Re: "Learning" Language

Subject: Re: "Learning" Language
From: wburns -at- MICRON -dot- COM
Date: Fri, 8 Dec 1995 08:20:30 MDT

Sue mentioned Chomsky's notorious grammatically correct but nonsensical

>Colorless green clouds sleep loudly.

The original--

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

(Close, Sue. We got the idea.)

Remember, Chomsky doesn't speak for all linguists. The field linguists I know
have a lot of problems with the practical implications of Chomsky's ideas and
claim that they're not quite empirical (meaning he doesn't test his theories
in the field). As one said, "He sets up a lot of paper tigers, then knocks
them back down." Take, for example, the example above. Is the issue here
one concerning the structure of language or one of lexical categories? Perhaps
our schemas (assuming that these theoretical categories exist) simply don't
allow us to combine these possibilities since we've never encountered a color
that could be colorless? It's not an issue of grammar but of the conflicting
senses of the words.

The problem I see with the concept of a universal grammar is that the only
boundaries we can provide for it are those to which we are biologically and
temporally constrained. For example, we can't say two words simultaneously
using an oral language. We can create compounds, we can interpose elements
of one word into another, and we can alter various sounds with pitch, stress,
and other intensifiers. So for speakers of an oral language, our grammar
has that biological constraint. For people who communicate by sign language
who use combinations of sign and voice (I'm not sure if any languages still
do this), this constraint doesn't exist. Does that mean that there must be
a switch that either allows us to employ this possibility? No. It's simply
a biological/temporal constraint.

BTW, congratulations on your new job, Sue. Hope it's going well.

Bill Burns *
Assm. Technical Writer/Editor * LIBERTY, n. One of imagination's most
Micron Technology, Inc. * precious possessions.
Boise, ID *
WBURNS -at- MICRON -dot- COM * Ambrose Bierce

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