Category Archives: Paul Schachter

The Mystery Of The Missing IS: Or, Had John Duns Scotus Been An Ordinary-Language Philosopher Working In Tagalog


Below, I have tried to start incubating the suspicion that there is something fishy about treating ‘is’ as a predicate with two parameters accepting one argument each, i.e., a two-place relation.


Tagalog doesn’t have a verb ‘is’, no verb ‘to be’.  Given that more literal translations of Tagalog sentences often display the phrase ang noun phrase structure as:

 

phrase [is] ang noun phrase


For example:

Titser ang babae.

Maganda ang lalaki.

Umalis ang babae.

gets rendered as:

Teacher [is] the woman.

Beautiful [is] the man.

Having left [is] the woman.

or as I prefer (see my attempt below at eliciting the ‘aha erlebniss’):

Some teacher one  [is] the woman.

Some beautiful one [is] the man.

Some having left one [is] the woman.

…given that, one might think that, always, the suspect verb aka predicate aka relation is implicitly in effect in sentences with that structure.  The lack of a verb ‘to be’, of an ‘is’ in Tagalog that so perplexed the first Spanish grammarians of the language (so that, in their total confusion and lack of understanding, they tried to interpret the Tagalog inversion marker ‘ay‘ as the verb ‘is’, a confusion and misinterpretation that has had hilarious consequences lasting to this day), is always there, just unpronounced (or unwritten).  The space between ‘maganda‘ and ‘ang lalaki‘ in the written sentence, or the lack of interruption in the string of sounds (if that is how maganda ang lalaki gets pronounced — I am not strong enough presently in Tagalog to know) or the glottal interruption (if one exists between the ‘maganda‘ and ‘ang lalaki‘)  … the space, or lack of interruption in the continuous stream of sound, or the glottal, these are, as the case may be, an implicit sign of the two-place relation ‘is’.

Following Naylor, Schachter, and my own intuition, I have been treating the space, the lack of interruption in the continuous stream of sound, the glottal as an implicit equals.  For example, I prefer to translate the above three Tagalog sentences as:

Some teacher one  = the woman.

Some beautiful one = the man.

Some having left one = the woman.

Unlike ‘is’, however, which is (if there is such a critter) a two-place relation, ‘equals’ (alternatively, ‘=’ ) is, as I am about to show, a one place relation.  It is not just that the sign corresponding to ‘is’ is lacking in Tagalog:  the (real or putative) semantics of ‘is’ is lacking in Tagalog as well.  Tagalog is working with something completely different.

Clearly the ‘equals’ that is in play here is not given by the ‘equals’ in the following two-place relation:

 

THISTHAT

EQUALS (0)
Morning Star Evening Star
3 3
Rose With Barcode 3185321 Rose With Barcode 3185321
Clifford Wirt Clifford Wirt
The murderer of Jones The butler

…because in sentences such as Maganda si Taylor Lautner, the word ‘Maganda’  does not, at the moment of its utterance, specify, identify, locate, expose, or pick out any one particular thing.   ‘Maganda’ is equivalent to ‘Some beautiful one’, or the part of the formal sentence below that occurs before the ‘=’:

∃x ∈ MAGANDA: x = si Taylor Lautner.

The x that belongs to the set MAGANDA is left unspecified, unidentified, unlocated, unexposed, un-picked-out at the start:  Maganda … though it does get specified at the end:  …si Taylor Lautner.  But a two-place relation requires two identified, specified arguments for its two attributes.

Let me try to capture in D the sentence ‘∃x ∈ MAGANDA: x = si Taylor Lautner’.  Let me posit the following 1-place relation:


MAGANDA (0)
MAGANDANG_BAGAY
Taylor Lautner
Sunset at time t and place p
Rose With Barcode 3185321
Wine Red
The Taj Mahal
Haendel’s Umbra Mai Fu

Taking this relation as my springboard, I capture ∃x ∈ MAGANDA as MAGANDA{} (which gives us TABLE_DEE, or TRUE, or YES), then do a CARTESIAN PRODUCT of that with a restriction of MAGANDA:

with
MAGANDA{} as t_sub_0,
MAGANDA{MAGANDANG_BAGAY} where   MAGANDANG_BAGAY= ‘Taylor    Lautner’ as t_sub_1:
t_sub_0 X t_sub_1

CARTESIAN PRODUCT is a special case of JOIN.  TABLE_DEE JOIN r, where r is any relation, yields r.  So the D statement above yields:

MAGANDA (1)
MAGANDANG_BAGAY
Taylor Lautner

which expresses the semantics of the sentence ‘Maganda si Taylor Lautner’.  In this way, we get rid of the doubtful (I think) verb aka two-place relation ‘is’.

To sum up, a bit impishly:  the semantics of ‘is’ is different in Tagalog than in English because Tagalog really doesn’t have an ‘is’.  Later, I will try to develop this into part of an argument that Tagalog lacks a subject.  Tagalog’s lacking a verb ‘to be’ is related to its lacking a subject.

To stray back for a moment to philosophy:  were Duns Scotus an ordinary-language philosopher working in Tagalog, it may never have occurred to him to try to find a single relation (e.g. ‘contracts’ ) between the entity Beauty, as the argument on one side of the predicate ‘is’, and Taylor Lautner as the argument on the other side of the predicate, and so on for every other proposition formed by supplying arguments to the parameters x and y in the predicate x is y.

11/10/2012:  Updated to make a point a bit more clearly.

11/10/2012:  Updated to parenthetically add some snark about the first Spanish grammarians of the Tagalog language in the 1600’s.

 

Update:  11/25/2012:  Post grayed-out because I am dissatisfied with it.

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Maganda Without The Ang

Compare:

1) Birfers!

with any of the following:

2) Si Robert Pattinson ang maganda.  (The beautiful one is Robert Pattinson.)

3) Ang maganda si Taylor Lautner.  (Taylor Lautner is the beautiful one.)

The exclamation “Birfers!” is a speech act naming a set, namely, the set of people who think that Obama is not a citizen of the United States.  (This is a substantial subset of ‘people who are seriously detached from reality’.)  Following Max Black, I submit that a set is just ‘things named all at once.’  ‘Birfers!’ thus establishes a set by naming all at once all people who are Birfers at the time of the utterance.

Robert Pattinson ang maganda” and “Ang maganda si Taylor Lautner” show a peculiarity about Tagalog:  one can turn an adjective or verb into a noun denoting a particular, discrete entity by pre-posing ‘ang‘ to it.  The sentences do not translate as “The beautiful is Robert Pattinson;’ and ‘Taylor Lautner is beautiful’;  they translate as “The beautiful one is Robert Pattinson” and “Taylor Lautner is the beautiful one”.  The ‘ang‘ in ‘ang maganda‘ signals that some entity has already been identified or will readily be identified (when it is pre-posed to to the topic) or that this definite entity and not some other is identical with the topic (when it is pre-posed to the predicate).

One sees, for example, a person in a group who stands out because of his beauty and you are confident he will stand out this way for your audience.  You know that Robert Pattinson is identical with this person, but you aren’t sure that the people you are talking with know this, so you say “The beautiful one is Robert Pattinson.”  “Si Robert Pattinson ang maganda.” You are assuming an identity.

You see someone in a group whom you know to be Taylor Lautner; you are overwhelmed by his beauty, but you are not totally sure that everyone else is (Dr. Forsberg for example is constantly casting aspersions on your taste in guys); there are other arguably beautiful men there…Brad Pitt, for example, or Matt Damon or Jude Law or Ashton Kutchner… so you say “Taylor Lautner is the beautiful one”.  “Ang maganda si Taylor Lautner”.  Not Brad Pitt, not Matt Damon, not Jude Law, not Ashton Kutchner, but Taylor Lautner — just to set the record straight.  So you are asserting, stating, not just assuming an identity.  This is the predicate, after all.

That ang either assumes or asserts an identity suggests the possibility of interpreting ‘maganda‘ as ‘some (currently unidentified) beautiful one.’  Taking out the ‘ang‘ takes out the identity, the ‘this specific one’, the ‘this one and not that other’.  What one is left with then is some (currently) not yet specified beautiful one; there exists some member of the set of beautiful entities, but we do not yet know which one, nor do we have enough of a handle on the entity to say it’s this one and not that other.

Of course, without the ‘ang‘, ‘maganda‘ cannot be the topic of the sentence. (The ‘*’ indicates a sentence that would strike competent speakers as a word salad.)

* Si Robert Pattinson maganda.

So in the canonical Tagalog sentence, the ang-less maganda could only be at the left of the sentence — on the left side of the scales, so to speak:

Maganda si Robert Pattinson.

This would then translate (on an extremely literal level) as:

Some beautiful one = Robert Pattinson.

Or again:

Some member of the set of beautiful entities = Robert Pattinson.

And this would be the easiest, cleanest way to cash out the intuition that the canonical Tagalog sentence has a PREDICATE = TOPIC structure.  Coming up with the cleanest way of doing this is the motivation for suggesting that we look at ‘maganda‘ as ‘ang maganda‘ stripped of the assumed or asserted specific identity signaled by the ‘ang‘.  (And understanding the arguments for the claim that Tagalog does not have a subject is the motivation for trying to cash out the PREDICATE = TOPIC intuition.)

If this way of cashing out the intuition is correct, then, ‘maganda‘ does not name a set in 2), as I suggested in a previous post.  Instead, it names some member of the set of beautiful entities that is unidentified at the moment of the utterance of the word and will remain unidentified until we get to ‘si Robert Pattinson.’  In this way, it differs from the ejaculation ‘Birfers!’ because, unlike ‘Birfers!’, it names not a set but some (unidentified) member of a set.

Above, I say ‘suggests the possibility’ rather than ‘shows’ because of course this interpretation of ‘maganda‘ has not been demonstrated.  To show that ‘maganda‘ in 2) names at the time of utterance some (currently unidentified) beautiful entity, I would have to show that stripping away the ‘ang‘ in ‘ang maganda‘ does not radically alter the function of the word ‘maganda.’  This of course I have not shown.  The constituents of ‘ang maganda‘ might not be that atomistic, partes extra partes.

So far all I have is ‘I have the intuition that the canonical Tagalog sentence is an equality (and Naylor and Schachter also have this intuition, so  nyah nyah nyah), and interpreting ‘maganda‘ in the way I have just suggested would be the simplest way to describe this equality should the intuition turn out to be correct.