October 19, 2003

Another informative tautology

Via versiontwo.org, a story about emergent bracelet semiotics among Florida middle schoolers.

The linguistic hook is a quote from a concerned parent: "If they need to ban these jelly bracelets, they need to ban them."

Lyn Walker's dissertation provides an enlightening discussion of why "informationally redundant utterances" are often communicatively useful, but doesn't have much to say about informative tautologies. See this earlier post for another example, also involving the logic of obligation and permission.

These things are all over -- google finds 811 hits for "if you must you must", and strings like "who like him like him" turn up examples of relative-clause tautologies.

I believe that Ward & Hirschberg's 1988 paper "The pragmatics of tautology" is relevant, but I don't have a copy at hand.

[Update (10/20/2003): It seems to me that research on such pragmatic curiosities has almost died out, as indicated by the fact that I couldn't find any web-accessible discussion of Ward & Hirschberg (1988) via google. No doubt if I looked harder, I could find something, but it must be relatively thin on the hyper-ground. What this means is that in post-www time -- since 1995 or so -- people haven't been thinking or writing much about topics that would lead them to discuss or cite this paper.

I hypothesize that this is connected to the death of AI, because (classical) AI researchers were the key market for this kind of research, even though much of the work was actually done by linguists.

On the whole I don't mourn AI's passing, but I do feel that the field of linguistics is poorer for devoting less attention to things like these informative tautologies. Like optical illusions for vision scientists, these puzzling bits of language are tell us about how things work, if we can decode the message.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 19, 2003 11:46 AM