The Fictions We Create 5: Descriptive sentences and evaluative statements

It is clear that the term *language* has a technical meaning but that it is also used to refer to what humans — but also some other species, e.g. monkeys, — do when they “chatter”! In the first sense, language is a form of communication viewed as acts during which specific messages are passed from one individual to others.

An example often cited in the past was to the “language” of bees, a field of research associated with the work of Karl von Frisch (Nobel prize, 1973) and his discovery that bees inform members of their hive of the location of honey sources by a dance. Here an individual message has content, that is, it is about something, refers to some distinguishable happening or event which may be significant or important to communicants. Yet every message may only be a constituent of a wider language. A piercing cry may be a message — as may be a whimper — but it is not part of a language unless there are additional messages which supplement such singular cries.

A language, in short, usually features many messages and — as we have learnt over the past few hundred years following the publication of several dictionaries — each human language shows that it can grow by leaps and bounds within a relatively short period. In short, a cry can become part of a vocal language, but may not do so consistently. There may be many “cries” which can become an aspect or feature of a language, but need not do so. (For example, “ouch” is a cry of pain, but it is in English.)

A human language has many features by means of which messages are passed from one individual to others of a group, from one to one or among many. Each message has some content — what it is about — but it also possesses a formal structure, which becomes part of its referential meaning. It is therefore incorrect to advertise only the semantic aspect of a term, since each message also occurs in a context which contributes to some degree to what is normally referred to as its meaning for both the sender and the recipient of the message. The prototypical and well-known example of how structure determines meaning is “the cat is on the mat” versus “the mat is on the cat”. There are many versions of this.

As already stated, language is a form of communication viewed as acts of passing messages from one individual to others of a group. But messages by humans are communicated not only by spoken words, but also by gestures, hand signals, etc. Indeed, many modern commentators refer to “body language” to convey that there may be additional meaning to a statement made in written or some other form, e.g., when a poet reads his work in public. Thus one may hear a comment that, “Mr. T asserts ‘xyz’ but his body language tells a different story.” It gives us a different story than if only his words were used to interpret his meaning.

Let us now clarify two terms which may make my position clearer, namely descriptive sentences and evaluative sentences.

Descriptive sentences refer to those elements of a spoken or written language which are presented in the form of statements whose function is to assert that some particular event, x, has a general quality, q. For example, “the sky today is blue” describes x by ascribing one of many possible, suitable, likely attributes to x. Important: the letter q does not refer to an evaluative property of the event (like “beautiful”, “desirable”, “ghastly”, “horrendous”) but refers to a feature which in combination with other features makes the event unique or different from other events, including what it is made of, e.g. a horse of flesh and bones, or a horse made of wood!

Evaluative sentences, on the other hand, refer to sentences of a language which ascribe value to an event, which order or locate that event on a scale of desirability, preferability, usefulness, etc. These are all qualities of the object which reflect its value but does not add to its description. Such evaluations are invariably relative to some other, perhaps comparable, items or events. These therefore do not describe the object by reference to its so-called “defining” properties. To refer to a vase as “in the shape of a bottle with ugly decorations” is a mixed description — and in that sense is no more helpful than talking about it as being “shaped as a bottle with additional decorations”! By adding that the decorations are “ugly”, the object is classified as existing on a scale of values which reflect something about the speaker and not the the object! It is similar to asserting “I love dogs but not cats”, which states a personal preference and clearly has nothing to do with either dogs or cats: in short, being liked by me is not descriptive of either entity or object!

We therefore divide our world into (a) items, events, situation which are describable, can be described, in contrast to (b) rating each of these on a scale which reflects our personal appreciation and reaction to it. We customarily talk about (a) as involving objective description and (b) as involving our personal, subjective, reaction to some event.

In some sense, therefore, descriptive statements may be true or false, whereas evaluative statements only reflect the views and opinions of the speaker, namely, his or her preferences and opinions. To refer to them as being true or false violates the rules of language use. The statements themselves have no epistemic validity, since this quality of a statement cannot be tested without reference to “data”.

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Comment 1: Facts and “to factulate”

From fact to factulate; from verb to verbify. Ugly, but legitimate.

It pays to look at what modern dictionaries say about words which are in common and in wide use. Once again I looked up *fact* in the reputable Merriman-Webster Dictionary (on-line edition) and found the following entry:

Fact: noun. A thing that is indisputably the case. Information used as evidence or as part of a report of news article. Synonyms: reality – deed — actuality – truth – case — circumstance.

Note that the dictionary defines *fact* by citing how the word is commonly used but also by citing explicitly some of its synonyms. The effect is to create an environment, i.e. a context, whereby each word is related to all others in the selection by indicating what choices are available on each side of the divide! It leaves the decision of what to do about the choices open to the user: the user therefore remains entirely responsible for making the correct or appropriate choice from the array of “equivalences” offered.

This matter had already been discussed in a different context more than 60 years ago by Lee Cronbach and Paul Meehl (1955) in the context of “psychological measurement” (to which I propose to return in a future article). If one does not understand the positive options offered, one can at least infer the meaning of a particular term chosen by referring and comparing it to what it can not possibily mean! Whittling down a meaning by eliminating those deemed unsuitable? This seems a plausible strategy to success: if one does not know the meaning of a term in advance, it can often be guessed by eliminating it from those one already knows.

What puzzled me about a dictionary definition — but also appalled me — was the suggestion that a fact could be viewed as “part of a report of news articles!” I assume the term “news article” refers to articles published in established newspapers, possibly weeklies? Which? The reputable New York Times, the Guardian or the now ill-reputed Daily Mail (which was recently “banished” by Wikipedia for its habit of publishing unsubstantiated and unfounded “news reports” — as has been done in the UK’s Daily Mirror and News of the World for decades! These are a small selection from a world-wide set of dailies).

My philosophical head also spun when I discovered that far too many of the synonyms listed in the Merriman Dictionary can be “substituted” by changing the meaning of a part of the sentence in which these occurred! It just will not work since the sense of a sentence is then highly compromised — even lost — when this is done. As soon as one recognizes this to be the case, a person will withdraw the particular attempt and will substitute another synonym. I assume that there is experiemental evidence to support my fantasy? What I have described is a process of extremely rapid substitution based on one’s “unconscious recognition” of what is being done.

What seems indisputable, however, is that the word *fact* — a word we all love to use(!) — gets used exclusively as a noun. If, however, it is used as a verb is it referred to as *to factulate*? Has anyone used fact as a verb, on the analogy of changing the noun to a verb, perhaps to the verb *to verbify*? They should feel free to do so — to create what sound like “monsters” — if we claim that people “make facts” or “shape” these from non-factual materials!

There are precedents: *water* is a noun; *to water* is a verb in wide use. Is it an alternative to “spreading or distributing water”? What are acceptable limits to doing so with any noun?

Why not “verbify”?

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The Fictions We Create 4: Our Inside and the Rapidly Expanding Outside

We have come to accept that the inside world is large, although ordinary people do not have a very large vocabulary with which to report “inside” experiences. They cover this by saying “I think”,“I feel…” ,“I sense that…”. In other words, most people tend to leave the description of their “feelings” to our poets or song writers/musicians!

We are, in fact, demonstrably more adept at describing the outside world — our common world. Some say that this is so because we live in a materialistic culture which is primarily focussed on the world around us. (Thus culture plays a “shaping” role).

However, both “domains” — the inside and the outside — are currently expanding rapidly, the latter at a faster rate than the former.* What do we do to meet our needs to express and refer to these changes? We create additional (new) term/ words and expressions which mark and label different events. Here the term creation has four references:

(a) Inventing new sounds (or symbols which substitute for sounds) to be used routinely in an existing language. The new sound — a complex event — is then assigned an “official meaning” either by fiat or later by including it in a current (on-line?) dictionary (which is a relatively new invention! — see the footnote** below);

(b) We borrow already existing words from a foreign language (e.g. Greek ἰδέα idea “form, pattern,” from the root of ἰδεῖν idein, “to see. Oxford English Dictionary 2014) but import into the host-language, only one one of its several meanings from its original, its donor-language (see earlier articles on neolidesm).

(c) We transform an existing word which has been selected from within our home- language and “quietly” assign an additional meaning to it by “analogy” i.e. by referring to its likeness/similarity between it and its new “reference”. In an earlier blog I have called this an “analogical spread”;

(d) We adapt an existing word in our home-language by changing its context of use. Using this method we assign new meaning to many old, well-worn words. It is sometimes the origin of what are now referred to as slang words, but not its only source, which I previously referred to as a special case of neolidesm. (See ** footnote below.)

* I have some reservations about this statement. One could argue that much of the “inside” worlds get expressed in expressive modes of popular culture, includes its songs, dances, arts.

** A brief statement about dictionaries taken mostly from Wikipedia:

Dictionaries go back several thousand years, but the “The first monolingual dictionary written in Europe was Spanish, written by Sebastián Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, published in 1611 in Madrid, Spain.

Several attempts were made to produce a reference book to serve the current use for English speakers, but it was not until Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that a reliable English dictionary was produced. At this point dictionaries had evolved which also featured textual references for most words, and their listing was arranged alphabetically, rather than by topic (a previously popular form of arrangement, which meant that all animals would be grouped together, etc.). Johnson’s masterwork was the first to bring all these elements together, thereby creating the first dictionary to be published in “modern” form.

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