Tag Archives: utterance

Selectors And Semantic vs. Syntactic Arguments

In case anyone wonders (“feel free to come to the point when you finally decide what it is”), the point of the following ramblings is to arrive at a place where I can make a distinction between semantic arguments and syntactic arguments.  The point of making this distinction will become clear (or not) in a later post.  Making the distinction is part of my attempting to put in my own words the argument that Tagalog lacks a subject.

In the previous post, I argued (or claimed, or made the completely unsupported, nay, spurious assertion, as the case may be) that the semantics of Maganda si Robert Pattinson can also be given by the following statement in the database language Tutorial D:


This statement includes the Selector PERSON(NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’)).  Let me unpack a bit what this is. Before I start, I’d like to point out that I THINK that it is  legal in Tutorial D to nest one selector inside another…

NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’) is a operator or function that takes the string ‘Robert Pattinson’ and selects one and only one name.  I will take the concept ‘selects’ as primitive here.  Any implementation of this selector in a physical computer would involve shuffling around ones and zeros until the computer spits out, i.e., returns, one member of the set NAME.  NAME would include strings, but subject to certain limitations.  For example, I assume a  name would have to be, at least, less than 1 billion characters long.  NAME would also include more than strings (that is, representations of text):  a name can be selected by a sound.  So NAME(<<some representation of a sound>>) could also select the name Robert Pattinson. (The reader will notice that I have not yet decided on how to represent, in the absence of a formal selector, a name as opposed to a string as opposed to the person himself…)

PERSON(NAME(Robert Pattinson)) would take the name selected by NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’) and return a member of the set PERSONS, i.e., Robert Pattinson himself.  I don’t know how a computer would implement this operator, but a human being would be implementing that operator in the following type of circumstance:  say, I am sitting in a restaurant.  Someone in the table next to me says:

 I hereby officially declare myself to belong to Team Edward because Robert Pattinson is just too gorgeous.

One part of that utterance, the part that I hear as the word ‘Robert Pattinson’, is the end point of a long causal chain that begins, say, when the parents of Robert Pattinson, after endless wrangling and indecision, finally agree to call their baby ‘Robert’; the doctor in the Maternity Ward crosses out the ‘baby boy’ in ‘baby boy Pattinson’ and writes in  ‘Robert’ on the birth certificate (call this the ‘baptismal event’) … endless events … a director or producer chooses the person named by ‘Robert Pattinson’ to play Edward Cullen in TWILIGHT … endless events…the person sitting at the table next to me sees TWILIGHT…he reads in a magazine he buys at the supermarket that Robert Pattinson played the part of Edward Cullen…he emits a set of soundwaves at the table next to me, which in turn trigger God-only-knows what processes in my brain, until I hear ‘…Robert Pattinson….’  That entire causal chain, ending up in the wetware of my brain, selects the person Robert Pattinson.  THAT’s the implementation of the selector PERSON(NAME(<<some representation of certain sound waves>>)).  Speaking metaphorically and a bit picturesquely, the selector spits out, or returns, Robert Pattinson himself, the flesh-and-blood Robert Pattinson who lives in (I would say ‘Valencia, California’, but that is where Taylor Lautner lives)…. Speaking literally, the selector selects Robert Pattinson himself.

(See Saul Kripke, who apparently never explicitly endorsed this causal theory of reference aka selection.  Gareth Evans would apparently deem this theory, as stated by me, to be naive, but it seems perfectly intuitive to me.)

Invocations of selectors produce literals (more accurately, I guess, are literals).  So whatever else Robert Pattinson himself may be, he is a literal value.

Let me take the liberty of allowing selector invocations as arguments supplied to the parameters of functions, so that we can replace x with the argument PERSON(NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’)) in the function x EQUALS x to produce a true proposition.  Below, I have identified, ala Chisholm, propositions with states of affairs in the world:  here, with Robert Pattinson being identical with Robert Pattinson.  This proposition gives us the semantics of the utterance “Robert Pattinson equals Robert Pattinson.”

I will therefore call the invocation of PERSON(NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’)) a semantic argument.  By contrast, the invocation of NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’), occuring inside an utterance, spoken or written, is a syntactic argument.  In this way, I make sense of the semantic arguments vs. syntactic arguments distinction I puzzled over in a previous post.

I do not know, of course, whether this is the distinction that Beatrice Santorini wanted to make.

I will end by making another homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM, according to which interest in Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Kellan Lutz et al ultimately leads to interest in the Relational Algebra, and from there, to the Form of Beauty itself:


Wow, I love that slightly-unshaven look…(the reader may  hear a rapturous sigh…)

Now, having briefly lapsed into a lower form of eros, I will go back to eros for the Relational Algebra in connection with Semantics….

Update:  After hitting the publish button, I saw this quote from the first Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain:

The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.

Benjamin Disraeli

Or blog about it at length.


Predicate = Topic Structure In Tagalog Sentences

Titser ang….

Imagine a Tagalog speaker in the act of uttering a sentence, beginning with those words.  Not having yet uttered the noun phrase that is about to come after the ang, the speaker hasn’t yet come to the topic — what the utterance is about.  So far we, the speaker’s audience, have no handle on any definite person or object being talked about — this will come a bit later, after the ang noun phrase.  What we can reasonably guess, though, is that the person being talked about is identical with some member(s) of the set titser, i.e., the set of teachers.  (We can guess that, that is, if we are familiar with the notion of sets.)  To use the database theorist C.J. Date’s terminology,  we already know that the person, whoever he or she is, putatively belongs to the type titser.

Titser ang babae.

If the speaker’s utterance has not misfired — if his confidence is not misplaced that we will know whom he is talking about — then at the utterance’s conclusion we, his audience, will have identified from the context which person is being talked about.  The context can be either perceptual (say, the person has just walked into the room) or spoken (the person, say, was previously mentioned in conversation).  The identification is something happening at the pragmatic level.  (Warning:  I have recently picked up just enough linguistics to be a danger both to myself and to society at large.  I am now able to persuade myself that I can distinguish between the pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic levels of an utterance.)  Assuming the statement is true, we now know which member of the set of teachers is being talked about.  So the utterance has the effect of:  [Do I need to cash out this ‘has the effect of’?]

I embraced the summer dawn

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular woman. (Where A, B, C … are members of the set of teachers.)

I embraced the summer dawn

I advance this analysis of Titser ang babae in an attempt to cash out the linguist Paz Buenaventura Naylor’s claim that the canonical Tagalog sentence (comprising predicate on the left + topic or ang phrase on the right) is an equality.  Consider the following English sentences, identical with or almost the same as the examples Naylor uses:


Teacher = the woman.

Beautiful = the man.

Left = the woman.


These express in English the force of:   [Can I get away with the metaphor ‘force’?]


Titser ang babae.

Maganda ang lalaki.

Umalis ang babae.


At first sight, Naylor’s claim is, I think, more intuitive in the case of Titser ang babae than it is in the other two cases. How is beautiful equal to this particular man?  What could that possibly mean?  Likewise, how is left (as in ‘left the room’ ) equal to this particular woman?  But if we cash out thse equations as:


One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular woman.  (Where A, B, C, etc. are particular teachers.)

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular man.  (Where A, B, C… are particular beautiful objects or people.

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular woman. (Where A, B, C…are particular people ((or animals, or anythings else with agency)) who have left some place, e.g., a  particular room, a city, a country.) [Can I get away with restricting ‘left’ in the third example to leaving a particular place, as opposed to a job, a wife, a party, and so on?]


… then the equality becomes much more intuitive in the case of the second and third examples.

If, like me, you like to think in terms of wildly undisciplined, not completely respectable pictures and metaphors, picture at the start of the utterance — Titser ang…. — a crowd comprising all the teachers in the world.  [How strict do I need to be in specifying this set?]  Our view of each teacher is fuzzed out or grayed out so that no teacher can be distinguished from another.  The utterance completes:  Titser ang babae.  The moment the utterance is understood, our view of one teacher in the crowd resolves itself.  We now clearly see one particular woman who is a teacher.  Likewise, gather in one’s imagination all the beautiful objects or people…and all the entities with agency who have just left a place…..  The same picture we used in the case of  Titser ang babae applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other two utterances.  When the utterance completes, our fuzzy picture gets resolved, and a particular beautiful man (Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It or even in The Tree Of Life) appears, or a particular woman (Marlene Dietrich, say) who has just left this particular room.  Brad Pitt pops into view.  Marlene Dietrich pops into view.

The equation makes sense now in these two latter cases because one particular gets identified with another particular when we utter the sentences.   ‘This particular thing (veiled at the start of the utterance) is identical with that particular thing (known to speaker and audience through the context, i.e., pragmatically). ‘


∃x ∈ titser: x = ang babae.

∃x ∈ maganda: x =  si Brad Pitt.

∃x ∈ umalis: x = si Marlene Dietrich.


We make sense of the claim that the canonical sentence in Tagalog has a predicate = topic structure when we regard not just titser, but also maganda and umalis as names of sets.  One member of each set equals an entity named in the topic that has been identified pragmatically.  This will also start to make sense of Naylor’s intitially counter-intuitive claim that in Tagalog what look like verbs are actually nouns, i.e., names.

To use an even less respectable conceit (‘conceit’ used here as in the sense it is applied to the technique used by English Metaphysical Poets), it is as if we identified an unknown star in the morning with an already identified Evening Star.  The ang phrase codes old information:  we already know the Evening Star is the planet Venus.  The predicate codes new information:  we now know, by the end of the sentence, which bright object showing up in the morning is in fact identical with the Evening Star is in fact identical with the planet Venus.  It is as if something like this were happening with every Predicate = Topic Tagalog sentence….

All right.  Enough of strained metaphors … although this one at least lets me picture the function of the Tagalog predicate as coding new information and the Tagalog ang phrase as coding old information.  And lets me picture ‘start of utterance’ (morning) with ‘completion of utterance’ (evening).


When I first started suffering under the delusion that I had some grasp of how Tagalog works vs. English, I pictured the canonical Tagalog sentence as a weighing scale:  one puts the predicate on the left side of the scale, then places the topic, the ang phrase, at the right side of the scale so that now the two sides are completely balanced, are completely level.  I contrasted this with the standard English sentence, say “The man threw the ball” which is “transitive” — i.e., energy flows into the ball from the man, energy gets transmitted from the man to the ball.

This first picture contrasting with the second was my first Aha-Erlebnis regarding Tagalog.  Balance and equality vs. transmission.  This Aha-Erlebnis gained strength when I encountered Naylor’s claim that the canonical Tagalog sentence has a Predicate = Topic structure, though I did not completely understand what that equation meant in the cases of (ostensible) adjectives and verbs.  (I say ‘ostensible’ because Naylor persuasively argues that the ‘verbs’ at least are really nouns — on the syntactic level — in Tagalog.)  I submit that we can understand this this equality by thinking in terms of sets, i.e., of types.  The canonical Tagalog sentence works, as it moves from start to completion, first, by restricting the range of things possibly being talked about to members of a set, then by changing the status of one object of that set from ‘currently unidentified’ to ‘identified’  by equating it with an object known from the context by the time the utterance completes to be the object being talked about.  Typically, that object, coded by the topic, constitutes old information of some sort:  everyone has seen Brad Pitt enter the room, for example, or he has been talked about previously.  And typically, the predicate codes new information, or information that hits one with a renewed force that calls for a likewise renewed predication: Brad Pitt is beautiful.  ∃x ∈ maganda: x =  si Brad Pitt.  Maganda si Brad Pitt.

UPDATE (12/10/2011):  Beiged out a metaphor that is, while still useful to me as unfinished lumber, is likely to be confusing to anyone else.  Tried to clarify the concluding sentence in red.

UPDATE (12/14/2011)  Added the ∃x ∈ <<name of set>> statements.