September 21, 2003

Verb semantics and justifying war

In all the recriminations since the Iraq war, not a single news source has picked up on the semantic trick members of the Bush administration used to cover ifor the controversial Niger yellowcake allegation that President George W. Bush included the in his State of the Union address back in January 2003. Even careful re-examinations of the issue (see, e.g., The Economist, July 19th, p. 21) have failed to spot it.

For the benefit of anyone who spent the first seven months of 2003 in a coma, let me offer a reminder: yellowcake is uranium ore, and Iraq was at one time rumored to have been trying to buy some from Niger in West Africa. The CIA thought this information, which British intelligence sources believed, was unreliable and quite possibly untrue, and director George Tenet would not endorse its repetition in a presidential speech. The White House appears to have persuaded them to lend approval to a what was meant to be a weaker claim attributing the report to British intelligence, and Tenet reluctantly acceded.

So Bush said in his January speech: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

When this claim was later queried by the press, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was put out front to say, "It's technically accurate." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice explained, "The British have said that."

What any linguist familiar with English lexical semantics would notice here is that Rice switched verbs. Bush didn't make a statement about what the British had said; he made a statement about what they had learned.

The difference is crucial, because learn is what is known as a factive verb. I can say that two plus two is five time I like, but I can't learn that two plus two is five unless it really is.

It is true that occasionally people use learn more loosely, as if it just meant "be told in school", as in "Students in the madrasas still learn that America is evil", but Bush surely didn't mean that schoolroom sense of learn. What he said entailed, and was meant to entail, not just that British government sources had voiced a claim about Iraq's dealings in West Africa, but that the claim was true.

The defenses by Rumsfeld and Rice were playing fast and loose with this important fact. Bush's statement was not "technically accurate", unless the Niger yellowcake story was true. (The British still maintain it was, incidentally; I'm not offering a judgment about that.)

Whatever the rest of the justification for war against Iraq, the President really did personally vouch for the truth of the Niger yellowcake story in his State of the Union speech to Congress and the people.

That's what happens when you say "X has learned that P": you commit yourself to the claim that P is true. Don't toss factive verbs around lightly.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 21, 2003 05:25 PM