Monday, December 26, 2011

Eighth Annual Ralphies

Before I begin the long-awaited Ralphies, I would like to congratulate myself on keeping "Ralph" going. Way to go, buddy! By the way, if anyone is interested in knowing how many hits are produced by a mention in the New York Times -- the answer is zero. Not one. This is because the clueless NYT doesn't provide click-through links for blogs mentioned in its august pages (on-line edition), and its readers don't really think about looking anything up for themselves. Thanks a lot, Gray Lady.

All right, enough self-serving patter. The question is, Who gets the awards? As in past years, the answers don't come easily.

Music: This year I paid a bit more attention to music than in the past, partly due to the Sirius satellite radio installed in the new car. This provides not only a steady stream of old favorites (like the Electric Prunes), but also an introduction to new (Real Estate) and semi-newish (Metric) bands. Hello, world! The Song of the Year Ralphie goes, as it did last year, to the one song that annoyingly got stuck on repeat play in my brain and wouldn't go away for weeks: Pumped-Up Kicks by Foster the People. The Album of the Year goes to a group who returned after a long hiatus, and were still awesome: Gillian Welch, with The Harrow and the Harvest.

Books (FIction): I actually read a couple of fairly new books in the fiction category this year. Unfortunately, they won't get a Ralphie. I read Anthony Horowitz's House of Silk, based on a rave review in the Washington Post. It was a reasonably good read, but not really in the same league as Conan Doyle. I also read Tana French's Faithful Place. One of these day, she is going to write a great novel -- she's got it in her -- but she hasn't yet. All of her books are page-turners, but have some fatal flaw. In the Woods neglects to tie up a big loose end; The premise of The Likeness is just too unbelievable; and now Faithful Place telegraphs the ending from a mile away. No, the best fiction I read this year was graphic: David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds, and Brian Michael Bendis's Alias series. The Ralphie goes to the last named, by a hair.

Books (Non-fiction): Wow, I don't even know where to begin. I read a lot of stuff this year. I'm going to give the Ralphie to Nick Riemer's Introducing Semantics, for getting a whole lot of ideas going in my brain, although as a textbook I'm not sure that John Saeed's Semantics is not better for students than Riemer.

Television: Television took a big back seat this year, as did Movies. The only show I consistently have to watch is Fringe. which is still the best thing out there, although it has yet to catch fire in Season 4. I also found myself watching, although not compulsively, Game of Thrones and Homeland. The latter was enjoyable, but suffered in comparison with the similar but much superior series on AMC, the much-lamented Rubicon. But Fringe gets the Ralphie.

Movies: Didn't see that many. We went to see the last Harry Potter movie, and my reaction was the same one that I had for all the others: OK, but so what? Much better was Super 8, which gets the Ralphie. But I'm sure there were good movies out there; I just didn't see them.

All right kids, be sure and write in to tell me what your favorites are! The best response gets a free lifetime subscription to "Ralph." Cheers!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Swarming in Hebrew

For about the past year, I've been preoccupied with the question of "argument alternations" or "diathesis alternations" in Biblical Hebrew, just because I think they're interesting and also because I think they've been neglected in the lexicography and grammar of Biblical Hebrew. I've been trying both to understand them in a general way, and also to identify them in Hebrew.

Very briefly: What I mean by "argument alternation" is an alternation in the syntactic or semantic arguments of a verb that leave the form of the verb unchanged. For instance in English we can say "John broke the window" and also "the window broke." The object of the first sentence has become the subject of the second sentence, but the verb is unchanged. Another example is "Water filled the tank" and "The tank filled with water." The object of sentence 1 becomes the subject of sentence 2, while the subject of sentence 1 is placed in a prepositional phrase in sentence 2, but there is no change to the verb filled. Such phenomena have been the object of intense scrutiny, for instance in Beth Levin's English Verb Classes and Alternations (1993).

It seems to me that in Biblical Hebrew, alternations like this are rarer than in English, because typically in Hebrew when the semantic arguments change their syntactic mapping from, say, Patient/Object to Patient/Subject (as in the "broke" example), the verb stem or binyan also changes, so that, for instance, shavar (Qal) "he broke (something", would change to nishbar (Niphal), "(something) broke."

However, this is not always the case, and there is actually a fair number of alternating verbs in Biblical Hebrew. One small group that I have just run across has to do with the verbs meaning swarm or teem. For English, verbs of this type were studied at length in an article by Maurice Solkoff, "Bees are swarming in the garden" (1983). Briefly, verbs of this type (and it is larger than just the verb swarm and its synonyms), display an alternation in which the semantic Agent may switch syntactic Subject slots with the Location word, so that one may say "Bees are swarming in the garden" (agent subject) or "The garden is swarming with bees" (location subject). This type of alternation occurs, it seems, only with intransitive verbs.

Interestingly, the root שׁרץ in Biblical Hebrew apparently displays just such an alternation. The agent-subject type is attested; e.g. Gen 7:21 ha-sheretz ha-shoretz al ha-aretz, "the swarm that swarms on the earth"; or, e.g., Gen 9:7 "swarm (shirtzu) in the earth and multiply in it." But the location-subject is also attested: Gen 1:20 "let the waters swarm (yishretzu) with a swarm of creatures"; or, Exod 7:28 "the river will swarm (ve-sharatz) with frogs." A concordance will turn up all the examples, but if you want to track them down the references are Gen 1:20-21; 7:21; 8:17; 9:7; Exod 1:7; 7:28; Lev 11:29, 41-43, 46; Ezek 47:9; Ps 105:30. The synonymous verb רמש displays the same behavior, although the location-subject examples are few: Gen 9:2, Lev 20:25, both tirmos ha-adamah, "(all the creatures that) the soil teems with."

What is not immediately clear to me is whether the location-subject type has the same entailments in Hebrew as it does in English. It has been observed that in English the location-subject type has a "holistic" effect, and entails that the Location is more affected, more filled up, than with the agent-subject type; "the garden is swarming with bees" entails that every part of the garden has bees swarming in it, while "bees are swarming in the garden" does not have the same entailment. But in Hebrew I'm not sure that the waters in Gen 1:20 (location subject) will be more full of swarming creatures than the earth will be in the apparently similar Gen 9:7 (agent subject). This needs to be looked at in greater depth.

It is also not clear to me (yet) whether the core of the Hebrew verb has to do with motion (crawl, creep) or with numerical increase (abound, teem). It would be nice if the agent types would line up with the motion idea and the location types with the idea of increase, but they don't.

In fact, it is possible that this is another type of alternation altogether: the location-subject types do not have the look of intransitives at all. I've translated them that way (as do most English Bibles), but the complements in fact could be construed as accusative direct objects: not "the river swarmed with frogs" but "the river swarmed frogs" (i.e. produced them in swarms); "let the waters swarm a swarm of creatures," etc. This is in fact the way the LXX construes these instances. This, then, would be an example of the so-called Causative-Inchoative alternation, consisting of an intransitive verb and a transitive alternation meaning "to cause to (intransitive meaning)." In this case, the agent-subject would be intransitive and the location-subject would be transitive.

So we have, as it were, alternative alternations. Which is it? I'll have to think about it some more, but I'd be happy to receive the views of others.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: See also David Dowty, The Semantic Assymetry of Argument Alternations (and why it matters) (2001), at his personal webpage; Maurice Salkoff, "Bees Are Swarming in the Garden," Language 59 (1983): 288-346.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dylan and Plagiarism

The discussion of Bob Dylan and his "borrowing" habit goes on (especially on the Internet), but not usually at a high level of sophistication. Part of the problem is that people in general are not working with a clear notion of what plagiarism is. I would like to submit some criteria for understanding the notion of plagiarism and the conditions under which it can be identified.

The minimal necessary condition for plagiarism is the uncredited use of someone else's work. I think everyone can agree that if this condition is not present, then plagiarism is not present. However, note that this is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. By itself, uncredited use is not plagiarism. One might allude to another's well-known work, without a citation and without plagiarism. Faulkner did not need to credit Shakespeare for the title of The Sound and the Fury; he could assume that the allusion would be recognized. We can sing the song "Happy Birthday" without crediting Patty and Mildred Hill every time. We might also unconsciously or forgetfully incorporate someone else's words into our own composition; when someone is accused of plagiarism, this is usually the first line of defense.

The last point leads to an addition to our first necessary condition. There must also be an intention to present the uncredited work as your own work. That's why an effective defense can be "I forgot to give credit" or "I used this unconsciously"; it denies that the use was intentional. Every teacher has heard this defense from students accused of plagiarism, and sometimes it might even be true. It was George Harrison's (unsuccessful) defense against his plagiarism of "He's So Fine" for "My Sweet Lord."

It might seem that these two necessary conditions, uncredited use and intention to mislead, are jointly sufficient criteria for plagiarism. Nevertheless, I want to add one more condition. The question is often raised whether older authors, like Chaucer or Shakespeare, were guilty of plagiarism. Chaucer, for instance, used extensively Boccaccio's Il Filostrato in composing Troilus and Criseyde. Many of Shakespeare's plots come from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. Going even farther back, the gospels Matthew and Luke made use of passages taken almost verbatim from the Gospel of Mark. Are all these writers plagiarists? I think we feel intuitively that the answer is no, although our definition as currently constructed would imply that the answer is yes.

Therefore we need to add the further condition making reference to a presumption of originality. During the time of Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or the gospels, there was no overarching presumption that a book or play contained only original work. The cultural norms were different; but at some point between Shakespeare's time and our time (indeed, already in the 18th century) a new assumption of authorial originality became normative, at least for written compositions.

So our concept of plagiarism has these three components: (1) uncredited use that is (2) intentional (3) within a presumption of originality.

The problem with Dylan's borrowing habit is complicated. He and others have often made reference to a "folk process" in the arena of folk music or popular music, wherein the older, pre-modern, practice of free borrowing and re-use of older work was still normative. Hence the many tunes and lyrics derived from other artists found in his catalog are widely felt (possibly correctly) to be non-problematic (although Dylan is unwilling to extend this permissiveness to artists borrowing his work). In other words, there is no strong presumption of originality in folk music — or possibly in music in general (although there has to be at least a weak presumption of originality in order to copyright anything).

However, there is a much stronger presumption of originality in written work published under one's own name. That's why, in the many passages in Chronicles, Volume 1 where Dylan has lifted from other authors, without credit or credible expectation of a recognizable allusion, he is arguably guilty of plagiarism.

I'm not trying to tear down the whole body of Dylan's work. I don't want to—I'm a fan—and I couldn't even if I did want to. However, I do think that in the last 10 years or so he has compensated for the waning of his creative powers by over-indulging in this borrowing habit, which reaches a high point in his own autobiography. It's not pernicious in the sense that any living person is harmed by it, but it should be acknowledged for what it is.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Besides the links given above, see Scott Warmuth's Goon Talk (passim). See also the relevant chapter in David Yaffe, Like a Complete Unknown. Their take is different than mine.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Notes on the Structure of the Hebrew Verbal System

These really are just notes, not a full-fledged think piece.

The issue with the Hebrew (I mean Biblical Hebrew prose here) verbal system (HVS) is accounting for the different uses of qatal and yiqtol at the appropriate level of generalization. It's not that difficult to list all the different functions of these verbal forms, but finding a way to characterize the whole thing has proved controversial.

Everyone agrees at this point that the HVS is not a tense-only system. This can be demonstrated with one fact:
(1) If HVS were tense-only, then yiqtol could never receive a past interpretation. But it can receive a past interpretation in prose (with the past habitual use).
There is much less unanimity that HVS is not an aspect-only system. In fact, my impression is that this view is held by the majority. Nevertheless, this approach also fails, for the following reason:
(2) If HVS were aspect-only (e.g., perfective/imperfective), then qatal could receive a future interpretation. But in fact, it does not receive a future interpretation in prose.
Hence it seems that HVS is a combined tense-aspect system, with qatal being both past and perfective, and yiqtol being past imperfective (habitual), future (either perfective or imperfective), present (general, not actual) and modal.  Many languages of the world combine tense and aspect (e.g., Greek and English) so there's nothing weird or unwelcome about this. Nevertheless, there is still a hankering (in me, at least) to find some feature of the qatal/yiqtol opposition that licenses its several interpretations without any appeal to the arbitrary.

To me the most important clue lies in an argument made by Jan Joosten (in this JANES article), that yiqtol never indicates the actual present (similar to English present progressive), only the general present (gnomic or habitual). I find Joosten's argument convincing, although you can still find statements in the grammars to the effect that yiqtol can function to indicate the actual present. If Joosten is right, then there are not any functions of yiqtol where it refers to an actual, instantiated verbal action (event, state, or process); that is, it is non-referential in that there is no particular action that it picks out.

Here, then, I think is the opposition. Qatal is referential, yiqtol non-referential; again, by referential, I mean that it points to or picks out a particular instantiated action. If qatal is referential, then that entails past tense. The entailments of yiqtol are not as constrained as those of qatal; not having referentiality means that it can be used for a typical action in the past (habitual) or the present (general present) or for a non-instantiated action (such as the future or modal). Hence the wider range of interpretations or readings (in the semantic sense) that are available for yiqtol.

"Referentiality" is usually discussed in terms of nouns and noun phrases, and verbs are not considered in that context. Nevertheless, I think one can argue that verbs can be referential (like a definite noun phrase) or non-referential (like an adjective or an indefinite noun phrase).

This doesn't explain the workings of what I call the "secondary" HVS, that of wayyiqtol and we-qatal.  I'll discuss those at a later time. Also it leaves open the use of qatal and yiqtol in poetry, where some possible counter-examples to (1) and (2) above can be found. I don't believe that they are true "defeaters" of my proposal, because quite often, in my view, what seem to qatal and yiqtol in poetry are actually forms of we-qatal and wayyiqtol that vary because of the peculiar modes of coordination (and conjunction reduction) available in Hebrew poetry. Again, I'll leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that in the final analysis I think the HVS is ultimately uniform in prose and poetry.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Wow, the New York Times

Well, if that don't beat everything. "Ralph" is mentioned in the New York TImes, in connection with Bob Dylan, natch.

If you are interested in the posts about Dylan, then go here and here and here.

What's next? Osservatore Romano? The Sacramento Bee? Cool.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fun with Popes and Presidents

One of the most obscure areas of human knowledge is the comparison in ages and terms of office between Popes and Presidents. It is arguably of no value whatsoever, and therefore eminently suited for scholarly research. Based on the studies of myself and my former colleague Matthew Jaffe, I offer the following tidbits in handy question-and-answer format:

Q. How many times in history has a president been inaugurated at an older age than the currently reigning pope?

A. Three times: In 1849, when Zachary Taylor was 64 and Pius IX was 57; in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was 70 and John Paul II was 61; and Reagan again, in 1985, when he was 74 and John Paul II was 65.

Q. Have the president and pope ever been the same age at inauguration time?

A. Yes, once when James Buchanan was 65 and so was Pius IX.

Q. What pope reigned through more presidential administrations?

A. Pius IX, through the terms of Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, A. Johnson, Grant, and Hayes.

Q. When was the youngest inaugurated president juxtaposed with the oldest reigning pope?

A. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated at age 42. Leo XIII was then 91, 49 years older.

Q. What president has served through more papal reigns regardless of duration?

A. Jackson and Carter served through three each. Jackson: Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI; Carter: Paul VI, John Paul I, and the start of John Paul II.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

"Loving This Book": Stative and Progressive

This semester our Hebrew seminar is considering the semantics of the Hebrew verb, and, as a foil to other treatments of verbal semantics, we are reading Waltke & O'Connor's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax with a view to assessing how they dealt with semantic notions.

The last time we met, our agenda was to discuss IBHS ch. 22 (on the Qal) in the light of current thinking about situation aspect, especially stativity. During the discussion, we got held up for a moment by an English example that they use:
[S]tative verbs in English do not occur in progressive forms. ... [For example], one cannot freely say 'I am loving this book.' Since 'love' describes a stative situation (in this case, a psychological state), one freely says 'I love this book.' (IBHS 22.2.1e).

The students unanimously felt that the example was poorly chosen, since in fact one can say "I am loving this book," or the like, as in the following example: "You know that book you gave me for Christmas? Well, I'm really loving it!" Or, "Dr. Cook, I'm really loving this class!" One of them suggested that the language was changing to allow statives to violate the aspectual rule. I suggested this was probably not the case, but was unable, on the fly, to satisfactorily account for the progressive use of "love" except by vaguely saying that it was being used in a different sense in these cases. We had to move on, and there we left it.

I kept thinking about the case, however, and have come to some further conclusions. First of all, I do think the example in IBHS was poorly chosen. A better example of stative+progressive illformedness might be something like *I am knowing the multiplication table or *I am having a new computer or *I am now owning my own home. These usages are indeed incompatible with progressivity, since these statives are not events and denote no action that can "progress" in terms of having some kind of internal temporal structure (like "I am walking the dog").

Second, the situation that IBHS likely envisaged in their sample sentence I am loving this book must have been like the sentences in the previous paragraph, indicating a non-event. For example, if someone pointed to a book on their shelves and said, "See that book with the red cover? Well, I am loving this book," that would be an example of the same kind of illformedness as "*I am owning this book."

Whence, then, the "event" reading of "loving" in I am loving this book? Under that reading, "this book" cannot mean "this object"; it has be taken as "the current process of reading this book." It can't even mean "this book that I finished last week." "Love" can only receive a non-stative reading, and be used in the progressive, when it has for its object (either explicitly or implicitly) another currently ongoing process that is itself progressive. Yet another example: consider the sentence "I am loving this week's episode of Glee." It can only be used of watching this week's episode of Glee (let's say you are on the phone with your friend), and not of the script or performances or plot. Not every stative can participate in this alternation, however.

The fact that Waltke & O'Connor say that the sample sentence cannot be "freely" uttered is unclear. It could mean that they were aware of counter-usages like the one discussed here (in which case they should have chosen a better example).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The original description of stativity as incompatible with the progressive can be found in Zeno Vendler's classic article, "Verbs and Times," The Philosophical Review, Vol. 66, No. 2. (Apr., 1957), pp. 143-160. By the way, this is not cited in IBHS.