This recent interview with Jacques Derrida reminds me of a parlor game that a colleague of mine claims to have played, back in the day when it was easier to find academics who took Derrida seriously.
My colleague would open one of Derrida's works to a random page, pick a random sentence, write it down, and then (above or below it) write a variant in which positive and negative were interchanged, or a word or phrase was replaced with one of opposite meaning. He would then challenge the assembled Derrida partisans to guess which was the original and which was the variant. The point was that Derrida's admirers are generally unable to distinguish his pronouncements from their opposites at better than chance level, suggesting that the content is a sophisticated form of white noise. On this view, as Wolfgang Pauli once said of someone else, Derrida is "not even wrong.".
In general, this is an easier form of verbal amusement than anything much above the level of a knock-knock joke. Consider the following random phrase from Of Grammatology, Chapter 2: "difference is never in itself a sensible plenitude".
My colleague's technique produces variants like "difference is always in itself a sensible plenitude," "difference is never a sensible plenitude in relation to other things," "similarity is never in itself a sensible plenitude," "difference is never in itself a sensible emptiness," and "difference is never in itself an imperceptible plenitude."
Or my personal favorite variant, "similarity is always in itself an imperceptible emptiness," which I feel is a great improvement over the original.
Although it illustrates the technique, this example is unfair, like shooting Fish in a barrel. We've taken a short phrase out of context, and such a decontextualized phrase from anyone's work might be construed to mean almost anything, even if it had been entirely lucid in its original setting.
So here are two longer passages from the recent Derrida interview, one original and one variant. Which is which? (no peeking!)
I believe always in the possibility of being attentive in the end to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this freedom of repetition (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this freedom signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to connect ourselves through language, as people with too much time on their hands would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely within language and what is pulling us to try to say, exactly once and with full knowledge of what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept transcend their limits: "September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11."Or number 2:
I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this compulsion signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language and what is pushing us to repeat endlessly and without knowing what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept come up against their limits: "September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11."
I think that if you know even a little bit about Derrida, you should be able to distinguish between the original and the variant, and thus show that Derrida can sometimes aspire to being, if only in tone, "even wrong". As he is here, in my opinion.
[Some later Language Log posts that mention Jacques Derrida:
"Kerry's French cousin, and Derrida's obscurantisme or otherwise", 7/27/2004
"The question of the question and the question of the place", 10/11/2004
"Time is space: when fronter is farther behind", 10/16/2004
"Cargo cult linguistics", 3/21/2005
"A euphoric dream of being scientific", 3/25/2005
"When is subalternism conciliatory?", 4/2/2005
"Labov's test", 8/17/2005
"French syntax is (in)corruptible", 10/26/2005
Also relevant is this discussion of Derrida's fellow Jacques, Lacan:
"Precision, poetry and paragraphs", 2/21/2007
"... ," Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says.Chris postulates that these teutonically turgid tags are the work of copy editors who are implementing a policy against "quotative inversion," or perhaps of authors who are avoiding confrontation with such a policy. His explanation assumes that the cited sentences would be clearer and more readable if the verb said were not separated from its subject by a massive pile of appositives:
"... ," says Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson.In a comment, Jeff Ward offers an alternative explanation: "Attribution is taught that way in journalism classes."
I'm skeptical of Ward's theory, because in other journalistic publications, it's easy to find examples of quotative inversion. I asked google to search for instances of "said" on web sites like www.theatlantic.com and www.nytimes.com, and quickly found plenty of quotative tags with inversion. In some cases, the inversion helps the tag to bear the weight of accumulated appositives, as in this transcendent example from a piece in The Atlantic by the late Michael Kelly:
"Every fair-minded person knows that when Iraqi officials say something, they are trustworthy," said Saddam Hussein, President for Life and Conscience of the Culture of Iraq, not to mention of the Internal Security Forces of Iraq, recognizing his responsibility as an artist (he is the author of two romantic novels, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle, both acclaimed by leading Iraqi critics) to tell the truth, in his own way.As far as I can see in a brief survey, journalists routinely use quotative inversion in this way, to help them load speakers up with appositives. Here's a less flamboyant example, from The New York Times:
After nearly beating the young man to death, said the Laramie Police Commander, David O'Malley, the assailants stole his wallet and shoes and left him tied to the fence.And there are also plenty of plain simple down-to-earth quotative inversions, with no appositional fuss or feathers:
"I don't know," said the guard.I found no examples of quotative inversion at all on The New Yorker's web site (in a cursory check). Unfortunately, there is not enough text there to enable a statistically convincing test of Chris' hypothesis.- Implicit negative evidence requires a sufficiently large number of cases where the dog might have barked but chose not to; and google finds only 17 instances of the string "said" (and 18 instances of "says") on www.newyorker.com, mostly not in quotative tags at all. However, Chris' examples are so spectacularly awkward that some explanation is needed, and (pace Jeff Ward) journalism school doesn't seem to be the culprit.
[Update (10/1/2003): this morning I took an old copy of The Economist (May 17-23rd 2003) with me into bathroom, and emerged, refreshed, with a harvest of 17 instances of quotative inversion, from
"Let's get on with it," urged Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, ...on p. 25 to
Indeed, says Mr. Kemer, ...on p. 68. Since I've read three recent issues of The New Yorker without finding even one inverted quotative tag, I'm prepared to assert that a more serious survey would provide solid quantitative as well as qualitative evidence for the Potts Conjecture. This might have some conceptual value as a practical instance of "implicit negative evidence" (that is, evidence from what does happen about what isn't allowed to happen). On the other hand, we could just ask the folks at The New Yorker...]
Theoretical linguists say sentences are of finite length. Traditional grammars say that sentences express complete thoughts. The two are not compatible, as a nice example found in the travel writings of Bill Bryson shows.
Theoretical linguists generally assume sentences in natural languages must be of finite length because a sentence that went on forever could never be understood or composed or mentally represented by any finite being even in principle, and it could never be generated by any finite sequence of derivational steps in a generative grammar of the sort Chomsky pioneered.
Traditional grammars generally say that a sentence is the linguistic expression of a complete thought. If it doesn't express a complete thought, then it's elliptical. A sentence like "I was going to clean the rug but I decided not to" is elliptical for "I was going to clean the rug but I decided not to clean the rug", and so on.
But consider this sentence, from page 16 of Bill Bryson's book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (paperback edition, HarperPerennial, 1990), as he lovingly describes what one will typically find in a typical small town in the heartland of America:
The central area of the square will be a park, with fat trees and a bandstand and a pole with an American flag and and scattered benches full of old men in John Deere caps sitting around talking about the days when they had something to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do.
What does it mean? It is clearly elliptical in the traditional sense. The "else" involves an implicit comparison. What Bryson means, quite obviously, is that the benches were full of old men in John Deere caps sitting around talking about the days when they had something to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do other than sit around and talk about the days when they had something else to do...
But although disk space is getting cheaper, it might be better for the archiving of this weblog if I didn't complete the thought, because the completion is going to be infinite. And yet, strangely, we can understand it, and we do understand it, even from one of its elliptical shortenings. You may never previously have realized that you had the profundity to think an infinite thought, but you've thought one today while reading LanguageLog.
"That woman who knew I had dyslexia---I never interviewed her.''
---NEW YORK TIMES, SEPTEMBER 16, 2000 [George W. Bush speaking of Gail Sheely]
Overlooked in all the merriment was the statement's inadvertent confirmation of the Sheely thesis: "That woman who knew I had dyslexia'' makes clear that the reporter got it right---otherwise, Bush would have used "said" or "claimed".
(Mark Crispin Miller. 2001. The Bush Dyslexicon. New York: W. W. Norton and Company (p. 102))
"I would hope that, based on the President's judicial nominations so far, you will see him appoint Justices more in line with a conservative judicial philosophy," Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded the Reverend Pat Robertson, says.
(Jeffrey Toobin. Advice and dissent. The New Yorker, May 26, 2003 (p. 48, column 1))
"It will be easier to defeat a right-wing, lower-court nomination,'' Ralph Neas, the president of the People for the American Way, the liberal advocacy group, said.These are from the same article, the product of the same author (or editor). But my previous example was by Larissa MacFarquhar.
(Jeffrey Toobin. Advice and dissent. The New Yorker, May 26, 2003 (p. 48, column 1))
Chris Potts has told me about a case in which a woman wrote "egg corns" for "acorns." This might be taken to be a folk etymology, like "Jerusalem" for "girasole" in "Jerusalem artichoke" (a kind of sunflower). But it might also be treated as something like a mondegreen (also here and here), the kind of "slip of the ear" that is especially common in learning songs and poems. Finally, it's also something like a malapropism, where a word is mistakenly substituted for one of similar sound shape.
Although the example is somewhat like each of these three named categories of errors, it's not exactly any of them. Can anyone suggest a better term?
At greater length:
It's not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community.
It's not a malapropism, because "egg corn" and "acorn" are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like "allegory" for "alligator," "oracular" for "vernacular" and "fortuitous" for "fortunate" are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content).
It's not a mondegreen because the mis-construal is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.
Note, by the way, that the author of this mis-hearing may be a speaker of the dialect in which "beg" has the same vowel as the first syllable of "bagel". For these folks, "egg corn" and "acorn" are really homonyms, if the first is not spoken so as to artificially separate the words.
[update (9/30/2003): Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them "egg corns", in the metonymic tradition of "mondegreen", since the eponymous solution of "malapropism" and "spoonerism" is not appropriate.]
"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says.The example is unexceptional if it reads ... says Christopher Hitchens, who....
(Larissa MacFarquhar. The devil's accountant. The New Yorker, March 31, 2003 (p. 67, column 2).)
English does have a strict requirement that a supplementary relative (in the example, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky) appear directly adjacent to its anchor (Christopher Hitchens). Deviating from this results in ungrammaticality or a change in meaning:
*"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens says, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky.This genuine restriction combines with the conjectured ban on quotative inversion to leave says stranded at the end of a long and complex appositive expression.
This is not the only such example I have found in The New Yorker, but I'm afraid it is the only one that I jotted down. I hope to strengthen the conjecture with additional evidence soon.
In all the recriminations since the Iraq war, not a single news source has picked up on the semantic trick members of the Bush administration used to cover ifor the controversial Niger yellowcake allegation that President George W. Bush included the in his State of the Union address back in January 2003. Even careful re-examinations of the issue (see, e.g., The Economist, July 19th, p. 21) have failed to spot it.
For the benefit of anyone who spent the first seven months of 2003 in a coma, let me offer a reminder: yellowcake is uranium ore, and Iraq was at one time rumored to have been trying to buy some from Niger in West Africa. The CIA thought this information, which British intelligence sources believed, was unreliable and quite possibly untrue, and director George Tenet would not endorse its repetition in a presidential speech. The White House appears to have persuaded them to lend approval to a what was meant to be a weaker claim attributing the report to British intelligence, and Tenet reluctantly acceded.
So Bush said in his January speech: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
When this claim was later queried by the press, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was put out front to say, "It's technically accurate." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice explained, "The British have said that."
What any linguist familiar with English lexical semantics would notice here is that Rice switched verbs. Bush didn't make a statement about what the British had said; he made a statement about what they had learned.
The difference is crucial, because learn is what is known as a factive verb. I can say that two plus two is five time I like, but I can't learn that two plus two is five unless it really is.
It is true that occasionally people use learn more loosely, as if it just meant "be told in school", as in "Students in the madrasas still learn that America is evil", but Bush surely didn't mean that schoolroom sense of learn. What he said entailed, and was meant to entail, not just that British government sources had voiced a claim about Iraq's dealings in West Africa, but that the claim was true.
The defenses by Rumsfeld and Rice were playing fast and loose with this important fact. Bush's statement was not "technically accurate", unless the Niger yellowcake story was true. (The British still maintain it was, incidentally; I'm not offering a judgment about that.)
Whatever the rest of the justification for war against Iraq, the President really did personally vouch for the truth of the Niger yellowcake story in his State of the Union speech to Congress and the people.
That's what happens when you say "X has learned that P": you commit yourself to the claim that P is true. Don't toss factive verbs around lightly.