Wednesday, 15 May 2013

In which continent is Honolulu?

In linguistics papers, we often need to give examples of some linguistic construction or other, and so we use example sentences. It didn't strike me as at all odd until I talked to other people about linguistics, and they found it hilarious. Still. It's what we do. What I mean by this is that, say I'm writing about questions, and I need to illustrate what questions look like in various languages, I'll just give an example of a question. It doesn't matter what question, usually; it just has to be a normal question with nothing syntactically weird going on. So I might give these two examples:

neih johng hohk sahn ma
‘Have you  rushed into the crane god, eh?’ (Morrison 1828, cited in Cheung 2001: 223)

vok i2-­‐n vulʔ doon1 em2
‘Are you going to raise pigs?’ (Chhangte 1989: 162)
I can generally be relied on to pick the silliest examples I can find, so my thesis contained lots of examples involving trousers being covered in bitumen, and expressions with rude words in them. You don't always have a lot of choice, if you don't speak the language, but if you're working on a language you speak, you can make up good examples. I despair of the number of papers I read in which John lends Mary yet another book. In my constructed examples, all sorts of things happen: gorillas get seasick, Poirot solves murders, Richard Burton is a post-mortem actor, and we have to choose whether we would rather be able to fly or be invisible. (You have to make sure you don't go too far, though. The Generative Semantics movement of the 1970s got a bit silly in this respect.)

Reading examples in other languages can be informative: I learn the words for all sorts of things in other languages, for instance. Did you know that the Cantonese for 'Christmas' is literally 'Jesus birthday'? And the Swahili for 'lion' is 'simba'?

But today I was reading a paper and was baffled. It's Hamblin's classic 1958 paper on questions. In it, he discusses how some questions include a presupposition. The (in)famous example of this is 'Have you stopped beating your wife?', which the defendant cannot answer 'yes' or 'no', because either answer presupposes that he has, in the past, beaten his wife. Hamblin notes that a question like 'In which continent is Luxembourg?' also contains a presupposition (that Luxembourg is in a continent), but that it is unimportant because the presupposition is true. He gives this question as the equivalent example where the same presupposition would be untrue: 'In which continent is Honolulu?'. You cannot, says Hamblin, answer by simply saying what continent Honolulu is in, because it is not in a continent at all.

Clearly, this is now false because Honolulu is in Hawai'i, and Hawai'i is in the United States, and the US is in America (or North America - do we class North and South as separate continents these days or not?). In 1958, when this paper was written, Hawai'i was not yet a State: it became one in 1959. But it was a Territory, and so, I thought to myself, surely still considered to be in the continent of (North) America?

Anyone any idea?


  1. I don't think Hawaii is in North America. Politics doesn't change geography, and Hawaii is in Polynesia, not North America. Northern Ireland is in the UK, but not in Britain, and so forth.

  2. You're right, of course. I was mixing up the two: thinking it must be in a continent because geography, and then picking the one it is politically affiliated with. I blame maps: it looks much closer to America than it is.

    1. "because geography"?

      Typo, or instance of the "because NOUNPHRASE" meme?

    2. I can't remember, but I do use 'because NOUNPHRASE' so it's possible :)