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General Linguistics => Linguist's Lounge => Outside of the box => Topic started by: Daniel on January 02, 2014, 05:59:36 PM

Title: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 02, 2014, 05:59:36 PM
In a very specific sense, I'm wondering if languages follow "rules":

Is language strictly rule-based?

It is very clear that there are patterns in languages. That's not in question here.

What I'm wondering is whether those patterns are strict rules, without exceptions, and whether those rules fully explain all forms in the language.

In other words, are there exceptions to rules? If so, they aren't really rules. They're just patterns. And patterns exist everywhere, in all behaviors. So language isn't really logical then.

Another way of phrasing this is to ask whether a linguist, with complete success, would be able to explain everything about a language using a logical system.


To give some examples, there seem to be instances where language change reveals illogical language use. That is, the use is internally inconsistent for the language. See these discussions:
"Do you miss not having a job?" (http://linguistforum.com/english/%27do-you-miss-not-having-a-job%27/)
Hadn't have... (http://linguistforum.com/english/hadn%27t%27ve-hadn%27t%27a/)
Both of these forms are in a very literal sense illogical. It's not a question of whether, for example, a language does or does not have "double negation" which is said (by prescriptivists) to be objectively illogical. It's a question of whether these forms follow rules within the languages themselves.
In the first case, English doesn't have double negation and the semantics of "miss" are already negative, so the form is apparently a contradiction. In the second, the same auxiliary is used twice in the sentence vacuously.

There are also some idioms:
"I could care less!"


Sure, we could argue that these are just "more specific rules" (eg, all the discussion about the Elsewhere Principle, which I happen to like), but I'm not sure that quite captures it.



So we could describe everthing just descriptively-- note the patterns, note the exceptions, continue until (in theory) we've 'finished' the whole language. But does that count as rules?

If there are rules, then there should be limits to what is possible. So, is that true? Are there limits to what a language can do? Is there evidence that something is impossible thus showing that language can't do it?
Chomsky likes to cite the sentence "Is the man who is tall happy?" to show that sub-aux inversion follows non-linear rules, but I find it hard to know that it's impossible for it to instead follow linear rules. Is language so constrained? Or is it just useful? Do the rules just end up being used because the work out for communication? Or are there inherent limits on the system?


(Of course I'm now brought up individual languages and also universal considerations, so feel free to discuss both.)
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: jkpate on January 03, 2014, 02:37:58 AM
So we could describe everthing just descriptively-- note the patterns, note the exceptions, continue until (in theory) we've 'finished' the whole language. But does that count as rules?

Why wouldn't this count as rules? For example, maybe there's one rule for the general pattern, and lots of rules for the exceptions.

If there are rules, then there should be limits to what is possible.

Why does the existence of rules mean that there are limits to what is possible? Indeed, what do you mean by "what is possible"? There are NP-hard problems that can be stated quite simply in terms of rules.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Corybobory on January 03, 2014, 05:52:39 AM
I like the word 'conventions' rather than rules, and I think they emerge and are passed on by people who interpret them to have meaning, and therefore there is no biological component at all other than the limits put on our world by having an embodied mind. People forget these rules, make mistakes, interprets its usage differently, or even just slightly differently, and that is what results in a speech community having variation in how these conventions are played out.  So 'hard' rules might just be something that is unlikely to evolve!
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 03, 2014, 10:02:49 AM
Quote from: jkpate
Why wouldn't this count as rules? For example, maybe there's one rule for the general pattern, and lots of rules for the exceptions.
It could, but so what? If "rule" just means "describable" is it still interesting? Note that a completely arbitrary system is describable by listing everything out. Is that also rule-based?
I'm happy to discuss the deep question of what it means to be rule-based and where we'd draw the line. I'm not presupposing an answer to that question.
Quote
Why does the existence of rules mean that there are limits to what is possible? Indeed, what do you mean by "what is possible"? There are NP-hard problems that can be stated quite simply in terms of rules.
Within the system, there should be limits on what could be a possible sentence, either synchronically or (immediately) diachronically. Grammaticality seems to prove the first, but with random changes occuring diachronically, it's hard to see what the rules really accomplish. If any form is a possible change, then is it conceptually helpful to think of these as "rules" rather than just, as Cory said, conventions?
More broadly (at a universal level), there should be some limits on what a possible language would look like. But I'm entirely unconvinced. Some languages wouldn't be useful, but I don't see how any conceivable language would be impossible for human communication.

I was once told (very early on in my studies of linguistics!) that Chomsky's theories suggest that if aliens were to come to Earth they would be unable to learn human languages because it is a uniquely human property with UG. Let's assume that's true-- human languages follow human language rules. This means there must be some limits to the form of languages and not just that we are able to understand patterns and so forth. Because aliens can also (presumably) understand patterns and could possibly then learn to speak English. As I said, I'm completely unconvinced by this. I think humans just have great parsing (and generative) capabilities and end up stumbling upon systems that look like what we know as languages. I don't think there are any inherent limits on the system.

To rephrase my question, perhaps: what's the point in calling the patterns "rules"? Is it helpful? It it meaningful?

(Again I realize I'm mixing universal and language-specific rules into a single question here. Feel free to respond to either or both. I'm not even sure what a "rule" is anyway, so it's hard to ask these questions. I'm just confused about why we assume languages are rule-based.)


Quote from: Cory
I like the word 'conventions' rather than rules, and I think they emerge and are passed on by people who interpret them to have meaning, and therefore there is no biological component at all other than the limits put on our world by having an embodied mind. People forget these rules, make mistakes, interprets its usage differently, or even just slightly differently, and that is what results in a speech community having variation in how these conventions are played out.  So 'hard' rules might just be something that is unlikely to evolve!
Very well said. That's the null hypothesis. And without any compelling evidence against it, I'm inclined to believe it. Humans use patterns mostly reliably, with conventions that are reliable enough for others to follow our intentions. But there are no inherent rules either within or across languages.

In other words: human languages are a near* optimal way to convey ideas. As humans we have an ability to encode and parse information into linear strings, and this would like resemble the same process as done by any other equally intelligent species for communication, though some details might vary based on human (or other) experience. Systemically, it's all about the form conveying information, and not about any arbitrary rules.

(*No idea how near-- might be pretty far or pretty close, as long as it's better than many other not-as-useful systems out there, which is certainly true. There are widely infinitely many systems that are worse than English for conveying ideas (such as everyone saying only "aaaaa"), so I'm happy to assume human languages are approaching the limit of what would be optimal, though I have no idea how close they are.)
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Corybobory on January 03, 2014, 10:45:29 AM
^There's another analogy between linguistic and biological evolution for us then, how 'optimal' something is for use in its environment.  Lingustic items get used and understood and passed on if they're good enough, or, not selected against - how 'perfect' are a butterfly's wings or an elephants nose, or the human spine?  They get the job done! :)
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 03, 2014, 10:56:24 AM
Right. That's all I mean. But I also mean that, interestingly also still parallel to evolution, coincidental similarities aren't unexpected-- squid eyes and human eyes are very very similar in structure yet are unrelated genetically. As a very reasonable null hypothesis (yours above, and my current intuition) I think this is how language works-- languages have evolved to be useful within the limits of how combinatorial systems work, NOT some special human system that would be incomprehensible to equally intelligent aliens!
Human languages (and their rules) should be expected developments given what they need to do-- just like wings are an expected development given that some animals need to fly.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: jkpate on January 03, 2014, 05:22:20 PM
Quote from: jkpate
Why wouldn't this count as rules? For example, maybe there's one rule for the general pattern, and lots of rules for the exceptions.
It could, but so what? If "rule" just means "describable" is it still interesting? Note that a completely arbitrary system is describable by listing everything out. Is that also rule-based?
I'm happy to discuss the deep question of what it means to be rule-based and where we'd draw the line. I'm not presupposing an answer to that question.

Haha, I think you just wrote out my view of the issue. Simply listing everything of an arbitrary system is rule based, because a list of rules is a list of... rules. It's a boring system, but there's no rule (hah!) that rule-based systems must be cool.

In  general, we know that if your system has one set of rules, such as the simply-typed lambda calculus, you can describe anything, while if it has another, like a finite state automaton, you are much more limited in what you can describe. So the question of whether language is rule-based is completely uninteresting, as far as I can see. However, what the rules look like is very interesting.

And most of the time, people are actually arguing about what the rules look like when they argue over whether language is "rule-based." Depending on the debate, "rule-based" can mean:

All of these potential qualities of rules are orthogonal to the question of whether a dataset has been generated by rules. Bayesian models, the currently trendy "alternative" to Generativism, clearly and unambiguously use rules (Bayesian modelling just applies probability theory to the rules). Connectionist models are the other primary alternative. Unfortunately, the term "connectionist" is more sociological than technical, and encompasses a range of models, so I can't demonstrate that all connectionist models are rule-based in this short post, but I think they are. Some of these models actually perform inference in a Bayesian model, and so are rule-based in the same way; they are just built in a way that obscures the Bayesian model. I'm happy to talk about other connectionist models and the kinds of rules they implicitly consider if people are interested.

Quote
Why does the existence of rules mean that there are limits to what is possible? Indeed, what do you mean by "what is possible"? There are NP-hard problems that can be stated quite simply in terms of rules.
Within the system, there should be limits on what could be a possible sentence, either synchronically or (immediately) diachronically. Grammaticality seems to prove the first, but with random changes occuring diachronically, it's hard to see what the rules really accomplish. If any form is a possible change, then is it conceptually helpful to think of these as "rules" rather than just, as Cory said, conventions?
More broadly (at a universal level), there should be some limits on what a possible language would look like. But I'm entirely unconvinced. Some languages wouldn't be useful, but I don't see how any conceivable language would be impossible for human communication.

Sure, but this is orthogonal to the question of whether language is rule-based. How is "convention" different from "rule"? To my mind, the only difference is that a "convention" is probably social and is more likely to be a rule that does not obligatorily apply. Even in her post, Cory later refers to the conventions as "rules" and then more specifically as "hard rules." I think this is another case of arguing about what the rules look like, not whether there are rules in the first place.

I was once told (very early on in my studies of linguistics!) that Chomsky's theories suggest that if aliens were to come to Earth they would be unable to learn human languages because it is a uniquely human property with UG. Let's assume that's true-- human languages follow human language rules. This means there must be some limits to the form of languages and not just that we are able to understand patterns and so forth. Because aliens can also (presumably) understand patterns and could possibly then learn to speak English. As I said, I'm completely unconvinced by this. I think humans just have great parsing (and generative) capabilities and end up stumbling upon systems that look like what we know as languages. I don't think there are any inherent limits on the system.

To rephrase my question, perhaps: what's the point in calling the patterns "rules"? Is it helpful? It it meaningful?

I think it is potentially confusing to call the patterns "rules," because, in practice, people mean so many different things by the term "rule." So when you are talking about your rules, don't simply say that they are rules, but provide more detail (e.g. "we are using context free grammar rules with probabilities," "we are using maximum entropy constraints with negative weights", &c.)
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 03, 2014, 06:36:08 PM
Do patterns necessarily imply rules?
For example, tidal patterns exist, but are there rules?


I wonder (only wonder) whether it is somehow possible for language to exist as a kind of approximation process where meaning is sort of encoded in what we say, just enough that it works, but without anything deterministic, probabilistic or really "rule-based" in any sense-- it's unconstrained but near something that is consistent. In the same sense that pixels more or less represent an image, the language more or less encodes meaning.


However, that odd thought aside, you're probably right: language is inherently rule-based, if we properly define what "rules" are.

But then I'm not sure what question I'm trying to ask. I do think there's a question to be asked still. One would certainly be something like whether rules are probabilistic or deterministic, but that's a little too narrow for what I'm thinking.

I guess I'd like to bring up the idea that (reportedly) Chomsky would say aliens couldn't (potentially) understand human language. This suggests "rules" that are part of language beyond what is necessary for a communication system by random chance.


Is more going on in human languages than just a linearization of meaning? Is it fair to say that human language has properties, or just that human language is a linearization of meaning that then entails whatever properties we observe?

Is English anything more than the application of those properties to a lexicon?

Is there any inherent weighting given to hierarchical structures over linear ones? That is, is there some underlying system that requires hierarchical (not linear) rules, or are the hierarchical rules just more useful?

I can easily imagine a language in which the following is possible:
"Is the man who tall is happy?"
But it seems utterly stupid to use such a system because it's so irrelevant to the real world. (Admittedly that could be bias from my only-human brain.)

The point is... as linguists, is there anything more to be done than descriptive work? Are there true underlying rules to be discovered that will tell us something about language? Or is the best we can do just discovering the forms of languages and also perhaps the forms of meaning encoding?



To again phrase the question inversely:
Are there certain things we can eliminate as possibilities from a systemic (not functional) perspective? Are some languages impossible as systems for humans? [Feel free to constrain this to imaginable systems of equal or lesser complexity than existing languages. I don't really care that humans can't, for example, process 1,000,000-word sentences.]
Are there any times when it would be reasonable for a linguist to call something "illogical" or an inherent error? Either within or across languages.

If there are no constraints, I'd like to argue there are no (interesting) rules.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Guijarro on January 05, 2014, 04:45:24 AM
From my point of view, this debate is "nominalist" (as in the Middle Ages).

What are rules, conventions, patterns, etc.? Are they synonymous, or are they?

If things would act according to rules, these rules had to emerge from God. But, as I can't believe in that other "term" having a real referent, I can't believe in rules either.

Another thing is to be able to find patterns in aspects of our environment, to try to sort the conventional from the unconventional ones, and to make a describing effort accing the result a set of (grammatical) rules.

As the Spanish poet said:

En este mundo traidor                (in this treacherous world)
nada es verdad ni es mentira      (nothing is true, nothing is false)
todo depende del color                (everything depends on the colour)
del cristal con que se mira          (of the glass through which you are looking)

I do think that Chomsky's glass is very convenient, but others might prefer other colours.

Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 12:08:28 PM
Quote
What are rules, conventions, patterns, etc.? Are they synonymous, or are they?

If things would act according to rules, these rules had to emerge from God. But, as I can't believe in that other "term" having a real referent, I can't believe in rules either.
But "God" is just one way to understand the universe. I had a conversation with a psychologist / cognitive scientist and we thought that maybe mathematics is the basics of everything-- the universe runs on math (physics, etc.).
Certainly you could argue that everything is just an illusion and that there is nothing to explain because nothing can be explained, but that's a boring position, and it doesn't give any motivation for scientific study.
But if you do accept at least that math "exists" and explains things, then I think the rest can relatively comfortably follow. There should be some "fact of the matter" to questions like "how does language work?" assuming the questions are properly defined (that is, in what sense we mean "language" and "work").

Quote
I do think that Chomsky's glass is very convenient, but others might prefer other colours.
This is a worrying statement and why, I think, many people don't see linguists as scientists. Theories aren't something to play around with when they happen to work for you. Theories should be proposed as genuine answers to problems, although we should always be open to being wrong. Chomsky, as far as I can tell, seems to believe that a lot of his ideas are Right, although I'm sure he'd be flexible about many of the details. To say it's just another glass to look through is worrying: that means the ideas are essentially meaningless, something like doing a crossword puzzle-- intellectually stimulating but not actually about the real world, not science.

It would be a scientist's worst nightmare to find out that nothing is to be explained. Ironically a true scientist would accept that if the evidence pointed to it (if such a certainty about uncertainty were possible-- "everything is uncertain" is a paradox after all).

At the same time, that might be freeing-- the best descriptive method is whatever works, because there is no "fact of the matter" or "answer", no absolute rules out there for how language behaves. Then we can all stop arguing and just use whatever theory feels convenient-- a linguist's true job would be to describe languages, discuss the data, nothing more. That wouldn't be terrible. I like languages and data.

But I do hope there is a "fact of the matter" to discover. If there are no underlying rules of some kind, then linguists as scientists are wasting their time. Of course I don't mean to imply that necessarily then the form of language has rules-- maybe it has none; maybe the rules exist at another level, such as how the mind works. Then we're not really linguistic scientists after all, then, but instead just a type of cognitive (neuro?) scientist instead.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 02:26:30 PM
From my point of view, this debate is "nominalist" (as in the Middle Ages).

What are rules, conventions, patterns, etc.? Are they synonymous, or are they?

If things would act according to rules, these rules had to emerge from God. But, as I can't believe in that other "term" having a real referent, I can't believe in rules either.

Another thing is to be able to find patterns in aspects of our environment, to try to sort the conventional from the unconventional ones, and to make a describing effort accing the result a set of (grammatical) rules.

I couldn't have said it better, even with a thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters at my disposal. There are some interesting new challenges to nominalism, though. I'm not aware of any that deal with "rules" specifically, but I was surprised to learn that Plato is making a comeback!
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 02:36:06 PM
As a genuine question, if that is all the case, then what is the point, and why would you believe in the scientific method? Is it just a game?
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 04:17:06 PM
As a genuine question, if that is all the case, then what is the point, and why would you believe in the scientific method? Is it just a game?

Is this addressed to me? I'm baffled by these dichotomies you keep cooking up. If the world is not anchored by Platonic forms, it must all be a game? Good gravy, man!
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 04:28:42 PM
Simple questions:

1. Is there a fact of the matter? Is there, upon sufficient knowledge, an indisputable correct answer to (well-formed) questions? [Are Chomsky's theories necessarily either right or wrong, rather than just an arbitrary perspective, a "glass"?]

2. If not, what is the goal of science?



And, fine, perhaps "game" is the wrong word, but... "puzzle"? If there is no inherent "right answer" then all we're doing is entertaining ourselves via "scientific" puzzles-- we're not approaching actual knowledge because such knowledge does not exist.

In short, I would think that a scientist would want there to be a fact of the matter. If there is no god, it makes very little sense to be religious (and religious people should give up their faith). If there is no truth, I can't help but think the same applies to scientists.

Now, certainly, there might be other reasons to continue studying. For example, engineering is a useful field and does not rely on "truth", just effectiveness.

Quote
Is this addressed to me?
You and Guijarro. You seemed to agree with his post, although you didn't specifically quote the section on "glasses", which I think follows from the rest.


Again, my question was a serious one. You act surprised by my apparently ridiculous question and answer with rhetorical questions. But... what's the answer?

How can science not be a game if it isn't possible to achieve knowledge?





Falsifiability is the essence of science. Without it, if we can just alter it by using a different "glass", then I fail to see the point of science.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: jkpate on January 05, 2014, 04:58:27 PM
Wait, where did God come into the picture? and why would the rules have "had to emerge from God"?

Also, this turn in the discussion reminds me of the relativity of wrong (http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm) by Isaac Asimov, which views theories as not "right" or "wrong" but simply more or less wrong, or more or less complete.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 05:07:31 PM
Quote
Wait, where did God come into the picture? and why would the rules have "had to emerge from God"?
Guijarro was, I believe, referring to the (historically popular/canonical) idea that ultimate order comes from God, given that God created the universe, so all principles should eventually be resolved to follow from Godly laws. No one in this thread has supported that, though. He was arguing against it and that therefore any of that type is also incorrect.
Personally I feel that if we replace "God" with "mathematics" (or something else) roughly that idea can apply-- there is something governing the properties of the universe and we can as scientists seek to understand it.
(In the end, it doesn't really matter what that is-- call it God, mathematics, random chance, whatever-- it'll still have the same external properties-- that is, the scientific data we collect and analyze.)


Quote
Also, this turn in the discussion reminds me of the relativity of wrong by Isaac Asimov, which views theories as not "right" or "wrong" but simply more or less wrong, or more or less complete.
Make it gradient or probabilistic if you'd like. I'm fine with that. But it's still roughly the same as (i the same family as) "right or wrong" as opposed to "we just don't know" or "it doesn't matter" or "it depends".




Edit: a very interesting article. I just skimmed the beginning-- I'll see if I have time to look through the rest later. It may address some of the controversial points earlier in this thread.

Quote
It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong.
I agree!
But this necessarily implies that it would be possible to (in some way or other, with perhaps infinite knowledge) know the truth.
Science is likely the unending struggle to know partial truths-- to always be wrong, but strive to be less wrong. That's fine.
But what would very much bother me would be a situation in which we're not even wrong! That's what Guijarro seems to be suggesting.
I'm uncomfortable not being right or wrong. If I'm wrong, then I can seek to understand more and approach being right (even if I never reach it). But if I am simply not right or wrong, I don't know what to do next; truly, to me, I'm no longer aware of the point of science.
If (to borrow an example from the article) believing that the earth is flat and believing that the earth is round are equally wrong, then surely I am in the wrong field. I should instead be a sailor enjoying the sun, not worrying about these questions, for they have no answers, regardless of whether I, as just one scientist, could hope to discover them.



So in short:
I desperately hope that I am wrong.
I know that I am not (yet) right. And if I'm not wrong, then what is left?
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 05:51:42 PM
How can science not be a game if it isn't possible to achieve knowledge?

Who has suggested that it's not possible to achieve knowledge? Certainly not me, and I suspect not Guijarro either (though I'll let him speak for himself). The light that passes through a glass does not somehow become imaginary.

Simple questions:

1. Is there a fact of the matter? Is there, upon sufficient knowledge, an indisputable correct answer to (well-formed) questions? [Are Chomsky's theories necessarily either right or wrong, rather than just an arbitrary perspective, a "glass"?]

2. If not, what is the goal of science?

There is most certainly a fact of the matter, and the part of your question that I bolded is far and away the most frequent pitfall in its pursuit. I'm certainly no physicist, but (at least as far as I understand it) the fact of the matter seems to have something to do with the organized distribution of energy in space/time. Everything else is pattern recognition. Critically, and this is where your strawman comes apart, this does not suggest that patterns are somehow fake.

You could probably summarize the last few thousand years of human thought as an attempt to figure out which ontologies of patterning lead to well-formed questions. A "rule" exists only with respect to a mechanism of governance. This might be a brain, a social convention, a property of the material universe, or any number of other things. But, I don't suspect many people believe that language is ordered by rules that somehow stand autonomous in the universe.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 05:58:45 PM
Quote
The light that passes through a glass does not somehow become imaginary.
But if the light through one glass means that Chomsky is right, and the light through another glass means that he is wrong, then what's the point of either?
If a theory can simply be right by looking at it with the right glass, then I fail to understand the significance or how, for that matter, it is "right" at all.

Or, was the point merely that Chomsky is correct in one domain but that there are other domains? (That there are many wrong answers to Chomsky's domain, and that his is right, but that there are other domains with other right and wrong answers too.)

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There is most certainly a fact of the matter, and the part of your question that I bolded is far and away the most frequent pitfall in its pursuit. I'm certainly no physicist, but (at least as far as I understand it) the fact of the matter seems to have something to do with the organized distribution of energy in space/time. Everything else is pattern recognition. Critically, and this is where your strawman comes apart, this does not suggest that patterns are somehow fake.
Then why study linguistics? We're just listing patterns?

I suppose I'm confused at this point then. I asked whether there are rules in linguistics/language. If there are not, then what are we studying? If there are, then why are we discussing physics?

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You could probably summarize the last few thousand years of human thought as an attempt to figure out which ontologies of patterning lead to well-formed questions. A "rule" exists only with respect to a mechanism of governance. This might be a brain, a social convention, a property of the material universe, or any number of other things. But, I don't suspect many people believe that language is ordered by rules that somehow stand autonomous in the universe.
I didn't mean to suggest that. But is there not a comfortable middle ground?
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 06:04:07 PM
But if the light through one glass means that Chomsky is right, and the light through another glass means that he is wrong, then what's the point of either?

Thankfully, neither the world nor science work this way. Jkpate's last post contains two people famous for their ability to explain why.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 06:13:13 PM
Then I'm at a complete loss for understanding this statement:
Quote from: Guijarro
I do think that Chomsky's glass is very convenient, but others might prefer other colours.
I thought I understood it a page ago, but maybe I did not.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 07:16:34 PM
Then I'm at a complete loss for understanding this statement:
Quote from: Guijarro
I do think that Chomsky's glass is very convenient, but others might prefer other colours.
I thought I understood it a page ago, but maybe I did not.

I certainly won't presume to speak for Guijarro's meanings, but I don't see any particular conflict. Let me ask this: which do you think is right, biology or chemistry? And if your answer is "it doesn't work like that", why do you think knowledge is impossible and question whether questions can be asked? ;)
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 07:26:39 PM
Well, simple enough then I guess.


But... you're naming fields of study rather than theories, so there is a slight difference. Guijarro was talking about Chomsky's theories, not linguistics (as opposed to chemistry).
Linguistics isn't right or wrong, because it is a field. But Chomsky's theories are right or wrong.
Guijarro's post suggests that with the right glass, Chomsky's theories are right. Does it not?


Therefore, a more well-formed version of your question would be:
Which is right: creationism or evolution?
Or: Minimalism or Construction Grammar?

For those, I believe the question is well formed.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: jkpate on January 05, 2014, 08:06:36 PM
But... you're naming fields of study rather than theories, so there is a slight difference. Guijarro was talking about Chomsky's theories, not linguistics (as opposed to chemistry).

Do fields of study have their own independent existence? Or do we simply say that a theory falls in a field when it seeks to answer questions that practitioners of the field find interesting?
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 08:13:03 PM
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Do fields of study have their own independent existence?
Without getting too deep about it, yes. Biology is the study of life forms, astronomy is the study of space [and stars], and linguistics is the study of language. Within each there are certainly leading theories, such as evolution within biology-- evolution can be wrong as a theory, but studying life cannot be because it's not the sort of thing that can be wrong.
(Of course we could otherwise debate which fields of study are most productive, interesting or otherwise relevant. But that has nothing to do with "right" or "wrong" in a scientific sense.)

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Or do we simply say that a theory falls in a field when it seeks to answer questions that practitioners of the field find interesting?
Sure. But you're mixing subfields and theories. Syntax is not a theory, it's a subfield. So Syntax is not right or wrong. But a certain theory such as Government and Binding is wrong.

Likewise, we could distinguish theories as claims and subfields as topics-- evolution is arguably not "right or wrong" as a topic of study (religions often study and then disagree with such theories), but it is "right or wrong" as a theory.

I don't think any of that is controversial, but I might have phrased it ambiguously above.




To vastly simplify all of this:
Questions are not right or wrong.
Answers are right or wrong.
[assuming anything is "right or wrong"]


Therefore what Chomsky studies is not "right or wrong", but how he attempts to explain it with a theory is "right or wrong".
The relevant question, then, is which level the "glass" colors.

I believe that we can choose the questions but that some "fact of the matter" actually determines the answer, which we might or might not find or recognize.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 08:28:38 PM
To riff on a very old joke in academia---
Q: What's the difference between a field of study and a theory?
A: 50 million dollars worth of endowments.

You said yesterday in another thread that you don't have much experience outside of g/Generativism. I understand the demands of training, but if you want to pursue the "big questions" (as you seem to suggest that you do), it is going to be very important for you to rectify that. Right now, the way you're framing the tensions in the discipline doesn't really fit with the reality of things.

In short, what characterizes generative linguistics (in contrast to other theories of language) is not chiefly a set of falsifiable, fact-driven claims. Sure, there's a bit of that, but the little of it that exists is not even particularly important to the paradigm as a whole.

Rather, what makes generativism generativism is a tier of abstraction and a scope of attention. Chomsky didn't overthrow Skinner and Bloomfield by disproving their claims but instead by arguing -- persuasively -- that they were asking the wrong questions in the first place. He convinced the world that they had misconstrued the problem so badly that it no longer even mattered whether their answers were correct. The questions themselves were so wrong that even the "right" answers were parochial.

To this end, the "theory" in "generative theory" does not mean "hypothesis". It refers instead to a tier of analysis and a framework of objects. This is very, very explicit as early as Syntactic Structures and was central to Aspects. Chomsky did not *refute* Behaviorism or American Structuralism...rather, he persuaded us that there was something else more useful to think about than stimuli and paradigms. He provided, in other words, a different glass to look through, and people liked the new refractions they saw so much that they largely lost interest in ones they knew before.

And, in good turn, Chomsky's critics do the exact same thing to him. If you spent the next six months reading, say, Dell Hymes, you'd have a hard time filling even one sheet of A4 paper with points of factual disagreement. Instead, you'd find vast and deep divisions about what is interesting about language.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 09:01:41 PM
But, you see, now we are actually getting somewhere.

Chomsky has questions, which are judged by appeal.
Chomsky has answers, which are judged by science.



So then it seems that I should define a question, then ask about rules again. I will do that:

In my opinion, the questions of Linguistics are the following:
1. What linguistic behavior exists? [=the data]
2. What makes this behavior possible?

There are many subquestions assumed in that, such as how competence allows performance and so on.

Further, I'd argue that (1) is both obvious and uninteresting-- useful and very entertaining, but unimportant scientifically as an ultimate goal. I like descriptivism, but if that were the whole purpose I might as well go back to my other hobby of film making-- make some documentaries about people talking. Done.

That leaves us with (2) as, I fully defend, the central question for all linguists. And with that simple question, the rest of the field should follow. Certainly we can have different interpretations-- some would be interested in how linguistic behavior changes over time (historical linguistics), others in how linguistic behavior functions socially (sociolinguistics), and others (like me) are fascinating by the simple question: how do we use language to convey meaning, how do our minds do that, what is language as a system?


To argue by counterexample, there are many things that do not work like language and many organisms that do not use language-- somehow humans are not starfish, beetles or hedgehogs, and somehow language is not the same as gravity, cars or chess.

Up to that point, I would assume we can all agree.

So, perhaps just out of personal preference, I would like to ask the following question:
Does the way that language works depend on rules being part of that system? Is language what it is, and are human minds what they are because describable rules exist?


In the end... I think it's reasonable to ask if rules exist, within the domain of asking how language is possible.




---

Now, perhaps we should just move on from that. Generally the consensus seems to be that if we look at language with the right "glass" then there are rules to describe, or at least patterns.

So, considering the first question answered "yes" (with some footnotes), the next questions are:
1. What kinds of rules/patterns?
(See jkpate's post on page 1 for a good list of candidates.)
2. And do those rules/patterns result in an interesting scientific analysis? Or are they mere descriptions?


Personally, my answers at the moment (which may be wrong!) are:
There are no rules on linguistic form, just tendencies based on what is useful and constraints based on factors like linearization.
There are recurring patterns to the structure of the meanings these forms encode-- for example, I'm confident that modification is a real property of languages.


Does that seem reasonable? Any good arguments against that position?
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 09:07:38 PM
But, you see, now we are actually getting somewhere.

Chomsky has questions, which are judged by appeal.
Chomsky has answers, which are judged by science.

I'm not sure where you're getting this, but it's certainly not anything I said (or at least nothing I meant to say), and it's not an accurate reflection of the situation.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 09:10:22 PM
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I'm not sure where you're getting this, but it's certainly not anything I said (or at least nothing I meant to say), and it's not an accurate reflection of the situation.
Why not? Really?

You did say the following:
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Chomsky didn't overthrow Skinner and Bloomfield by disproving their claims but instead by arguing -- persuasively -- that they were asking the wrong questions in the first place. He convinced the world that they had misconstrued the problem so badly that it no longer even mattered whether their answers were correct. The questions themselves were so wrong that even the "right" answers were parochial.
That leads to what I said, no?
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Chomsky has questions, which are judged by appeal.

So, do you disagree about the second part, that scientific answers are judged by science?




--
Or, to be fair, perhaps you just disagree with my phrasing.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: MalFet on January 05, 2014, 09:49:47 PM
That leads to what I said, no?

I don't see why it should. This distinction you're pitching between "appeal" and "science" is another false dichotomy. It just doesn't work like that, and unfortunately I don't know how else to explain it. If you'd like references to major works in other paradigms, I'd be happy to provide them.
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Daniel on January 05, 2014, 10:01:43 PM
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This distinction you're pitching between "appeal" and "science" is another false dichotomy.
Appeal is subjective. For example, there is nothing technically wrong with every scientist in the world studying the mating behavior of gnats, but it's unlikely that would happen because people wouldn't want to do that-- funding wouldn't exist, interesting wouldn't exist, and eventually someone would decide to study something else.
That's completely unrelated to the scientific validity of a given theory about the mating behavior of gnats. It may have no appeal (or a lot), and either way it's still right or wrong, based on whether it's right or wrong.



In the end, we may simply disagree.


Let me make a point that was discussed in one of my syntax courses last summer at the LSA summer institute:
Science provides no roadmap to what a scientist should study or which theories should be tested. It does, however, provide a way to test whether a given theory is false.
In science, we have falsifiability as an axiom. We have no parallel axiom for measuring value.

Thus:
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The questions themselves were so wrong that even the "right" answers were parochial.
Scientifically speaking, the "right" answers are the "right" answers, and that's that.
If they are not actually right because of some underlying problem in the theory, then those theories are false. That's not how you described it.
Either way, if an answer is right, then it is right. That's how science works.

The next and perhaps more important question is whether those answers are useful.




If this is what you intend to say, great. If not, then I'm happy to disagree. But I'd need a lot of convincing to change my beliefs on any of that. I'm not saying a roadmap isn't something I'd like, though!



Falsification is deductive and solvable, given a specific hypothesis.
"Does Data X falsify Theory Y?" -- can be solved by a computer, just add data!
Everything else is inductive and unsolvable (in a strict sense).
"What question would find the {best, next, important} theory? How would I falsify that theory?" -- cannot be solved by a computer or deterministically by a scientist.








--
Edit:
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If you'd like references to major works in other paradigms, I'd be happy to provide them.
Ok, sure. What other paradigms?
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: Guijarro on January 07, 2014, 11:25:26 AM
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...you could argue that everything is just an illusion and that there is nothing to explain because nothing can be explained, but that's a boring position, and it doesn't give any motivation for scientific study

I do not know what an illusion is FOR YOU, either; however, I have never claimed that there is nothing to explain. On the contrary, I insist on serious researching by following the three criteria of adequacy proposed by Chomsky in Aspects, namely:

(1) We should point clearly to the object are we trying to study, debate, etc. (i.e., we need to be sure to attain the level of observational adequacy).

(2) Try to describe it in an accurate way or achieve the level of descriptive adequacy (in here I bring in three further requisites proposed by Marr in his book on Vision:

2 (a) Describe the computations that bring about this object and make it work
2 (b) Describe the representational frame where this object lies.
2 (c) Describe the implementations that humans have been able to achieve to somehow reinforce that object.

AND, LAST BUT NOT LEAST:

(3) Explain how it came about into the world. Attain the explanatory adequacy level.

It's anything but boring, you see? But our research does not guarantee that we find out THE TRUTH about this or that. It only guarantees that your model is well constructed and, in the best cases, it will predict likely outcomes and will therefore serve its purpose beautifully.

I am not certain about mathematics (I am an absolute ignorant in these matters, although I remember old Kurt Gödel saying that they cannot be as exact as they claim to be --no idea why, though!) as the only way to describe patterns, but if you can use them and they work for you, be my guest, I have nothing to oppose.

As to the notion of FACT, I think we are typically not observing the same "object" here, you and I.
 
For me a FACT is a mental representation which is stored directly in the box of representations: "you are reading this now", "your name is Daniel", "you are American and I am Spanish", etc. They are the representations WITH which we build up our thoughts and reasonings. We don't question them, or doubt them, or explain them. If this would stand for a head (or a box of representations), [  ], a factual representation would be [R].

The other represenations, those that are not facts, are embedded into factual representations and we think and reason ABOUT them, not with them. We could illustrate them like this [R (R)] where the second R is not a fact. Any fact whatsoever may change its place in the box of representations and so we might be able to debate whether you really are reading this or are imagining it, or whatever, or any other wild discussion.

We normally get factual representations through three sources: (a) perception; (b) communication, and (c) logical thinking. Perceptions are the best means to achieve factual representations.

However, sometimes, we have to admit that communication over-rides perception. We see the sun moving around us, and yet, they have told us that it's we that travel around it. If we attach a strong authority to the communicating source, then we also get factual representations. Finally, we are able to logically imagine that Julius Caesar had never had breakfast with Noam Chomsky; this is normally also a fact for us.

All these notions are MY notions which I have tried to point to as clearly as I am able to do. You may have other notions which point to different objects and so, when we debate we will never be talking about the same thing, although we may call it with the same term, unless we start by pointing clearly to an object/event/relationship and build up from there.

This is what I think is really worth doing!
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: dublin on March 21, 2014, 06:26:30 AM
Hi djr33. As promissed:

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Within the system, there should be limits on what could be a possible sentence, either synchronically or (immediately) diachronically. Grammaticality seems to prove the first, but with random changes occuring diachronically, it's hard to see what the rules really accomplish. If any form is a possible change, then is it conceptually helpful to think of these as "rules" rather than just, as Cory said, conventions?

I believe that rules are agreed between the group members. In any intaractions rules help predicting the outcome of the action. So language rules allow for predicitve actions in data to meaning transformation which allows us to process data in parallel. As the sentance unfolds, using rules we can preload possible meanings stored in our memory.


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More broadly (at a universal level), there should be some limits on what a possible language would look like. But I'm entirely unconvinced. Some languages wouldn't be useful, but I don't see how any conceivable language would be impossible for human communication.

I am not sure what you mean here. Group languages are agreed by the group. so what ever works for the group goes. But certain rules are more natural than others and some are more efficient in supporting predictive algorithms.

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I was once told (very early on in my studies of linguistics!) that Chomsky's theories suggest that if aliens were to come to Earth they would be unable to learn human languages because it is a uniquely human property with UG.

I would not agree with this entirely. If aliens possess the same type of sensory organs, if they possess the same type of logic, if they are able to imitate humans in some way, and if they spend enough time around humans, in order to experience human reality and create their own database of "sensory pattern - meaning" key value pairs, they they would be able to learn some language used by humans. Look at domesticated animals and humans.


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I don't think there are any inherent limits on the system.

The problem is what you consider a language. If you only consider spoken group language a language, then the limits are the limits of effectiveness. If you consider language to be "an algorithm created by a system perceiving the world around itself in order to extract the meaning from perceived sensory input data" then the limit is someones imagination.

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To rephrase my question, perhaps: what's the point in calling the patterns "rules"? Is it helpful? It it meaningful?

You are mixing patterns and change patterns. Change patterns are patterns of change of patterns. Rules are change patterns created by us.

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I like the word 'conventions' rather than rules, and I think they emerge and are passed on by people who interpret them to have meaning, and therefore there is no biological component at all other than the limits put on our world by having an embodied mind. People forget these rules, make mistakes, interprets its usage differently, or even just slightly differently, and that is what results in a speech community having variation in how these conventions are played out.  So 'hard' rules might just be something that is unlikely to evolve!

There are no universal rules just group rules. What ever group agrees on becomes the rule for that group.

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There's another analogy between linguistic and biological evolution for us then, how 'optimal' something is for use in its environment.  Lingustic items get used and understood and passed on if they're good enough, or, not selected against - how 'perfect' are a butterfly's wings or an elephants nose, or the human spine?  They get the job done!

Exactly.

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Right. That's all I mean. But I also mean that, interestingly also still parallel to evolution, coincidental similarities aren't unexpected-- squid eyes and human eyes are very very similar in structure yet are unrelated genetically.

The evolution is not blind. Systems evolve to be most effective given the environment. It is entirely possible that there are only so many effective system designs for every system. If you look at epigenetic data, this seems to be exactly the case.

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languages have evolved to be useful within the limits of how combinatorial systems work, NOT some special human system that would be incomprehensible to equally intelligent aliens!

I would rephrase this to:

languages have evolved to be useful within the limits of how predictive systems work and within under the influence of the environment and life experience in which they developed, NOT some special human system that would be incomprehensible to equally intelligent aliens!

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Human languages (and their rules) should be expected developments

Any language is expected development

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Do patterns necessarily imply rules? For example, tidal patterns exist, but are there rules?

The observer creates rules based on observations and his understanding of it. Two observers compare their created rules and agree group rule...and so on...
Title: Re: Is language really rule-based? [Details inside]
Post by: dublin on March 21, 2014, 09:58:41 AM
djr33

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I'm uncomfortable not being right or wrong. If I'm wrong, then I can seek to understand more and approach being right (even if I never reach it). But if I am simply not right or wrong, I don't know what to do next; truly, to me, I'm no longer aware of the point of science.

To have fun exploring. :)

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The Japanese and Korean term mu (Japanese: 無; Korean: 무) or Chinese wu (traditional Chinese: 無; simplified Chinese: 无) meaning "not have; without" is a key word in Buddhism, especially the Chan and Zen traditions.

The term is often used or translated to mean that the question itself must be "unasked": no answer can exist in the terms provided. Zhaozhou's answer, which literally means that dogs do not have Buddha nature, has been interpreted by Robert Pirsig and Douglas Hofstadter to mean that such categorical thinking is a delusion, that yes and no are both correct and incorrect.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mu_(negative)