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Language Log

Saturday, Apr. 01, 2006 - 4:53 p.m.

I had nearly decided not to write much on linguistics here anymore (not that I do that often anyway), since I don't want some specialist phrasing I use to get googled and lead someone here who I would just as soon not have read my complaining about this that and the other or my half-assed ruminations. But, I don't quite have enough to say to start a linguistics bolg per se, and when I have something to think out, I can't resist. So. Here I go again.

Well, so I wrote up this TVJT, gave it to my Swahili prof and to my learner. Neither of them did what I expected, in numerous places. But the one that got me thinking today is "eat". There was one story about a guy eating dinner (past progressive) when his mom called, and while he talked to her, his food got cold. The test question was, "he ate." Yes or no? I thought it was a pretty clear 'yes'-- he ate, but he didn't eat his dinner. Some eating occured, but he didn't finish. Anyway, mwalimu said, it's false, he didn't eat.

Okay, the easiest thing to say is that I was wrong, and 'eat' in Swahili is telic whether there's a direct object there or not. I mean, it's definitely an activity in English, right? I thought so, and Rothstein (2004) cites Mittwoch (1982) in saying the same thing. BUT. I think intentionality enters into it. To determine the sequence of stages that make up an incremental event like eating, you can look at the extent of the theme, as in "ate his dinner", or if there's no theme, then the internal state of the subject can be divided up into stages-- degrees of fullness that lead up to the culmination point of eating.

Are both readings (activity and accomplishment) of 'eat' available in Swahili, or is it always telic? Or was it my story that set up a context that facilitated the telic reading-- the character was clearly interrupted in the middle of dinner, and clearly regretted it, so his goal was blocked, adn the telos not reached. I wonder if I gave the same sentence in the context of a party, say, where eating occurs more or less continuously without a clear endpoint, she would give the same judgment.

But then, on the accomplishment predicates, she judged most of them 'true' in the same context-- things like "x was reading a book" followed by an interruption event. Test statement: "X read the book". And she said 'true'! So, so false to me. Nothin but false. And yet.

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