July 21, 2004

Pragmatics and semantics at Alpe d'Huez

Samuel Abt's NYT story about Lance Amstrong's win on Alpe d'Huez has two linguistically interesting quotes from Armstrong's post-stage press conference.

The first one is a classic conversational implicature:

Relaxed and smiling at a news conference, he said, "I didn't think this would be the decisive day of the Tour," implying that it had been.

The hypothesized implicature is easily cancelled ("and sure enough, it wasn't", or "and we won't know for sure what today's result means until the race is over"). It's so easily cancelled that I wonder whether Armstrong meant Abt's conclusion to be as transparent as the casual tag "implying that it had been" suggests. In fact, elsewhere in the interview, Armstrong goes out of his way to express the conventional "it ain't over 'til it's over" athletic perspective.

The second interesting quote is a complex combination of negation, quantification and comparison, expressed as an evaluation of the rowdiness of the spectators. These (as Abt puts it) "raced beside the riders, flapped flags in their path and waited in the road until the last moment to take a photograph of the onrushing competitor". Armstong's comment:

"There never was a moment when anyone was more aggressive than I've ever seen."

Clear enough, I guess. But a tough exam question would be: translate into predicate calculus, and explain how to derive the meaning from the form. Uphill switchbacks all the way, against the clock.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 21, 2004 08:28 PM