Tag 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:



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:

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:

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:

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.

Trying To Understand The Subjectless Tagalog Sentence Umuulan (Rains)

Looking at the semantics for a 1-place predicate such as the English laughs (an “intransitive” verb, i.e., a verb with a transitivity of 1, having only an agent parameter into which arguments can be plugged naming the agent) suggests a way to understand at least one subjectless, 0-place predicate Tagalog verb:  umuulan.

The semantics for laughs can be described as a function from an agent to a truth value.  For the sake of simplicity, I will restrict the members of the set of entities who can laugh to just 10 — this is our pretend universe of people who are able to laugh.

[[ laughs ]] = { Kan → F, Chris → T, Kha → T, Guile → T, Juan → T, Corliss → T, Ralph → T, John → T, Robert → F, Ken → F }

A truth value T or F is assigned to each member of the set according to whether the person laughs now or not.

Imagine now a machine on whose screen one sees “_ laughs.”  The machine takes as input an argument for the agent parameter.  The argument is a string representing a particular person who can laugh.  Suppose we enter the string “Chris,” and hit ENTER.   The machine produces two outputs.  One output is the string “Chris laughs,” which is the syntactic effect of the operation.

The other output is the truth value T, which is its semantic effect.  Calling the function with the argument string “Chris” selects the entity Chris denoted by the argument and returns the associated truth value T.   (See http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/00/ch3.html#argumenthood.)  This truth value might be represented, say, by the string “T” appearing on the screen, or, less prosaically, by a shaft of light coming down from the heavens accompanied by the sublime choir of Caravaggio-esque angels.

How would one construct a similar machine for the Tagalog predicate umuulan, which has no agent parameter accepting an argument….in fact, has no parameters at all?    Unlike the English speaker, who has to plug in a phony agent to produce the sentence “It is raining” (there has to be SOMETHING that is raining, a close friend of mine said, apparently basing his intuitions on his first language Vietnamese and his second language English), the Tagalog speaker simply says umuulan — rains.

(Let me write umuulan when I am talking about the complex of the string “umuulan” and the semantic machine, and “umuulan,” as I have just done twice, when I am talking about just the string, stripped from its context in the semantic machine.)

Let’s construct the function this way:

[[umuulan]] = { Locality around Jamby at time t0 → T, Locality around Juan at time t1 → F, Locality around Jamby at time t1 → T … }

The assignment of the truth values T or F to each locality is determined by whether drops of water can be felt dropping in that locality.  How ‘locality’ is to be defined — how many miles or fraction of a mile around Jamby etc. is enough to count as a locality, is a sorites issue which I will ignore for the moment (though of course it cannot be ignored forever).

Jamby logs into the semantic machine using the string “Jamby.”  The machine captures the time of his logon with a timestamp, which happens to be t0.  The semantic machine calls the function using the string “Jamby” and the timestamp,  selects the locality determined by those two values, and returns, on the syntactic level, the string “umuulan,” and on the semantic level, the truth value T (represented however which way).

Construed this way, umuulan would function as a kind of indexical.  The indexical character of the predicate enables one to show how the semantic machine can select a  particular member of the set of localities and return its associated truth value without the aid of an argument plugged into an agent parameter.  Without an agent parameter — without any parameter — the predicate lacks a subject. It is a subjectless sentence.  It is a sentence nonetheless — actually, a proposition — because even in its naked agent-parameter-less subjectless state it is either true or false.

If anything could be a well-formed sentence without a subject, umuulan would be it.  Rain has a pervasive quality — in all the grayness, mist, and clouds, it is difficult to point to any specific thing that is the agent of the the raining, that is doing the raining.  The case is different in the unusual and maybe somewhat comical situation in which a single dark cloud above one’s head is raining on one, because that cloud is identifiable.  At least in the less rational parts of one’s mind, the cloud is an agent doing something, initiating an action, even as one’s rational mind discounts this.

(In any attempt to deal with the vagueness of the term ‘locality,’ I would want to work with the notion ‘point at which nothing gets identified as the agent of the raining.’ )

So this is my account of one Tagalog subjectless sentence, umuulan.  No subject is required for the hypothetical semantic machine to do its work in the case of umuulan.  But what about the other subjectless Tagalog sentences, a category which according to Paz Buenaventura Naylor, Paul Schachter, and others, includes all Tagalog sentences?  What sort of account can be given for all of these sentences?  Can a way be found to construe the workings of these sentences as not needing a subject, in which case the notion of a subject is not a linguistic universal after all, or will we be forced to re-introduce the notion of a subject in order to understand them?  Can a way be found to make the subjectless character of these sentences (if in fact they are subjectless) intuitive, as (maybe — my friend may dispute this) was done with umuulan?

The attempt to answer these questions is what is motivating these posts on Tagalog.