Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Beatles Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on April 23, 2009

All the talk about Beatles lyrics a few posts ago reminded me of an ambiguity in one of their songs that I’ve wondered about for years. For my twelfth birthday, Mom and Dad gave me an LP of the anthology The Beatles: 1962-1966. I remember sitting in the easy chair in the den, reading the liner notes while I listened to the record. One of the tracks on disc 2 is “Michelle”, in which Paul McCartney addresses the exclusively Francophone object of his affection. The trouble is that McCartney doesn’t speak French, or at least not enough to have mastered the complicated syntax of je t’aime. Instead, he has to make do with the simple sentence “Michelle, ma belle” sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, which means “Michelle, ma belle [my pretty] are words that go together well”. Here, you can listen for yourself:

The French wasn’t a problem. I didn’t know it anyway, so I just went with it (although once I took French in high school I realized that where the liner notes had les mots it should be des mots). The line that stopped me was this one:

I will say the only words I know that you’ll understand.

On one parsing, Paul is talking about words that satisfy one property: He knows that Michelle will understand them. It was years before I learned about syntactic tree diagrams, but if I’d known about them I could have diagrammed this reading the way you see below to the left. Here, the verb know takes a clausal complement, and that is a subordinate conjunction (or complementizer) that introduces it. The phrase I know that you’ll understand __ is a single relative clause modifying words.

On the other parsing, Paul is talking about words that satisfy two properties: One, Paul knows them; and two, Michelle will understand them. This is the reading represented by the tree on the right. Here, know is a simple transitive verb; I know __ is a relative clause modifying words; and that you’ll understand __ is another relative clause, modifying the bigger chunk words I know.

I know them, you understand them!

I know them, you understand them!


There's only one relative clause.

I know you'll understand them!

As I sat there in the den years ago, I had a hard time separating the meanings of the two parses. It’s still tricky. Let’s assume Paul had the first parse in mind. If it’s true that Paul knows Michelle will understand these words, then it also has to be true that Michelle will understand these words. You can’t truthfully say “I know such-and-such” without such-and-such being true. So the meaning under the first parse entails part of the meaning of the second parse. But does knowing that Michelle will understand the words mean that Paul knows the words? Clearly Paul knows how to pronounce the words, knows the meaning of the phrase they make up, and knows another fact about them (i.e. that Michelle will understand them). Is that enough to say that he knows the words? If you asked him what sont or des or vont meant, could he tell you? I don’t know.

What if Paul intended the second parse? If he is saying that Michelle will understand these words, then it’s implicit that he knows she will understand them. (Or at least, he thinks he knows.) So the proposition expressed under the second parsing entails the proposition expressed under the first one. Ah, well, a trivial difference in meanings, right? One reading entails the other, and the other almost entails the one. Aren’t they close enough that we don’t need to settle which meaning Paul actually intended?

Ha! That’s the easy way out! I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotta have a good reason for taking the easy way out.

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10 Responses to “More Beatles Ambiguity”

  1. Viola said

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotta have a good reason for taking the easy way out. Hmmm…I suppose that’s part of your charm. ;o)

  2. Ellen K. said

    It seems to me how the “only” applies makes a difference. Is he saying of all the words she’ll understand, these are the only ones he knows? Or is he saying these are the only words, of all the words out there in the world, that he is sure she’ll understand? Those are the two ways I read it. The latter is kinda silly, unless we assume an implied “I know” (in addition to the one there), as in, the only words he knows that he is sure she’ll understand.

  3. Christine in Baltimore said

    Would you use a Reed-Kellogg diagram please.

    • Neal said

      Well, as I said in November 2008:
      Once I learned about tree diagrams, I was done with Reed-Kellogg ones. I find tree diagrams much easier to read, and more informative. For example, you can have category labels on them, and tree diagrams distinguish between adjuncts (modifiers) and complements. For a phrase like put the doll in the box, a Red-Kellogg diagram (correct me if I’m wrong) would have in the box under the line for put as a modifier, just as it would for sit in the box, whereas a tree diagram would have both the doll and in the box as complements to put. I’m sure the R-K system could be fixed to allow for newer insights like that one, but tree diagrams already have a means of doing so.

      And now let me ask: Why do you like R-K diagrams?

  4. In my opinion, the “I know them, you understand them” interpretation is the intended one, and Paul’s choice of placement for “that” is the reason:

    I will say the only words I know THAT you’ll understand.

    If he had intended the “I know you’ll understand them” interpretation, I suspect he would have placed the “that” elsewhere:

    I will say the only words THAT I know you’ll understand.

    Assuming, of course, that Paul’s choice of wording is only motivated by a desire to express his meaning precisely. And that’s a big assumption. You never know with artists.

  5. The Ridger said

    “Assuming, of course, that Paul’s choice of wording is only motivated by a desire to express his meaning precisely. And that’s a big assumption. You never know with artists.”

    Especially with Paul, whose motivation is to find words that fit the melody…

    I always heard that as “…that you understand”, which made the reading easier to parse. Easier for me, anyway.

  6. chris said

    There’s another possible (but far less likely parse) — two separate clauses. That is, “I will say the only words; I know that you’ll understand.”

  7. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    “Of the words you understand, these are the only ones I know–so I’ll say them” does sound like the most reasonable interpretation in context. The singer is, after all, addressing a foreigner and has a limited (if romantic) grasp of her language.

  8. It is ambiguous! I’ll go with: those were the only words Paul knew in French.

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