August 21, 2007

Sve je semantika

When I got back from my summer travels last week I learned that NYT journalist Stephen Dubner, coauthor with Steven Leavitt of the wonderful book Freakonomics, had happened on something I'd written. This is what he wrote in the NYT's Freakonomics blog:

Stephen J. Dubner
It's All Semantics
For reasons that may not make sense to anyone else, I recently performed a Google search for "They Might Be Giants"and "Belly Button."This was the second hit: a paper by a Stanford linguist named David Beaver (that's not an aptonym, is it?) called "Have You Noticed That Your Belly Button Lint Colour Is Related to the Colour of Your Clothing?"Here is the abstract:
Karttunen identified a class of semi-factive verbs. This was erroneous, but enlightening. Stalnaker and Gazdar explained Karttunen's data as involving cancellation of presuppositions as a result of pragmatic reasoning, an account reformulated by van der Sandt. In this paper I present a large number of naturally occurring examples bearing on the question of how factive verbs interact with implicatures, and show that many of these examples are problematic for existing accounts. I end by presenting suggestive evidence involving the relation between presupposition and information structure.
I love living in a society that values this kind of research. But I also think it is funnier than Woody Allen's best writing. The above paragraph reminded me a bit of some earlier economics papers I discussed, as well as a comment once made by a grouchy New York Times writer discussing another New York Times writer who had just received a promotion: "He writes as if he were badly translated from the Croatian." If anyone can translate the abstract above out of the Croatian, and additionally tell me how it relates to belly buttons, I'd be most obliged.

(Side note: I'm now a University of Texas linguist, not a Stanford linguist. A better weblink for me would be this one. And there's more about my non-aptonymic name here.)

My mother thought it was wonderful to be mentioned in such a widely read forum. I am a little bemused by the piece. My wife says it's nothing to be proud of. And the jury of public opinion, as rendered in the voluminous comments thread to Dubner's post, is hung as regards whether I deserve to live or not.

Anyhow, two reasonable requests from Dubner. First, to translate out of the Croatian. And second to explain the belly button link.

My Croatian is not good, which is why the original has until now been supressed, but, modulo font rendering issues, here it is:

Karttunen identificiran razred od polu - tvornica glagol. Ovaj je kriv , ali rasvijetliti. Stalnaker i Gazdar objasniti Karttunen's podaci kao uklju?u?i poništenje od predmnijevanje kao rezultat od pragmati?an zaklju?ivanje , ra?un reformulated mimo kombi der Pijesak. In ovaj papir Ja prisutan velik broj od prirodno dvokratan primjer nošenje na pitanje kako tvornica glagol djelovati me?usobno sa implicatures , i pokazivanje taj mnogobrojan od te primjer jesu problemati?an za sadašnjost ra?uni. Ja kraj mimo prisutan sugestivan jasno?a uklju?u?i povezivati se izme?u predmnijevanje i obavijest struktura.

My own translation into English is obviously inadequate. That's what caused the problem in the first place. So instead, here is InterTran's translation into Mr. Dubner's favorite language:

Karttunen identified learner with semi factory verb. This had wry, limit lamp. Stalnaker plus Matron unfold Karttunen's data as a including that undoing with presumption as a upshot with pragmatic chain of reasoning, bill reformulated past van der Sand. In this paper I present swarm with truly occurring Primakov wear at an issue of how factory verb interact from an implicatures, plus show this many with these Primakov are problematic for present bill. I end past present suggestive intelligibility including that relate to betwixt presumption plus notice legality.

No doubt this is exactly what Dubner sought, a variant abstract which is completely free of the lingua-speak which I use to prevent myself being understood. The new version uses presumption for presupposition, factory for factive, and Primakov for the technical term examples.

Now the second request: how does the paper relate to belly buttons? Well, not at all, really. The title, as one commenter observed, is just an example I came across. It was taken from a survey used in a groundbreaking piece of navel gazing research by one Dr. Karl: he won an IgNobel prize for it. One question on this survey, Have you noticed that your belly button lint colour is related to the colour of your clothing?, appears to take for granted (presuppose) that the respondent's belly button lint is related to his/her clothing color. Why? Because the question includes the verb notice, and this is one of many verbs which commonly comes along with a presumption that the stuff sitting next to it is a fact. That's why we call them factive verbs. Or, at least we did. It turns out that we should call them factory verbs. What I found curious was that nothing about lint color was actually presumed in the survey: it was apparently intended to be neutral as to whether there was any connection between belly button lint and clothing. Indeed, while the belly button research turned up many strong results (``It seems as though the Snail Trail has something to do with BBL levels''), there was no clear connection established with clothing color. From Bellybutton Lint - The Results:

About 37% of people with BBL said that the colour of their BBL was related to the colour of their clothing. About half of these people had blue BBL. Most people wear various shades of blue. But we really can't explain why some people consistently have BBL in a colour that is not present in their clothing.

What I was wondering about in that paper Dubner found was this: under what conditions does someone using a factive factory verb take the stuff sitting next to it for granted. I found that no existing theory covered the ground, and speculated that... well, I'm afraid I'm boring you: if you really want to know, you can ask me, or read the paper.

It seems that my unfortunate predilection for difficult words combined with the title of my paper to get me into an awful and very public mess. In fact, Dubner has taught linguists the world over two valuable lessons. We must only use easy words, and we must be very careful in our choice of Primakov.

[Hat tip to Arnold Zwicky and Karin Golde for pointing me to the Dubner piece.]

Posted by David Beaver at August 21, 2007 11:38 PM