[Top] [All Lists]

Re: [ontolog-forum] Where does syntax come from? Have we all been wrong?

To: Alan Ruttenberg <alanruttenberg@xxxxxxxxx>
Cc: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 14 Oct 2007 16:49:41 -0400
Message-id: <471280E5.4000609@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Alan,    (01)

AR> Incidentally, I've always taken that quote [Colorless green ideas
 > sleep furiously] as a demonstration that we have some knowledge of
 > syntax that is independent of semantics. What do you take from it?    (02)

I have no quarrel with the assumption that children learn some
syntactic generalizations at an early stage and that such knowledge
enables them to process language more efficiently.  But that does
not imply that there must be a special language organ.  Children,
mammals, and birds quickly learn many kinds generalizations.
Their brains undoubtedly have some built-in structure, but there's
no need to assume that it is some kind of Universal Grammar.    (03)

Perhaps modern humans have some genes that facilitate language
and complex syntactic patterns, but that is much less than the
claim that those patterns are the foundation for language.  All
modern cars have built-in computers, for example, but cars were
invented long before computers.    (04)

Following is a good review of the current state of theories about
language acquisition by Michael Tomasello:    (05)

    http://www.princeton.edu/~adele/Tomasello-cliffnotes%20for%20'03.pdf    (06)

For other papers by Tomasello and his colleagues, see:    (07)

    http://www.sedsu.org/Publications2005.html    (08)

Chomsky made some rather strong claims in his early work (in the 1950s),
which he continued to elaborate over the next 50 years.  Some of his
followers (e.g., Pinker) have continued to preach the main themes.
Following are some of the major claims:    (09)

  1. Syntax is the foundation for all language studies, semantics
     cannot be studied or properly formulated without a solid
     syntactic formulation, and the study of syntax is best done
     *without* considering semantic issues.    (010)

  2. The critical advance that made human language possible is some
     sort of "language organ" for processing syntax.  That organ seems
     to be related to Broca's area in the left hemisphere of the brain,
     and the genes responsible for that development are crucial to
     language.  (Check Google for "FOXP2 gene", for example.)    (011)

  3. The amount of language that infants hear is far too small to
     enable them to learn the complex syntactic structures of human
     languages.    (012)

  4. The studies (from the 1950s) of grammar discovery procedures
     based on Markov models, information theory, and other statistical
     methods could never lead to adequate grammars.    (013)

  5. A suitable theory of language must make a sharp distinction
     between *competence* and *performance* -- competence is what
     an intelligent adult is capable of understanding and producing
     while performance accounts for the inevitable errors and
     limitations.    (014)

Many very competent linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and
computer scientists questioned all of these points from the earliest
days.  A very important linguist, Roman Jakobson, countered Chomsky
with the slogan "Syntax without semantics is meaningless.    (015)

Many younger linguists were shouted down by Chomsky (who enforced
his claims by exiling heretics from his private circle and even
causing many of them to lose their jobs).  One who lost his job
was Victor Yngve -- MIT intended to give him tenure, but Chomsky
threatened to resign if Yngve got tenure.  Another was Joan Bresnan,
who went to Stanford because (a) she couldn't get graduate students
at MIT and (b) if she did get any students, Chomsky would give them
negative reviews that could prevent them from being hired elsewhere.    (016)

In the past 20 years, those claims (above) have been proved to be
either false or highly questionable.  Statistical methods have been
extremely valuable for deriving grammars and processing language,
but until the 1990s, it was very difficult to get a statistical
paper published in journals on linguistics and even computational
linguistics.  These studies have shown that the amount of information
a child receives is quite sufficient to derive a grammar without
assuming as much machinery as Chomsky required.    (017)

There is much more to be said on all these points, but I agree with
Minsky's observation about Chomsky:  he made important contributions
to the theory of formal languages in the 1950s and early 1960s, but
his later contributions to natural language were far outweighed by
his negative influence on other researchers whose often very promising
ideas were squashed by Chomsky (and sometimes even accepted later by
Chomsky without attribution -- an example is the work on generative
semantics proposed by various linguists in the late 1960s).    (018)

John    (019)

Message Archives: http://ontolog.cim3.net/forum/ontolog-forum/  
Subscribe/Config: http://ontolog.cim3.net/mailman/listinfo/ontolog-forum/  
Unsubscribe: mailto:ontolog-forum-leave@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Shared Files: http://ontolog.cim3.net/file/
Community Wiki: http://ontolog.cim3.net/wiki/ 
To Post: mailto:ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx    (020)

<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>