Saturday, February 04, 2017

Why the sun really does rise

In response to someone comparing "alternative facts" to science fiction, the eminent science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin recently wrote:
The test of a fact is that it simply is so - it has no "alternative." The sun rises in the east. To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or "alternative fact") is a lie.
The comments (never read the comments!) include several people trying to be smart by pointing out that, actually, "the truth of the matter is that the sun does not rise, but rather that the Earth turns". This apparent conflict is worth unpacking from a descriptive linguistic perspective.

All fluent speakers of English use phrases like "The sun rises in the east". They also use phrases like "Hot air rises." The commenter quoted previously seems to be applying something like the following reasoning:

  • When something (eg hot air) rises, it moves upwards away from the earth.
  • When the sun "rises", it's not moving upwards away from the earth - rather, the earth is turning relative to it.
  • Therefore, the sun does not actually rise.
A lexicographer will immediately see at least one ironclad way to vitiate such an argument: identify two distinct senses for "rise". Rise1 means "to move upward away from the ground", while rise2 means "for a celestial body's apparent position to come closer to the zenith" (or something along those lines.) The sun rises2, but it doesn't rise1.

But not so fast! It's perfectly plausible that someone could believe the earth is stationary and the sun physically moves upwards when it rises. For someone holding that belief (or even just using that mental model without necessarily believing it), "rise" could easily have a single sense, not two different ones. Is there any language-internal evidence that "rise" has two senses?

As it happens, there is: look at antonyms. We say "The sun sets in the West", but "Hot air sinks" (and "Empires fall", but that's another story); you can't say "*Hot air sets". "Set" is the antonym of rise2, but not of rise1. That seems like a pretty good reason to assume that, even for flat-earther speakers of English, the two senses are lexically distinct. So it looks like Ursula LeGuin wins this one, as you might expect.


David Marjanović said...

Ah, but wait a second! Cakes rise. Isn't "set" the opposite of that?

German has two separate words, and indeed celestial bodies rise like a cake. (And sink like a ship, interestingly, or like the world at its end.)

Y said...

I'd say that there's one meaning of rise, but that like all language, it refers to perception, not to some absolute physical fact. A helium balloon in an animated film is undoubtedly 'rising', although technically the balloon and its rise are illusions without any physical reality. As to fall/set etc., that's just a matter of lexical specialization by referent. These words are not strictly defined by their antonyms.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: Interesting suggestion. It's not obvious to me that "the cake sets" is the opposite of "the cake rises" - OK, a cake stops rising when it sets, but surely the opposite would be for it to start caving in or collapsing or something, like a soufflé (a soufflé doesn't set does it? I'm not much of a baker.) In standard Arabic, the polysemy pattern is quite different: the verb for the sun rising is ʔašraqa, a denominal verb from "east", also used for "to light up due to sunrise", "to dye too brightly", "to turn red", but with no uses related to "going upwards".

Y: While I'd agree that there is a common conceptual core motivating the polysemy of "rise", I'd also say that it is not possible to predict the correct usages of "rise" from that conceptual core alone; you have to resort to multiple senses for that.

David Marjanović said...

The sun brightens? Fascinating.

petre Tepner said...

Somehow, this discussion leaves me sitting on my balcony with Richard Dawkins, saying "look at the beautiful sunrise", and him saying to me in his quacky, pedantic voice: "actually, the Sun doesn't rise, it's the rotation of the Earth." Like, duh!

January First-of-May said...

In Russian, we say "солнце встаёт" (i.e. "the sun stands up"), or sometimes "восходит" (literally "walks up", but it's a very archaic verb, whose only other modern meaning I can think of is "to climb [a mountain]" - though the perfective взойти has some other non-sun-related senses).
For the other direction, we say "солнце садится" (i.e. "the sun sits down"), or, perhaps more often, "заходит" ("walks in", weirdly enough, which doesn't really make any sense).