Thursday, March 31, 2016

pronouns and representation

Can you represent something by using nothing at all to represent it? Can something act as though it represents something even though the thing supposedly represented is absent? I think that, in language, the answer is yes to both questions, but only as long as your interlocutors share your linguistic (and by extension, your cultural) assumptions.

Look at these French and English examples of what I'm trying to say:

1. People say she's talented because she is.

2. On dit qu'elle est douée parce qu'elle l'est.

The above two sentences say the same thing; each can be seen as a translation of the other. Note, though, that in sentence 1, the adjective "talented" has gone missing:

She is what? She is talented. People say she's talented (1) because she is talented (2).

We can do this in English because there's an expectation that it's stylistically better to avoid repetition whenever possible. (This is one reason why we use pronouns: to avoid being repetitive.) In a sense, the adjective talented is still there in the listener's mind because, even though the word is missing, its existence is implied. You might disagree, but I'd argue that the word "talented" is represented by nothing at all: like the implied Buddha in an empty-chair sculpture, the context points to the existence of the unseen word, but the context merely implies: it doesn't represent.

You can, by now, see where I'm going with this: the French sentence takes the opposite tack. The object pronoun le, represented in context by the l' in front of a vowel sound, has to be there because in French, there's the expectation that there will always be a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective after the verb. If we were to translate the French sentence hyper-literally (i.e., unnaturally), it would be One says she is talented because she is it.

So the French sentence contains its own little mystery: the "it" is a pronoun, and we know that pronouns replace nouns, yet... the word being replaced in the French sentence is douée, i.e., "talented," i.e., an adjective. The "it" is therefore being recruited to do something it's not supposed to do! It's representing an adjective when, by all rights, it ought to be representing a noun. But the noun to be represented is nowhere to be found. (Ideally, the "it" would represent the noun phrase "a talented lady.")

In the English sentence's case, then, we're representing something by using nothing at all. In the French sentence's case, the le represents something that doesn't exist. This quirk of language strikes me as both bizarre and a little eerie.

ADDENDUM: if we were to get ridiculously pedantic about this, my notion that the second iteration of "talented" is "represented by nothing" isn't correct. The term "nothing" means no-thing, and if there's no thing there, then there's nothing to do any representing. It would be more technically proper to say that "talented" is represented by an empty space: an empty space is not nothing, as any artist who appreciates negative space can tell you. I now wonder whether this addendum actually undermines the point I'd been trying to make!



Surprises Aplenty said...

"People say she's talented because she is." The problem I see with this statement, and mainly because it is without context, is how tautological (that's the right word I hope) it seems. I can accept the sentence in a conversation or the like but it is jarring on its own.
Ah, tautological: I hope this means circular reasoning.

Kevin Kim said...

Good points.

Yeah, a straight tautology is normally in the logical form of "X = X." In sentence form, a straight tautology would look something like "An elephant is an elephant"—which seems circular and not very informative. But the "because" in my sentence keeps this from being a straight tautology as it implies a cause/effect relationship between the two clauses. The two clauses happen to be the same ("she's talented... she's talented"), but one of the clauses occupies a causal position, thus changing its valence.

Interesting quirk with tautologies: as you well know because you're a language teacher, spoken language doesn't strictly adhere to rules of logic. At the very end of "Star Trek IV," for example, the Enterprise crew is in Spacedock, cruising along in a shuttle, about to see what new ship they've been assigned to, and gloomily predicting they'll be relegated to a freighter. It's at that point that Kirk shrugs and mutters, "A ship is a ship." When Kirk says this, he isn't uttering a simple tautology: his utterance has a deeper meaning than the literal import of his words. He's saying something more along the lines of, "Captaining any ship will be fine by me, as long as what I'm captaining is in fact a ship."

I think that that same non-literal subtext can also be seen in the example sentences I gave: they may seem circular, but in truth they're not. Something meaningful is indeed being said.

Ah, that brings up one more issue: am I implying, in the previous sentence, that tautologies are simply meaningless? Many philosophers would say they aren't, and I'd agree: at the very least, a tautology establishes an identity relation.