Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Customized pronouns: A good idea that makes no sense (Globe and Mail)

Posted: Oct 24, 2016 13:10;
Last Modified: Oct 24, 2016 13:10


Originally published as O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. 2016. “Customized Pronouns: A Good Idea That Makes No Sense.” The Globe and Mail, October 15.

The latest thing on campus is to introduce yourself by name and “preferred pronoun.” “Hello, my name is Dan and I prefer he/him.” Or, short enough for Twitter or the name-sticker at a campus mixer, “Jay (they/them).”

The choice is not limited to “he,” “she,” or “they.” “Ze” or “zie” is common in some communities as an alternative to traditional gender pronouns, as is “ey” and “xe.” Some people even create their own. The performer Justin Vivian Bond prefers “v,” and a student at the University of Michigan chose “his majesty” to protest the fact he was being asked to specify a pronoun at all.

The movement to change pronouns belongs to a history of language engineering that became particularly prominent in the 1970s with the promotion of “Ms.” as an alternative to “Mrs.” or “Miss,” and the development of non-sex-specific terminology such as “firefighter” for “fireman,” and “letter carrier” for “mailman.”

Pronouns, however, are different in that the laws of grammar make them much harder to modify. They do change and they can be engineered (the Swedes recently created a new pronoun, “hen,” to cover “not specifically male or female”). But they cannot be customized.

This is because pronouns are, by their very nature, anti-individual. They are the parts of speech that are used to strip away the semantic qualities that make things, people and ideas unique. Asking people to use a custom pronoun is like asking them to use a custom tense other than past, present, or future. The request simply doesn’t make sense within the rules that govern our language.

This focus on pronouns is odd, moreover, because English already has an egalitarian pronoun for talking to people: “you.” Modern Standard English, unlike many other languages, makes no distinction in direct speech on the basis of age, rank, gender or even whether you are an individual or group. In English, you use “you” to address your employee or your boss, your boyfriend or your girlfriend, an individual or a baseball team. It is the same whether the person you are speaking to is male or female, gender queer, or a group holding a variety of opinions on the question.

A “preferred pronoun,” in contrast, is intended to be used when you are talking about somebody to a third party. But if there is one thing you can’t control, it is how others speak about you. Asking somebody to use a custom pronoun in this context is like asking them to remember that you are a nice person, or getting them to use a preferred nickname. In the end, it’s impossible to control.

The fact that you can’t customize pronouns doesn’t mean that they don’t change. “You,” for example, was not always as universal as it now is. We used to use different forms of “you” to speak to different types of people. “Ye/you” was for when we were talking to a group or wanted to be polite. “Thou/thee” was for individuals when they were our equals or inferiors. Over time, “thou” began to seem a little rude no matter who we were talking to, and we started to use “you” for everybody.

The opposite happened with “he,” “she” and “they.” Originally, all three pronouns began with “h”: “he” for “he,” “heo” for “she,” and “hie” for “they.” Over time, these began to sound alike, until in some dialects you simply couldn’t tell them apart. “He” could mean “he,” “she” or “they.” In this case, we began to reintroduce the lost distinctions of gender and number. We borrowed “they/them” from Norse, and developed a new form, “she,” to distinguish masculine from feminine.

We also began, more than 600 years ago, to use “they” in the singular for situations in which we didn’t know or didn’t want to say whether the person we are talking about is masculine or feminine. Chaucer used “they” this way, as did Shakespeare and Austen. Even The Washington Post began to accept “they” in the singular starting last year.

What this shows is that we don’t really need to engineer pronouns at all. We already have a very neutral one for when we are talking to somebody. And “they” exists to cover cases where the traditional gender binary doesn’t apply.

But even if you feel we do need new forms, it is important to realize that pronouns simply cannot be customized. We might be able to create a few new forms for general use, but they cannot, by definition, be tailored to the individual. Campus regulations that pretend otherwise are simply setting everybody up for disappointment.


First thing we do, let's kill all the authors. On subverting an outmoded tradition (Force2015 talk)

Posted: Mar 01, 2015 17:03;
Last Modified: Oct 01, 2015 15:10


This is a rough approximation (with some esprit d’escalier) of my speaking script from my talk at the “Credit where Credit is Due”: session at Force2015, January 13, 2015. We were asked to be controversial, so I tried to oblige.



I’m not sure that this paper is going to introduce anything new to the discussion of authorship issues, perhaps just raise some reminders couched in the terms and methodology of a discipline that is only beginning to grapple with problems natural scientists have had to deal with for years. I’m also not going to solve anything, but rather walk through the origins of the problem and propose some potential avenues for change. But I’m also not going to be discussing tweaks or improvements to the system. Instead, I’m going to be arguing that our current author attribution system for scholarly and scientific publications is fundamentally broken and that the only route forward is sabotage.

Would we create scientific authors if they didn’t already exist?

The question I’d like to begin with is the following:

“If we didn’t have the concept of the scientific and scholarly author, would we create it?”

The answer, I think, is that we would not.

The International Council of Medical Journal Editors’ definition of authorship vs. a traditional dictionary definition

This is because what we currently describe as a scientific author actually looks nothing like almost anything else we would describe using the term “author”—as you can see if we compare the definition of scientific authorship as described by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors and a relatively standard definition of regular authorship taken from an online dictionary:

A typical dictionary definition: Author, n., A writer of a book, article, or document.

ICMJE definition The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

* Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

* Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

* Final approval of the version to be published; AND

* Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.


Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged. Examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding; general supervision of a research group or general administrative support; and writing assistance, technical editing, language editing, and proofreading. Those whose contributions do not justify authorship may be acknowledged individually or together as a group under a single heading (e.g. “Clinical Investigators” or “Participating Investigators”), and their contributions should be specified (e.g., “served as scientific advisors,” “critically reviewed the study proposal,” “collected data,” “provided and cared for study patients”, “participated in writing or technical editing of the manuscript”). (Emphasis added).

In other words, while in the world outside scholarly and scientific communication, we normally think of the author as the person who actually does the writing, in the the world of research communication, it is entirely possible to have writers who are not authors and authors who are not writers. And that, it seems to me, means we are fairly deep down the rabbit hole.

The nature of the problem

There has been a lot of excellent work why our definition of authorship in research communication is the way it is, by Michel Foucault, by Roger Chartier, Mario Biagioli, Mark Rose, and others (see especially Biagioli and Galison, eds., Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science). They have tied it to issues of authority, early intellectual property rights, aesthetics, and economics.

I like to think, however, that the problem really comes down to four main issues:

The inertia of words

The first major problem with scientific authorship, in my view at least, is that our practical definition is changing faster than our term’s connotative implications.

That is to say, while it is entirely possible for us to adapt and bend the term “author” to match our current scientific practice—even if that scientific practice results in such abnormal beasts as the “writer-who-is-not-an-author” and the “author-who-is-not-a-writer”—we cannot as easily let go of our term’s original connotations. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we still believe that authors should be writers, even if our heads and contemporary practice tell us that this is simply neither reasonable nor practical for our biggest projects in the age of Big Science.

We can see that this is so, indeed, if we read through the rest of the ICMJE definition, to get to the bit where they discuss how their definition of authorship should not be abused in order to unreasonably exclude participants who deserve credit for authorship by denying them opportunities to participate in the writing and editing of the article:

These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work. The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript. (Emphasis added).

There are two things significant about this proviso. The first is the nature of the abuse that the ICMJE is attempting to prevent: the case of somebody being denied authorship credit on the basis of the second and third criteria (i.e. because they were prevented from particiating in the drafting of the article or were not given a veto over its contents) despite the fact that they met the requirements of the first and fourth criteria (i.e. made “substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work” and agreed to be held “accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved”). In other words, the ICMJE is worried that “the writing” might be used as a technicality to deny authorship to those who made otherwise major contributions to the science on which this writing reports.

But the second thing about this proviso is that it doesn’t protect against the opposite eventuality—that is to say that somebody who did participate in “the writing” might be unfairly denied authorship credit because they were prevented from making substantial contributions to the design or performance of the research or because they were not allowed to claim responsibility for the work. In other words, the ICMJE does not (for obvious reasons) think that preventing somebody from “designing the experiment” might be used as a technicality to deny somebody scientific credit. Or again in other words: while the ICMJE is prepared to accept that somebody could be deserving of authorship if they were unfairly denied access to the writing and editing, they don’t think the same thing about somebody whose only participation in the article was, well, “authorship” in the sense that everybody but academics understand the word. In scientific authorship, writing is a technicality in a way that participation in the actual experimental design and conduct is not.

The conservatism of aesthetics

This brings me to the second cause of our problems with the concept in research communication: the conservative nature of aesthetics. Because the connotations of the word are so strong, even if our practice has bent the definition almost completely out of shape, we also have a strong aesthetic feeling for where authorship attribution has to go in a scientific article: on the “byline,” between the title and the abstract or introduction. Indeed, a surprising amount of criticism of (and resistance to) “author inflation” rests on the simple idea that it looks ridiculous if you have eight hundred or a thousand authors between the title and the abstract of a scientific article—something that has affected even our opening Keynote speaker, Chris Lintott, in his attempts to accurately credit the profession and citizen-scientists who participated in his experiments with crowdsourcing.

Economic utility

The third reason why it has proven so difficult to let go of the idea that a scientific author must be a “writer” in some way has to do with economic utility. As the great historians of this topic have demonstrated, the decline in anonymous authorship came about in large part through the efforts of booksellers and publishers to create a mechanism for asserting copyright. If a work is anonymous, then it belongs to nobody (or everybody). If it has an author, then this author can alienate their rights to a publisher in exchange for money and their identity can be used subsequently both to brand the works in question (i.e. “another play from the great Shakespeare”) and identify fraudulent reproductions.

Although the situation in scholarship is not exactly analogous, the basic idea still pertains: naming the author of scientific works allows us to use such work as a mechanism for calculating economic value and reward and assigning scientific responsibility. In the specific case of academic researchers, authorship become something could count and use to make comparisons between individual researchers (your worth, of course, rises with the number and prestigiousness of your articles) and something you could use to certify against fraudulent science.


And finally, there is the issue of scalability. There have always been epistemological differences between creative/literary and research/scientific authorship. The one is an act of creation (you create rather than discover poems), while the other is an act of discovery (good scientists discover rather than create their results). But the importance of these differences was obscured when both types of authors collaborated in similar sized groups (i.e. of one or two at most). In the age of single author science and scholarship, it was easy to see an equivalence between “doing the science” and “being the writer of the paper” since both activities were usually performed by the same person and because individual experiments could be completely reported in at most a few individual papers.

But this equivalence does not scale. As experiments got bigger and more complex, as projects began to involve many more experiments and participants, and as individual papers increasingly began to report on smaller fragments of the total scientific output of a project, this rough equivalence between “person who wrote the paper” and “people who did the science” became increasingly untenable and you end up with problems like that the ICMJE proviso quoted above is trying to head off—the case of participants in a project being denied access to the byline of an article solely because they weren’t given a change to wrangle a few words in the article reporting on their work.

Why words can hurt us

The point of all this is to show that the real cause of the “authorship crisis” is not the ever-increasing number of authors, but the fact that we are using the wrong word to describe what these people are and identify the quality we are trying to capture. And, unfortunately, that we are using a word that brings with it a lot of connotative and conceptual baggage that we simply cannot easily get rid of. While the term “author” (with all its connotative history) makes sense as a way of describing creative writers, for whom the actual act of composition is their primary activity, it simply does not work as a way of describing scientific authorship, for whom the act of composition is, ultimately, secondary to the research that precedes it. Poetry does not exist unless it is expressed in some form and its expression is in some sense at least coincidental with its composition (you can’t think of a poem without thinking of the words you will use to tell others about it). But while science ultimately requires communication, this communication cannot occur without prior activity: you can (and indeed probably should) do scientific research before you have decided on the precise words you are going to use to report on your results.

(And as a brief aside here, it is worth noting that science is not the only field of endeavour in which writing is secondary: the same is true, for example, in the legal or policy worlds where the actual writing is less important than the goals behind it, except that, in contrast to scientific credit systems, we don’t have any problem in these worlds in distinguishing between those who develop and those who merely draft legal bills or policy documents—there is no rule in parliament or congress that says that MPs or Senators can only be listed as the authors of a bill if they participated in its drafting).

So what to do?

This brings us to the problem of what to do. If the term “author” is bringing with it too strong a set of connotations to allow us to accurately capture what we want to capture (which is presumably participation in science rather than participation in typing), what can we do to change the current situation?

Accept that we don’t actually care who wrote the article

The first thing we need to do is accept that our current concept of scientific authorship is both an abuse of the term and brings with it far too much unhelpful baggage. That is to say, we need to recognise that we don’t actually care all that much about who wrote the scientific articles we read—beyond perhaps in the limited sense of making sure that those who did write out the results are rewarded for that writing. What we are actually trying to capture with our current credit/reward system is not participation in writing, but participation in communicated science.

This recognition is important, if for nothing else, in that it should free us of our aesthetic objections to long author lists. As long as we think that scientific authorship is actually about writing, then aesthetic objections to long authorship lists remain at least somewhat valid: it is indeed absurd to think that 800 people could possibly be responsible for the composition of a 6 page physics article. But if we stop thinking that what we are trying to capture is who wrote the article instead of who did the science reported on in the article, then the aesthetic objection becomes far less significant: if the people being credited are not actually authors, then we can stop thinking of their names as belonging on the byline; or we can stop thinking that the “byline” on a scientific article is in any way analogous to the byline on a newspaper article or novel.

Recognise that “authorship” is really just a special form of acknowledgement

Once we accept that scientific authorship systems are not actually about who wrote the article, it becomes easier to understand the next conceptual adjustment we need to make: recognising that “authorship” in a scientific sense is really just a special form of acknowledgement—or, in more concrete terms, that the “byline” in an article is really just an arbitrary, privileged, “above the fold” extension of the acknowledgements section.

You can see this if you compare the case of scientific authorship against that of poetry. Both books of poetry and scientific articles name authors and, commonly, have an acknowledgements section. The difference, however, is that where there is a clear epistemological difference between those mentioned in the byline and acknowledgements section in a book of poetry, there is (despite many attempts to develop one) no such clear demarcation in a scientific article. In a book of poetry, one will often find the author acknowledging the help of librarians who aided them in finding specific reference works, friends who hosted them while they were writing, thank yous to their agents and fellow poets for support, and so on. While these are all arguably people who helped the poet do his or her work, there is still a pretty clear distinction between helping a poet compose and actually composing yourself: nobody thinks the bartender at the poet’s favorite watering hole is actually an acknowledged coauthor of the poetry itself (well, not seriously, at least).

The people acknowledged in a scientific article, however, are, for the most part, those specifically responsible for conducting the science upon which the article is reporting: the people who did the calculations, who designed or ran the apparatus, who built the detectors, and so on. These are generally not people who had a purely social connection to the scientific work in the article but instead were directly responsible for its results. Our hypothetical poet would probably still have been able to compose poetry without the assistance of his or her agent. A scientific “author” would have nothing to write about if it were not for the people who helped make the discoveries in the first place.

This means, in turn, that the authorship-acknowledgements distinction in a scientific article is different from the similarly-named distinction in literary contexts. In contrast to the quite concrete distinction between the “person who composed the work” and “people who assisted the composer” we find in a literary work, in a scientific work, the distinction between “named as author” and “acknowledged as helper” is far more arbitrary, despite attempts such as those of the ICMJE to come up with discriminators. Instead of being able to make a clear binary distinction between those who have primary responsibility for a piece of science and those who merely assisted (as we are, in many ways, able to do in the case of literary authorship), what we are really doing in the case of scientific authors is attempting to determine the point on a scale of participation at which we decide to stop rewarding those who participated in our research. People to the left of the line we draw get their names put in the byline and are able to use the article on their CVs; people to the right of it get our best wishes, but little else, from their participation.

Understand that this conceptual problem is not amenable to tinkering

Since the problem with scientific authorship is conceptual—i.e. we are using the wrong criteria in attempting to determine credit—it is also not amenable to tinkering around the edges. Once you accept that an author might be somebody who doesn’t write and that a writer might not be an author, you are far beyond the power of any definitional tweak to save your system. Since the problem is the fact that we maintain an arbitrary distinction between those acknowledged on the “byline” and those acknowledged in the “acknowledgements,” reforms that improve the granularity of either without addressing the fundamental problem that we make the distinction at all is going to fail. Such reforms are attempts at refining the accounting for responsibility for “the article,” when what we really need is a system that recognises both that “the article” is only a second subcomponent of the scientific endeavour and that it is participation in reported science, not participation in the reporting of science, that our reward systems should be attempting to capture.

In fact, the only solution, in the end, is to stop using “authorship” as the primary measure of scientific participation. In the age of Big Science, the article is a better indication of the success of a project than the success of any individual within that project. We will only solve the issue of credit when we stop privileging authorship over participation.

Realise that there is no opportunity for external change

Although the problem is not amenable to tinkering, it is also true that it is not amenable to fiat. Because so much currently rides on authorship credit, we will find it almost certainly impossible to change formally in a top-down fashion. As advocates of Open Access discovered in the early years, change only comes when there is a critical mass that is comfortable with the innovation, but a critical mass only develops when the change itself is already understood to work within the current system. As various people have pointed out, Academia is very much a prestige economy and prestige markers are extremely resistant to change: scientists may want to publish in Open Access journals, but they need to publish in prestigious ones—and prestige seems, in large measure, to be a function of time and familiarity.

This is where the “sabotage” comes in. If you can’t change a system externally, then the only option left is to change it from within. And if the problem that we are facing with our current authorship systems is that they force us to make arbitrary distinctions among participants, then the solution is to refuse to make those distinctions. Since scientific authorship measures the wrong thing and excludes people who should be credited as participants solely on the relatively arbitrary grounds of whether they participated in the drafting of the article, then the solution is to stop using “writing” as a criterion for authorship: in other words, move the line that distinguishes acknowledgements above the fold from those below to put all of the people whose participation made the science possible above. It is only when the byline becomes indistinguishable from the acknowledgements section that the system will have been modified to the point where we can begin to work on more granular systems of identifying (and rewarding) actual scientific participation. Because, as Syndrome argues in the The Incredibles, “when everyone’s super, no one is!”


“Sabotage” is a strong word, but we are actually facing a pretty fundamental problem with our current attribution system. While equating “authorship” with “scientific productivity” made rough sense in the age of single-scientist experiments (and still does, to a large extent, in the current age of single scholar humanities research), the concept simply does not scale. It is difficult to apply to even moderately large collaborative teams and it is simply impossible to apply to the gigantic teams responsible for today’s biggest projects.

The reason for this, however, is that the concept is simply wrong. When we count authorship on scientific papers as part of our evaluation of an individual researcher, we are actually counting the wrong thing. We do not, on the whole, actually care that much whether a given scientist wrote the papers involved. What we are really attempting to capture is how productive and effective that scientist is as a participant in the science that is reflected in those papers—i.e. in the communication and discovery of communicable results. This does not mean that the article itself is irrelevant to science—you can’t have science without the communication of results. But it does mean that authorship of papers (authorship in the sense of “writing”) is no longer an adequate metric of scientific participation. The PI who conceptualised the project, the researchers who designed the equipment or methods, the people who calculated and reported the results—all of these are necessary to the production of good science whether or not they participated in actually typing or editing the articles in which this science is reported. Systems that fail to recognise this, such as that of the ICMJE with its fetishisation of, in essence, typing, are ultimately not going to solve a fundamental problem that has to do with the very term we use to describe the metric.

The answer to my question at the beginning is that we would not create the concept of the scientific author as a credit metric if it did not already exist. Now that it is causing serious trouble, it is time to kill it off.


On translating sense and syntax in Old English

Posted: Jan 25, 2014 13:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01


A student in my Old English class asked a good question today in her class blog:

I’m confused. The point of this class is to be able to read Old English. Does this mean we are supposed to be building a lexicon that would eventually become so engrained in us that the words don’t require as much of a “translation” as an innate understanding of the meaning of the text? This seems rather frightening. When I hear the words “nominative accusative singular” sweep one after the other my head begins to spin. I have to look at the dictionary three times in three minutes to remember what one word means.

I think what process seems natural to me would be to translate a sentence, and after knowing what the words are in modern English, to determine what words are nominative, objects, etc. in the translated sentence. At which point I would then transfer this over to the Old English. Is this wrong? Is the point to learn to do that without first translating it into Modern English? If so, I feel like I should break a bad habit before it starts.

The question touches on the two main issues we face in translating from Old English to Modern English: Lexis (i.e. the meaning of the words) and Syntax (i.e. the grammar that ties the words together in a sentence).

The short answer is that translating (or learning to read) Old English requires both: you need to know what the words mean and you need to know what the syntax is telling you about their relationships to each other. This means that there are really three discrete things we need to do in translating:

Although, because OE is often very close to Modern English in Syntax, it might look like you can translate the meaning of a sentence accurately by just looking up the meaning of the words and writing them out (i.e. doing a lexical translation alone or first), there are enough differences that this will lead to trouble when you get more complex Old English (especially poetry).

You can see this in Modern English if you consider the following group of words: Because had Friday money no on on Saturday Store Suzy the to Tom went.

Although we understand what all of these words mean lexically, the “sentence” they form doesn’t make any sense to us because the syntax doesn’t conform to any rules of Modern English (I just arranged the words alphabetically). In order to get a real sentence out of this, we need to know more about the intended syntax as well, which in Modern English means the intended word order. If I put the words in a word order that reflects Modern English syntatic rules, the sentence suddenly makes sense: Because Tom went to the store on Friday, Suzy had no money on Saturday.

Note that in the above example, the only difference between the nonsensical and sensible versions was word order. The first version did not make sense because we didn’t understand the syntax, not because we didn’t understand the meanings of the individual words.

The primary equivalent of this in Old English is its inflections: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, etc (Old English relies on word order as well, but word order is less important than inflection: there is some evidence to show that scribes fail to understand sentences that have appropriate word order but errors in inflection; in Modern English, we almost always assume that word order is correct and the inflections are wrong if there is a contradiction between the two).

In order to understand fully a sentence in Old English, therefore, we need to know what endings are associated with each word in the sentence and what those endings indicate about the relationship of the word to the rest of the sentence. Because Modern English doesn’t rely on inflections as much as Old English, our “translation” of our analysis of this syntax will be reflected in the word order we choose.

Now, because Modern English is descended from Old English, word order in the two languages is often identical and you can “get away” with just translating the words: e.g. Sēo sunne is miċel, “The sun is big.”

The problem is that you can’t rely on this: Old English and Modern English word order can diverge even in simple sentences; they do diverge in more complex sentences and especially in more literary contexts like poetry or artistic prose. If you haven’t got into the habit of analysing the Old English grammar as well as translating the meanings of the words, you can run into real problems when you hit a sentence where the word order is different from what we can allow in Modern English.

Here’s a simple example to show what I mean:

Þone stān slōh þæt wīf

The lexical translation of this sentence (i.e. just a translation of the words), would be as follows:

The stone struck the woman

This sentence makes sense in Modern English, so if you only translate the words, you will be tempted to stop here.

But if we analyse the endings, we’ll see that a purely lexical translation gets things exactly wrong. Here is an anlysis of the endings in the sentence. ASM = accusative singular masculine, NSN = nominative singular neuter, 3SPast = 3rd person, singular, past tense:


(note: although stān and wīf don’t have any endings, we know their grammatical information because of the demonstrative pronouns that precede them: þone and þæt respectively)

Anglo-Saxons use the accusative to indicate direct objects (amongst other things), and the nominative to indicate subjects. In Modern English, we normally use the first position in the sentence for our subjects, and the first or second slot after a verb for our direct objects. So in order to translate the sentence correctly, we also have to “translate” this syntax by moving the words around in our final translation:

The woman struck the stone

This is a simple example that could easily be real Old English (it implies that the Anglo-Saxon author wanted to emphasise that it was a stone the woman hit). But translating only the words produced exactly the wrong translation. When sentences get more complicated, the chances for things going wrong increase greatly!

So a Modern English translation actually has two translations built into it: a translation of the Old English words into Modern English words, and a translation of Old English inflections into Modern English word order. It is only when you have done both that you can be sure you understand what the sentence means.


Dolphin Language

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01


The textbook I am using in my grammar class, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, suggests that humans are unique in that they are the only species known to show abstract language use in the wild (they do mention the example of chimpanzees that have been trained to use sign language).

Very recent research, however, provides a potential counter example: Dolphin names. It has long been known that dolphins communicate with each other verbally. And since the 1960s, researchers have believed that individual dolphins use a “signature whistle” to identify themselves that is recognised by others in their population. What is new, however, is the evidence that dolphins use the signature whistles of other dolphins to refer to them—that is to say, recognise a particular whistle sequence as being symbolic of a particular individual dolphin, distinct from themselves.

This use of arbitrary signals to refer to a specific object, if true, would invalidate the claims in Brinton and Brinton that the symbolic use of language is unique to humans. It would also represent quite a discovery about dolphins. Until now, dolphin “language,” like that of other animals, has for the most part been understood to be indexical rather than symbolic. As one researcher put it:

Deciphering “dolphin speak” is also tricky because their language is so dependent on what they’re doing, whether they’re playing, fighting, or going after tasty fish. It’s no different for humans. Think about when you raise a hand to say hello. Under other circumstances, the same gesture can mean good-bye, stop, or that something costs five bucks. It’s the same for dolphins. During fights, for example, dolphins clap their jaws to say “back off!” But they jaw clap while playing, too, as if to show who’s king of the underwater playground.

“I have not found one particular dolphin behavior that means the same thing every time you see it,” says Dudzinski. “If you like mysteries and detective work, then this is the job for you.” And who knows—maybe someday you’ll get a phone call from a dolphin.

If this new research is correct, however, dolphin “names” would represent an exception: calling an individual dolphin’s signal whistle would appear to mean the same thing—and have the same arbitrary referent—in each case.


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