Sunday, September 16, 2007

W-type pronouns, dragon heartstring and speech act theory (crosspost from LL)

A draft manuscript recently appeared in my inbox. I was so struck by its potential implications that I requested permission to circulate it to a wider audience--that is, you, dear [HeiDeas] readers--and I am pleased to report that the author agreed! You will therefore get to see this groundbreaking research in its early stages, years before the rest of the world reads a mangled three-paragraph description of it in the BBC Science (or possibly Arts) feed. Just one more of the many perks of your yearly subscription to HeiDeas.

The work in question--How To Do Things With Words And Wands: The Pragmatics Of Casting Spells--is an investigation of the deictic devices and speech-act properties of successful spellcasting, based on the corpus of spells and descriptions of spellcasting events which has recently become available through the efforts of J.K. Rowling.

Author Molly Diesing investigates the syntactic and semantic conditions on the expression of spell targets in spells, including cases of explicit mention, deictic wand pointing, noun incorporation, and complete object drop. She then considers whether spells themselves are imperatives or performatives, and, if the latter, what happens when you violate their felicity conditions.

Dr. Diesing will develop this investigation in collaboration with Sally McConnell-Ginet, and their results will certainly be of interest to the entire Wizarding and linguistics world. I predict that many future Ravenclaw term papers will take their work as a leaping-off point. Wuggles (non-linguists) beware, however! This is heady territory. Take along a linguist companion, or at least a good encyclopedia article on pronominal reference and another on speech act theory. HeiDeas cannot be held responsible for the consequences if you don't!

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a computer scientist, I have always been interested in the computational processing and modeling of language such as spells and prayers. As such, I hereby introduce the field of Supernatural Language Processing (SLP), which I expect to have solved by the end of next summer.

6:44 PM  
Blogger John Cowan said...

It's interesting to compare Old Hyksos, a constructed language which exists purely for spell-casting. It has just 24 lexical items, all nouns, plus three suffixes (indicative verbal, subjunctive verbal, and adjectival) and one negation prefix with idiosyncratic semantics.

I conjecture that only a finite number of sentences are producible from the Old Hyksos grammar.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Luis said...

In page 9 of the paper, Dr Diesing claims that "intention" is a necessary condition of successful spell-casting. But, let us not forget that there are also attested cases in the corpus of involuntary spells involving infant wizards. See, for instance, Harry Potter's recollections in page 47 of SS (Bloomsbury edition).

12:13 AM  
Blogger Alejandro said...

Also, in HBP, Harry casted successfully the spells he found in the Potions book (Levicorpus, Sectumsempra) without knowing what they meant before seeing their effects, so he couldn't have had the right intentions. Maybe intention is crucial for some spells and not for others... or maybe Rowling is, as often, simply being inconsistent.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Ewan said...

not sure that 'bare noun' in the sense of the output of a meat grinder is the right thing to call 'trunks' in 'locomotor trunks'... it is a bare plural but if there were a singular noun in there I take it it would be a this kind of superficially bare but still definite noun that appears in recipes etc - I didn't read far enough into this paper to see but I wonder if Diesing has mentioned any pragmatic part of spellcasting that might compare to recipes and newspaper headlines to explain this similarity...

8:52 AM  
Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

An interesting side-discussion could be had on the pragmatics of spellcasting in Runaways, the Brian K Vaughan comic. One of the characters uses the Staff of One to cast spells, not with a specific incantation but using an improvised and pertinent magic word. An additional twist is that the same spell can't be cast twice (by the same caster or anyone?), so that the staff occasionally "interprets" the same utterance differently.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Elliott said...

omg thank you for this

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is similar to some actual theology involving Transubstantiation, which raises questions of what, exactly, gets transubstantiated at the Consecratory formula ("This is my Body..."). Everything on the altar? Only that which the celebrant intends? Bread which has accidentally fallen on the floor nearby, escaping the celebrant's notice?

Let's not reinvent the wheel....

6:59 AM  
Blogger redcatblackcat said...

Amid all of this, what a great term: Wuggle! Is this yours, Heidi?

2:48 PM  
Blogger hh said...

hee hee -- glad someone got that! yep that one's my invention. :) hh

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