Ins and outs of the meaning of `is'
The world is analog; language is digital. A tape measure shows that people's heights vary continuously, but, when we talk about them, we face a multiple choice between "tall" and "short". We cannot make a sound halfway between "warm" and "cold" to refer to something tepid, and people who describe themselves as "middle-aged" and "wise" cannot pinpoint the instant they became so. Words are anchored to endpoints, but the continuum between them may be up for grabs.
Clinton suggested he was not "alone" with Lewinsky because people were in the Oval Office complex at the time. An intriguing point: since none of us is marooned on an asteroid but shares the planet with five billion others, none of us is ever unambiguously alone. Exactly how far away, how inaudible or invisible or unnoticed before we are willing to say that someone is "alone"? At what point in the continuum of bodily contact do we say that "sex" has occurred? How many times, how closely spaced, before it is "sexual relations" or a "sexual relationship"? When consenting adults come together, does one of them "cause" contact, or are the actions of entities with free will never truly caused?
The argument doesn't impress anyone but a professor of semantics, and that is because of another key feature of language: people work around its limitations by tacitly agreeing on how to use it. Conversation requires co-operation. A speaker implicitly guarantees that the information he is conveying is relevant: that the listener can easily connect it to his prior knowledge and expectations. That allows listeners to hear between the lines in order to pin down vague words, winnow out the unintended readings of an ambiguous sentence, piece together fractured utterances, glide over slips of the tongue, and fill in the countless unsaid logical steps in a complete train of thought. When the shampoo bottle says "Lather, rinse, repeat", we don't spend the rest of our lives in the shower; we infer that it means "repeat once". When Marsha says "I'm leaving" and John asks "Who is he?", we instantly deduce which "he" John is referring to.
The expression "to be on speaking terms" reminds us that, without co- operation, language is impossible. The reason we cannot converse with our computers is not that the engineers cannot program in the grammar and vocabulary of the English language but that they cannot program in the common sense of a human speaker. In the old Get Smart television series, Maxwell Smart asks the robot Hymie to "give me a hand", and Hymie proceeds to unscrew his hand and hold it out.
The sketchiness of language gives the listener considerable leeway in pinning an interpretation to an utterance. That is fine when the interlocutors are co-operative but not when they are adversaries and the interpretation can send someone to gaol. The law requires language to be do something for which it is badly designed: to leave nothing to the imagination. Lawmakers and lawyers do their best to co-opt language for this unnatural job. But at some point we have to fall back on the principle of co-operation and judge the truthfulness of a statement by what a co- operative speaker would expect his listeners to infer.
Clinton astutely said, "My goal in this deposition was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful." Unfortunately, it is in the very nature of human language that this goal is impossible.
Steven Pinker is the author of `How the Mind Works' (Penguin, pounds 9.99)
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Wolf Hall finale, review: Simply brilliant TV
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit