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Tuesday, June 01, 2010


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Agree with this. What a sentence says or states* is its content. This content is named by the noun phrase formed (for example) by adding 'that' to the sentence. Thus

(*) that Tom runs

signifies the content expressed by the sentence 'Tom runs'.

I also agree that the content is not a truthbearer in the sense that this content is true or false. As I have argued before, attaching 'it is true' before the that-clause is simply attaching an operator to the noun-phrase, to convert it back into a sentence. Truth is not a predicate.

And as I have also argued before,

(**) It is true / that Tom runs

is semantically (and syntactically) richer than the noun-phrase 'Tom runs'. But this extra semantics is not a content, because it cannot be named. If it could be named, than we could name it by a noun-phrase. But then of course this noun-phrase would not have the semantics of something which essentially belongs in the verb.

* Bill, if you are going to be entirely consistent, shouldn't you be claiming not that the sentence says or states something, but that the person who uses it, through a speech act, says or states something?

On the subject of why truth is not a predicate, I have made a small post here


Hello Dr. Vallicella,

I am not a philosopher, but really enjoy reading your blog. Please forgive my ignorance in what is expressed below. I am sure things will be set straight for me.

I understand you want to make three distinctions here. In my limited understanding, they are as follows…

D(1): Sentence types are distinct from propositions.
D(2): Sentence types are distinct from linguistic meanings.

You say that from these two points it follows that…

D(3): Linguistic meanings are distinct from propositions.

I would note that D(3) does not follow from D(1) and D(2) in a formal logic sense (illicit minor fallacy). So, I assume you mean that D(3) follows from D(1) and D(2) in some other sense. That sense I suppose is to be found in how you come to the distinctions D(1) and D(2) in themselves. So, what is it that makes these distinctions D(1) and D(2)? D(1) is illustrated by the following example…

Jack – J(1): I love you.
Bill – B(1): I love you.

You argue that J(1) and B(1) express different propositions because of the occasion of use. The referent for ‘I’ in J(1) is different than the referent for ‘I’ in B(1); the meaning of ‘love’ in J(1) is different than the meaning for ‘love’ in B(1); and the referent for ‘you’ in J(1) is different from the referent for ‘you’ in B(1). So, even though J(1) and B(1) use the exact same typographical symbols (linguistic symbols?) and have the same grammatic structure, because of the different meanings expressed by such symbols, they are expressing different propositions. To equate their meaning is to commit the fallacy of equivocation. At least, this is what I understand you to be getting at. I agree that this establishes the distinction D(1).

What about D(2)? Consider the following two sentences…

(1) I eat soup for breakfast.
(2) Como sopa para desayuno.

I assume you would say that (1) and (2) have the same linguistic meaning. By this you mean at least (1) and (2) contain a first person singular subject, a present tense verb, a direct object and a prepositional phrase. However, you have to mean more than this for the following contains these elements…

(3) I hit Bobby in the face.

I assume you would not say that (3) has the same linguistic meaning as (1) and (2). As such, there must be some type of correspondence between meanings of the words being used that go beyond grammar to establish sameness in terms of linguistic meaning. However, this gets real tricky. For example, what correspondence is there between the verbs in (1) and (2)? The semantic range of the verb ‘to eat’ and ‘comer’ are not the same. The verb ‘comer’ carries with it a connotation of mastication. As such, it may be more accurate for me to use the verb ‘tomar,’ which means ‘to drink,’ rather than ‘comer.’ Yet, there is much less correspondence between ‘tomar’ and ‘to eat’ in terms of semantic range.

To resolve this I cannot see how you can ignore occasion of use. But isn't this simply the distinction D(1)? If so, what does it mean to say that (1) and (2) have the same linguistic meaning? It seems to me that ‘linguistic meaning’ has not yet been well enough defined for D(3) to follow from D(1) and D(2).


Brian Bosse


Thanks for your comment. First of all, 'follows from' has only one sense. So if D3 does not follow from D1 and D2 (taken together), then it doesn't follow. Whether or not it follows depends on the logical form of the argument, which is not clear to me. In any case, I don't need to claim that D3 follows from the other two proposition since I have an independent reason for accepting D3. 'I love you' and 'Ich liebe dich' have the same linguistic meaning, but they needn't express the same proposition.

Dr. Vallicella,

Thank you for your response. Please indulge me just a little more. You claim that D(3) can be established independently from D(1) and D(2). I accept that. You state that…

(1) I love you.
(2) Ich liebe dich.

…have the same linguistic meaning, but they do not necessarily express the same proposition. If this is the case, then D(3) is correct. However, I am still trying to figure out what is meant by ‘linguistic meaning.’

Grammatical Ambiguity

Consider the following sentence (Koine Greek)…

(3) ανθροπος αγαθος εστιν εν ουρανω.

Now, consider the following possible English translations…

(3a) A good man is in heaven.
(3b) A man is good in heaven.

If (1) and (2) have the same linguistic meaning, then, correspondingly, (3) and (3a) have the same linguistic meaning. The same would go for (3) and (3b). But, surely, (3a) and (3b) do not have the same linguistic meaning. This arises because in (3) the adjective ‘αγαθος’ could either be attributive or substantive.

Lexical Ambiguity

Consider the following sentence…

(4) You are cold.

Now, consider the following Spanish translations…

(4a) Tiene frio.
(4b) Usted no es compasivo.

Presumably, you would say that (4) and (4a) have the same linguistic meaning. Would you say that (4) and (4b) have the same linguistic meaning? Certainly, (4b) in the right context would be the proper translation of (4).

I would also note that different languages do not have a one-to-one correspondence between vocabularies or grammatical structure. For example, there is a subtle difference in meaning between the English verb ‘to eat’ and the Spanish verb ‘comer’ even though we would normally translate one with the other (but not always!). Concerning grammatical structure, Koine Greek is highly inflective as compared to English. This is a grammatical distinction that does not allow for one-to-one correspondences between English and Greek. Related to this, consider (4) and (4a) again. There is no corresponding Spanish word for ‘you’ in (4a). It is contained in the verb. Also, notice that different verbs are used in (4a) ‘tener’ and (4b) ‘ser’; whereas in English, we would use the same verb ‘to be’ to translate both.

Because there is no lexical or grammatical one-to-one correspondences between languages I cannot see what criteria is use to determine whether or not two sentences in different languages have the same linguistic meaning apart from considering the occasion of use. As such, I am not even sure what is meant by ‘linguistic meaning’. Can you clear the muddy waters for me?

Thank you for your patience and consideration.



I'm afraid I don't follow you. (1) and (2) have the same meaning because each is a translation of the other. It's as simple as that.

My example has nothing to do with ambiguity.

Peter Lupu, are you reading this? Perhaps you could jump in here and give me a hand.

I am simply trying to understand exactly what is meant by 'linguistic meaning'. From your latest response it seems to be to something along the following lines.

(Df.) Sentences A and B have the same linguistic meaning if and only if sentences A and B are translations of each other.

To that end...

(1) ανθροπος αγαθος εστιν εν ουρανω.

would have the same linguitic meanings as both...

(1a) A good man is in heaven.
(1b) A man is good in heaven.

...even though (1a) and (1b) do not have the same linguistic meaning. Is this correct?

First of all, bear in mind that the purpose of the post was very limited: not to work out a theory of linguistic meaning, but to make a distinction among propositions, declarative sentences, and their meanings. I believe I have shown that these must be distinguished.

Here are some relevant data:

1. The same sentence can be used to express different propositions. Thus If Jones says 'I am hungry' he uses the same sentence type as Smith when he says 'I am hungry,' but the propositions expressed are different. That is because 'I' is an indexical expression.

2. The same proposition can be expressed by different sentences. Two distinct tokens of 'Snow is white' can express the same proposition, and 'Snow is white' and 'Schnee ist weiss' express the same proposition.

3. Sentence types belonging to different languages can yet have the same meaning. If that were not the case, then there could not be an exact translation of one by the other. But 'Snow is white' translates and is translated by 'Schnee ist weiss.'

Similarly with 'I am hungry' and 'Ich bin hungrig.' These have the same meaning, but tokenings of them needn't express the same proposition.

So sentence token sentence type, linguistic meaning, and proposition are all distinct.

Your example doesn't count against what I am saying because it involves an ambiguity.

Hello Dr. Vallicella,

I understood the purpose of your post to be two-fold: (1) make a distinction between declaritive sentences, propositions and linguistic meaning; (2) provide a critique of some who fail to see the “obvious distinction between linguistic meaning and proposition.” I understand the distinction between a declarative sentence and a proposition. As such, I agree with your “relevant data” points 1 and 2. It is your point 3 that I am unclear about. You say…

“Sentence types belonging to different languages can yet have the same meaning. If that were not the case, then there could not be an exact translation of one by the other.”

The idea of an “exact translation” between languages causes me to stumble. Even though this can exist within formal languages (or simple topographical correspondences like Pig-Latin and English), such an ideal is a chimera when one is dealing with non-formal languages like Greek, German, Spanish, English, Japanese, etc…. I grant that when one begins to learn a language the instructor might say things like, “‘Tengo frio’ is the Spanish translation of the English sentence ‘I am cold.’” However, this is only a simplistic pedagogical method to get things started in the language learning process. As the learner progresses in his understanding of the new language he begins to realize that there are many nuances within the new language (just like there are in his native language), and that rarely if ever is there only one exact or one correct way to translate a particular sentence. In fact, ‘tengo frio’ is not the exact translation of ‘I am cold.’ ‘Estoy frio’ or ‘soy frio’ might be considered more exact, but both of these phrases would be unusual, and neither would be properly used in the context of someone referring to their comfort level relative to temperature.

Occasion of use is absolutely critical to translational work. As any linguist knows, one cannot divorce meaning from occasion of use. This is why words have a semantic range. Words are rarely if ever univocal, and this undermines any objective basis by which one can establish an absolute “exact translation” apart from context. Even your German phrase ‘schnee ist weiß’ need not be necessarily translated as ‘snow is white’. It could be translated as ‘Nose candy is white’ (in reference to drugs). Again, this all has to do with the fact that words rarely are univocal.

Finally, think of all of the translations there are of the New Testament. I have a computer program that allows me to see numerous translations in both the same language and in different langauges for any particular verse all at the same time. You can find multiple English translations for every New Testament verse - not to mention Spanish, German, French, etc...I suspect you will have a hard time convincing these teams of translators that there really exists an exact translation of a given text such that other possible translations are not appropriately called ‘exact’ – even when one ignores translational theory debates like dynamic equivalence. This distinction you call ‘linguistic meaning’ and say is obvious remains elusive to me.



For my purposes all I need is one example of an exact translation from one language to another. I am of course not denying that all sorts of semantic nuances do not survive translation. For example the pun in Feuerbach's 'Man ist was man isst' does not survive translation into English.

You seem to define ‘linguistic meaning’ along the following lines…

(Def.) Sentence A in language L has the same linguistic meaning as sentence B in language M if and only if (1) sentence A is an exact translation of sentence B, and (2) sentence B is an exact translation of sentence A.

This is good as far as it goes, but leaves the meaning of ‘exact translation’ to be defined. You gave the following example in your opening post of two sentences having the same linguistic meaning. They were as follows…

(A) Mary loves Carl. (English)
(B) Mary ama Carl. (Spanish)

Presumably, A and B are exact translations of one another. You say this why the Spanish speaker can fully understand the linguistic meaning of A. There are several problems that I see with this. I will only address one.

In Spanish, there are several different words that are used for our English word ‘love’. The intended meaning of the word ‘love’ in its occasion of use will simply narrow down those possibilities. And even then there still is a choice. Apart from any context, sentence A would be more often translated by the Spanish word ‘querer.’ But even then no one would consider such a translation to be exact – especially since a literal translation of ‘querer’ is ‘to want’. If the Spanish speaker mistakenly thinks there is an exact correspondence between ‘love’ and ‘amar’ his understanding of the meaning of ‘love’ is severely distorted. Correspondingly, if you were to go around Mexico telling your friends, “Te amo!” you will freak them all out. As one person shared, “Never confuse the two. ‘Te amo’ is far more powerful than ‘te quiero’. I know; I nearly broke the ankle of a friend 3000 miles away when I typed ‘te amo’ to her.”

You say the distinction between linguistic meaning and proposition is obvious. Perhaps, it is. But so far, this entity you call ‘linguistic meaning’ is very illusive. The differing grammatical structures between languages and the differing semantic ranges of the lexis between languages lead me to suspect that such a distinction at best is uninteresting and at worst a chimera.

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