Weekly Writing Challenge: An explanation of a topic you think you know a lot about

Written for this week´s DPChallenge: And Now For Something Completely Different

If you browse around on my blog, you´ll surely come to the conclusion that I´m a short story type of person. Yes, I admit, I did write one play and one fairy tale, but I had to step way out of my comfort zone to do it and I only managed not to back out, because it was part of the weekly challenge of the creative writing class I did at university (Yes, I´m used to weekly challenges. But it´s so much more challenging writing a weekly post when you have a job and a million things on your to do list rather than writing a weekly assignment for class when you´ve already scheduled time for the writing process). And Now For Something Completely Different made me face a problem. In the course, I had to write stories, plays, fairy tales, haikus, poems, fiction, non-fiction and what have you and I have recently taken up photography as well. So when going through the post types on wordpress.com, I chose An explanation of a topic you know a lot about and changed it to: An explanation of a topic you know a lot about or at least think you know a lot about. Proudly, I´d like to present two sentences and I will kindly explain them to you (for they don´t make sense to any person that hasn´t studied linguistics):

1. [[not PAST turn off the stove]]to = 1 iff  [[PAST turn off the stove]]to 0 = ~ Ǝt’ before t0: [[turn off the stove]]t’ = 1

2. [[PAST not turn off the stove]]to = 1 iff  Ǝt’ before t0: [[not turn off the stove]]t’ = 1 Ǝt’ before t0: [[turn off the stove]]t’ = 0

See, I know that it looks like a lot of balderdash in brackets, but to the trained linguistic scholar this actually makes sense. I struggled three semesters with these hieroglyphics. Basically, Barbara Hall Partee came up with this sentence and posed it as the biggest challenge for the logic of the Priorian System. Now, bear with me here. I do see the question marks in your eyes, but actually, this all makes sense. The revelation hit me two hours before my oral exam in linguistics. I was just going through my notes again, sure that I´d fail the exam, because all this stuff simply didn´t make any sense to me (and I´d forgotten what most of the abbreviations stood for. What was the PPP of SE again? And how does it influence the PPP of AAE?!). I´m sure you´d all agree that oral exams are shitty, because the examiners are sitting at the other side of the table and will be staring at you behind their polished glasses and will surely ask the one question you can´t answer and will stare at you and will be absolutely merciless with the gibberish that comes out of your mouth and will make you feel like after five years of studying you know nothing at all. So in the pretence of preparing (because hours before the exam, your head is about to explode with all the knowledge it has to contain, if only for a while), I sat down on the steps before my examiner´s office and went through my notes again and then the linguistic epiphany hit me. I then seemed to understand the problem the transcribed sentences above pose to the Priorian System.

See, Arthur Prior said that any tensed sentence in English is analyzable into a tense morpheme (marking the sentence as a statement about past, present or future) and a tenseless sentence (basically the rest). Following the deictic relational approach, the tensed utterance stands in relation to a basic reference point – usually the time of utterance. So far so good. Now, judging from this wonderful logic, any tensed sentence can be related to the time of utterance and will thus give an account of something that has either happened in the past, happens right now or will happen in the future. Well, we could stop here and all would be well, but unfortunately, Partee detected a flaw in this seemingly flawless logic posed by the simply sentence I didn´t turn off the stove.

Now, what do we have here? Let´s pretend for a second that our first name is Sherlock and we smoke pipe and wear a deerstalker. What do we have here? We have a sentence (duh). Now, let´s apply the Priorian System. The tense morpheme tells us that this sentence states something about an event that has happened in the past. What else? We have a negation. Great. Now. Partee says that depending on whether the negation or the past takes wide scope, we get two totally different interpretations of the sentence that both make visible the most jutting problem this sentences poses to the Priorian System:

1. [[not PAST turn off the stove]]to = 1 iff  [[PAST turn off the stove]]to 0 = ~ Ǝt’ before t0: [[turn off the stove]]t’ = 1

We have a negated past sentence, meaning: There is no time in the past where I turned off the stove happened. Great. I didn´t turn off the stove. We kind of already got that. We might not be the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer, but we are no spoon yet.

2. [[PAST not turn off the stove]]to = 1 iff  Ǝt’ before t0: [[not turn off the stove]]t’ = 1 Ǝt’ before t0: [[turn off the stove]]t’ = 0

Here, we have a negated sentence that is true in the past. Meaning, there is any time in the past where I turned off the stove didn´t happen. So I haven´t ever turned off the stove in the past. Or put more clearly: I might be fond of cooking and have recently discovered a great recipe for chicken wings, but when I am done cooking I never ever turn off the stove.

See the problem already? Clearly, both interpretations of the sentence tell us that at some point in the past I haven´t turned off the stove. The first interpretation tells us that there has been some specific point in the past where I was too busy with my life so that I forgot to turn off the stove, say, yesterday at a quarter past six because I was busy watching the news or reading or blogging. Obviously, this is true. It´s a rather weak interpretation.

The other interpretation gives the impression that I never ever turn off the stove at all. There has been no time in the past where I have actually managed to turn off the stove. I might see the light signaling that the stove is still on, but hell no, I won´t turn it off. Obviously, this must be false, because when I utter the sentence I didn´t turn off the stove it is rather unlikely that I mean that I never turn it off.

There we have it: As great and grammatically correct this sentence might be, it can´t tell us anything about the specific time in the past where the event of not turning off the stove did or didn´t happen.

Great. I´ve just realized that it took me about half an hour and three pages to explain this to you, my dear reader. Guess how long it took me to explain it to my examiner during my oral exam, because naturally, my examiner had to ask me to explain this to her and she kept staring at me, trying to filter the gist out of the babbling.

Now that you´ve been introduced to the problems of semantic linguistics, can you guess the problem a sentences like Frances was drawing a circle when she was abducted by aliens  or John (because in linguistics, John is always the test object) was crossing the street when he was hit by a bus.

Can you guess it?!

PS: That was extremly difficult for me. Usually, I write about stuff I somehow know a bit about or have heard of and then I turn it into a story. Writing about something I had to study (the other option was mediveal history, including the study of Old English, yuk… though reading Chaucer is quite fun. And Beowulf is not too bad either. Damn, I think I chose wrong…) is far more difficult and challenging. First of all, I had to leave the fiction genre (and I love writing fiction). Non-fictionial and scientific writing is even farther away from my comfort zone than writing haikus.  And yet, somehow I managed to fill a couple of pages. By the way, even though I had no idea how to explain the problem of the German Perfekt, I aced my oral exam. Thumbs up!


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