May 23, 2007

Politics and Lexical Semantics

A few minutes ago on Jeopardy a contestant missed the question "one of the two land-locked countries in the Himalayas" by responding with the name of the largest and most famous: Tibet. The answers they wanted were Nepal and Bhutan. Tibet is as landlocked as Nepal and Bhutan (unlike Pakistan and India, which have seacoasts), so the Jeopardy people must have excluded it on the grounds that it is not a country. As a proponent of the liberation of Tibet, and more generally of national self-determination, I was offended by Jeopardy's acceptance of Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Is this purely a matter of politics? Is the question of whether Tibet is a country purely a matter of whether one accepts China's political position? One could argue that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter may be, Tibet is not a country because the Tibetan government no longer has de facto control of its territory. But if a country is only a country if it has control of its territory, how is it that Somalia has continued to be considered a country even though it has had no effective government since 1991?

Perhaps the criterion is that a former country remains a country so long as no other country controls it? This would distinguish Somalia from Tibet, but it fails to capture the way in which we regard other countries as having continued to exist during periods of occupation and outright annexation. For example, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and remained in control until 1945. Although foreign control ceased, Korea has yet to be reunified. Nonetheless, it is quite common to refer to Korea as a single country which has at times been over-run by other countries and at times, including the present, divided into two or more parts.

Although the answers considered correct by Jeopardy can be defended on narrow legal grounds, the usual use of "country" is different, based on the existence of a political and cultural entity whose status may change over time. Since Jeopardy generally accepts all reasonable answers and the question did not specify a particular legal theory, Jeopardy should have considered Tibet a valid answer. Their failure to do so seems very likely to be a political choice.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 23, 2007 12:01 AM