Tag Archives: semantics

Burmese inadequate for the modern world says the New York Times

The New York Times recently published an article about Myanmar’s transition into a more modern state. You can read the article here. The focus is on how the national language, Burmese, is an impediment to the country’s future. (The name of the language is based on “Burma”, the older English name for the country.) The article is full of fallacies, bad arguments, and misinformation that leaves us with the impression that Burmese is linguistically impoverished, and that the speakers of the language have no chance of making it in the modern world. Here’s the opening statement:
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Do you always mean what you say?

One of the most intriguing things about language is the way that meaning is tied to context. Take this sentence for example:

“Everybody was there yesterday”

Which day is ‘yesterday’? The word ‘yesterday’ has no fixed meaning and needs a context. It refers to a different day each day that you say it. Same goes for the word ‘there’. We need a context to know where ‘there’ is. How about “everybody”? Does that literally mean every individual in the entire world? Of course not. It means something like “every person within a contextually relevant group of people”. Since this sentence has no context, you probably had to invent one, maybe by imagining a room full of people you know.

The branch of linguistics that studies how context interacts with meaning is called ‘pragmatics’, and in this post I want to introduce you to one of my favourite topics in pragmatics: implicatures.

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