Thursday, 23 June 2016

Opposite songs special: Cake

I've given up sweets for most of June, so I'm thinking a lot about Cake.

Cake made it into the Opposites Playlist twice, once with Shirt Skirt/Long Jacket.

I love the lyrics to this song, and so I'll quote a bit more than necessary to point out another opposite in them:

I want a girl who gets up early
I want a girl who stays up late
I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity
Who uses a machete to cut through red tape
With fingernails that shine like justice
And a voice that is dark like tinted glass

She is fast and thorough
And sharp as a tack
She's touring the facility
And picking up slack

I want a girl with a short skirt and a lonnnnng....  jacket

The other Opposites Playlist song had to be 'Sheep go to Heaven, Goats go to Hell'.

Both of the song titles use ancillary antonymy--antonyms in parallel structures in order to create a secondary contrast, so skirt and jacket are contextual opposites here, as are sheep and goats.

Heaven and Hell have a special place in my heart (or brain) because they are an example in Alan Cruse's Lexical Semantics that gave me some good food for thought when I was writing my first book, where I'm claiming that oppositeness is about minimal contextually relevant difference. So here's a big excerpt from my chapter 5:

Using Heaven/Hell as an example, Cruse notes that that opposition embodies others, including good/bad, up/down, and bliss/torment (and others, like light/dark and good/evil, are easily added to the list).  If so many differences are relevant in contrasting Heaven/Hell, how can we claim that their opposition involves minimal difference?  And even if we can make this claim, should we?
            Assuming that we are considering the semantic field of Judeo-Christian afterlife locales, the field allows at most (if you’re Catholic) two options to choose from when selecting an opposite for Heaven:  Hell or Purgatory.  Heaven and Hell, unlike Purgatory, have much in common:  they’re where one spends eternity, they reflect a definitive judgment on a person’s life, they have imagined physical locations, and each is the home of a supernatural lord and countless souls.  Nevertheless, this is probably an oversimplification of the problem.  The fact is, Heaven/Hell are similar because they have the same types of properties (such as judgment, location, inhabitants), but opposite instantiations of those property-types.  Each has a lord, but they’re opposite lords (god/devil).  Each has a location, but they’re opposite locations (up/down).  Thus, their similarities beget differences, and so it could be said that Heaven and Hell are as different as they are similar.
            Such differences-within-similarities are often favored over straight similarities in choosing opposites.  Let’s consider a larger contrast set:  winter/spring/summer/autumn.  Of these, winter/summer are most strongly contrasted as an opposite pair, and we can again see differences within similarities.  They both involve extreme temperatures, but one is hot and the other is cold.  They both (officially) start with solstices, but one involves long days/short nights and the other long nights/short days.  If opposition favored greatest similarities, then we should expect winter/autumn to be better opposites than winter/summer, since both are cool and dark.  But instead, we prefer the two that differ in symmetrical ways.
            The lesson to be learned from this is that similarity [...] runs deep in a good complex antonym pair.  Rather than the superficial similarity of contiguous temperatures (winter/autumn), we prefer the pair that is similar in extremity of temperature.  It matters less to us what the temperature is, than what type of temperature it is.  It’s this deeper similarity that makes the contrast between summer and winter symmetrical, diametrical, and truly incompatible (whereas autumn and winter could arguably overlap).  So, winter and summer are more similar in types of attributes than either is to autumn or spring.  (Murphy, Semantic Relations and the Lexicon, 2003)

Sunday, 12 June 2016

A Not-Suitable-for-Children case of simultaneous antonymy

Some work that we did in the oughties looked at the relative proportions of "Simultaneous Antonymy" (Steve Jones's term) in English, Swedish, and Japanese. Simultaneous use of antonyms is when both are used at the same time about the same thing, like It's both warm and cool now. You don't find many of these in English, but you find more in Swedish than in English, and more in Japanese than in Swedish. (The relevant articles are in our special issue of the Journal of Pragmatics.)

So I enjoyed finding this simultaneous case in the wild. The wild here being the Tiger Lillies' Facebook page (which is indeed fairly wild).

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

I'd rather live with a good question than a bad answer

I'd rather live with a good question than a bad answer. - Aryeh A. Frimer

This quotation was on the Twitter profile of someone who followed me today, and it's perfect, both as an example of ancillary antonymy and parallelism (nerd stuff) and as an explanation for students about why we academics do what we do.

I make a policy of 'teaching the controversy' as they say. I try not to teach linguistic problems as if they are solved. We have models of how language works, but none of those models has explained everything. The models tend to contrast markedly in some of their basic assumptions--that is, their answers to basic questions like: Is language a mental faculty unto itself or part of general cognition? What is meaning? What does it mean for a word to be "meaningful"? etc.

That policy came about after my experience shifting from an undergraduate degree in Linguistics & Philosophy to a Master's/PhD program(me) in Linguistics at a different university. Wanting to excuse me from any repetitive material, the nice people at the new university asked "Which theories did you study?" And I couldn't answer. Because the way I'd been taught it, I didn't know it was called anything other than "Syntax". (It was Chomskyan stuff, and I enjoy the irony of the existence of a Chomskyan hegemony in Linguistics--at least in certain places.)

So, there I was doing my usual kind of teaching to an MA class at my current university. I think it may have been about the critical period in first language acquisition. Here are the arguments for, here are the arguments against. And a really frustrated student blurted out: "Aren't you ever going to tell us the right answer to anything?" And I said "If we knew all the answers, I wouldn't have a reason to get up in the morning." And so we talked a bit about how nobody really knows much of anything about anything. We have better ideas and worse ideas. And some of the ideas look better in some lights, and others look better in other lights.

At the end of her degree, the student came up to me and said that that "getting out of bed in the morning" answer had stuck with her and changed how she looked at things.

And that, my friends, is the highest compliment a teacher can ever get.

But if that situation comes up again, I'm going to follow on with that quotation from Aryeh A. Frimer, and I'll feel grateful to @kabrunotte for posting it.