Juice Newton and the nature of semantics

There’s a theory that language has meaning by making assertions about the world that are either true, or false.  Juice Newton says otherwise.

How does language mean things?  One way of thinking about it:

  1. There is a world, with things in it.
  2. Language makes statements about those things.
  3. Those statements are either true, or false.

To expand on (3): suppose that I say the sentence Zipf’s Law is an “empirical” law.  …then if and only if it is, in fact, the case that:

  1. Such a thing as “Zipf’s Law” exists, and…
  2. …it is, in fact, a “descriptive” law (i.e. one that provides an accurate description of some set of facts, as opposed to, say, explaining them, or making a prediction about some as-yet-unobserved condition…

…then the sentence has the “truth-value” of true, and it means (1) and (2).


Here’s the thing, though: a lot of language does not, in fact, assert things about the world.  Suppose that I say the following to you: call me Angel of the Morning.  I am not asserting anything—I’m taking the action of giving you an order.  If I say to you if we’re victims of the night, I won’t be blinded by the night, then I’m not talking about something in the world—rather, I’m performing the action of making a prediction.   Is it true?  Is it false?  That’s not a relevant question, if you think that language means things by making a statement about the state of the world.  If it has no “ontological status”—in other words, it does not, in fact, exist—then not only is it not meaningful to talk about whether or not it’s true, but it’s not even meaningful to talk about what it “means.”

Juice Newton’s beautiful Angel of the Morning suggests that this–I’ll call it the ontologist’s point of view–is all bullshit.  From a linguist’s perspective, what’s cool about it is that from the preceding point of view, almost the entire song has no “truth value,” one way or the other.   Here are the lyrics:

There’ll be no strings to bind your hands
Not if my love can’t bind your heart
There’s no need to take a stand
For it was I who chose to start
I see no need to take me home
I’m old enough to face the dawn

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Then slowly turn away from me

Maybe the sun’s light will be dim
And it won’t matter anyhow
If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned,
Well, it was what I wanted now…
And if we’re victims of the night
I won’t be blinded by the light

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Then slowly turn away
I won’t beg you to stay
With me

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, darling
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, darling

Why do I say that the ontologist’s point of view is, in this case, bullshit?  Let’s start with the observation that the majority of the song by far (22 lines out of 26, or 84.6% of the lines in the song) does not make statements about the world.  Which lines do make a statement about the world?  The following, and no others:

  1. There’s no need to take a stand
  2. For it was I who chose to start
  3. I see no need to take me home
  4. I’m old enough to face the dawn

Everything else in the song falls into the category of “utterances” (a technical term in linguistics—something that is said, basically) called irrealis.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines irrealis:

 In linguistics, irrealis moods are the main set of grammatical moods that indicate that a certain situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking.  — Wikipedia

There are a lot of moods that qualify as irrealis—in fact, most of them.  Some examples that we see in Angel of the Morning:

  • There’ll be no strings to bind your hands (future)
  • Not if my love can’t bind your heart (hypothetical or presumptive)
  • Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel (imperative)
  • Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby (imperative)
  • Then slowly turn away from me (imperative)
  • Maybe the sun’s light will be dim (dubitative)
  • If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned… (hypothetical)
  • Well, it was what I wanted now… (the only sentence in the song that I’m not sure about with respect to its irrealis versus realis status—looks like a conditional (irrealis), but if it’s intended to describe a current reality (implying regardless of what happens in the future, it is, at this time, what I want), then it’s realis)

So, you have a couple of choices here: (1) side with the ontologists and assert that most of the song (and, in fact, most of what you, personally, will say and hear today) is meaningless, or (2) abandon the assumption that language means things by referring to states of the world that are either true, or false.  Most of this song is devoid of ontological status, and the notion of having a “truth value” just doesn’t apply to the majority of this song, one way or the other.

Who you gonna side with here–the ontologists (represented here by me in asomewhat caricatural, but by no means entirely inaccurate, fashion), or Juice Newton?  Do I even need to ask??


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Q: Can linguists suck the joy out of anything?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Do linguists suck the beauty right the fuck out of language?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Am I a hopeless romantic?
  • A: Apparently.
  • Q: Why do I get divorced so often?
  • A: I don’t know.

Note: Angel of the Morning was written not by Juice Newton, but by Chip Taylor.  It has been recorded numerous times–Juice Newton’s is “just” the one that you would remember if you were an American of my age.  No ontologists were harmed in the making of this blog–neither were any’s opinions requested.  Not that their opinions would be unwelcome, of course, for all that I disagree with their deeply politically conservative opinions.  

5 thoughts on “Juice Newton and the nature of semantics”

  1. I began reading this post with a strong disagreement over point 3. I mean, language, broken down as true or false? Then I got to Juice Newton and began to warm up. And your FAQs totally cracked me up. Guess you know who I side with!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t answer your question (who’m I going to believe?) until I know if the ontologists can sing, and if so how good they are. Once I know that, I suspect I’m going to have to side with Juice Newton.

    Does any of that make a true (or false) statement about the world? Only if I’m part of the world, which I always assumed I was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being human beings, ontologists vary–hence, one would expect that some sing better/worse than others.

      None of this changes my obvious allegiance to Juice Newton. Or to fig newtons. Or to juice, really.

      Liked by 1 person

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