Friday, January 11, 2008

"Now" and other indexicals (Language, Part IV)

In English, the pitch and rate at which one speaks typically do not affect the types of the tokens that one is using. Whether you say "home" quickly or slowly, with a low or a high pitch, your utterance is a token of one and the same type. But this need not be a universal truth. One can easily imagine a language where an utterance of "home" means one thing when spoken quickly and another when spoken slowly. In that case, there are two word types here, and which type one's token falls under will be partly determined by the sequence of phonemes and partly by the rate at which one speaks. (We might represent the two word types in writing as "home" and "h-o-m-e" if we wish.)

A language provides a mechanism for classifying linguistic tokens under linguistic types. There are very few restrictions on how the classification scheme can work, except contingent ones derived from our recognitional abilities. Imperceptible differences between tokens will not do the job.

It is quite possible, then, to have a language where the classification system is time-dependent. Thus, "home" at odd-numbered hours of the day means a tank, and at even-numbered hours it means an F-16. There are, thus, two word-types with the same phonemes, and to distinguish between them you have to check what time it is. Such a language might well be useful for confusing an evesdropping enemy.[note 1]

Imagine now a language L1 where the sound "chow" when uttered at a time t denotes the time equal to t+7minutes, when t is during an even-numbered hour, and denotes the time equal to t-7minutes, when t is during an odd-numbered hour, and where the type of the word is identified by both the sound "chow" and the time of utterance. This language can be understood as containing continuum many word-types, identified partly by the time at which the word-type is tokened and partly by the phonemes. This is a very odd language, but a possible one.

Observe that in L1 no utterance of "chow" is the utterance of an indexical. What an indexical refers to depends on both the token's type and on the context of utterance. But what "chow" refers to does not depend on the context of utterance, but only on the token's type. The token's type depends on the time of utterance, but that is a different matter.

Consider now a language L2 where the sound "fow" when uttered at a time t denotes the time t, and where the type of the word is identified by both the sound "fow" and the time of utterance. Just as no utterance of "chow" in L1 was an indexical, so no utterance of "fow" in L2 is an indexical. Rather, it is the utterance of a fine, upstanding, context-free referring term.

But now a question: How do we know that utterances of "now" in English are utterances of an indexical? Why not analyze utterances of "now" in English precisely the way utterances of "fow" are to be analyzed in L2? There are, I submit, no facts of linguistic practice (normative or not) that allow us to distinguish between English's "now" and L2's "fow". If linguistic facts supervene on facts of linguistic practice, there is no fact of the matter whether an utterance of "now" should be read as an indexical whose type is identified by the phonemes or as a non-indexical whose type is partly identified by the phonemes and partly by the time of utterance.

If we understand "now" along the lines of "fow", then any argument for the A-Theory of time based on our use of "now" is likely going to fail. For "fow" is perfectly at home in the eternalist world of the B-Theory. And what I said about "now" goes for tenses as well.

This strategy is closely parallel to the old failed B-theoretic attempt to translate "now" into the time of utterance. That attempt failed because when one translated "It is now 11:56 am", it translated into "It is 11:56 am at 11:55 am", and hence a sentence that one could reasonably be wrong about got translated into one that no one could be reasonably wrong about, which is absurd. On the present strategy, an utterance of "now" at 11:56 am does refer to the 11:56 am, indeed is rather like a proper name for it. In a sense "It is now 11:56 am" may be a tautology, but it is not a trivial tautology. Rather, it is like "Cicero is Tully" or "London is Londres."

If all this is right, then no deep facts about language hang on the distinction between indexicals and non-indexicals. There may be more than one way of classifying bits of utterances into types, and for any way of classifying that makes a bit of utterance into a token of an indexical, there is a way of classifying that makes that bit of utterance into a token of a non-indexical identified in some non-phonemic way. Each classification should give rise to the same proposition as expressed by the utterance as a whole.


Andrew Cullison said...

In the case of the word "chow" wouldn't the time of utterance be part of the context of utterance?

So, it seems that the semantic content is determined partially by the context of utterance - namely the time at which it was uttered.

Compare "chow" to "here" - "here" is an indexical. The content is partially determined by the place of utterance.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The distinction between utterance and context of utterance is what I am trying to erase in this series of posts on language. :-)

Mike Almeida said...


This is really interesting, but what do you do with conversations like this?

A: "I've got to go now".

B: "Right now?"

A: "Yes, right now"

On your view, where 'now' acts like a proper name, A's last answer should have been, "No, not now, but rather I had to go then". But that's absurd, no?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good question. How much of a time interval "now" covers is contextual and fuzzy around the edges. I simplified by ignoring this aspect.

Compare your dialog to this one:
A: "I see a bird on the fence now".
B: "Right now?"
A: "No not now, but there was a bird on the fence then."

Every account of "now" has to say something about this, and the need for this doesn't do very much to distinguish between an indexical account (say, Kaplan's), a rigidified definite description account (of the sort an A-theorist may have) and my proper name account (a good way to characterize it, thanks).

Keith DeRose said...

As I prepared to post this comment, I saw Mike's comment appear. I think we're getting at the same basic type of concern -- how to secure the same reference of two occurrences of "now." But there are also some differences... Anyway, I'll just post what I had written:

There are, I submit, no facts of linguistic practice (normative or not) that allow us to distinguish between English's "now" and L2's "fow".

I wouldn't give up too quickly on the search for such facts. Here's one possibility (It's only a possibility b/c there may be other ways to explain what I'm about to present that do not validate the distinction in the way the explanation I'll put forward does): In English, "Frank is happy now, and Frank is frustrated now, so Frank is happy and frustrated at the same time," said without a particular "fall-rise" intonation on the "now"s, is accepted as valid. This requires that the two occurrences of "now" refer to the same time. But how is this secured? They are said at slightly different times. Now, there are tricky issues involving the exact extent (how long or short is the period of time picked out, when exactly does it begin and when does it end?) of a particular use of "now" that might arise whether it's an indexical or whether it works in the alternative way you present. I don't want to be merely picking on such an issue. But the above sentence *can* express an invalid argument (even when it's said rather quickly -- no cheating by waiting a long time between premises!) In English, fall-rise intonation can be used to signal that you are changing the content of a context-sensitive phrase. Think of the way you would pronounce the two instances of "here", as you point first to one and then to another spot on a roadmap while saying, "The exit we want isn't *here*, it's *here*." Similarly with "now" at the proper time on New Year's Eve: "*Now* it's 2007; *now* it's 2008." If the two occurrences of "now" in the Fred sentence are pronounced with this same unusual intonation, the argument intuitively becomes logically *in*valid (though the premises still render the conclusion highly probable, since happiness is unlikely to disappear in the short amount of time needed to say the sentence). But when two utterances of the same context-sensitive term are said "in the same breath" in a "flat-footed" manner (no unusual stress or intonation), there is a presumption that the speaker isn't "changing the conversational score" wrt that term between the two occurrences -- two uses of "here" are referring to the same area, two uses of "now" are referring to the same stretch of time. It's just that presumption which accounts for the validity of many inferences involving context-sensitive terms. Stress or intonation seems to work by defeating that presumption by indicating just such a change. Anyway, on the assumption that "now" is an indexical, this all explains why the sentence about Frank is accepted as expressing a logically valid argument when it is said "flat-footedly." It's hard to see how that would explained if "now" worked in the alternative way you propose: as expressing two completely different word types. It at least seems (though here I can imagine various accounts to explain why this wouldn't be the case) that on this theory that sentence should be taken to express an argument that is no more valid than that expressed by "Frank is happy at 11:11:11, and Frank is frustrated at 11:11:12; so Frank is happy and frustrated at the same time."

Keith DeRose said...

OOPS! I see that my character changed identities from Frank to Fred -- and back again. It's supposed to be the same guy -- and the same name!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Actually, what you say about intonation fits well with my more basic point, though it does put into question the precise formulation. In the case where the intonation marker is used, we have two word-types. In the case where the intonation marker is not used, typically we have one word-type naming the time of the utterance--not of the utterance of "now", but the utterance of the sentence (with whatever temporal width and vagueness the context gives). This slightly complicates the account, but only slightly. The word type cannot be read off the word and the time--one needs the whole sentence, and sometimes more than just the sentence. But that's fine, as that's how it works in the case of homophony--we generally, but not always, avoid the use of homophones with different meaning in one sentence, but when we do use them, we ensure it's clear that what's going on.

Assuming we allow word-types to be homophones, then we cannot really object to this kind of a move. And we should allow word-types to be homophones. Some folks pronounce "do" and "due" the same way, but I don't. Assuming, plausibly, that when they say "do", they say the same word as when I say "do", and that when they say "due", they say the same word as when I say "due" (differences in pronunciation a different word-type do not make, or else most recent immigrants would count as speaking a different language from English), and assuming transitivity of word-type identity, it follows from the fact that plainly I token different word-types when I say "do" and when I say "due" that those folks also token different word-types.

I do not think the indexical account has any real advantage in these contexts.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I meant: "Assuming we allow DIFFERENT word-types be homophones OF EACH OTHER..."