Speaking of Vlad and Kiera

Mark A Mandel mam at theworld.com
Sat Feb 22 18:07:06 PST 2003

	[Dr. Whom]
#  Yeah. How in hell do English-speakers manage to say "He's gone" without
#  the absolutely vital grammatical distinctions between the degrees of
#  certainty implied by "I saw him leave", "I saw him put his coat on and
#  then I heard the door open and close", "Somebody told me he'd left", and
#  "I haven't seen him for an hour"? No joke: there are languages where
#  you can't avoid these distinctions any more than you can avoid verb
#  tense or biological pronoun gender in English.

	[circadian rhyme]
#It depends on the question, eh?  I wouldn't use "he's gone" for any of
#the above except the first.  I would consider that sloppy speaking.
#More vague is, "He isn't here," which could mean "he left while i was
#here" or "he wasn't here when i got here", but if someone wants that
#level of granularity by asking, "Is he there?" that's unfair.  So i
#don't think it's English's fault.

You're a precise speaker. I think many people would say "He's gone" or
"He's not here" for at least the first three situations, in reply to a
question like "Where's Steve?" or "Is Steve still around?", if context
indicated to them that a probable inference would be sufficient for the
asker. Yes, we can be more precise if we want, as Hungarians can specify
a person's sex and ASL signers can say explicitly whether something is
past or present or future, or be more precise than that; but their
languages don't force them to specify these data repeatedly, as ours
doesn't force us to specify degree of certitude or direction of
movement. My point was that often what's seen as essential is
conditioned by what our language requires, not by the intrinsic needs of
human communication.

-- Dr. Whom, Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoepist, and
   Philological Busybody
   a.k.a. Mark A. Mandel