July 31, 2007

well worth waiting for

As promised, the answer to "Karttunen's Konundrum," the puzzle Lauri Karttunen raised about the entailments of negated wait that I posted about last week. The point, if you'll cast your mind back, was that a sentence of the form "X didn't wait to do Y" (e.g. "She didn't wait to open the box") can mean either that X did Y right away or that X didn't do Y at all. As Lauri explains:

Question 1: How does the ambiguity of "not wait to Z" come about?

On the web, we find examples such as:

"My biggest regret is that I didn't wait to get married to have kids," says Gerald, a father of three. "If I had it to do over again, I'd wait until I was married to become a father."

In this case we get two entailments:

=> I didn't get married.
=> I had kids right away.

Similarly, we find:

Trudeau did not wait for Nixon before recognizing China, and Mulroney did not wait to take his cue from Reagan to boycott South Africa.

=> Mulroney did not take his cue from Reagan.
=> Mulroney boycotted South Africa right away.

To put it more generally, the verb wait can take two infinitival complements. If both complements are present we get two entailments of opposite polarity:

not wait (to X) (to Y)

=> not X
=> Y right away

There is an implicit temporal ordering. If X had happened, it would have been before Y. Both complements are optional. When only one complement is present, as in Neil didn't wait to take off his coat, we don't know which of the two it is without the help of the context.

We find the same ambiguity in embedded wait to contexts. For example, did not bother to wait to X entails "not wait to X" (bother to is a ++/--implicative). In most of the examples of this type on the web, the intended reading of did not bother to wait to X seems to be "not X," as in:

Obviously, our leaders hold the Iraqi war machine in such utter contempt that we didn't bother to wait to use our huge advantage in night-fighting.

But we also find examples that go the other way:

"Pressing my lips hard against his I didn't bother to wait to slide my tongue into his warm inviting mouth."

This is clearly a case of "Y right away" (how come we all agree on that?).

Question 2:: Why is it not possible to retain the ambiguity in translation?

Once you realize that the ambiguity is syntactic and depends on the available "subcat" frames for the verb wait, it is not at all surprising that the ambiguity is not preserved in translation. In many Western European languages such as Finnish and Dutch it is not even possible to use the counterpart of wait to express either one of the two meanings. In Finnish, "Neil did not wait to take off his coat" translates as eitherNeil jätti takkinsa päälle, "Neil left his coat on" or Neil riisui takkinsa tuota pikaa "Neil took off his coat right away." Mona Diab tells me that a translation into Egyptian Arabic (but not Standard Modern Arabic) could preserve the ambiguity. It is the only exception I have heard about so far.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at July 31, 2007 02:14 PM