Auntie. Try me.

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Auntie. Try me.

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—: It’s (sigh!) keeping (Cf: “What is it that “exist” expresses in both ‘numbers exist’ and ‘chairs exist’?” Reply: “It’s (sigh!) existing”)

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In effect, what I’m selling is a disquotationallexicon. Not, however, because I think semantic facts are, somehow, merely pleonastic; but rather because I take semantic facts with full ontological seriousness, and I can’t think of a better way tosay what ‘keep’ means than to say that it means keep. If, as I suppose, the concept KEEP is an atom, it’s hardlysurprising that there’s no better way to say what ‘keep’ means than to say that it means keep.

I know of no reason, empirical or a priori, to suppose that the expressive power of English can be captured in a language whose stock of morphologically primitive expressions is interestingly smaller than the lexicon of English. Tobe sure, if you are committed to ‘keep’ being definable, and to its having the same definition in each semantic field,then you will have to face the task of saying, in words other than ‘keep’, what relation it is that keeping the money andkeeping the crowd happy both instance. But, I would have thought, saying what relation they both instance is preciselywhat the word ‘keep’ is for; why on earth do you suppose that you can say it ‘in other words’? I repeat: assuming that‘keep’

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has a definition is what makes the problem about polysemy; take away that assumption and ‘what do keeping the money and keeping the crowd happy share?’ is easy. They’re both keeping.

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Auntie. I think that’s silly, frivolous, and shallow! There is no such thing as keeping; there isn’t anything that keeping the money and keeping the crowd happy share. It’s all just made up.13

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—: Strictly speaking, that view isn’t available to Aunties who wish also to claim that ‘keep’ has a definition that is satisfied in all of its semantic fields; by definition, such a definition would express something that keeping money andkeeping crowds happy have in common. Still, I do sort of agree that ontology is at the bottom of the pile. I reservecomment till the last two chapters.

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Pinker

There is, as I remarked at the outset, a very substantial linguistic literature on lexical semantics; far more than I have the space or inclination to review. But something needs to be said, before we call it quits, about a sustained attempt thatSteven Pinker has been making (Pinker 1984; 1989) to co-opt the apparatus of lexical semantics for employment in atheory of how children learn aspects of syntax. If this project can be carried through, it might produce the kind ofreasonably unequivocal support for definitional analysis that I claim that the considerations about polysemy fail toprovide.

Pinker offers, in fact, two kinds of ontogenetic arguments for definitions; the one in Pinker 1984 depends on a “semantic bootstrapping” theory of syntax acquisition; the one in Pinker 1989, turns on an analysisof a problem in learnability theory known as “Baker’s Paradox”. Both arguments exploit rather deep assumptionsabout the architecture of theories of language development, and both have been influential; sufficiently so to justifytaking a detailed look at them. Most of the rest of this chapter will be devoted to doing that.

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The Bootstrapping Argument

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A basic idea of Pinker’s is that some of the child’s knowledge of syntactic structure is “bootstrapped” from knowledge about the semantic properties of lexical items; in particular, from knowledge about the semantic structure of verbs.The details are complicated but the outline is clear enough. In the simplest sorts of sentences (like ‘John runs’, forexample), if you can figure out what syntactic classes the words belong to (that ‘John’ is a noun and ‘runs’ is anintransitive verb) you get the rest of the syntax of the sentence more or less for free: intransitive verbs have to haveNPs as subjects, and ‘John’ is the only candidate around.

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This sort of consideration suggests that a significant part of the child’s problem of breaking into sentential syntax is identifying the syntax of lexical items. So far so good. Except that it’s not obvious how properties like being a noun orbeing an intransitive verb might signal their presence in the learner’s input since they aren’t, in general, marked byfeatures of the data that the child can unquestion-beggingly be supposed to pick up.Jean-marc pizano

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There is,surely, another alternative; viz. to say that ‘keep’ means the same thing in both—it expresses the same relation—butthat, in one case, the relation it expresses holds between NP and the crowd’s being happy, and in the other case it holdsbetween NP and the money. Since, onanybody’s story, the money and the crowd’s being happy are quite different sorts of things, why do we also need adifference between the meanings of ‘keep’ to explain what’s going on in the examples?

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Jean-marc pizano There is,surely, another alternative; viz. to say that ‘keep’ means the same thing in both—it expresses the same relation—butthat, in one case, the relation it expresses holds between NP and the crowd’s being happy, and in the other case it holdsbetween NP and the money. Since, onanybody’s story, the money and the crowd’s being happy are quite different sorts of things, why do we also need adifference between the meanings of ‘keep’ to explain what’s going on in the examples?

 

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People sometimes used to say that ‘exist’ must be ambiguous because look at the difference between ‘chairs exist’ and ‘numbers exist’. A familiar reply goes: the difference between the existence of chairs and the existence of numbersseems, on reflection, strikingly like the difference between numbers and chairs. Since you have the latter to explain theformer, you don’t also need ‘exist’ to be polysemic.

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This reply strikes me as convincing, but the fallacy that it exposes dies awfully hard. For example, Steven Pinker (personal communication, 1996) has argued that ‘keep’ can‘t be univocal because it implies possession in sentences likeJ2 but not in sentences like J3. I think Pinker is right that ‘Susan kept the money entails that something was possessedand that ‘Sam kept the crowd happy’ doesn’t. But (here we go again) it just begs the question to assume that thisdifference arises from a polysemy in ‘keep’.

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For example: maybe ‘keep’ has an underlying complement in sentences like (2) and (3); so that, roughly, ‘Susan kept the money’ is a variant of Susan kept having the money and ‘John kept the crowd happy’ is a variant of John kept the crowd beinghappy. Then the implication of possession in the former doesn’t derive from ‘keep’ after all; rather, it’s contributed bymaterial in the underlying complement clause. On reflection, the difference between keeping the money and keepingthe crowd happy does seem strikingly like the difference between having the money and the crowd being happy, a factthat the semantics of (2) and (3) might reasonably be expected to capture. This modest analysis posits no structureinside lexical items, and it stays pretty close to surface form. I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s apodictic, but it doesavoid the proliferation of lexical polysemes and/or semantic fields and it’s quite compatible with the claim that ‘keep’means neither more nor less than keep in all of the examples under consideration.12

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Auntie. Fiddlesticks. Consider the case where language A has a single unambiguous word, of which the translation in language B is either of two words, depending on context. Everybody who knows anything knows that happens all thetime. Whenever it does, the language-A word is ipsofacto polysemous. If you weren’t so embarrassingly monolingual, you’d have noticed this for yourself. (As it is, I’mindebted to Luca Bonatti for raising the point.)—: No. Suppose English has two words, ‘spoiled’ and ‘addled,’ both of which mean spoiled, but one of which is usedonly of eggs. Suppose also that there is some other language which has a word ‘spoilissimoed’ which means spoiled andis used both of spoiled eggs and of other spoiled things. The right way to describe this situation is surely not that‘spoiled’ is ipso facto polysemous. Rather the thing to say is: ‘spoiled’ and ‘addled’ are synonyms and are (thus) bothcorrectly translated ‘spoilissimoed’. The difference between the languages is that one, but not the other, has a word thatmeans spoiled and is context restricted to eggs; hence one language, but not the other, has a word for being spoiled whosepossession condition includes having the concept EGG. This is another reason for distinguishing questions aboutmeaning from questions about possession conditions (in case another reason is required. Remember WATER and

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HO).

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Auntie (who has been catching a brief nap during the preceding expository passage) wakes with a start. Now I’ve got you. You say ‘keep’ is univocal. Well, then, what is the relation that it univocally expresses? What is the relation such that, accordingto you, Susan bears it to the money in J2 and Sam bears it to the crowd’s being happy in J3?

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—: I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.

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But Jackendoffs ‘explanation’ is empty too, and for the same reason. As between “keep’ isunivocal because it is field invariant’ and “keep’ is univocal because its definition is field invariant’ there is, quite simply,nothing to choose.

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Jean-marc pizano But Jackendoffs ‘explanation’ is empty too, and for the same reason. As between “keep’ isunivocal because it is field invariant’ and “keep’ is univocal because its definition is field invariant’ there is, quite simply,nothing to choose.

 

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In short: Suppose ‘CAUSE’ is ambiguous from field to field; then the fact that ‘keep’ always entails ‘CAUSE’ is not sufficient to make ‘keep’ univocal from field to field. Well then, suppose ‘CAUSE’ is univocal from field to field; thenthe fact that ‘keep’ (like ‘CAUSE’) occurs in many different fields doesn’t explain its intuitive polysemy. Either way,Jackendoff loses.

A recent letter from Jackendoff suggests, however, that he has yet a third alternative in mind: “I’m not claiming”, he writes, “that keep is univocal, nor that cause is. Rather, the semantic field feature varies among fields, the restremaining constant. AND THE REST IS ABSTRACT AND CANNOT BE EXPRESSED LINGUISTICALLY,BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE A FIELD FEATURE TO SAY ANYTHING” (sic, Jackendoffs caps.Personal communication, 1996). This suggestion strikes me as doubly ill-advised. In the first place, there is no obviousreason why its being “abstract”, ineffable, and so on, should make a concept univocal (/field invariant); why shouldn’tabstract, ineffable concepts be polysemic, just like concrete concepts that can be effed? Unless Jackendoff has ananswer to this, he’s back in the old bind: ‘CAUSE’ is field invariant only by stipulation. Secondly, this move leavesJackendoff open to a charge of seriously false advertising. For it now turns out that ‘cause a state that endures overtime’ doesn’t really express the definition of ‘keep’ after all: ‘Keep’ means something that can’t be said. A lessmisleading definition than the one Jackendoff offers might thus be “keep’ means @#$(*], which has the virtue ofnot even appealing to say

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anything. The same, mutatis mutandis, for the rest of English, of course, so lexical semantics, as Jackendoff understands it, ends in silence. The methodological moral is, surely, Frank Ramsey’s: ‘What can’t be said can’t be said, and it can‘t bewhistled either.’

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I should add that Jackendoff sometimes writes as though all accounts that agree that keeping is a kind of causing are ipso facto “notational variants” of the definition theory. (I suppose this means that they are also ipso facto notationalvariants of the non-definitional theory, since the relation notational variantof is presumably symmetrical.) But I wouldhave thought that the present disagreement is not primarily about whether keeping is a kind of causing; it’s aboutwhether, if it is, it follows that sentences with ‘keep’ in their surface structures have ‘CAUSE’ in their semanticrepresentations. This inference is, to put it mildly, not trivial since the conclusion entails that the meaning of ‘keep’ isstructurally complex, while the premise is compatible with ‘keep’ being an atom. (By the way, what exactly is anotational variant?)

The moral of this long polemic is, I’m afraid, actually not very interesting. Jackendoff’s argument that there are definitions is circular, and circular arguments are disreputable. To the best of my knowledge, all extant arguments thatthere are definitions are disreputable.

Auntie. Anyone can criticize. Nice people try to be constructive. We’ve heard a very great deal from you of ‘I don’t like this’ and ‘I think that won’t work’. Why don’t you tell us your theory about why ‘keep’ is intuitively polysemic?

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—: Because you won’t like it. Because you’ll say it’s silly and frivolous and shallow.

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Auntie. I think you don’t have a theory about why ‘keep’ is intuitively polysemic.

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—: Yes I do, yes I do, yes I do! Sort of.

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My theory is that there is no such thing as polysemy. The appearance that there is a problem is generated by the assumption that there are definitions; if you take the assumption away, the problem disappears. As they might havesaid in the ’60s: definitions don’t solve the problem of polysemy; definitions are the problem of polysemy.

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Auntie. I don’t understand a word of that. And I didn’t like the ’60s.

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—. Well, here’s a way to put it. Jackendoffs treatment of the difference between, say, ‘NP kept the money and ‘NP kept the crowd happy’ holds that, in some sense or other, ‘keep’ means different things in the two sentences.Jean-marc pizano

There is,surely, another alternative; viz. to say that ‘keep’ means the same thing in both—it expresses the same relation—butthat, in one case, the relation it expresses holds between NP and the crowd’s being happy, and in the other case it holdsbetween NP and the money. Since, onanybody’s story, the money and the crowd’s being happy are quite different sorts of things, why do we also need adifference between the meanings of ‘keep’ to explain what’s going on in the examples?

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Jean-marc pizano There is,surely, another alternative; viz. to say that ‘keep’ means the same thing in both—it expresses the same relation—butthat, in one case, the relation it expresses holds between NP and the crowd’s being happy, and in the other case it holdsbetween NP and the money. Since, onanybody’s story, the money and the crowd’s being happy are quite different sorts of things, why do we also need adifference between the meanings of ‘keep’ to explain what’s going on in the examples?

 

People sometimes used to say that ‘exist’ must be ambiguous because look at the difference between ‘chairs exist’ and ‘numbers exist’. A familiar reply goes: the difference between the existence of chairs and the existence of numbersseems, on reflection, strikingly like the difference between numbers and chairs. Since you have the latter to explain theformer, you don’t also need ‘exist’ to be polysemic.

This reply strikes me as convincing, but the fallacy that it exposes dies awfully hard. For example, Steven Pinker (personal communication, 1996) has argued that ‘keep’ can‘t be univocal because it implies possession in sentences likeJ2 but not in sentences like J3. I think Pinker is right that ‘Susan kept the money entails that something was possessedand that ‘Sam kept the crowd happy’ doesn’t. But (here we go again) it just begs the question to assume that thisdifference arises from a polysemy in ‘keep’.

For example: maybe ‘keep’ has an underlying complement in sentences like (2) and (3); so that, roughly, ‘Susan kept the money’ is a variant of Susan kept having the money and ‘John kept the crowd happy’ is a variant of John kept the crowd beinghappy. Then the implication of possession in the former doesn’t derive from ‘keep’ after all; rather, it’s contributed bymaterial in the underlying complement clause. On reflection, the difference between keeping the money and keepingthe crowd happy does seem strikingly like the difference between having the money and the crowd being happy, a factthat the semantics of (2) and (3) might reasonably be expected to capture. This modest analysis posits no structureinside lexical items, and it stays pretty close to surface form. I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s apodictic, but it doesavoid the proliferation of lexical polysemes and/or semantic fields and it’s quite compatible with the claim that ‘keep’means neither more nor less than keep in all of the examples under consideration.12

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Auntie. Fiddlesticks. Consider the case where language A has a single unambiguous word, of which the translation in language B is either of two words, depending on context. Everybody who knows anything knows that happens all thetime. Whenever it does, the language-A word is ipsofacto polysemous. If you weren’t so embarrassingly monolingual, you’d have noticed this for yourself. (As it is, I’mindebted to Luca Bonatti for raising the point.)—: No. Suppose English has two words, ‘spoiled’ and ‘addled,’ both of which mean spoiled, but one of which is usedonly of eggs. Suppose also that there is some other language which has a word ‘spoilissimoed’ which means spoiled andis used both of spoiled eggs and of other spoiled things. The right way to describe this situation is surely not that‘spoiled’ is ipso facto polysemous. Rather the thing to say is: ‘spoiled’ and ‘addled’ are synonyms and are (thus) bothcorrectly translated ‘spoilissimoed’. The difference between the languages is that one, but not the other, has a word thatmeans spoiled and is context restricted to eggs; hence one language, but not the other, has a word for being spoiled whosepossession condition includes having the concept EGG. This is another reason for distinguishing questions aboutmeaning from questions about possession conditions (in case another reason is required. Remember WATER and

HO).

Auntie (who has been catching a brief nap during the preceding expository passage) wakes with a start. Now I’ve got you. You say ‘keep’ is univocal. Well, then, what is the relation that it univocally expresses? What is the relation such that, accordingto you, Susan bears it to the money in J2 and Sam bears it to the crowd’s being happy in J3?

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—: I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.

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