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A question of semantics

From:Nick Maclaren <nmm1@...>
Date:Wednesday, August 6, 2003, 22:26
I apologise in advance for describing how to suck eggs to
grandmothers, but I need to explain what I know and what I am
thinking of.  First, an example of the weak form of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which I regard as being proved beyond
reasonable doubt):

In colloquial British English, the adjective "strong" when applied
to tea means both "highly concentrated" and "with little milk in".
I had an interaction with a (friendly) tea lady that went like

Me:   Please may I have a bit more milk in this?
Her:  Is it too strong for you?
Me:   No, I like it strong, but would like a bit more milk?
Her:  [ Blank look, followed by pouring some tea out of my cup,
      adding some hot water and then some milk. ]

Like many primarily non-verbal thinkers (yes, a mathematician,
statistician and computer hacker from way back), I have serious
difficulty in expressing some of my thoughts in English.  This
isn't because my English is poor (quite the converse, actually),
but more often either because the concepts are punned in normal
use with ones I am not using or because English lacks the concepts
I am thinking of.  An example of the latter problem is to do
with uncertainty:

In "I saw the rabbit", it is easy to express an uncertainty of
detail on "rabbit", such as by "something rabbitlike".  Similarly,
one can express uncertainty of event on the whole sentence by
prefixing it by "I think that".  But how do you express
uncertainty of either detail or event on "saw" in a way that is
practical for use in speech?

"I either saw or otherwise perceived the rabbit".  But even that
does not distinguish "seeing or hearing" from "seeing or having a
(perhaps mistaken) visual impression of".  And what about "saw or
had a visual memory of (perhaps a vivid dream)"?  All of these are
uncertainty concepts that are very hard to express in English, but
which I find that I want to use.

There are similar problems with implication and other forms of
data flow, but I get the impression that these are rather better
understood.  [ This is, in itself, an example of what I am
referring to, because I am writing it while thinking of an
indirection to the paragraph after next. ]

I subscribed to this mailing list for one main purpose: curiosity
on whether the designers of artificial languages are interested in
adding semantic concepts that are not present in existing natural
languages, and in investigating whether the use of such languages
changes people's ways of thinking.  Purely out of academic
interest (a.k.a. a butterfly mind) you understand, but I think that
Sapir and Whorf (whoever they were) would understand :-)

Now, a brief inspection of the various Web pages indicates that
such people have invented most of the linguistic concepts that I
have thought of, and there are some implications that some of the
languages have the sort of implication and data flow concepts that
are natural to mathematicians, but I am more interested in the
probabilistic and uncertainty concepts.

One can have amusements with such things and temporal concepts,
such as introducing the tenses past putative, future speculative
and future conditional, but I think that the last may actually
exist anyway.

Nick Maclaren,
University of Cambridge Computing Service,
New Museums Site, Pembroke Street, Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.
Tel.:  +44 1223 334761    Fax:  +44 1223 334679


John Cowan <cowan@...>
Estel Telcontar <estel_telcontar@...>