Accent

Aristotle

Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Ambiguity > Accent

History:

As with many named fallacies, Accent has a long and confusing history. It is one of the thirteen fallacies identified by Aristotle in his pioneering work, On Sophistical Refutations. Specifically, it is one of the six language-dependent fallacies, of which Aristotle says "this is the number of ways in which we might fail to mean the same thing by the same names or expressions." Thus, according to Aristotle, Accent is a kind of fallacy of ambiguity.

To understand what Aristotle meant by "accent", one must know some things about the written Greek of his time. Today, in most printed Greek texts—including those of "the philosopher"—three accents are used to indicate pronunciation. In Aristotle's time, the accents were not a part of the written language, but were supplied by the reader's knowledge of spoken Greek, which is something that we lack today. For this reason, some words that were pronounced differently were spelled the same in classical Greek, that is, they were homographs―"written the same"―but not homophones―"sound the same". So, a written word could be ambiguous in a way that depended on how it was accented in speech.

It is clear, from what he wrote, that Aristotle was being thorough in including Accent in his catalog of types of ambiguity. It is less clear just how common ambiguity of this type was in his day, or how often it led to fallacious reasoning.

Exposition:

Putting aside history, what about accent as a source of fallacy today? Is it possible to have ambiguity of accent in English, or other living languages? There are English homographs which are not homophones: "sewer", for instance. However, the different meanings of "sewer" are not accented differently; rather, the difference in pronunciation is due to the vowel sound in the first syllable. One example of an ambiguity of accent that I have been able to find in English are the two meanings of "resent"; though there is a difference in accent, there is also a difference in the pronunciation of the "s", so it is not a pure case of ambiguity of accent.

Consider the sentence: "I resent that letter." This could mean either that one sent the letter again, or that one has a feeling of resentment towards it. So, the sentence could be a boobytrap. If you concluded, falsely, on the basis of the sentence, that the speaker sent the letter again, then you would have committed a fallacy of accent.

Morris Engel cites the similar ambiguity of "invalid", meaning "a chronically ill person", or "not truth-preserving". However, it's difficult to imagine a situation in which these different meanings would be confused. Here are some examples of other words in English which have different meanings when accented differently:

accent accent
increase increase
insult insult
record record

There seems to be a pattern of two-syllable noun/verb pairs in which the noun is accented on the first syllable and the verb is accented on the second. However, because when differently accented the words become different parts of speech, it's unlikely that the distinct meanings will be confused, that is, it's not likely that a noun will be confused with a verb.

Exposure:

Ambiguities of accent occur rarely in English, so that boobytraps based on such accentual ambiguities will be even rarer, and outright fallacies of Accent rarest of all. In fact, I have found no uncontrived examples of Accent. Therefore, if fallacies are defined as "common or tempting forms of incorrect reasoning", then there is no "fallacy of Accent"—at least, in the English language. At any rate, I recommend that textbooks stop devoting space to Accent, since it is not a useful fallacy. Presumably, the main reason why it still sometimes appears is historical inertia.

Some writers on fallacies—notably, Morris Engel in With Good Reason—discuss the fallacy of quoting out of context under the name "Accent", on the grounds that a quote taken out of context changes emphasis in a misleading way. However, this is stretching Aristotle's meaning of "accent", which referred specifically to accents on syllables, and not on whole passages. Moreover, the kind of ambiguity that quotation out of context can lead to is seldom accurately described as a shift of emphasis; rather, what the loss of context does is allow the natural ambiguity of words to assert itself. For this reason, I treat quoting out of context as a separate, and genuine fallacy, for it is very common, in contrast to Accent.

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Acknowledgments: My thanks to Derek Jensen for the examples of verb/noun pair accentual ambiguity.