December 18, 2007

The meaning mining business

Says my colleague Bob Ladd in an email about prepositions (heaven knows why we email each other when we can just walk across the hall between each other's offices):

I can't resist pointing out "the best band in the world" vs. "the best band on the planet". I had noticed some time ago the extent to which "the planet" is taking over from "the world" in such superlative expressions, which I think reflects some change of perspective induced by globalization and/or the space age, but I'd never noticed the prepositions before. Does Lawler's analysis explain this?

The answer is, as far as I can see, no. Perhaps I'm doing Lawler's analysis an injustice, but I think this is the kind of case where the metaphorical meaning mine doesn't self-evidently offer up the explanatory ore that we were hoping for. (John Lawler agrees with me, by the way; this isn't a criticism of his analysis. He and I both think the metaphorical basis of preposition choice only gives you a rough rule of thumb.)

Of course, we could always post-hoc it. We could say that people who claim the Rolling Stones are the best band in the world are using an older metaphor from earlier centuries, when air travel was unknown and the world, experientially, was a 3-dimensional space we are all embedded within, the hills and trees above us and the valleys and streams below us, so in is used, locating the Stones within the container-like 3-dimensional area that is the world of our consciousness; and we could say that when we claim the Stones are the best band on the planet we are speaking like 21st-century, topologically sophisticated people who have seen satellite pictures and Google earth, so on is appropriate, locating the Stones on the 2-dimensional surface of a 3-dimensional sphere.

But I think it's post-hoc. I just don't believe it could have been predicted in advance that the words world and planet would behave exactly this way, given merely semantic information about them. Though I could be wrong: we linguists don't have any privileged access to the real and correct semantic information about a word, we have to hypothesize what it might be and then draw conclusions from our hypotheses and see if they predict incorrectly.

My hunch is that English preposition choice often comes close to being explainable in terms of semantics and metaphors, but when you get near the grammaticized edges it starts to let you down.

Why do we laugh at someone but pour scorn and ridicule on them? Are they more like a point target when we are laughing and more like a flat surface when we dole out ridicule as if it were a gooey humiliating liquid? Could you really predict, if you didn't already know, that given what a joke is, we would say The joke is on you (not at you)?

You could just say "Yes" to all this, I suppose, and I don't know what to tell you about why I don't believe you. I can only supply more examples of where I think metaphor is of doubtful predictive power.

Why do we trust, or believe, or have faith in someone but rely or count on them? Are they more like a container when trust or belief or faith is the issue and more like a surface when reliability is the issue? Don't you put your trust in the ice when you walk out on it? Aren't you relying on a plane when you get in it?

You see where I'm going with this? There is a vein of truth in the semantic/metaphorical analysis of preposition meanings and preposition choice, and it is a very useful guide. But it is important not to work that vein until it runs out (I'm deep in a mining metaphor here, you see) and then try to save its predictive power by sifting through the mine tailings looking for nodules of post-hoc explanatory gold that you can take into town and sell to some sucker who can be convinced into staking his fortune on the meaning mining business.

By the way, why do we invest in a mine but stake our fortune on it?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 18, 2007 09:49 AM