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.
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.