The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LFRG 4/29 - Paul Marty

Speaker: Paul Marty (MIT)
Time: Friday, April 29, 2-3pm
Place: 32-D831
Title: What it takes ‘to win’: a linguistic point of view

In this talk, I discuss and offer a solution to the `Puzzle of Changing Past’ presented in Barlassina and Del Prete (2014). This puzzle is based on the following true story:

The Rise And Fall Of Lance Armstrong: On 23rd of July 2000, Lance Armstrong is declared the winner of the 87th Tour de France by Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). However, on 22 October 2012, UCI withdraws all of Armstrong’s wins at Tour de France.

Now, consider the following sentence:
(1) Lance Armstrong won the 87th Tour de France.

The puzzle arises from the following observations. If the proposition expressed in (1) is evaluated before `22 October 2012’, then it is true; however, if it is evaluated after `22 October 2012’, then its negation is true. This is puzzling because it challenges the platitude that the truth/falsity of what we say about the past depends on how the past is and stands as it is once and for all, as exemplified in (2).

(2) Lance Armstrong was born in 1971.
a. If (2) is true at a time t in w, then for any t’ such that t’>t, (2) is true at t’ in w.
b. If (2) is false at a time t in w, then for any t’ such that t’>t, (2) is false at t’ in w.

One possibility is to consider this puzzle as a metaphysical one, and embrace Barlassina and Del Prete’s provocative conclusion that the past can change. Instead of taking this avenue, I will argue that this puzzle is linguistic in nature, and defend the platitude. In substance, I will propose that `win’-sentences of (1) involve a covert modality which can be thought of as the remnant of the original speech-act whereby the winner is `declared’ to be so (e.g., `It was declared that Lance Armstrong won the 87th Tour de France’). I will show how this view can account for sentences of (3), and in particular for the presence of the past tense morphology in the embedded clause.

(3) It is no longer the case that [Lance Armstrong won the 87th Tour de France].
(4) #It is no longer the case that [Lance Armstrong was born in 1971].

In the meantime, if you want to look at the original argument, Barlassina and Del Prete’s paper is available here.