We like to believe that we are special, but how can everyone be special? Surely a term like that is in language in order to draw distinction. If we are all special, does that mean that no one is?

You're right that there needs to be a distinction that goes with the word if it's to be of much use. And there are no doubt some sense of the word "special" (meaning something like rare or unique ) that don't allow for all of us to be special. But there's still logical room for a sense in which we're all special. Here are two ways. The first is simply this: it could be that each of us possesses some distinction, though not the same one for all. You may be the world's greatest kazoo player; I may make the world's best Jello salad. And so on. You'd be special in the kazoo-playing way, I in the Jello-making mold and each other person in their own (dare I say) special way. But there's another possibility. It doesn't make sense to say that we're special, period . If any of us are special, it's because of something about us. But suppose some characteristics are intrinsically valuable -- that is, have value all by themselves, without reference to anything else. Perhaps being conscious...

Can we make sense of claims to the effect that language X is "harder" than language Y?

We can at least make relative sense of a claim like this. For a native English speaker , Chinese is harder than Spanish. How so? Because English speakers can achieve a high level of mastery of Spanish much more quickly, on average, than they can with Chinese. Obviously other such comparisons among various languages are possible. Could one language be "absolutely" more difficult than another? Though I'm not a linguist, I'd think the answer is yes. Since I can't cite a fully real case (simply because I don't know enough), a slightly idealized one will do. IGNORING PRONUNCIATION, compare German and Afrikaans. They are related languages and there is a good deal of similarity between them. Knowing one will give you a leg up on understanding the other. (I have an intermediate knowledge of German. That lets me make elementary sense of a certain amount of written Afrikaans.) But anyone who has some familiarity with both languages will see that the grammar of Afrikaans is much simpler. In particular, there...

I have a question concerning the gender of words that exist in many languages, except in English. What does the presence of grammatical gender in a language say about the mentality of its speakers? A different question is whether the features of a language reflect the characteristics of the societies where it's spoken in a largely unconscious and involuntary way. (Modern) Persian, spoken in Iran and Afghanistan, doesn't have the feature of grammatical gender (anymore), just as English. Many say that the languages that do have grammatical genders are sexist, and that they help to perpetuate the conviction that sex is a tremendously important matter in all areas. For Marilyn Frye, this is a key factor in perpetuating male dominance: male dominance requires the belief that men and women are importantly different from each other, so anything that contributes to the impression that sex differences are important is therefore a contributor to male dominance. Societies whose languages do not have...

You've several questions, though they're closely related. Let me start with the first one: "What does the presence of grammatical gender in a language say about the mentality of its speakers?" My answer is: "Darned if I know!" But I rather suspect that most of my co-panelists are in the same position. Whether the presence of grammatical gender in a language has an effect on the outlook of people who speak it is something we could only figure out by bringing to bear the reseources of disciplines like sociology, psychology, sociolinguistics and who knows what else. It would also call for refining the question itself to the point where we knew what counts as an answer. As you yourself observe, it's not exactly obvious that societies whose languages don't mark gender are less sexist than their grammatically gendered counterparts. If there is an effect here, one suspects that it's a subtle one, and not easy to tease out. It may well be that if the people in a society believe that men and women are ...

Peter Smith wrote recently (Question 2823) that "facts aren't the sort of thing that are rational or irrational". But that isn't true, is it? The first definition of the word "rational" on dictionary.com is "agreeable to reason". Certain facts offend reason - and the questioner's example (while not the best, in my view) of death seems to be a fact that is not agreeable to reason. That is to say, if reason ruled the world or, put another way, if God created everything in accordance with reason, we would not die. There is no rational explanation or reason for our death. Certainly there is a sense in which I understand Peter Smith's statement that facts aren't rational or irrational, but there seem to be plenty of definitions of "rational" for which it makes perfect sense to say that facts are rational or irrational. What's more - and I don't mean to be contentious - Peter seems to focus on this aspect of the question to the detriment of the spirit of the question. The questioner seems perturbed by...

Not to be flippant (well, yes: to be flippant) but I'm tempted to point to Peter Smith's earlier reply and say "What he said!" Let's grant that in one sense of the word "irrational," some of life's surd facts are irrational -- aren't how things would be if a rational Maker had her way. Prof. Smith acknowledges that some facts are difficult to cope with emotionally. And he might add (I'll add it for him) that being rational doesn't mean ignoring your emotions or trying to stuff them into a sack. But how, exactly, would it help to leave reason aside in dealing with tragic, intractable facts? Prof. Smith's closing comment seems to me to be a sober, thoughtful way of summing it up: "For irrationally formed beliefs are not likely to lead to actions whichget any of us what we want -- including a decent life, lived well inthe knowledge of our all-too-explicable mortality." The language of philosophy is seldom poetic; in that sense it may not mirror the gravity of some of its subject matter. That said, the...

It seems easy to define "Monday": some day is a Monday if and only if it comes immediately after a Sunday. The problem is that if we do the same for every day of the week, our definitions will become circular at the seventh try. The only way I can see out of this is to say, for instance, that May 18, 2009, is a Monday, or that May 18, 1750, was a Monday (according to the Gregorian calendar), or that today is Monday. But isn't it strange that we have to give an example in our definition? And are there other words that we can only define with an example?

If setting the meaning of words always required sticking within the circle of language, we'd be stuck. At some point, someone said "Let's call this day 'Monday'." (This is fictional history, but something like this happened.) It's a bit like my parents saying "Let's call this child 'Allen'." In general, to get words to stick to things, we need some way of getting outside the circle of words, and pointing, indicating, stipulating, etc. are ways of doing that.

Does the phrase "Go Jayhawks!" express a proposition?

Does the phrase "Does the phrase 'Go Jayhawks!' express a proposition?" express a proposition? No. Lots of bits of language don't express propositions. Questions don't express propositions, though answers to them usually do. Commands (like "Get out of my office!") don't express propositions either. We use words to do lots of things besides trying to say what's what. Someone who says "Go Jayhawks!" isn't trying to tell us that something is true (the usual mark of expressing a proposition.) Of course, it may be that this person is enthusiastic about the Jayhawks, and that may be why he yells "Go Jayhawks!" But the obvious thing to say is that his words express his enthusiasm rather than ascribe it to himself.

hallo, I appreciate your homepage very much. I would like to ask you for opinion about a method of thinking. The idea is this one: If you have a question, and you think you cannot answer it, may you change your question to a similar/different one? For example: Does God exist? A similar question would be: How would it affect me if I knew that God does exist? (Example by: Bert Brecht- Stories of Mr. Keuner The question of whether there is a God A man asked Mr. K. whether there is a God. Mr. K. said: “I advise you to consider whether, depending on the answer, your behavior would change. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can at least be of help to the extent that I can say, you have already decided: you need a God.”) I think it means getting a different point of view or a different way to approach towards a question. What do you think about such a method of thinking? Is it legal or not? Do you think it is a serious way of thinking or is it a trap...

Perhaps the fact that I find this whole line of thought a little befuddling means that I shouldn't be answering the question. But maybe if I explain my confusion, that will help. Start with something simple. I might be curious about, say, some abstruse mathematical claim. And so I go to my mathematician friend and I say "Is it true that such-and-such?", where "such-and-such" is the mathematical conjecture I'm interested in. It would be pretty odd, wouldn't it, if my mathematician friend waxed "philosophical" about whether knowing the answer would change my behavior. In one way, of course, it would: I'd stop asking the question if I knew the answer. But in most other ways, life would go on as before. And yet, I still want to know whether such-and-such is really true. The point is that there really are two issues here, and it seems like confusion to mix them up. One is the matter of whether what I'm curious about is so; the other is the matter of what I'd do if it were -- or weren't. Now the two...

During free time at my place of work, the faculty often get together for some intense rounds of "Boggle". In case you're not familiar, this is a game where letters are randomly arranged in a square, and then the players are timed as they try to form words using only adjacent letters. Because the scores are often so close, much debate often arises as to what constitutes a fair word. For example, can "er" be added to any verb to make it a noun, such as to "dare" or "err" to make "darer" and "errer", one who dares, and one who errs, respectively? Also, would a word like "beated", which is not in the dictionary, be acceptable if someone had heard it used, say in the following case: "after the eggs are beated...". What about sounds like "purr", or "whizz"? What are the criteria for determining if something is a word? Whose say should be taken as authoritative? Thanks!

Let's start with "beated." On the one hand, it's a word as opposed to a punctuation mark or a pony. But that's not what you want to know. Your question is something like: is it a word in English? And so the more general question is: when does a potential word count as a "real" word in a language? What about this? It counts as a word if the people who use the language accept it as one. That's vague many ways over: Which people? (Presumably it needn't be all.) What's a language? (Can we do better than say that it's a dialect with a gun? What's a dialect?) Accept in what circumstances and for what purposes? We'd also have obvious circularity problems if we treated this formula as a serious definition of "word in a language." But the point is that there are no firm facts here; there are complicated, imprecise and often untidy conventions. We all have some say in what counts as a word in a language, because at the end of the day, how people speak and write settles the matter. But there are no simple...

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