Author Topic: Is " colorless green ideas sleep furiously" really meaningless.  (Read 69 times)

Offline josephusflav

  • New Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 4
Is " colorless green ideas sleep furiously" really meaningless.

Everybody seems to say that it is. However I keep finding arguments for the idea that self contradicting statements like "colorless green ideas" are meaningful.

These arguments often sight that proofs by contradciton are meaningfull.

"colorless green ideas sleep furiously" seems like it could be false.

Since the set of all green things contain no colorless green things, it seems to be false that colorless green ideas sleep furiously
« Last Edit: December 18, 2017, 04:08:05 AM by josephusflav »

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1627
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Is " colorless green ideas sleep furiously" really meaningless.
« Reply #1 on: December 18, 2017, 05:51:26 AM »
I personally don't find it meaningless. But I (we) might be in the minority.

The fact that I can identify semantic relationships in the sentence (for example, "The ideas are colorless" or "The green ideas are colorless") suggests to me that I understand what it means. I suppose it is a contradiction just as much as "That bachelor is married." So it depends on your definition of "meaningless". It arguably has the same lack of meaning as "The King of France is bald" (a common example) which is neither true nor false because the premise (presupposition in technical terms) does not allow the whole sentence to be evaluated. I suppose that in the real world you could indeed point out that neither of those sentences is true, and therefore call them false but that's not how they're usually defined. And that line of argumentation leads down a path to philosophy (of language) rather than linguistics narrowly.

I suppose the real question is what words mean, and whether you treat them as (partly/sometimes) compositional: does "colorless" mean the same thing as "without color", and do we always evaluate it as such? I can think of possible interpretations of that sentence, such as: "Some pro-environmental ideas are currently lifeless and dormant while the population is furious with the government." Just consider this hypothetical book title: Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously: The Ambivalent Reaction of Activists to Donald Trump's Environmental Policy. Would that be the "same" meaning as usually intended? (And does that matter?) Another possibility is simply "coercion", which is the process by which something that doesn't really fit (grammatically, etc.) is altered enough to make it work such as "I am being mad right now!" (while "be" isn't usually a verb that can be made progressive), or something like "the ideas that are mostly colorless but greenish" (etc.).

In the end, one important point is that generally a parse requires a form and meaning, so it's unclear to me if you can both have a parse (thus claiming that sentence is grammatical) and also claim there is no meaning.

Chomksy's intended point is reasonable (at least for some perspectives on the philosophy of language), in that you can have meaningless/useless/bizarre sentences that are still grammatically well-formed, and that we should probably or potentially consider those things independently. That's where the distinction between Grammaticality and Acceptability comes in. Whether those are truly distinct things or just different ends of a spectrum is another question, though.

Grammaticality illusions are fun:
More people have been to Russia than I have:
Acceptable but ungrammatical (try to identify a precise meaning, even though it seems like it should have one).

I did some research on a related topic (there are general illustrative examples that might interest you) if you want to: read it.
« Last Edit: December 18, 2017, 06:01:47 AM by Daniel »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline panini

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 93
Re: Is " colorless green ideas sleep furiously" really meaningless.
« Reply #2 on: December 21, 2017, 04:31:32 PM »
It depends on what you mean by "meaningful". Tear elbow those up platypus incandescent, if you know what I mean. One view of meaning (which is dominant, but wrong IMO) is that the meaning of a sentence is the set of possible worlds where the sentence is true, or something like that, and there is no such possible world.