Sunday, April 12, 2015

Res Ipsa Locquitur

Today, I want to talk to you about the legal concept of res ipsa locquitur as it relates to the very common, ordinary conception of probability and odds. Now, probability is a mathematical topic, and I'm not talking about it rigorously here, but all people, inside them, have some kind of gut feeling about whether something is or is not probable. In the law, for instance, if somebody opens up a jar of jam that they bought and there's a human thumb in there, what the law would say is: "The thing speaks for itself" or Latin: "Res ipsa locquitur." Something is wrong. Somebody did something wrong. It's not likely that a human thumb fell from the sky and it wasn't anybody's fault, and it's in the jam. So the person selling the jam to the customer is responsible for there being a human thumb in the jam, even if we don't know how that thumb got in there.

 It's really the same thing that happens when your child has cookie crumbs all over his face and the cookies are missing from the cookie jar, but you don't know exactly how that happened. You could say: "Well, maybe the crumbs somehow fell on the child's face while the child was asleep, and the child didn't steal the cookies," but most would say the thing speaks for itself.

I had someone question whether I was really a person living in Missouri with a chimpanzee. You know, when we talk to people online, then we don't know everything about them, and certainly lots of other people hide behind masks, give themselves false names and pretend that they are something that they are not. But what are the odds that I am really faking all these videos with Bow and I really don't have a chimpanzee, or what are the odds that I don't live in Missouri and all the indications and all the pictures are false? I think that most people who have been following my blogs have a reasonable idea that, yes, Bow is real, and, yes. I am real.

The case for or against the authenticity of The Journal of Jean Laffite is likewise based on how likely it is that someone would want to go to the trouble to fake it to this extent. The man accused of forging the document was not a speaker of French. And the document itself is not simply in French, It's not Parisian French. It's not the kind of French you learn if you are studying French. It has Spanish words in it. And there seems to be evidence within the document that it was written by someone who was as fluent in Spanish as he was in French, who was probably brought up not in France, but in one of the French colonies,and who had the background that Jean Laffite had. So... Yes, it could be faked. But what are the odds that in the twentieth century someone was able to do that kind of faking?

Today, in the world of linguistics for someone to appeal to an argument of res ipsa locquitur is considered unscientific. But in the world of philology of Sir William Jones, who lived from 1746 to 1794. it was quite common to appeal to exactly that.

He is often quoted as saying:

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists
So what he is really saying is: The thing speaks for itself. Res ipsa locquitur.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the Neogrammarians were in fact correct, and the IndoEuropean languages did spring from some common source. But it could have been formalized a great deal more. And today when somebody presents the same kind of circumstantial evidence -- and that's all it is: circumstantial; they were not there, they didn't see the languages spring from some common source; they merely surmised that it could not have happened by chance that so many roots were the same in all of those languages... So, today, if I point out that all of the IndoEuropean languages have a common source for their copula and their pronoun, and I can go to specific languages such as Sanskrit or Latin to show this, or I can go to a reconstruction of ProtoIndoEuropean and show that the root for one of the copulas is very similar to the roots of many of the pronouns, I can do that, and I can show that to people, and they'll say: "You know, I think you're right. But how would you go about proving it?" Well, my goodness! How did William Jones prove it? How did the neogrammarians prove it?

Actually, I think we are all appealing to the same gut feeling of res ipsa locquitur,  which can in fact be formalized, because we've got a finite number of contrasts, and we've also got a finite number of combinations, and so then we can ask ourselves: What are the odds that these two forms would be this similar? Because this is really finite math.


  1. Well I think the person who said you were not real probably did that because it is the easiest way to discredit someone they do not agree with. Similar to how early it seems people who call everyone a troll that does not agree with them. It is a lot easier to make an accusation than to have a discussion about something a person might not agree with. I know conspiracy theories abound, but accusing someone of being fake is usually because that person has ulterior motives. Some people have accused Anne Frank of being a made up person, and going so far as to say the Holocaust was not real. Some people say Anne Frank did not write her diary because they think the type of language she used was too sophisticated for a thirteen year old, or they have tried to say she wrote it with a kind of pen that was not invented until the fifties. My gut instinct tells me the Holocaust was real and Anne Frank was a real person. I question the motives of the people who want to say she is fake because they have an agenda of their own.

    1. I think you are right, Julia. Calling someone a fake is sometimes just a way to dismiss them. The example you gave of The Diary of Anne Frank is a good one. And I have seen similar attempts to question the historical authenticity of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I suppose what is happening with regard to failure to accept the content of the Journal of Jean Laffite may come from similar motives.