt to be precise in language. If we don’t use linguistic vagaries like “or whatever” and if we avoid saying “thing” whenever the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, it forces us to organize our thoughts more clearly. Using precise language makes us think more precisely. I tried spending a day saying precisely what I meant every time I spoke. It was exceedingly difficult, but it seemed helpful in terms of my mental organization.

    Based on our knowledge of how language allows us to think complex thoughts in the first place, it makes sense that being more precise in our speech would make us more precise in our thinking. I wrote a post a while back looking at some of Liz Spelke’s experiments that suggest language lets otherwise distinct, insulated modules of intelligence interact, thereby making us ‘smart’ compared to other species. One experiment I didn’t discuss there shows that language allows us to grasp the concept of “sets of individuals.” Babies and monkeys can distinguish “individuals” and they can distinguish “sets,” and when the set is less than four items large, they recognize that adding or subtracting an individual changes the size of the set. But when the set is larger than four, they cannot combine the representations of ‘set’ and ‘individual’ to understand that it is a “set of individuals” such that adding or subtracting one changes the quantity. Only once we have language is this possible.

    There are also sad but interesting cases of so-called ‘feral children‘ who have been deprived of exposure to language from a very young age.  These people never fully learn a language. They also are unable to perform tasks indicative of ‘higher’ human intelligence—for example distinguishing which of two massed quantities is larger.  According to still more research by Spelke and others, children without language and other animals like monkeys can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities at a ratio of about 2:1. If the quantitates get much closer in number, it becomes difficult for them to guess correctly. Humans with language can do this at a considerably better rate.

    Finally, the emergence of language, some have argued, is associated with a cultural explosion of sorts; more complex tools, recursive patterns on bits of pottery, even materials that look like they could be used to go fishing. The idea is that language allowed us to do the ‘higher thought’ necessary to develop culture.

    All of this evidence suggests that we are able to think complex, highly structured thoughts in large part because we have language. It also suggests I should take Professor Langbein’s advice: you know, try not to be like, “Let’s speak more clearly or whatever.”

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 1:18 pm on December 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bad lip reading, dubs, fake english, funny, history of english, language, , mcgurk effect, , videos   

    Lots of language videos 

    Stephen Fry rails against pedantic prescriptivists: “Sod them to Hades!”

    Bad Lip Reading, whose hilarious dubs bring to mind the McGurk Effect, reimagines the words of disgraced Republican candidate Herman Cain: “Mexican people don’t eat sugar, especially when it’s a mixture of lice and tiger DNA!”

    The Open University describes the history of English in a charming cartoon video.

    Finally, short film capturing the cadences and sounds of normal spoken English, but utterly nonsensical. Apparently intended to show how American English sounds to others. (Family Guy trades it back, making fun of how British English sounds to Americans.)

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 8:10 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , inglorious basterds, language, movies, tarantino, , west wing, world war II   

    Language in the movies 

    (Posted by John)

    Check out this clip of an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt.  They’re talking about Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds.  If you don’t know, the movie is a World War II revenge fantasy in which a group of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, undertakes a plot to kill Hitler.  It’s a pretty fantastic movie, especially for the way it uses language as a tool. While most World War II movies avoid the language issues that might arise (everyone speaks English—their accent reveals where they’re actually from), Inglouriousembraces language as a means both to drive the plot and to develop suspense. (watch from 12:06, where the clip starts, to about 13:45)

    In his movie, Tarantino’s talking about building suspense in particular in a couple of scenes. The first one is the opening scene of the movie, in which the movie’s Jewish heroine is hiding under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house in France.  An SS agent comes in search of Shoshana and her family.  He is able to draw out a confession from the homeowner without alerting the hidden family that he’s found them out. And he’s able to do it because he switches from French, which the Jewish family understands, to English, which they don’t. Here’s a clip from part of that scene, after Landa has switched to English.

    Here is the exchange that happens a bit later:

    SS Col. Hans Landa: You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?

    Perrier LaPadite[softly] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: You’re sheltering them underneath your floorboards, aren’t you.

    Perrier LaPadite[tears forming in his eyes] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: Point out to me the areas where they are hiding. [LaPadite points with his pipe; Landa walks over and stands on top of that area, gesturing with his own pipe for confirmation] Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English.

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes.

    Col. Hans Landa: I’m going to switch back to French now. I want you to follow my masquerade, is that clear?

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes

    Col. Hans Landa[in French] Monsieur LaPadite, I thank you for the milk and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done. [walks over to the door and opens it] Ah, ladies. I thank you for your time. [booted Wehrmacht soldiers troop inside and position themselves] We shan’t be bothering your family any longer. So, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, I bid farewell to you and say: adieu!        [Soldiers open fire on the floorboards, killing the Dreyfuses]

    Another scene, probably the most suspenseful of the whole movie, is at a German bar behind enemy lines. A group of Allied soldiers are meeting an informant (Frau Hammersmark) there, but they’re interrupted by a nosy SS officer.  He becomes suspicious of the undercover Allies by detecting subtle differences between the accent that the British officer speaks German with. He doesn’t ultimately discover the man’s nationality, though, until the Brit asks for “three glasses” using the British/American hand signal for “three” (index, middle, ring fingers), instead of the German one (thumb, index, middle).

    (The most relevant parts are the first 3 minutes and  ~10:20-11:00. The whole scene is there though–it gets graphic at the end, so beware.)

    The idea of using linguistic data as a sort of defense goes back to biblical times and the story of the Shibboleth. One side in a war couldn’t pronounce the sh sound at the beginning of the word shibboleth,pronouncing it instead as sibboleth. This alerted the other side that they were dealing with their enemies.

    Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
    —Judges 12:5-6, NJB
    Of course, things like this are always easier to explain with a West Wing clip:
    Anyway, I think that Tarantino makes a good point–as he says, I don’t buy that Clint Eastwood speaks perfect German. Those differences in language should be exploited to make a better movie…though I hope our military isn’t taking any cues from Brad Pitt as Aldo, trying to speak Italian.
     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 3:43 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: language, maxim, proverb,   

    Language: When auspicious and charming, like a luxuriant vine creeper, whose minds does it not win over? भाषा प्रशस्ता सुमनो लतेव केषां न चेतांस्यावर्जयति |

    Sanskrit sūkta (traditional maxim)
     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 3:01 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: auston, , , language,   

    #sorryimnotsorry (an addendum) 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    Discussing the significance of Clinton’s word choice of “regret” makes me wonder about the strength of Austin’s third justification, that natural language can convey all distinctions required by people.

    Does Clinton really feel “regret” as we might understand it? Is “regret” an appropriate word? It’s probably one of the most significant words in his whole statement — he doesn’t actually ever say “sorry” — so we might assume that he weighed his choice of “regret” carefully.

    So Clinton’s choice is fallible; fine. The way we use natural language isn’t infallible, but in his third justification,

    (3) that the words available in a natural language suffice to satisfactorily convey all distinctions that we might like to make

    Austin seems to be hinting at that by arguing generations of language users have honed and perfected the spoken tongue over centuries.

    Does that mean that somewhere along the line language couldn’t convey all distinctions? That seems highly unlikely, unless we return so far back in human history we’re no longer talking about the modern species. If something needs to be said, it will be said.

    Language isn’t along some sort of scala naturaewith modern language at the peak. Language changes, but it’s not necessarily improving. What I mean to say is that perhaps Austin’s second and third justifications are sometimes at odds with each other — we can’t always acknowledge that our language is inadequate and arbitrary while still glorifying the existing language as complete.

    Other troublesome questions remain, too: is a person who claims to speak English always required to know the semantic shades of meaning of all words? Some people do for some words, and some people don’t for the same words.

    Austin talks about dictionaries and how to use them. I wonder how useful a dictionary is in terms of ordinary language. Yes, we use them, but what about before dictionaries? How were people able to deduce shades of meaning?

    Ordinary language is what people do say. People speak, and people have spoken for the history of our species. Here is where Austin’s scala naturae also uncomfortably collides with the science of language development. Oral language came first, and there were no dictionaries then. All present literate societies are fundamentally oral and secondarily written. Austin argues that, well, language has developed more shades of distinction over time. We know that to be dubious, but it would actually theoretically go in tandem with the fact that dictionaries are a recent, helpful invention.

    The relationship between Austin’s assertions and what is known about historical language development is complex, but I can’t help feeling that there is some gulf of understanding between the two.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:12 pm on September 6, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , language, ,   

    Why are humans smart? Language and LEGOs 

    posted by John

    In her absolutely awesome paper “What Makes Us Smart? Core knowledge and natural language,” Elizabeth Spelke writes

    When we compare the cognitive achievements of humans to those of nonhuman primates we see striking differences. All animals have to find and recognize food…but only humans develop the art and science of cooking. Many juvenile animals engage in play fighting, but only humans organize their competitive play into structured games with elaborate rules. All animals need to understand something about the behavior of the material world to avoid falling off cliffs…but only humans systematize their knowledge as science and extend it to…entities that are too far away or too small to perceive or act upon. (Elizabeth Spelke, “What Makes Us Smart? Core knowledge and natural language.” In Language in Mind. Gentner and Goldin-Meadow (eds.). 2003.)

    So, Spelke asks, “What is it about human cognition that makes us capable of these feats?”

    The answer to this question is a complicated one, even if you already know I’m going to say it is language. Why is it complicated? Because it’s not just language itself, but the ability, associated with language, to combine otherwise separate “core knowledge” systems. Whereas lots of animals have our same basic cognitive senses of spatial relations, object mechanics, number sense, geometric sense, and navigation, humans (once they develop language) are uniquely able to combine them and make them work in conjunction.

    How do we know this? Basically, it has been demonstrated that both infant humans and many other animals have extremely similar core knowledge systems. Babies and monkeys, for example, have essentially the same ability to understand how objects move and interact, whether one group of objects is larger than another, and how basic geometry allows you to walk a room in specific, novel paths.

    Each of these tasks represents a separate “core knowledge” system (you could also call them ‘modules’). Crucially, these modules in both babies and other animals are isolatedencapsulated, and unable to interface(representations from one are incomprehensible to the other).

    Rats and babies—all that (cognitively) different?

    To understand in what way these modules are isolated, let’s look at just one example (simplified slightly for reasons of space): Say you put a rat in a rectangular room and show him that a bit of food is located in the northeastern corner. You then disorient the rat (cruel, I know), and set him loose. Immediately, with no trouble, he will go to the northeastern corner and find the food. The rat has the cognitive ability to search using some sort of ‘directional’ or “geocentric” sense.

    Similarly, if you then put a little chair in the room, show the rat that there is some food on the chair, disorient it, then set it free, it goes directly to the chair and finds the food. The rat can also do navigation by landmark.

    These are two separate systems of spatial relationships and navigation: navigation by direction and by landmark. Crucially, then, if you put a piece of food northeast of the chair, the rat will search at random somewhere near the chair. This is evidence that he cannot navigate using both “northeast” and “the chair.” Combining the two systems—each of which works fine on its own—leads to problems.

    Infants have the exact same problem: when directed to find something at a chair, it’s easy. When directed to find something in the northeastern part of a room, it’s fine. But northeast of the chair doesn’t work. Again, the separate modules are not able to interface effectively with each other.

    Adults, of course, have no trouble going northeast of the chair. They have an ability to combine and communicate between these two cognitive systems that infants and other animals do not. The emergence of these combinatorial abilities is directly associated with the development of language. Once you can talk, you can do things like this too. How intelligent of us!

    The LEGO Analogy

    There’s a really nice way to think about how this whole business might work: Consider each individual module as a LEGO, but without the little raised dots on top. Each does it’s own thing pretty well—and maybe you can make a basic stack of them to do slightly complex things. But once you try anything more than the most basic of interactions between modules (LEGO blocks), your structure collapses. So when you try to combine navigational capacities to go to the left of the chair, things get confusing.

    Language, then, is the little raised dots on top of the LEGO (and I guess the little holes they fit into). Once you have those, everything changes. Structures unimaginably complex from the point of view of bump-less Lego blocks now become possible. We go from a basic stack of unconnected blocks to things like a full-on LEGO arena.

    Now maybe we’re not that smart—not yet at least—but that’s the basic idea. The reason that humans are smart is precisely because we have language on our side. The language capacity, Spelke and others have suggested, allows the most basic building blocks of cognitive ability to communicate and interact. So, like LEGOs with connectors, we can now build structures of near infinite complexity (remember The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed) and combine the faculties that previously could only work alone.

    Other linguists, like Noam Chomsky or my former professor Cedric Boeckx, have taken this even further. They have theorized it’s not language, per se, that allows for communication between modules, but rather some other relatively small, yet crucial, cognitive development. Part of the core reasoning behind this is evidence that advanced cognitive abilities, like language and culture (and also the sorts of actions discussed above), developed remarkably fast by evolutionary standards. The first evidence of language goes back only some 30,000 years! Because of the relative speed with which language evolved, it’s been supposed that the critical upgrade was actually only a tiny little change, albeit with massive consequences.

    Well, what if that change was, very simply, the ability to take all of the separate human cognitive faculties and allow them to work together? What if the only change was the development of a cognitive ‘connector’? We would then have the ability to take discrete modules and concepts and place them in communication with each other; the ability to build more complex structures using the most basic of building blocks. This would not only explain how our separate core knowledge systems could start to be combined, but also how we came to put words together into syntactic structures.

    This theory has been influential in the linguistics world (though it’s not without its detractors). It makes some sense, too. Not only would the combination of northeast and chair be possible, we could also create structures made up of concepts based in the real world.  We could take concepts (eventually words) that previously existed as individual, non-interfacing ideas (animal, food, run), and put them together into complex thought patterns and, eventually, sentences (There is an animal that we could eat, so let’s run after it). What were previously non-connecting LEGO blocks can now be combined in majorly complex ways.

    Once this ‘connector’ mechanism is sufficiently developed in human infants, they, like adults, can combine cognitive modules and, importantly, combine concepts into sentences.

    As far-fetched as this might sound, it’s actually not so different from the LEGO example. You had all the blocks before, and nothing changed but the addition of connectors. That’s the only difference between the technologies, and yet it has huge consequences.

    Our minds work in complex and fascinating ways, and of course there’s no way we can yet know for sure this idea is correct. But isn’t it exciting that there could be so simple and elegant an answer for why humans are smart? And you can’t deny that we are—we did, after all, invent the LEGO.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 5:35 pm on August 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: language, perception,   

    The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 7:56 pm on August 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , language, , , processing, pun,   

    Awesome Sentences (Part II of II) 

    posted by John

    Before we get started I just want to remind everyone: Club sandwiches, not seals.

    My first Awesome Sentences post was about recursion and processing capacity. Our language faculty can create infinitely long sentences using things like embedding, but our brains can only understand so many nested sentences at once. This led to some cool and confusing sentences:

    • Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.
    • The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed.

    But the capacity of our language processing system isn’t the only thing that leads to crazy sentences. In the public service announcement with which I began the post, we see an example of another very interesting processing effect. The sentence is reminding you that if you’re going to club something, make it a sandwich, not a seal. When you read it, however, you see ‘club’ used in a familiar sense—as in, a club sandwich—before you realize it’s being used (very punnily) as a verb. The pun comes about because you have to go back and reassess the meaning of what you read before, even though you thought you already knew. Let’s look at a few more.

    What if I said the following sentences to you:

    1. The horse raced past the barn fell.
    2. The old man the boat.
    3. The lady returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.

    Would you believe me if I told you that these are all grammatical English sentences? If you wouldn’t, you should, because they are. Each of them employs a similar trick to the one used in “Club sandwiches, not seals,” and they have even been given a special name by linguists: “garden path” sentences.  How did they earn this name? By leading the listener down what he or she thinks is a certain ‘path’ that the sentence will take, and then all of a sudden turning into something entirely different (ok, so the name doesn’t make absolute sense, but at least the part about being led down a path does).

    In the first sentence, “The horse raced past the barn fell,” we start off with what looks like the most basic syntactic structure of English. This would be the intransitive sentence, “The horse raced.” To it we add another common syntactic feature—the prepositional phrase “past the barn.” So far, our brain thinks it is looking at a run-of-the-mill intransitive sentence with an attached prepositional phrase. However, when we get to the final word, “fell,” we realize that what we initially thought was an intransitive sentence is actually something entirely different. Instead, we should have understood, “The horse that was raced past the barn [by the rider] fell.”

    The problem is that by the time we get to ‘fell,’ we have already processed the sentence as what we initially thought it was going to be. Thus our brain does not accept the last word as a coherent addition to the utterance.

    So what does this mean? It means that when we hear a sentence, our brain is immediately applying the most likely interpretation of the words and structure it is seeing and then making predictions about what is likely to come next. Simply put, we process on the fly, not as a whole. This is a sort of efficiency mechanism, designed to speed up processing and boost the overall utility of language. It backfires, however, when the “garden path” down which we are being led suddenly takes an unexpected turn, and the initial interpretation is shown to be incorrect. By the time we get to it, our brains have already ruled out “fell” as an appropriate final word for the sentence.

    Thus, in the second sentence “The old man the boat,” we begin with a common noun phrase modified by an adjective—“the old man.” We immediately process it as such, and now we are looking for the most likely thing to come next: a verb. This means that when we get to “the boat,” which is decidedly not a verb, the sentence stops making sense.

    What we don’t realize on our first try is that “the old,” (as in old people) is the subject, and that “man” (as in operate) is the verb.  If we had, we would know that “the boat” is simply a direct object. But because our brain expects to find a verb following the noun phrase “the old man,” we get confused. Only after this happens do we go back and reinterpret the sentence holistically: “Old people operate the boat.”

    The same thing occurs in the third sentence, “The lady returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.” By now, you know you should look for the trick, and you’ve recognized that the sentence means “The lady who was returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.”

    But for many people, the first time they read it, they think it is missing an “and” between “house” and “cleaned.” They interpret “The lady returned to her house” as they are first reading it. Because subordinate clauses (The lady [who was returned to her house]) are less common than simple intransitive sentences, they think they are seeing “the lady returned,” not “the lady [who was returned].” Thus when they reach “cleaned the kitchen,” it appears that the main verb has already come (“return”), and something goes awry.

    These are classic examples of “garden path” sentences. If you can come up with any novel ones, or if you have any other awesome sentences for us, leave a comment. And remember, the complex cool sentences can lead people to is like an obsession—so be careful!

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:07 am on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alice in wonderland, , , , , humpty dumpty, just a theory, language, , legal analysis, , speech community, ,   

    Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of words 

    posted by Sandeep

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

    A lot of legal analysis hinges on the technical meanings of words. These definitions can be identified by statute (for example, if a government explicitly defines a criminal law term in its penal code) and by common law (what have previous courts decided that same term means?).

    If neither statutory law nor common law have defined a legal concept, lawyers and courts can also look to a dictionary definition, although this is rare. Nearly three centuries of accumulated law in the United States, building on even more centuries of law in Great Britain, have meant that almost all broad legal concepts have been defined and analyzed. The legal profession even has its own dictionaries — I, myself, just bought a fresh new copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.

    Today in my Criminal Law class, we discussed the meanings of words. Much of the discussion focused on the dichotomy between voluntary and involuntary acts. In common parlance, “voluntary” and “involuntary” have broad meanings: “voluntary” indicates some sort of will or want to achieve an end result. “Involuntary” indicates the absence of that will.

    But in the context of the law, the definitions are much narrower. Understanding these narrow senses is critical to forming an adequate defense to a criminal act. Let’s say John accidentally hit a pedestrian with his car. In normal conversation, we might describe John’s act as “involuntary” because he certainly didn’t mean to hit the pedestrian.

    But in the eyes of the law, a criminal act can’t be considered “involuntary” just because it is unintentional or the actor didn’t foresee potential consequences. Understanding what “involuntary” means is important because the law cannot punish “involuntary” acts.

    “No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily … The term “involuntary act” is, however, capable of wider connotations; and to prevent confusion … in the criminal law an act is not … an involuntary act simply because the doer does not remember it … nor … simply because the doer could not control his impulse to do it.”

    Bratty v. Attorney-General, 1963 A.C. 386, 409-410 (H.L. 1961)

    So wait. John could face years in prison for something we understand as “involuntary”? [Fear not, John--you would probably just get off with involuntary manslaughter, not murder!] Because the law is concerned with what our conscious mind causes us to do, an “involuntary” act cannot encompass things done with a conscious mind, even by accident or under duress, so its definition is narrowed to acts conducted while unconscious, asleep, hypnotized, or seizing. This definition is confusing enough, but to add to the confusion, sometimes the criminal law switches between the colloquial use of “involuntary” and the strict legal definition!

    Ugh! So how does a simple word like “involuntary” have so many conflicting meanings?

    Technical jargon sometimes conflicts with popular understandings of what a word means. When a specialized technical register exists (say, in law or in science), it often develops independently of colloquial usage, mainly because the technical and colloquial register would never interact with each other. So we might imagine a legal scholar ages and ages ago, grappling with the idea of unconscious criminal acts, coming up with two types of acts: involuntary and voluntary, based on the popular understanding of those terms. Over time, other legal scholars might have found limitations in the popular definitions and sought to narrow down their meanings. When the two worlds collide (in John’s criminal trial proceedings, for example), we get confused at the strange, specific usage of apparently familiar terms.

    Another popular example of this discrepancy between popular and technical jargon is the term “theory.” In scientific research, a “theory” is a model used to explain a natural phenomenon. A theory must stand up to rigorous testing and extensive peer-reviewed research before it can be called as such.

    In contrast, our popular understanding of the word “theory” is closer to the meaning of “hypothesis”–an unproved hunch about how a natural phenomenon might work. Disparaging the theory of evolution by natural selection, for example, as “just a theory” subscribes to this colloquial sense, even though evolution by natural selection, like other scientific theories (e.g., the theory of gravitation, germ theory), is a nearly-universally-accepted model of how a natural phenomenon works.

    But why the discrepancy? Why can’t we just all agree that a word means what it means?

    Complex social and individual forces determine the particular meaning ascribed to a word. As I have described above, the same word might mean different things in different contexts. The same word might also carry different social valence in various groups (such as the N-word among some African-Americans versus other racial groups, or vulgar profanity among some social classes versus others).

    Whether a word can have an inherent, inalienable meaning is hotly debated among linguists. I am skeptical that a word can ever have an inherent meaning. Some language prescriptivists (see John’s great post about Americanisms below), especially dictionary authors, believe otherwise.

    Dictionaries record definitions that are meant to document common usages, to be used in a particular speech community at a particular time. An English dictionary from the year 800 (if it existed) would be useless to us today [whether that language could be considered English at all is another topic altogether]. Several entries in a British dictionary would be useless in America today, and vice versa. Do you know what “pukka” means? It’s a word in Indian English: ostensibly a variety of the same language we know, but loaded with terms whose meanings we will never be able to deduce without context or explication.

    Indeed, context is crucial for deducing what particular meaning you are referring to– not only technical contexts (such as law) but also the speech community, register, geographic location, social class, ethnicity, etc. When I say “table,” am I referring to the thing with a flat surface and four (or three? or six?) supporting legs? Or am I telling you to “table” a discussion for our next meeting? Or am I studying the water “table”? Going to “table” for my local non-profit? Maybe “table” is New Jersey slang for the shape of The Situation’s hair.

    Language changes. Languages changes across contemporaneous speech communities (so my New Jersey terminology might be slightly different from John’s Virginia vocab) but it also changes over time. For example, many of the words we use today are derived from French terms (whose origins themselves are in Latin, and so on and so on) with narrower, broader, or completely different senses than their present English definitions.

    Words cannot have inherent meanings when their very existence is so tenuous and malleable.

    Lewis Carroll, in creating the character of Humpty Dumpty (see above), suggested the doctrine of “stipulative definition,” meaning that we can make words mean whatever we want, as long as we explain ourselves beforehand. Scholar Michael Hancher (in the linked article) disagrees, saying that a word’s meaning must be constructed by the commons — we all must agree on what a word means, and by doing so, we give it meaning. This becomes a complex, thorny issue when we consider how many different “commons”–that is, speech communites–exist in our world.

    So, Humpty Dumpty, a word can’t be just what you make it to mean. Sorry. We all have to come to a consensus in each of the languages we speak, whether in a colloquial context (John hit the pedestrianinvoluntarily) or in a technical context (John did not commit an involuntary act) or in some other context.

    Navigating this wonderful, awful complexity, I think, is one of the privileges, and prices, of participating in many different speech communities at once. The alternative, of course, is living in isolation, like Humpty Dumpty (and we know how that turned out…).

     
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