Sunday 30 April 2017

What Does "The" Mean?

It's a word we use a thousand times a day, but trying to pin down its meaning turns out to be really quite hard. What does "the" mean? What is the difference between "the house", "a house" and just "house"?

To a native speaker of English, or another language that has the equivalent word (like French or German), it's so intuitive that it will seem like a silly question. But for speakers of languages that don't have it, like Russian, it's a mystery. It's very characteristic of native Russian speakers to speak and write without articles, like "Where is station?"

(There's an old joke about a Russian who arrives in England at Victoria station (I said it was old) and realises his watch has stopped. He approaches someone, who just happens to be a professor of philosophy, and asks, "Excuse me please, what is time?" To which the answer is, "That, my friend, is a very difficult question.")

A little thought shows that "the" somehow ties the noun in question to some mutually shared context. More than that depends entirely on the context in question. One of the harder questions in computational linguistics (and there are plenty of them) is to figure out the referent (what is being talked about) when "the" is used.

If I say to my partner "where is the car?" it is implicit that I means our shared car, or the car we happen to be using at the moment. But if I say "I saw a bad accident yesterday, with a car and a bus. The car rolled over",  it means a car we've never talked about before, one I introduced in the previous sentence. I can even introduce a previously-unknown referent with "the". It's a common turn of phrase to say something like, "The car that parked in my space yesterday was back again today." It's really a shorthand for "There was a car that parked in my space yesterday, and it was back again today."

If I walk up to a stranger in the street and say "Where is the car?" they will just be puzzled, because they have no context to identify any specific car. But if I ask "Where is the station?", they will apply common sense to assume I mean the station in the town we happen to be in, or the nearest station.

"A", by contrast, implies something that is brand new to our discourse. "I bought a hat yesterday" means some hat that we've never spoken of before, at least when uttered all by itself. (It could be followed by, "Remember, the green one we saw last week", which changes the meaning completely).

Many, probably most, languages get along just fine without being able to make this distinction. Japanese has an interesting variation, the so-called "topic marker" (は, pronounced "wa"). This is generally considered to be very difficult for foreigners to get the hang of, yet if you think of it as "the" you will get along just fine. It is in opposition to the "subject marker" (が, pronounced "ga") which is somewhat equivalent to "a". If I say "car-wa has broken down", it means (in the absence of some other context) "my car" or "our car". But if I say "car-ga has broken down" it means "some other car, that we didn't know about before", maybe to explain a traffic jam - which particular car is unimportant. (Like everything in language it's more complicated than this, but it's a good enough explanation to get by with).

The thing that suddenly made me think about all this was something I wrote recently. There is another meaning of "the" where the referent is the notion of the thing, rather than the thing itself. If I say "The car has changed the way people live", it's obvious I'm not referring to any particular car, but rather the idea of the car, car-ness in general. We use this meaning without even realising it, yet it is completely different.

I wrote a blog article called "The Five Pound Note". It started out as a general discourse on British currency in general, and the banknote worth £5 in particular. But then I told the story of one £5 note in particular, that dropped from my mother's purse while we were boarding a bus when I was a child. In other words, I had switched the meaning of "the" in mid-article. This use of "the X" to mean (roughly) "some X which you'll find out about if you read this" is very common in literary titles: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Mouse That Roared, The Sting.

All of which is one small part of why computers have a long way to go yet before they can really figure out natural languages that humans use all the time without even thinking about what they are trying to say.

Monday 10 April 2017

The Five Pound Note

I'm just preparing for a trip back to the UK. As usual I'm assembling a little bag of UK banknotes and change,  but this time I'm being a bit more careful since the current one-pound coin and five-pound note are about to be withdrawn and replaced.

The one pound coin was introduced in 1983 - until then we had the pound note, which (unlike any modern British notes) was green. And before decimalisation in 1972, there was even a note for half of one pound, the 'ten bob note' (ten shillings, 50p in modern money). It was a little smaller than the pound note, and a reddish-brown colour.

The ten-bob note still lives on, in the colloquial expression, "bent as a nine-bob note" - meaning dishonest or corrupt. "I wouldn't buy nuffin' from that lot, they're all bent as a nine-bob note". Because a nine-shilling note would necessarily be a forgery. And also it alliterates nicely.

Five pounds used to be serious money, at least for a working class family like mine, as I once saw very vivdly. I must have been about seven or eight. We were on our annual week's holiday with my grandmother in Dovercourt, close to the ancient (and still very important) port of Harwich. She'd retired to a tiny cottage there around the time I was born. It was just big enough for her, my parents and myself, my parents sleeping on what must have been a horribly uncomfortable convertible sofa (a "put-u-up") that had to be unfolded after dinner every night and restored to its daytime function every morning. To a small child it was a paradise. The beach, with its choc-ices and endless civil engineering possibilities, was short bus-ride away on the exotic green Eastern National bus. There was a ferry across the estuary to Felixstowe, with its fairground, and walks along the promenade to see the long-disused lighthouses.

We had just got off one of those green buses, on our way to the beach, when my mother gave a gasp of horror. One of those five pound notes was missing from her purse. She was sure she'd had it when we left, so it must have come out somehow during the journey. That single banknote represented most of our holiday budget. My father earned about £30 per week, as a shop assistant selling the odds and ends that went into the then-thriving East End clothing industry along with the fabric itself.

My mother wasn't given to tearful outbursts, and I don't remember her crying, but it was certainly a very stressful moment. I remember her doing the mental arithmetic to see what kind of holiday we could still have on the remaining money in her purse. She tried to reassure me that everything would be alright, but I don't think it would have been.

In desperation, she made a phone call to the bus depot which occupied a very central position on Dovercourt's main shopping street. And, miracle of miracles, someone had seen the note fall and given it to the driver, who had handed it in to the depot as he drive past. I think maybe my mother did cry then. I won't say "that would never happen today", because I think these random acts of kindness are still common enough, and people were no more honest then than they are now. But certainly it was a huge stroke of good luck.

And there was better to come. My mother jumped on the next bus into town and rushed into the garage. The rule was that the bus company took 10% of the value of any lost property, as a way to cover their costs in handling it. Getting 90% of our holiday budget back was a lot better than losing it all, but it was still a significant dent.

The man in the bus garage office said to her, "Well, rightly we ought to take ten shillings off you. But you called almost before it was handed in, so it don't seem right really." And gave her back her whole five pound note, without taking the 10% they were entitled to. Really I'm sure he just felt sorry for my  mother.

So our holiday proceeded with its intended budget after all. The fact that I still remember all these details - I can even remember where we were and what kind of bus it was (a Bristol MW or LS single decker, since you didn't ask) - speaks volumes about the impact this little incident had on a small boy at the time.