Monday, February 27, 2012

Seeking some advice

Debating about submitting a paper to that new Open Journal of Modern Linguistics.

Advantages: If accepted, very quick publication time. It is open-access which fits with my general beliefs about academia and education.

Disadvantages: There is a publication fee for authors (I could likely negotiate my fee down being a student). Nothing published yet, overall quality of the journal undetermined.

Overall, I'm still very torn. The paper is very near complete and so I have to come to a decision very soon. Thought?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putting Chomsky's thoughts on education into practice

So the other day I posted some of my thoughts on Chomsky's talk on education. That post can be found here:

I was inspired both by Chomsky's lecture and by the process of writing that post to try to mix up my teaching a little bit. I am currently teaching undergraduate syntax and we have gotten to Binding Theory. Normally, I would present the conditions and the relevant data and then once I felt we got that we would do some practice. Now, that seems a lot like the type of teaching that Chomsky was arguing against. It sounds a lot like the type of teaching that I try to avoid (though, obviously, sometimes do).

So I thought, what if I gave them the practice first... they wouldn't know what they were practicing but still would be able to derive the answers I'm sure.

But, would that still be too boring? All the necessary data would be there. Sure, it would be more a challenge. But would it be enough of one? Would it really constitute discovery?

Then, I thought, maybe I'll just give them some random sentences. We'll form some hypotheses and then I ask them to give me the data necessary to test it....

So that's what we did. There was some discomfort at times. Students didn't want to offer up their hypotheses out of fear of being wrong. (That's a trait I need to break them off. Hell, that's a trait I still need to break myself of.) But we trucked along... and it worked marvelously. By mid-point of class they had already come up with the textbook definition of Principle A. Principle B took a bit more work, but with only a little guidance from me, we got there.

But that's not really exciting part. I knew we'd get there. The really exciting stuff came in the other questions they asked. While looking for their own data and their own examples they started to really see some flaws in our phrase structure rules. The discussion was lively. It was a fun place to be (granted, I generally thinking Binding Theory is pretty fun).

So, this Chomsky guy, he seems to be pretty smart after all... :-)

Now, I need to think of a way to try to get them to independently construct X'-Theory. Any ideas?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chomsky on Education


Before I start this post, I'd like to encourage everyone to take a look at Dave's comment on my Third Factor post from a couple of days ago. Dave has definitely given a lot of these issues considerable more thought than I have. As I mentioned in my (brief) response, I'm still concerned about a reconciliation between very rich UGs (like strong Cartography) and economy considerations. That said, Cartography seems to get a lot right.... in a lot of ways, that troubles me. :-)

But, on to the main event.

Chomsky's public lecture was a very interesting one. It certainly contained hints of all of the usual politics that one would associate with a lecture by Chomsky of this sort. There's a lot there that I shouldn't comment on in this forum. Obviously, I believe that the issue of state-funding for education (both K-12 and higher ed) is a very important topic and one that frankly too ignored in this country. But, I do not want to turn this into a discussion of political philosophy (though the idea that any political philosophy feels it is appropriate to ignore education... wait, now Jeff, you said you wouldn't do this....)

Instead, I will focus on Chomsky's remarks directly on education. Chomsky's main point was that education which focuses on memorization, predictability and rote tasks is not a real education. Yet, largely, that is what our classrooms focus on. I believe this holds at many levels.

Obviously, there are reasons behind this: At the K-12 level there are exams that students and schools are required to hit certain marks on; average students are trained just to hit those marks. None of those exams have places for creative, free thought. Even in higher education, funding considerations and other constraints have put an undue burden on qualified instructors or put classrooms in the hands of novice instructors early in their training-- in both of these scenarios it is often easier for the instructor(s) to assign work that can be easily assessed. Easily assessed, almost inevitably means predictable. That is the opposite of creative discovery.

Chomsky relayed a story of a colleague of his in physics who said the following at the start of his class whenever he got a question about what was "covered" in the class (paraphrase): "It's not what I cover in this class, it is what you discover." He then would go on to say that if the student could show everything he taught was wrong, he had done his job.

Obviously, this is a very high and hard standard. I'm sure Chomsky's colleague failed to always meet it. I know that I often fall short. But in the end it is not our ability to achieve perfection that our teaching should be judged on, it is our willingness to attempt it.

It is far too easy to fall in the easiness trap, where students are expected to offer rote answers to predetermined problems. It is tempting. Students that challenge our teaching are, well, challenging. But rather than buckling in the face of that challenge, we should rather embrace it. It is in vigorous and lively teaching that research agendas are clarified and that students truly learn.

Rote skills and memorization utterly fail a linguistics undergraduate. Only a select minority will pursue a career in the field. Memorizing the Binding Conditions does most no good as they pursue their true careers. Learning how to analyze the data and develop Binding Theory serves them better. And there are even deeper ways to develop that desire and ability of creative discovery.

In my own teaching, I do attempt to follow the spirit of Chomsky's message her. I consider it a failing if I ever stand before my class while explaining an assignment and not say "I accepted multiple answers here-- let's discuss why each one works and try to see if we prefer one over the other." I come up short. That's okay. The best part about this climb is that there isn't even a summit.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What is Semantics such that it can exist?

I know the title of this post is a little strange, but bear with me here.

I'm wrapping up with a lot of my thoughts on Chomsky's visit here and there was one thing that he briefly mentioned in both his talk and the private Q&A that really struck me; largely because this is something that I have long been considering.

Chomsky noted that all other animal communication systems are purely referential. Human language is at most minimally referential....

Yet, our standard theories of Semantics (and the ones that I believe have made the most progress) are based on an assumption of reference. Model-theoretic/set-theoretic (and most version of truth-theoretic) semantics is built out of the idea that predicates at their core refer back to sets. This seems completely unlike the way that humans actually compose meaning.

A lot of this stems from the fact that as a field, semantics really predates generative syntax. Semantics is born out of studies of logic is philosophy largely in work from the 19th and early 20th century. The marriage of logic and natural language is a messy one. For instance, even simple connectives in logical systems behave massively different in natural language. To take a very simple example:
  1. p q q p
  2. John came in and (John) sat down ≠ John sat down and (John) came in
English and has a temporal ordering that logical and does not have. This is not a fatal blow for such systems, but it something that should at least give us pause. Logic was not built for natural language, we should never forget that.

Similarly, the problem of reference is a real one for philosophers. Yet, it is largely one that does not trouble humans who have not taken Philosophy 101. Sure transporter accidents and other worlds where Hitler gets accepted to art school are interesting thought problems, but they are problems (in my mind) largely divorced from natural language.

Even proper names seem largely divorced from reference (though there are some fairly obvious seeming referential uses: introductions for instance). Rather, most instances of proper name usage instead seems to be referring to a collection of mental attributes about said individual. If this weren't the case then the sentence "I am going to be Heidi Harley in class today" would be exceptional strange barring a world where body-snatching/shape-shifting is possible. When I utter a sentence like that I obviously mean that I well behave as if I were Heidi Harley (teach about DM, be too nice, eat durian, or whatever). Provided a shared set of attributes between the speakers such sentences are easily interpreted...

So how do humans actually compose meaning? I really don't know. Obviously, if reference can't work something mental would be more on track. But that leads us down a path of Fodorian and anti-Fodorian thoughts on concepts-- there is no simple solution. But I believe that somewhere in this thorny, thorny path the answer will be found.

I wish I had a more positive note to end on. Though, I actually do think there is a good deal to be excited about there. I do believe that the next great frontier in linguistics in word-meaning (or in my humble opinion--root meaning) and its contribution to compositionality. And I mean word-meaning in a very mind-internal way, not a dictionary way.


I have two more posts in the work to wrap up my main thoughts on Chomsky's visit (plus hopefully a description on Chomsky's Q&A). I'd like to share my thoughts on Chomsky's public talk on education. There was a lot there. Mostly I will focus on his discussion of the way instruction should be built, which I absolutely loved and have tried to do (with success and failures) my whole career. But as you may now, teaching is one of my great joys in life and there was a lot of great points Chomsky made.

I'd also like to get another post about the rarely discussed 2nd factor out. Obviously, it will be somewhat tied to this one....

Simon sez that "Simon sez" is not an idiom...

As the Arizona linguists are wont to do whenever we get together, lunch today featured a very heated conversation over whether or not two classes of expressions counted as idioms. In my mind, neither are, but I would like to open the discussion to a wider audience.

The first, is the phrase "Simon sez" or "Simon says"... if this were an idiom, it would cause major problems for many theories of idiomaticity because it appears to be an agent-verb idiom (contra Marantz and others). I question this phrase's status as an idiom for a number of reasons. First, it's use seemingly requires a call-back to the childhood game. Unlike other unambiguous idioms, it is impossible to describe its "meaning"without referring to the game; whereas an idiom like "kick the bucket" is easy to describe without referencing the real world. Second, it lacks a real effect on the semantics "Simon sez get out of the car" and "Get out of the car" are roughly identical statement. Whatever its effect is, it is pragmatic. Now, neither of these arguments are knock-outs, but it does seem to me that "Simon sez" belongs in a different class.

The second controversial phrase was "Does the pope shit in the woods?". This phrase is apparently used as an obvious affirmative to a yes/no question. It was featured in the Big Lebowski. It is a play on the phrases "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear shit in the woods?". I am less certain about this one, but I am still disinclined to describe it as an idiom. For one, it is obviously used to be funny. It is well known that we can play with expression and grammaticality in language for humorous effect. This phrase seems no different. To me, idioms require a certainly level of casualness in use that is not found with this phrase. To use an idiom, a speaker must almost be unaware that one is using an idiom barring reflection. [There's got to be a better way to put this.] Further, I believe that this phrase is a play on two common, but non-idiomatic phrases. There is a real sense in which the phrases "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear shit in the woods?" are used compositionally when used as answers to yes/no questions. Their answers are trivially yes, and are meant to express just that.

Obviously, there is a lot of grey areas in idiom studies. Expressions like these do illustrate the need for a formal definition of idiomaticity. Thoughts?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

New talk up

I posted my slides from a talk that I gave at Concordia University a couple of weeks ago. I am currently completing a draft of the paper version, comments would be greatly appreciated.

The slides can be found in the papers tab of the main page.

My favorite quote from Chomsky's lecture (paraphase)

Science starts when we begin to puzzle over ordinary things.

Semantics Reading Group

The Semantics Reading Group will be meeting again on Monday 2/20. We will discuss chapters 3&4 of Heim and Kratzer.

Repost-- Third Factor

I promised nearly a week ago that I would return to a discussion of the so-called Third Factor at some point. That is the goal of this post. I am afraid I will not have time to fully articulate my position or the general positional held in current minimalist thinking. But, I hope to at least prompt some discussion.

Before I get into that, I want to quickly review what the different factors are and what they can tell us about language and theory.

First Factor: The genetic endowment (i.e., UG). This is where most of the work has been done for most of the life of generative linguistics. In a P&P model this is what gave most of the Principles and also the unset Parameters. Some modern approaches to syntax (especially those argued for directly by Chomsky) attempt to remove as much as possible from this factor.

Second Factor: The second factor is the individual contribution of the particular language being learned/used. In the old P&P model the 2nd factor would essentially be parameter setting. Chomsky rarely discusses this factor directly, but it can be cast in modern terms as the lexical properties of language-specific items (or some other view based on a lexicon (for lack of a better term) ala Borer and not via global parameter settings). Ultimately, I believe that this will the source of most linguistic phenomena with consideration from the other factors.

Third Factor: This factor is language independent. It is essentially natural law-- the requirement that computation is done efficiently (barring interference from either of the first two factors).

On the surface this makes a very simple story, but of course we haven't arrived on conclusions about any of the factors. Today, I will focus on the mostly on the third factor, but it is impossible to discuss the third without discussing the first.


In many ways I believe that the Third Factor is one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding and/or contention with modern syntactic approaches. At its heart, there should be nothing controversial about it; it is essentially a principle of science: a simpler operation should be preferred over a complex one all else being equal.

However, in practice, this claim is used inappropriately. I do not want to attack specific arguments here, but I often attend conference talks (or less commonly see this in published sources) where unexplained items are shunted off to some near mystical economy constraint.

There is the added confound that there is no single, standard definition of complexity (nor do I think there can be at this point). But without a solid understanding of complexity, more simple becomes something more like a best guess.

This is not inappropriate.

This is science.

It is hypothesis testing. But we need to never lose sight of what it actually is.

Economy/arguments to simplicity are also misused in another way that also undermines it acceptance generally.

To me, a model which takes seriously economy constraints must take the other aspects of the model presented--namely, a minimal UG. However, a lot of work takes virtually the opposite approach. For instance, Cartography (with its 400+ universally ordered functional heads) cannot possible be the genetic component of language. It is simply too specified to be innate. There are certainly much useful work that is coming out of that approach, but as a theory of UG it is simply not viable. Yet there are a theories of global economy based off of robust Cartographic approaches.... attempting to build a model based on how natural law interacts with an object that cannot exist in nature is a fool's errand, at best.

new blog site

As a follow up to yesterday's post about allowing comments, I have changed the hosting site from a google site to another google product--blogger. Comments on posts should now be allowed, so have at me!

If you want to see any archive posts the old blog is still available here:

I will be moving some of my Third Factor post from yesterday to this blog as well, since there was a great number of requests for comments.