Complexity in Language.

The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence by Julie Sedivy is one of those long, meaty articles that make too many points to summarize briefly, so I’ll just quote a few bits and urge you to read the whole thing:

Languages with very simple sentence structure are, for the most part, oral languages. It’s the languages that have a culture of writing, developed over a long span of time, that display a fondness for stacking clauses onto one another to create towering sentences. This pattern raises the possibility that the invention of writing, a very recent innovation tagged on to the very last millennia of human evolution, can dramatically alter a language’s linguistic niche, spurring the development of elaborate sentence structure, and leading to the shedding of other features, on a timescale that cannot be achieved through biological evolution. If that’s so, then the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence.

* * *

The development of intricate sentences in modern European languages has unfolded slowly. These languages now churn out relative clauses with boundless enthusiasm but their common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, may have lacked the necessary grammatical tools to produce them at all. According to linguist Guy Deutscher, the earliest clay tablets (about 2500 B.C.) of the ancient language Akkadian reveal few embedded clauses. The same is evidently true of the earliest stages of other ancient written languages such as Sumerian, Hittite, or Greek. Although these languages boasted a profusion of grammatical features suitable for expressing subtle nuances of meaning, and included a variety of fancy word-building techniques, they avoided complicated sentence recursion. When they did combine clauses into larger structures, this technique looked less like Russian dolls, with one clause inside another, and more like beads on a necklace, with one clause added next to another, and resembled this sentence from an old Hittite text (14th century B.C.): “I drove in a chariot to Kunnu, and a thunderstorm came, then the Storm-God kept thundering terribly, and I feared, and […], and …”

The invention of writing sparked certain innovations such that by 1800 B.C., Akkadian texts already exhibited complex sentences that rival the prose of Henry James in their complexity.

* * *

All of this suggests that exposure to literary language is essential for the health of complex recursive sentences in English. If certain structures are too rare in speech to be reliably mastered by learners and passed on, then they may fade out within a community of non-readers. Naturally, this raises the question: Could syntactic complexity in literate languages diminish over time, if new technologies (podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks) tether language more tightly to speech and its inherent limitations?

In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.

* * *

Oral languages may avoid pushing the limits of syntax not just because they are bound to speech, but also because they have other ways to express complex meanings. Linguists take great pains to point out that languages with simple sentences erupt with complexity elsewhere: They typically pack many particles of meaning into a single word. For example, the Mohawk word sahonwanhotónkwahse conveys as much meaning as the English sentence “She opened the door for him again.” In English, you need two clauses (one embedded inside the other) to say “He says she’s leaving,” but in Yup’ik, a language spoken in Alaska, you can use a single word, “Ayagnia.” (Ayagniuq, in contrast, means “He says he himself is leaving”; Ayagtuq means, more simply, “He’s leaving.”)

The templates for creating such complex words can be unruly, making them seem, to the average English speaker, more like cryptographic problems than words. Linguist John McWhorter offers an astounding example from the Siberian tongue Ket, a language in which verbs take pronoun prefixes to mark who is performing an action.

That Ket example is seriously impressive; go ahead, click through and wrap your mind around it.

Comments

  1. Distinction between oral and written languages seems quite arbitrary.

    Kozin invented a term – “oral literary language” to describe the register of 12th century Mongolian in which large parts of the “Secret History of Mongols” are written.

    You see, it is a historic fact that Mongols had no written language in 12th century, but they had a literary language nevertheless – quite complex and fully developed (by the looks of it, with many centuries of history).

    It was used in diplomatic correspondence, for example, which was composed in this oral literary language and sent with envoys who memorized it word by word. It differed quite significantly from colloquial language – in fact, it appears that considerable skill was needed to understand such oral messages (for ordinary people they sounded like riddles).

    So I would say that the difference the author seeks lies in social complexity, not in writing per se which is just a technical tool.

    Language of Skaldic poems comes to mind as western example – yes, the Vikings did have a kind of writing, but it’s use was rather restricted and their literary language was primarily oral, but so complex that needed decipherment even by native speakers.

  2. “It’s the languages that have a culture of writing, developed over a long span of time, that display a fondness for stacking clauses onto one another to create towering sentences.”

    Early Sanskrit, for instance, is an example of an oral language that likes complexity in sentence structure.

  3. Homeric Greek wasn’t very simple either.

  4. There’s too little concrete information in the article for my taste. I wish she’d at least comment on traditional North American Indian oratory or other texts by skilled speakers. Just as in English anyone can write a postcard but not anyone can write a novel, so in oral languages there are more skilled and less skilled speakers. Unfortunately, oral languages are often documented when skilled speakers have become scarce, or when elevated registers have gone out of use, or when the linguist has not stayed with the language long enough to collect and analyze a more complex mode of expression.

    As one mild counterexample, here’s a story in Chicahuaxtla Triqui, with word-by-word analysis.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    I once read there’s a Samoyedic language with such a literary register that makes a point of accumulating rare verb forms.

  6. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Having read a little about language typology I have an impression that it’s an areal thing: some languages prefer coordination (which appears simpler), while others are more into subordination in sentence building. Also, there are exotic types of relative clauses which may not be recognized initially as such by a researcher accustomed to European languages. Scarcely written languages certainly do possess ‘advanced’ sentence-building features such as dependent moods, clause nominalizations, applicative voices etc.

    Are polysynthetic languages, the likes of Navajo, Ket or Ojibwe, as unlearnable for a European adult as she makes it sound? So you almost have to learn all the individual forms in a paradigm by rote? I’ve always had the impression there should be a good deal of regular agglutination going on there. And the fusional languages of Europe can indeed be very chaotic in their morphology (take German plurals or genitive endings in Polish with their extremely fuzzy ‘rules’).

    a language in which verbs take pronoun prefixes to mark who is performing an action.

    You don’t say 😮

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Make sure you read the part at the end, about scientific writing!

    I have a few details to add to it:

    The decline in sentence complexity may also be due to scientists no longer trying to write in a register appropriate for literature, which may be part of the same phenomenon as no longer wearing suits & ties to conferences. Alternatively or at the same time, it may be an effect of the increased speed of science: some scientific publications of earlier times were clearly designed to be pleasurable to read; there’s no more time, and often no more space, for that, so scientists now strive to get the point across as quickly and clearly as they can manage. (Then as now, individual abilities and sensibilities differ.)

    The rise of noun compounding may have a few additional sources: calquing from German up to the mid-20th century*; native speakers of Romance languages who overestimate what noun compounding can do because they aren’t used to it; native speakers of Chinese who are used to long strings of morphemes that may or may not be classified as nouns and aren’t used to the stricter word classes of English. I suspect that the last two influences have given us the yeast artificial chromosome, patterned after the less questionable bacterial artificial chromosome.

    * Darwin once ran across leglessness or limblessness (I forgot which) in a translation from German and found it very curious; he wrote about it in one of his many letters. Today it seems to be unremarkable in, say, works on the origin of snakes.

    These languages now churn out relative clauses with boundless enthusiasm but their common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, may have lacked the necessary grammatical tools to produce them at all.

    What about the relative pronoun *h₁jo-?

    In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk

    There I wonder if the effect has been as strong in German, because short sentences are authoritatively considered good style in English, while in German that never happened. I’ve even read a style guide that says the natural written German sentence instead has one main clause and one subordinate clause; it illustrates its point by a short quote from a saga that exhausts the reader by being all action-action-action-action – it’s all “they seized Thorgrimm, slew him, and…”

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Are polysynthetic languages, the likes of Navajo, Ket or Ojibwe, as unlearnable for a European adult as she makes it sound? So you almost have to learn all the individual forms in a paradigm by rote? I’ve always had the impression there should be a good deal of regular agglutination going on there.

    Depends.

    Navajo is difficult to classify in terms of broad morphological typology: it relies heavily on affixes—mainly prefixes—like agglutinative languages,[47] but these affixes are joined in unpredictable, overlapping ways that make them difficult to segment, a trait of fusional languages.[48] In general, Navajo verbs contain more morphemes than do nouns (on average, 11 for verbs compared to 4–5 for nouns), but noun morphology is less transparent.[49] Navajo is sometimes classified as a fusional language[48][50] and sometimes as agglutinative or even polysynthetic.[19][51]

    So, while there’s plenty of agglutination in Navajo, there’s also a bunch of morphophonology going on, plus unproductive and outright fossilized prefixes that are used on some verbs but not others.

    Ket is like that, only much worse. Many morphemes consist of a single phoneme to begin with. The West Caucasian family has less morphophonology (on the consonants), but the vast majority of morphemes consist of a single phoneme there.

    Ojibwe is nicely agglutinating, except exceptions. Also, it expresses “spider” as “net.make-PEJORATIVE-CONTEMPTIVE”. ^_^

  9. Andreas Dulson (native German speaker) learned Ket after studying it for 20 years.

    So I suppose, any human language, no matter how hard is it, can be learned by another human being.

  10. Of course, there are many types of complexity. At $EMPLOYER’s Journal Club (the first rule of Journal Club …) last week, the following sentence appeared in the article we were studying:

    In responding patients, mutation and neoantigen load were reduced from baseline, and analysis of intratumoral heterogeneity during therapy demonstrated differential clonal evolution within tumors and putative selection against neoantigenic mutations on-therapy.

    The first time I looked at that, I practically choked on it, but by about the tenth time it made sense. Certainly it is not syntactically complex.

  11. Every language, whatever the nature of its structure, is routinely learnt by infants.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    the Siberian tongue Ket, a language in which verbs take pronoun prefixes to mark who is performing an action.

    So do a number of other languages!

    Among them is Chinook, formerly spoken in the Columbia River valley. But one linguist (I don’t remember who) wrote about “The Chinookan structure of French”, citing examples such as Je te le demande ‘I am asking you [for it]’.

    In French the morphemes are written separately, but the usual pronunciation Ch’tel’demand’ would strike a “Martian” linguist as a single word including three pronoun prefixes ch, te, l ‘1st sing, 2nd sing, 3rd sing’. Add an auxiliary and negative morphemes and you get an even more complex structure, as in (spoken) Je n’ t’ l’ai pas d’mandé ‘I did not ask you [for it]’, with six “prefixes” before the verb, three of them pronouns, interspersed with other morphemes. Very Chinookan, and even more complex!

  13. What about the relative pronoun *h₁jo-?
    According to some treatments of PIE I’ve read (can’t remember my sources), there were no relative pronouns in PIE and *h₁jo- was something else (e.g. an anaphoric pronoun).

  14. marie-lucie says:

    If PIE had no relative pronouns, what were the ancestors of Latin qui and others? interrogatives only?

  15. Je n’ t’ l’ai pas d’mandé
    On phonological and adverb-insertion grounds, however, these are three words: je n’ t’ l’ai, pas, and demandé.

  16. m-l: Exactly. Using interrogatives as relatives is one of the features of Core PIE (excluding Anatolian).

    minus273: Really? [ntlɛ] is a French phonological word?

  17. January First-of-May says:

    Very Chinookan, and even more complex!

    While we’re at that, I’m reminded of an actual (supposedly) Chinook example – Lev Uspensky quotes a word inialudam (or similar – иниалюдам in the Russian text) from “the language of the Chinook Indians”, where every phoneme is said to be its own affix, and the actual root is just /d/; it supposedly translates to “I arrived to give this to her” (in Russian, “я прибыл, чтобы отдать ей это”).

    Is it an actual real example of actual Chinook? I don’t know anywhere remotely near enough about of it to be sure, but Uspensky attributes the example to Sapir, who would have probably known better.

    (But yes, French is sometimes similar. I’m often wondering how do native speakers understand it…)

    (And now I’m wondering what’s the Chinook for “She told me you had been to her, and mentioned me to him” [and similar phrases in the rest of that “poem”]. Or the French, for that matter.)

  18. the usual pronunciation Ch’tel’demand’ would strike a “Martian” linguist as a single word

    Coptic is written this way. The relation between Coptic syntax and Hieroglyphic Egyptian is remarkably parallel to French versus Latin. The day this clicked for me, it made Coptic look a lot more transparent.

  19. The relation between Coptic syntax and Hieroglyphic Egyptian is remarkably parallel to French versus Latin. The day this clicked for me, it made Coptic look a lot more transparent.

    Very interesting!

  20. This appears to be a variation on the “Cicero invented recursion” meme by Fred Karlsson, google “Constraints on multiple center-embedding of clauses” for details.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    January: Give me a little time and I will check Boas’ grammar of (Lower) Chinook.

    Sapir did some fieldwork in one of the dialects, and Boas included a couple of pages by Sapir in his grammar, but I only know one short article by Sapir on the language. Sapir’s notes may have been consulted and quoted by later linguists though.

  22. ə de vivre says:

    Really? [ntlɛ] is a French phonological word?

    I think minus273 was separating words by commas, not spaces. The morphophonological words in “je ne te l’ai pas demandé” would be more along the lines: [ʒn̩təlɛ pa d(ə)mãde] or more colloquially [ʃt(ə)lɛ pa dmãde].

  23. marie-lucie says:

    January: Lev Uspensky quotes a word inialudam (or similar – иниалюдам in the Russian text) from “the language of the Chinook Indians”, where every phoneme is said to be its own affix, and the actual root is just /d/; it supposedly translates to “I arrived to give this to her”

    I can’t find this form in Boas’ grammar, but judging from similar examples it probably means only “I will give it to her”, possibly in a related dialect. The writer (or whoever wrote what the writer copied) probably took this word from a longer sentence and used the complete translation for the single word.

    The part meaning ‘give’ is indeed /d/, but the previous /u/ is a prefix which occurs with the majority of verb stems (some of which are very short, others longer), so speakers would probably think of /ud/ as the verb. Final /am/ means ‘future’. I hesitate to identify the initial prefixes, but they must include pronouns for ‘I’ and ‘her’ and perhaps ‘it’ (as in French!).

    p.s. I think that the use of ю in иниалюдам assumes that Chinook has the same /l/ as English, identified by Russian speakers as their own palatalized one. This interpretation is not valid for Chinook any more than for English.

  24. I know two non-Kets who speak good Ket, so it can be done.

  25. I never quite understood what connection the article was trying to make between polysynthesis and lack of syntactic complexity. Rather than compare Ket and German, wouldn’t it make more sense to compare polysynthetic Hungarian or Turkish and their non-written relatives, or isolating written and non-written Sinitic languages?

  26. The part meaning ‘give’ is indeed /d/

    Clearly Indo-European!

  27. p.s. I think that the use of ю in иниалюдам assumes that Chinook has the same /l/ as English, identified by Russian speakers as their own palatalized one. This interpretation is not valid for Chinook any more than for English.

    Difference of palatalized and non-palatalized /l/ is a major feature for Russian speakers, but as far as transliteration from English goes, there is total confusion of which form to use. There is a possibility of a more subtle difference here. I am pretty sure that overwhelming majority of Russians who did not study phonetics are not conscious about the difference between у and ю (when it follows the palatalized consonant). But the first letter stands for /u/ sound and the latter for /y/.

    Not being conscious doesn’t mean not hearing the difference. The choice of ю over у might be decided by it.

    Disclaimer: I am not even an amateur phonetician. Ask your doctor about possible side effects.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    D.O., the problem arises because the Chinook form as quoted above has gone through other people before reaching January: first a linguist studying Chinook (probably Boas or Sapir, both of whom used a phonetic transcription), then at least one other person who wrote in Russian and used the Russian spelling conventions, which when transcribed into English spelling conventions introduced a palatalization which does not exist in Chinook. There may have been a person in between who copied the Chinook form as a single word but kept the translation of the full sentence in which the form was included, thus giving the impression that the form must be more complex than it actually is.

    LH: The part meaning ‘give’ is indeed /d/ – Clearly Indo-European!

    Oh, I did notice that! At least one person would have been overjoyed but did not get as far as Chinook.

    It would look less IE if the Russian transcription offered followed Boas in using t rather than d (for technical reasons).

  29. Trond Engen says:

    It’s Grimm-shifted!

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Y: I never quite understood what connection the article was trying to make between polysynthesis and lack of syntactic complexity.

    From what I understand, “polysynthetic” can be a property of the clause rather than of the whole sentence (which can include relative or subordinate clauses or whatever else can be embedded). Basically, a polysynthetic clause does with morphology what analytical clauses do with syntax, in the way of indicating things like Objects or Adverbials as part of the verb rather than in separate phrases. But there is no reason that a polysynthetic clause cannot use syntactic means in order to join with other clauses, for instance for relativization or subordination, thus creating complex sentences.

    That said, “polysynthesis” does not seem to be universally defined. A few years ago I gave a paper at a conference in which I casually mentioned that the Salishan languages were polysynthetic. It was not a major point, I was only repeating what I thought was received opinion. Two persons familiar with these languages vigorously protested my use of the term. On the other hand, Sarah Thomason who is probably the best-known Salishanist alive does refer to these languages as polysynthetic.

    Rather than compare Ket and German, wouldn’t it make more sense to compare polysynthetic Hungarian or Turkish and their non-written relatives, or isolating written and non-written Sinitic languages?

    Indeed!

  31. Inialudam: it seems that indeed the original claim belongs to Sapir.

  32. What’s the URL you intended?

  33. I found the article really sloppy in its reasoning and assertions at times. For instance, the judgements on what English speakers might say and the contrast with ‘many of the world’s oral languages’ strike me as patronising.

    An English speaker might say: Would you teach me to make bread?

    But a Mohawk speaker would break this down into several short sentences, saying something like this: It will be possible? You will teach me. I will make bread.

    Really? In the oral English I know, it’s more likely that you’d say “Could you teach me how to make bread?” True, this is not three short sentences, but with the ‘how’ in there (‘Could you teach me? How to make bread?’) it’s one step closer to the primitive-looking Mohawk version.

    In English, you might say: He came near boys who were throwing spears at something.

    A Kathlamet approximation would go like this: He came near those boys. They were throwing spears at something then.

    Really? That’s normal spoken English? In ordinary oral English, I could imagine someone saying “He saw these boys, they were throwing spears at something.” Which isn’t far off the primitive-sounding Kathlamet approximation. This whole approach based on comparing written English with word-by-word glosses of non-English languages strikes me as superficial.

    Speakers within a small, tight-knit community have an immense store of shared knowledge. This allows shortcuts in communicating with each other, so that many aspects of meaning can be left implicit. But these shortcuts are not available to speakers of big, sprawling languages who communicate with each other across divides of culture, experience, and specialized knowledge.

    This reminds me of certain Australian English speakers of the less literacy-conscious variety speaking to speakers of English as a foreign or second language. I can understand them perfectly, but I pity poor non-native speakers listening to the colloquialisms, the round-about expressions, the appeals to a shared background, the use of words in non-dictionary meanings, etc. I can’t think of any examples and any made-up example can hardly do justice but (and please excuse the use of orthography to represent ordinary oral pronunciations):

    You gotta think what the other bloke’s tellin’ ya, I might go in and I’ll be thinkin’, ‘Yeah, this is how it oughta be’, but you know, they might be comin’ from somewhere else and if you don’t think about that you’ll suddenly find no one really knows what the other side’s sayin’ and in the end you gotta go back and start from scratch, ’cause no-one knows what the other bloke’s talkin’ about’

    This is actually a pretty literate hypothetical example. There are a lot of people who speak far more enigmatically than this.

    The final part of the article arguing that the splintering into small specialised sub-disciplines using ‘noun pile extravaganzas’ brings our language close to polysynthetic languages spoken by small communities strikes me as pretty vague and sloppy in its reasoning — especially when she invokes headlinese like state hate crime victim numbers.

    The article is food for thought but appears to be heavily driven by the author’s desire to prove her thesis — “syntactic complexity arose among written languages that served vast and diverse communities and we’re now moving away from that as we splinter into smaller subdisciplines, bringing us closer to small pre-literate communities using syntactically simple polysynthetic languages”. This causes her to make vague, broad, and unsubstantiated assertions that ignore or distort the actual facts.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sedivy seems to be mixing up two really rather different issues:

    (a) are (traditionally) unwritten languages characteristically syntactically simpler than written? to which the answer is, no, they’re not. Counterexamples abound. Impressions to the contrary frankly mostly reflect inadequate description. Hardly surprising; grammatical analysis above individual clause level is hard, even in familiar, well documented written languages.

    (b) do polysynthetic languages frequently show rather flat clause-level syntax? to which the answer is, yes – but surely that is in no way surprising? The complexity is more at word-level and less at clause level, but that’s exactly what polysynthesis is.

    You could claim that that polysynthesis is more characteristic of unwritten than written languages, but given that written languages consititute only a small fraction of all the world’s languages, and that moreover they are disproportionately skewed to just a few language families, it seems a stretch to conclude any sort of cause and effect relationship on the basis of what data we have.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    “Constraints on multiple center-embedding of clauses”

    That’s an interesting paper!

  36. January First-of-May says:

    I think i also found the claim in (a copy of) a Sapir article: it’s page 35 of this PDF edition of Sapir’s Language, an introduction to the study of speech.
    (In the actual book, as seen on archive.org, it appears on page 73.)

    In footnotes, Sapir qualifies the “Chinook” as being “Wishram dialect”, and notes that, technically, the “it” should really be “him” (because Chinook, like French – or indeed Russian – gives grammatical gender even to inanimate objects, and this particular one has the masculine form).
    Presumably the latter footnote was lost in the transmission between Sapir and Uspensky, or the Russian would’ve ended in something like отдать его ей (Russian его can helpfully be either masculine or neuter).

    He insists on the interpretation of the “future” suffix as “arrive for the purpose of”, however. I suspect it has to do with either dialectal variation, the tense in question being a near-future similar to forms with aller in French (or going to in English, for that matter), or misinterpretation involving the previous somewhere on the transmission to Sapir.

    And a surprisingly fitting quote the same Sapir article (PDF p.22, original p.45)…

    “Again, the English l is unknown in Russian, which possesses, on the other hand, two distinct l­-sounds that the normal English speaker would find it difficult exactly to reproduce — a “hollow,” guttural­like l and a “soft,” palatalized l ­sound that is only very approximately rendered, in English terms, as ly.”

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: A Kathlamet approximation would go like this: He came near those boys. They were throwing spears at something then.

    This has to come from Boas’ collection of Kathlamet Chinook tales, of which I have a well-thumbed and studied copy.

    One problem with tales collected before tape-recorders or other means of recording speech in real time is that when someone is speaking slowly in order for someone else to write everything down, the speaker is probably going to simplify their speech, especially in the narrative portions, which will consist or short, apparently simple sentences which the recording person will also repeat to the speaker to make sure the words are right. In such cases, possible subtleties tend to be avoided, and to disappear both from the original language and the translation.

    Although I have struggled with the language of the Kathlamet tales, it has never been my major area of study, so I won’t try to give examples, but the indigenous language I know best is found in another of Boas’ works, “Tsimshian texts – Nass River Texts”, a volume of 70-odd pages with the English text on top and the original with word-for-word translation below. This was my first contact with the Nisqa’a language of the Nass River (British Columbia), before I met any speakers. I found the English text extremely boring! Short sentences, linked by “and then”, with the actions often occurring in the wrong order. It took me several tries to finish the whole thing. After a few months of learning the language with actual speakers (unfortunately not by immersion), I was able to read the texts with some degree of fluency, without constantly looking at the translation. The texts started to come alive! Not only could I correct many of Boas’ mistakes (he had retranslated the texts after collecting them through Chinook Jargon), but I began to understand the flow of events: Boas had used the same simple past tense when he should have backtracked with the pluperfect, for instance. With several years of continuous study of the language I understood and appreciated the tales more and more. Boas had thought that the texts were “only moderately well-told” compared to similar ones he had collected from a speaker with better English. Let’s say that his translation was not even “moderately” good.

    The moral of the story is that hastily transcribed and translated texts, even from people known as good story-tellers, are rarely models of the best that a poorly known language could offer.

  38. January First-of-May says:

    (My previous comment, on the Sapir article, is awaiting moderation.)

    You could claim that that polysynthesis is more characteristic of unwritten than written languages, but given that written languages consititute only a small fraction of all the world’s languages, and that moreover they are disproportionately skewed to just a few language families, it seems a stretch to conclude any sort of cause and effect relationship on the basis of what data we have.

    …Wait, isn’t Sumerian supposed to be pretty close to being polysynthetic?

    (Yes, I totally found that by googling for a list of polysynthetic languages. I did check it out elsewhere, however, because it sounded unlikely.)

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    isn’t Sumerian supposed to be pretty close to being polysynthetic

    Given that polysynthesis in the hardcore Mark-Bakerish sense is actually not all that common, it’s interesting that the unequivocally Bakeroid-polysynthetic Classical Nahuatl was not only a widespread interethnic language in one of America’s more elaborate cultures but probably the most “written” of American languages after the European invasions.

    Seems to me that the notion that polysynthesis goes with premodernity in anything but a purely coincidental way would need a lot better evidence than is ever likely to be forthcoming in this age of major language death.

    Though I did read somewhere lately an interesting speculation to the effect that “big” languages might, as it were, have got some of their rougher edges knocked off in the process of being serially adopted by absorbed groups that have lost their own original languages – repeated imperfect acquisition.

    Doesn’t seem to have worked for French …

    There also seems to be an element of question-begging: polysynthesis is lost in the face of the demands of communication in complex societies because it’s just too complex as a linguistic strategy, which just shows how polysynthesis must be more complex than elaborate analytical syntax … oh, wait …no, polysynthesis is too simple to express the demands of complex communication … er …

  40. I know I’m a bit of a nitpicker, but I noticed there are problems with the constituent analysis (the square brackets) of both the Declaration of Independence and the Hammurabi sentence (at the time of my writing).

    > The unpredictable aspects of language, the things you just have to know, may be especially slippery for the adult mind—and there are so many more of these in Ket than in English.

    English has a huge lexicon. Lots of stuff you “just have to know”.

    > [ʒn̩təlɛ pa d(ə)mãde] or more colloquially [ʃt(ə)lɛ pa dmãde].

    Intriguing. My own guess would have been [ʃnətlɛ] for the first chunk, is that allowed? Or [ʒnətlɛ]? (Not sure if [ʒn] works as an onset)

  41. ə de vivre says:

    isn’t Sumerian supposed to be pretty close to being polysynthetic

    It’s more agglutinative than polysynthetic. Verbal morphology is the least well understood (and the coolest!) part of the language, but it’s uncontroversial that they’re marked for subject, direct object, dative object. The standard dedication formula that kings had stamped on bricks was:

    Ninŋirsu-ra Enanatum-e mu-na-n-řu-Ø
    god.name-DAT personal.name-ERG ???-3.HUMAN.DAT-3.HUMAN.ERG-build-3.ABS
    “(the king) Enanatum built (it) for (the god) Ninŋirsu

    Sumerian didn’t have full-blown noun incorporation, but it did have a sort-of productive system of semantic incorporation, with the incorporated object often an inalienably possessed body part and the semantic object in an oblique case. Most verbs of perception and cognition are like this:
    en aratta-k-e gig-e igi bi-n-duḫ-Ø
    lord aratta-GEN-ERG wheat-OBL eye APPL-3.HUMAN.ERG-spread-3.ABS
    The lord or Aratta saw the wheat

    Sometimes the compound verb’s meaning is kinda opaque like “šu teŋ” (hand approach) which means to receive. There’s one late loan word where the Akkadian verb “šūḫuzu” (to burn) was reinterpreted as “šu ḫuz” (hand ḫuz). There are also pairs like “tag” (touch) and “šu tag” (hand touch) where the distinction isn’t really clear. The system gets pretty elaborate and the interpretations more contentious.

    Intriguing. My own guess would have been [ʃnətlɛ] for the first chunk, is that allowed? Or [ʒnətlɛ]? (Not sure if [ʒn] works as an onset)

    ʒ only devoices to ʃ before a voiceless consonant. I recall Étienne saying that schwa-insertion in French so-called pronoun groups has a fair amount of free variation. That said, [ʒnətlɛ] sound weird to me, but I’m not a native speaker.

  42. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Whoa, are ᴘᴇᴊᴏʀᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ and ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇᴍᴘᴛɪᴠᴇ really two different morphemes in Ojibwe?

  43. David Marjanović says:

    That said, [ʒnətlɛ] sound weird to me, but I’m not a native speaker.

    I think it puts too much stress on ne, which should be as unstressed as possible.

    Whoa, are ᴘᴇᴊᴏʀᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ and ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇᴍᴘᴛɪᴠᴇ really two different morphemes in Ojibwe?

    That’s what the Wikipedia article says, illustrated with meanings like “bad canoe” for ᴘᴇᴊᴏʀᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ and “some car or something” (presumably “who cares”) for ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇᴍᴘᴛɪᴠᴇ.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    dainichi:

    > [ʒn̩təlɛ pa d(ə)mãde] or more colloquially [ʃt(ə)lɛ pa dmãde].

    Intriguing. My own guess would have been [ʃnətlɛ] for the first chunk, is that allowed? Or [ʒnətlɛ]? (Not sure if [ʒn] works as an onset)

    “Je ne” is always [ʒən], at least at the beginning of an utterance. About [ʒn̩], it might happen after another word, as in “Ben je n’ sais pas” which is not what you would call a prestigious pronunciation even though it does have the “ne”.

    However, in colloquial speech when the “ne” is omitted, (or in cases where there is no negation) you can have an onset with [ʒ] or [ʃ] before another consonant ([ʃ] only before voiceless ones).

  45. marie-lucie says:

    ə de vivre: I recall Étienne saying that schwa-insertion in French so-called pronoun groups has a fair amount of free variation

    True, within the group, and there is personal and regional variation. For instance, je me le demande ‘I wonder about it’ (lit. I ask myself (about it)” can be je m’ le d’mand’ or j’ me l’ demand’ (I tend to use the second one myself). I think that some people say j’ me le d’mand’.

  46. I can’t think of any “big” language that is truly polysynthetic, although to be sure what features are required to make a language polysynthetic are disputed, and it may simply be a prototypical concept, what with polypersonal (polygenderal, whatever) agreement, noun incorporation, or both. In any case, fusional/agglutinative is independent of polysynthetic/not.

    McWhorter talks about the reduction processes that go on in “big” languages. French isn’t the strongest example, certainly. Better cases are Bengali and Cham (now under a lot of pressure from Vietnamese and no longer “big”), both of which are spoken almost exclusively by the descendants of L2 learners. (The same can be said to a lesser degree about American English.) Western Cham in particular is almost scarily regular, with very little characteristic Austronesian morphology left; it reads like an artificial language, except that it has phonemes that a language constructor would be unlikely to choose.

    Update: It is so utterly astounding that the sequences jəm ləd mãd, jməl dəmãd, jmə ləd mãd are all in free variation!

  47. marie-lucie says:

    JC: It is so utterly astounding that the sequences jəm ləd mãd, jməl dəmãd, jmə ləd mãd are all in free variation!

    This means that only the consonants count in order to produce and understand the pronouns. But it does not mean that any person freely uses all three: as I said, I favour the second one in my own speech.

  48. “Really? That’s normal spoken English? In ordinary oral English, I could imagine someone saying “He saw these boys, they were throwing spears at something.” Which isn’t far off the primitive-sounding Kathlamet approximation. This whole approach based on comparing written English with word-by-word glosses of non-English languages strikes me as superficial.”

    Bathrobe, part of my job deals with written statements from the public that are written in spoken English, if you know what I mean, and most long sentences are in fact just a string of clauses mooshed together, with some punctuation sprinkled here and there incorrectly like lipstick on a pig. Once you read them aloud they are perfectly clear.

  49. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Hmmm, popular journalism tells me that we know that Eskimos know a lot about snow because they have 35 or so words for snow. There’s only roughly one conclusion that I can draw from the fact that Ojibwe has >1 suffixes meaning pejorative~contemptuous.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    I think that some people say j’ me le d’mand’.

    Yes, and Paris has moved on to j’ me l’ d’mand’ with a cluster of three consonants.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    I believe you have indeed heard this, but not all of Paris speaks the same!

  52. @ Jim

    That is as I have always suspected.

    I wondered about the claim (from Marianne Mithun) that “34 percent of clauses in conversational American English are embedded clauses. In Mohawk (spoken in Quebec), only 7 percent are. Gunwinggu (an Australian language) has 6 percent and Kathlamet (formerly spoken in Washington state) has only 2 percent.”

    Frankly, I have trouble with the concept of “embedded clauses”. In the spoken language, “When I got up he was having breakfast” includes the embedded clause “when I got up”, but if that is the extent of embedding involved, we are still a far cry from the complexity that Sedivy is claiming for written languages. Until you have multiple embedded clauses, the complexity is not much greater than having coordinate structures. For example:

    When I got up he was having breakfast.
    I got up and he was having breakfast.

    aren’t so different from each other. It’s only when you start embedding within embeddings that claims of syntactic complexity start to have much meaning.

  53. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Also, whoa, Ket polysynthesis is even worsestronger than Navajo?

    Any suggestions for introductory books or articles on Ket? I didn’t find a lot that looked promising through an initial round of Googling.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: It’s only when you start embedding within embeddings that claims of syntactic complexity start to have much meaning.

    Yes, and as you pile up embeddings people stop following the thread of your thought. It works best in writing, as the reader can go over complex sentences again and again.

  55. Complex syntactic constructions piled one upon another are one of the most popular genres of folk oral tradition in many cultures.

    “This is the House that Jack built” and all that.

    Mongolian example (rather short, so it can be posted in entirety):

    Manai khaany myangan langiin myangan möngön bömbgiig manai khaany myangan langiin myangan möngön bömbög bish geed öör khenii khaany myangan langiin myangan möngön bömbgiig myangan langiin myangan möngön bömbög gekh yum be?

    If our king’s one thousand silver balls worth one thousand taels are not called our king’s one thousand silver balls worth one thousand taels then whose king’s one thousand silver balls worth one thousand taels can be called one thousand silver balls worth one thousand taels?

  56. January First-of-May says:

    Final embedding, like in House that Jack Built, isn’t actually that complicated. I vaguely recall someone giving an example from, IIRC, the 1001 Nights that went six layers in.

    It’s the other kinds of embeddings that are tricky.

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    Any suggestions for introductory books or articles on Ket?

    “Ket”, by Edward Vajda, in the LINCOM Languages of the Word/Materials series.

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    Complex syntactic constructions piled one upon another are one of the most popular genres of folk oral tradition in many cultures.

    In a very similar way, polysynthetic languages can use elaborate polysynthetic constructions specifically as an artistic choice – a deliberate display of linguistic virtuosity. I’ve seen this explicitly stated at least for Nahuatl and Arapaho.

    It may be that the dichotomy (so far as it’s real at all) is not between oral/written but between workaday and elevated diction; not the same thing at all, however much we literate modern people might think so, with our inability to memorise even the simplest holy book, epic poem or comprehensive morphophonemic treatise.

  59. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ainu seems to be a good example of this, come to think of it: complex polysynthesis is very evident in the oral epics, the yukar, but very much less so in ordinary spoken language (though I suppose you have to allow also for the effects of language obsolescence there, which confuses the issue.)

  60. It may be that the dichotomy (so far as it’s real at all) is not between oral/written but between workaday and elevated diction; not the same thing at all, however much we literate modern people might think so

    An excellent point.

  61. It’s the other kinds of embeddings that are tricky.

    Centre-embedding is so difficult to process that even in written language third-degree centre-embedding seems to be the greatest complexity ever observed in the wild (according to Karlsson 2007). In spoken language, even second-degree centre-embedding is virtually unknown:

    The rat that the cat that the dog chased killed ate the malt.

    [The rat [that the cat [that the dog chased] killed] ate the malt]

    However, as Hurford (2012) points out, educated users of some languages, immersed in a rhetorical tradition which cherishes syntactic complexity (he mentions literary German, in particular), experience more exposure to centre-embedding, and therefore may cope more successfully with such sentences. Humans can reportedly be trained to process up to five levels of centre-embedding in laboratory conditions 😉

  62. David Marjanović says:

    The rat that the cat that the dog chased killed ate the malt.

    I can deal with that if the intonation is just right. But that’s probably the limit.

    a rhetorical tradition which cherishes syntactic complexity (he mentions literary German, in particular)

    German of any kind doesn’t have that much of a rhetorical tradition, though. My impression is it has less than English. Immersion in that tradition is even less common – Americans hold formal debates in highschool classes; we don’t.

  63. [The rat [that the cat [that the dog chased] killed] ate the malt]

    Center embedding corresponds to general recursion in programming languages, whereas final embedding corresponds to tail recursion, which is just iteration by another name. When we try to understand sentences like the above, it’s the string of finite verbs “chased killed ate” that doesn’t work: we try to recall their subjects correctly but fail. In the “House that Jack Built” case, all the ]s are at the end, and the brain has no trouble processing them.

    I thought someone posted a hilarious German center-embedded translation of Jack (by the way, is this the Jack of the Jack tales?), but I can’t seem to find it.

  64. Here is one of Hurford’s German examples (in his original spelling, with no scharfes S):

    Ich weiss, dass der Keiser den Eltern den Kindern Fussball spielen lehren helfer soll.

    According to p.c. from one of Hurford’s German students, it “is not particularly difficult to interpret”. Hurford speculates that the Germans’ ability to cope with centre-embedding is “probably facilitated by the verb-final structure of German subordinate clauses” (in other words, German-speakers are accustomed to waiting patiently for the verb — it will come one day).

  65. David Marjanović says:

    There are enough mistakes in this example that I’m unsure of the interpretation! If it is

    Ich weiß, dass der Kaiser den Eltern die Kinder Fussball spielen lehren helfen soll

    , then it’s straightforward enough that it might well occur spontaneously in the wild on rare occasions, and means “I know that the emperor [?!?] is supposed to help the parents teach the children to play football”.

    German-speakers are accustomed to waiting patiently for the verb

    Bingo.

  66. Mark Twain quotes typical German sentence ending in a verb:

    “But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met”

  67. “And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved German model. You observe how far that verb is from the reader’s base of operations; well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.”

  68. marie-lucie says:

    SFR: “But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counsellor’s wife met” (Mark Twain)

    Reading the American press, it seems to me that English syntax is starting to emulate German syntax in the elaboration of the noun phrase in between the article and the noun itself. I have not collected examples, but I am often struck by a new complexity.

  69. > Final embedding, like in House that Jack Built, isn’t actually that complicated. […] It’s the other kinds of embeddings that are tricky.

    Isn’t initial embedding even easier in some cases? I can understand why “The House that Jack Built” is easy to parse, since when the whole sentence ends, necessarily all the nested clauses have to end too. But meaning-wise, is it really easy? As far as I can see, all the relative clauses are restrictive. So first we have “This is the rat… “. What rat? “… the rat that ate the malt … ” What malt? Etc, until we get all the way to the end. Only when we get to Jack, whom we know, do we know what house, and what malt, and what rat we’re talking about.

    That’s not cognitively easy. Because the old info is all the way at the end. Embedding at the beginning with pre-positioned relative clauses (like in e.g. Japanese) would be much easier to understand, since you can start with the old information and move towards the new information. With that kind of embedding the understanding would be as easy as:

    You know Jack? Yeah.
    He built a house. OK.
    Some malt lay there. OK.
    Some rat ate that malt. OK.
    This is that rat! Aha!

    (I used a shortened version of the rhyme for the purpose)

  70. There are enough mistakes…

    Oops, the typos are mine, not Hurford’s. It was past 1 a.m.

  71. spielen lehren helfen soll — I am far from being a native speaker of German, but I have no problems parsing this infinitive pileup. Your syntax tree may be center-embedded, but it feels more like I am processing it as a single compound verb form with four NP arguments. Is that what a serial verb does?

  72. spielen lehren helfen soll

    Nothing formally wrong with that, but only an intellectual putting on the Ritz would actually say or write that nowadays.

    Decades ago I learned by example to say soll spielen lehren helfen, and I still say it for considered reasons. Most people don’t do that, though, but prefer to avoid a pile-up altogether.

    The woman in the street thus will say something like soll helfen, sie spielen zu lehren (“sie” has been pulled inwards to help avoid the pile-up) or, more colloquially, soll helfen, ihnen [das] Spielen beizubringen (note that the verb “spielen” has mutated into the noun “Spielen”).

    “Sie lehren” is a bit unusual in the Germany-German of my neck of the woods, which is why I replaced it with “ihnen beibringen”. I seem to recall that David M’s Austria-German uses “lehren” more often for “teach”.

  73. Another Mark Twain quote:

    “An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. “

  74. David Marjanović says:

    Your syntax tree may be center-embedded, but it feels more like I am processing it as a single compound verb form with four NP arguments.

    Good idea. Maybe that’s what’s going on in my head.

    Decades ago I learned by example to say soll spielen lehren helfen

    That’s widespread, IIRC even prescribed by a bunch of prescriptivists. But it’s not geographically universal; it feels downright ungrammatical to me (in Standard and dialect).

    But yes, usually such pileups are avoided exactly as you describe.

    I seem to recall that David M’s Austria-German uses “lehren” more often for “teach”.

    Not at all! It’s a purely literary word. Beibringen is usual, and colloquially you can also encounter lernen (I hear prescriptivists howling and wailing in the distance); then there’s unterrichten for teaching in a formal setting without having to mention who the learners are.

    An average sentence, in a German newspaper,

    Such extremes did occur in scientific writing in Twain’s time; and the newspapers (or some of them?) were aspiring to literary merits, so maybe you’d find half that in a newspaper from back then…

  75. the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect,

    “Or words to that effect” cracks me up.

  76. As Stu notes, these very long, subclause-ridden sentences Twain satirized (what I call the Thomas-Mann-style of writing) have gone out of fashion. Legalese and admistrative writing still have complicated nested constructions, as part of their overall endeavour to be penetrable only to the specislists, but that’s the same all over the world.

  77. C’mon, Hans, Uncle Thomas never wrote like that. It is merely the case that, in order to get something out of his novels, one must be high up the pole of German-across-the-centuries. He was a consummate show-off, but that’s another story.

  78. @Stu – How about these sentences? In my book, they’re very long and sub-clause ridden, and I could easily find more like them:
    “Die Liebe, die Schridaman zu Sumantras goldfarbenem Kinde hatte, nachdem er sie im frommen Bade belauscht, – eine Liebe, so feurig-ernst, dass sie für ihn, zu Nandas populärer Erheiterung, die Gestalt einer Krankheit zum Tode und der Überzeugung, sterben zu müsse, angenommen hatte, – diese heftige, leidende und im Grunde zartsinnige Ergriffenheit also, entzündet durch ein reizendes Bild, dem er jedoch sogleich die Würde der Perso zu wahren bestrebt gewesen war, – kurzum, diese aus der Vermählung von Sinnenschönheit und Geist geborene Begeisterung war, wie sich versteht, eine Sache seiner gespannten Selbstheit, – vor allem aber doch eine Sache seines brahmanischen, von der Göttin ‘Rede’ mit Gedankeinbrunst und Einbildungskraft begabten Hauptes gewesen, welchem der ihm anhängende milde Körper, wie das in der Ehe deutlich geworden sein mochte, keine ganz ebenbürtige Gesellschaft dabei geleistet hatte.”
    Or this:
    “Als sie nun einen Tag und einen halben gereist waren, unter Menschen auf Landstraßen wie auch allein durch Wälder und Einöden, wobei jeder seine Wegeslast auf dem Rücken trug: Nanda einen Kasten mit Betelnüssen, Kaurimuscheln und auf Baspapier aufgetragenem Altarot zum Schminken der Fußsohlen, womit er das Roherz der Tiefstehenden zu bezahlen gedachte, und Schridaman die in ein Rehfell eingenähten Gespinste, die aber Nanda aus Freundschaft auch zuweilen noch aufhuckte, kamen sie an einen heilgen Badeplatz Kâlîs; der Allumfangenden, der Mutter aller Welten und Wesen, die Vischnus Traumtrunkenheit ist, am Flüsschen ‘Goldfliege’, das fröhlich wie eine losgelassene Stute aus der Berge Schoß kommt, dann aber seinen Lauf mäßigt und an heiliger Stelle sanft mit dem Strome Djamna zusammenfließt, der seinerseits an überheiliger Stelle in diewige Ganga mündet, – dieser aber mündet viefach ins Meer.”
    (From “Die vertauschten Köpfe”)

  79. Gott hilf uns! I got a few clauses into the first sentence before giving up in despair, and I know now that I will never attempt to read Mann in the original.

  80. Hans, Die vertauschten Köpfe is deliberately high-flown. I read it for the first time only last year. Compare and contrast Lotte in Weimar, or Zauberberg.

    Steve, it must be because you balk too often at syntax and words you’re not completely at home with. When you just read along – and have a suitably raised consciousness, as when reading any high-falutin’ prose – all is well. It’s supreme artifice, man ! Bureaucrats only manage artificial.

  81. Oh, well, the Anglosphere has Ruskin:

    And round the walls of the porches there are set pillars of variegated stones, jasper and porphyry, and deep-green serpentine spotted with flakes of snow, and marbles, that half refuse and half yield to the sunshine, Cleopatra-like, ‘their bluest veins to kiss’ — the shadow, as it steals back from them, revealing line after line of azure undulation, as a receding tide leaves the waved sand; their capitals rich with interwoven tracery, rooted knots of herbage, and drifting leaves of acanthus and vine, and mystical signs, all beginning and ending in the Cross; and above them, in the broad archibolts, a continuous chain of language and of life — angels, and the signs of heaven, and the labours of men, each in its appointed season upon the earth; and above these, another range of glittering pinnacles, mixed with white arches edged with scarlet flowers, — a confusion of delight, amidst which the breasts of the Greek horses are seen blazing in their breadth of golden strength, and the St. Mark’s lion, lifted on a blue field covered with stars, until at last, as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst.

  82. Count Leo won’t be outdone:

    В то время, когда на юбилее московского актера упроченное тостом явилось общественное мнение, начавшее карать всех преступников; когда грозные комиссии из Петербурга поскакали на юг ловить, обличать и казнить комиссариатских злодеев; когда во всех городах задавали с речами обеды севастопольским героям и им же, с оторванными руками и ногами, подавали трынки, встречая их на мостах и дорогах; в то время, когда ораторские таланты так быстро развились в народе, что один целовальник везде и при всяком случае писал и печатал и наизусть сказывал на обедах речи, столь сильные, что блюстители порядка должны были вообще принять укротительные меры против красноречия целовальника; когда в самом аглицком клубе отвели особую комнату для обсуждения общественных дел; когда появились журналы под самыми разнообразными знаменами, – журналы, развивающие европейские начала на европейской почве, но с русским миросозерцанием, и журналы, исключительно на русской почве, развивающие русские начала, однако с европейским миросозерцанием; когда появилось вдруг столько журналов, что, казалось, все названия были исчерпаны: и “Вестник”, и “Слово”, и “Беседа”, и “Наблюдатель”, и “Звезда”, и “Орел”, и много других, и, несмотря на то, все являлись еще новые и новые названия; в то время, когда появились плеяды писателей, мыслителей, доказывавших, что наука бывает народна и не бывает народна и бывает ненародная и т. д., и плеяды писателей, художников, описывающих рощу и восход солнца, и грозу, и любовь русской девицы, и лень одного чиновника, и дурное поведение многих чиновников; в то время, когда со всех сторон появились вопросы (как называли в пятьдесят шестом году все те стечения обстоятельств, в которых никто не мог добиться толку), явились вопросы кадетских корпусов, университетов, цензуры, изустного судопроизводства, финансовый, банковый, полицейский, эманципационный и много других; все старались отыскивать еще новые вопросы, все пытались разрешать их; писали, читали, говорили проекты, всё хотели исправить, уничтожить, переменить, и все россияне, как один человек, находились в неописанном восторге.

  83. Very good, Piotr. I had forgotten about Ruskin. Now Carlyle springs to mind – not so much for nested clauses as for generally whacked-out prose.

  84. Nabokov is a contender, too; here are three consecutive sentences from Дар [The Gift]:

    Опытным взглядом он искал в ней того, что грозило бы стать ежедневной зацепкой, ежедневной пыткой для чувств, но, кажется, ничего такого не намечалось, а рассеянный свет весеннего серого дня был не только вне подозрения, но еще обещал умягчить иную мелочь, которая в яркую погоду не преминула бы объявиться; все могло быть этой мелочью: цвет дома, например, сразу отзывающийся во рту неприятным овсяным вкусом, а то и халвой; деталь архитектуры, всякий раз экспансивно бросающаяся в глаза; раздражительное притворство кариатиды, приживалки, – а не подпоры, – которую и меньшее бремя обратило бы тут же в штукатурный прах; или, на стволе дерева, под ржавой кнопкой, бесцельно и навсегда уцелевший уголок отслужившего, но не до конца содранного рукописного объявленьица – о расплыве синеватой собаки; или вещь в окне, или запах, отказавшийся в последнюю секунду сообщить воспоминание, о котором был готов, казалось, завопить, да так на углу и оставшийся – самой за себя заскочившею тайной. Нет, ничего такого не было (еще не было), но хорошо бы, подумал он, как-нибудь на досуге изучить порядок чередования трех-четырех сортов лавок и проверить правильность догадки, что в этом порядке есть свой композиционный закон, так что найдя наиболее частое сочетание, можно вывести средний ритм для улиц данного города, – скажем: табачная, аптекарская, зеленная. На Танненбергской эти три были разобщены, находясь на разных углах, но может быть роение ритма тут еще не настало, и в будущем, повинуясь контрапункту, они постепенно (по мере прогорания или переезда владельцев) начнут сходиться: зеленная с оглядкой перейдет улицу, чтобы стать через семь, а там через три, от аптекарской – вроде того, как в рекламной фильме находят свои места смешанные буквы, – причем одна из них напоследок как-то еще переворачивается, поспешно встав на ноги (комический персонаж, непременный Яшка Мешок в строю новобранцев); так и они будут выжидать, когда освободится смежное место, а потом обе наискосок мигнут табачной – сигай сюда, мол; и вот уже все стали в ряд, образуя типическую строку.

  85. Hans, Die vertauschten Köpfe is deliberately high-flown. I read it for the first time only last year. Compare and contrast Lotte in Weimar, or Zauberberg.
    Well, you said he never wrote like that, and while he was aiming for a Brahmin kind of elaboration in his prose in “Köpfe”, I could find such sentences in his work elsewhere, if I felt like going through it right now and if I wouldn’t have blisters on my fingers already from typing the examples I gave. 🙂
    And sure, writers in other languages can be as long-sentenced, as has been shown.

  86. The Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski wrote a short novel entitled Bramy raju (The Gates of Paradise, 1960), which consists of two sentences. The first is about forty thousand words long, and the second is, “And they marched all night.” Of course Andrzejewski cheated a little, since many of his commas, dashes and semicolons could be replaced with full stops. For similar reasons, various forms of stream of consciousness (like Molly’s soliloquy in Ulysses) should be disqualified. They are not extraordinarily complex — just amorphous and underpunctuated.

  87. per incuriam says:

    I know now that I will never attempt to read Mann in the original

    Buddenbrooks and Zauberberg are both eminently readable.

  88. Buddenbrooks and Zauberberg are both eminently readable.

    As is Felix Krull (if you don’t mind reading an unfinished novel); I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading Mann!

  89. I read the novella Mario und der Zauberer at university, possibly because it was felt to be a suitable introduction to Mann for students. I remember it as having a heavy style compared with other things we read (e.g., Eichendorff and C. F. Meyer) but it wasn’t impossible, even for a first year student. It also had an interesting message.

  90. As (I’m told) the German version of an Albee play has it, “Wer hat Angst vor Thomas Mann?”

  91. Henry James (who is, in fact, quite readable still) meets some Python scripts.

  92. marie-lucie says:

    I have not tried to read much Mann, but I found Kafka very readable, even with my limited instruction in the language.

  93. Me too.

  94. Henry James talking in Jamesian (according to Edith Wharton).

  95. Sedivy.

    Would this name be pronounced as the ‘word’ in the line ‘a kiddley divey too, wooden shoe’?

    Or is the stress on the first syllable?

  96. Good question. It’s a Czech name (from šedivý ‘grey’), so my guess would be first-syllable stress, but who knows how it’s been naturalized?

  97. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    What a fascinating thread! I’m very glad that LanguageHat threads never die. I seem to have missed it when it was active, probably because it coincided with my hip operation and all the tedious reeducation that followed. When I’ve been through it properly I may have something to add, but this post is mainly a placeholder so that I can find it again.

  98. I’m glad you found it! How’s the hip doing?

  99. Here’s section 4, subsection 1 of the British Trade Marks Act 1938 in its entirety:

    Subject to the provisions of this section, and of sections seven and eight of this Act, the registration (whether before or after the commencement of this Act) of a person in Part A of the register as proprietor of a trade mark (other than a certification trade mark) in
    respect of any goods shall, if valid, give or be deemed to have given to that person the exclusive right to the use of the trade mark in relation to those goods and, without
    prejudice to the generality of the foregoing words, that right shall be deemed to be infringed by any person who, not being the proprietor of the trade mark or a registered
    user thereof using by way of the permitted use, uses a mark identical with it or so nearly resembling it as to be likely to deceive or cause confusion, in the course of trade, in relation to any goods in respect of which it is registered, and in such manner as to render the use of the mark likely to be taken either—
    (a) as being use as a trade mark; or
    (b) in a case in which the use is use upon the goods or in physical relation thereto or in an advertising circular or other advertisement issued to the public, as importing a reference to some person having the right either as proprietor or as registered user to use the trade mark or to goods with which such a person as aforesaid is connected in the course of trade.

    Two years later, McKinnon LJ wrote in an opinion that he had very little notion of what this sentence (253 words) was meant to say, and that he doubted “if the entire statute book could be successfully searched for a sentence of equal length which is of more fuliginous obscurity”.

  100. Dammit, reading that paper again I come across this:

    psychologist Jessica Montag and her colleagues targeted relative clauses in the passive voice (the dog that was hit by the car), which are exceedingly rare in speech but more abundant in text, even that written for children.

    Really? Exceedingly rare in speech? So it’s exceedingly rare to say something like “That’s the guy who got hit by a car”? Or “She’s the one that got ditched by her boyfriend”? Or “The guy who got hit by the bullet was taken to hospital. The rest were given some ointment and told to go home”.

    If you are using the was passive, sure. But we’re talking about spoken vs written, aren’t we? In spoken English, the got passive is surely plenty common — even in relative clauses. Only someone addicted to explaining colloquial English by resorting to written English examples (as many linguists dealing with English do) could make a statement like that.

    (Yes, I’ve raved about this elsewhere with regard to specificity and definiteness, but that’s the whole point. How can you deal with the grammar of spoken English while excluding colloquial English examples? There is too much linguistic myth-making based on unstated assumptions like confining your spoken English to ‘standard textbook English’.)

  101. Really? Exceedingly rare in speech?

    This looks to be the research referred to: Differences in sentence complexity in the text of children’s picture books and child-directed speech, J.L. Montag, 2019. The paper compares syntax in specifically child-directed speech (not speech in general) from the CHILDES corpus to a corpus of 100 picture books “selected to be representative of the books that caregivers might read to young children”. Passive relative clauses were found at a rate of 0.003 per thousand words in child-directed speech, and were 50 times more common in the picture books. (They uploaded the database — good practice! — and it turns out this means 2 examples in the speech corpus and 9 examples in the book corpus, which was smaller.)

    So I’d say “exceedingly rare in speech” is hyperbole and oversimplification, and Montag should be judged on the actual paper. And yes, she did count get-passives, as well as elliptical passives like “there was a kitty trapped in there”. Interesting remarks, too, on how difficult it was to count relative clauses; they’re easy to miss.

  102. Thank you. You’ve at least partly redeemed Sedivy in my eyes. The sloppiness of her wording was possibly due to her eagerness to make a point.

    The paper is indeed interesting and I’m grateful to you for locating it. It does help throw a light on the development of syntactically more complex language in children as mediated by the written language. I’m not exactly sceptical but wonder if this is perhaps at least partly culturally bound. It would be interesting to repeat this kind of experiment for languages other than English.

    The failure to identify as relative clauses those lacking the relative pronoun was surprising. It suggested to me a lack of linguistic sophistication. A more skilled analyst would not have had that problem. However, I can understand this happening. I once read through Jane Eyre to look for relative clauses and was surprised that Bronte’s language was heavily paratactic, or at least full of non-subordinate structures. When I looked more closely, however, there were relative clauses, but they were mostly very short ones typical of everyday speech, not the longer types beloved of more elaborate writing.

    I had not realised that so much study had been done on relative clauses in English, although I supposed it should be obvious. It will be interesting to follow up some of the sources.

  103. John Cowan says:

    I’m reading Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, and here in all its glory is what Greene said Pinker said Bob Dole said:

    The view that beating a third-rate Serbian military that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians is hardly worth the effort is not based on a lack of undertanding of what is occurring on the ground.

    Not only is that triply center-embedded, it also has a triple negation: hardly, not based, lack.

  104. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I’d like to hear a recording of that—put a pause (or an M dash) after effort and you effectively dislocate the whole noun phrase starting with view. Also the deepest embedded phrase is not restrictive and could be set off with dashes as well.

    The view that beating a third-rate Serbian military (which for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians) is hardly worth the effort—is not based on a lack of understanding of what is occurring on the ground.

    It’s an impressive piece of syntax anyway—I don’t know the back story, was this spontaneously produced? And did it actually come out meaning what Bob Dole intended?

    (As I unpack it, the plain meaning is something like We do understand what is occurring on the ground, and based on that the best course of action is to leave the Serbian military alone, even though it would be easy to beat and even though it is targeting civilians brutally for the third time in a decade. That seems a bit backwards, but Dole may have thought that there were better alternatives to military action at that point).

    EDIT: WordPress changes a double minus to an M dash automatically, I hadn’t needed to copy one from elsewhere. No, actually an N dash unless there are spaces around it. Funky.

  105. Bathrobe says:

    “that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians” is not restrictive but sounds perfectly natural to me.

    The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language notes that some speakers accept “that” in supplementary (=non-restrictive) clauses, giving examples like:

    His heart, that had lifted at the sight of Joanna, had suddenly become heavy at the sight of Ramdez thumping after her.

    The examples they give actually seem rather poor compared with JC’s example. In fact, “that” sounds better than “which” here, which makes the comment parenthetical and loses some of the intended effect. However, I’m aware that some prescriptivists would condemn it.

  106. David Marjanović says:

    It’s an impressive piece of syntax anyway—I don’t know the back story, was this spontaneously produced?

    It looks spontaneous to me; I talk like that… and I have no trouble understanding it either. Yes, there is a pause after effort, but any punctuation there would be misleading unless you’re used to 18th-century writing.

    In fact, “that” sounds better than “which” here, which makes the comment parenthetical and loses some of the intended effect.

    I agree!

  107. AJP Crown says:

    I talk like that… and I have no trouble understanding it either 🙂 . I agree.

    You don’t need all these thats:

    The view—beating a third-rate Serbian military, that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians, is hardly worth the effort—is not based on a lack of understanding of what is occurring on the ground.

    His heart had lifted at the sight of Joanna but it quickly became heavy at the sight of Ramdez thumping after her.

    The Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate original with “that” is the best of all, because it’s in Muriel Spark’s voice, the style of wonderful Muriel Spark:

    Freddy, his letter-pad useless in his hand, sat suffering indistinctly. His heart, that had lifted at the sight of Johanna, had become suddenly heavy at the sight of old Ramdez thumping after her with his woman.

  108. John Cowan says:

    To clarify: the Doleful Sentence appeared in an op-ed, so it was written not spoken, and what’s more, at least some copy editing was applied to it!

    ObTrivia: In the seven U.S. presidential elections from 1976 to 2000, one Republican presidential or vice-presidential candidate was named either Dole or Bush.

  109. January First-of-May says:

    ObTrivia: In the seven U.S. presidential elections from 1976 to 2000, one Republican presidential or vice-presidential candidate was named either Dole or Bush.

    2004 as well, though not 1972 or 2008.

  110. David Marjanović says:

    The view—beating a third-rate Serbian military, that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians, is hardly worth the effort—is not based on a lack of understanding of what is occurring on the ground.

    This only works if “the view” has been introduced earlier and is explained here for the first time. For me anyway.

  111. Yeah, the version with dashes doesn’t work for me either.

  112. David Eddyshaw says:

    I agree that you need “that” after “view” to transform it from ungrammatical-without-a-carefully-set-up-context to clunky-yet-fully-grammatical.

    There ought to be handy abbreviations for these degrees of acceptability.

  113. Bathrobe says:

    Here is a gentleman complaining about the use of ‘that’ where it doesn’t belong: Relatively incorrect.

    The sentence he complains about is this:

    [Patrick] Stewart found worldwide fame in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation that ran from the late 1980s to [the] mid-1990s.

    I can’t for the life of me see what is wrong with it. If “school grammar” brands it incorrect, then the problem lies with school grammar. “Restrictive vs nonrestrictive” seems to be a really big thing in the world of English teaching but I’ve always felt that people are overconfident in asserting the distinction.

  114. David Eddyshaw says:

    There’s nothing wrong with it. The complainant is just yet another poor confused victim of rubbish “grammar” teaching by teachers who didn’t actually know anything much about grammar themselves. We should treat him with pity and kindness, unless he presumes to correct our usage. If he does that, we should delate him to Geoffrey Pullum. There is a time for mercy, and a time to refrain from mercy …

    (I would myself put a comma before “that”, but commatomachy is a mug’s game.)

  115. PlasticPaddy says:

    The sentence has a mild poetic tinge for me, that/which would go away if he replaced that with which ☺

  116. David Eddyshaw says:

    Another category for my taxonomy of acceptability.

    ungrammatical-without-a-carefully-set-up-context
    clunky-yet-fully-grammatical
    poetic (subdivided at the very least into Imagist and Romantic)

    along with

    only-acceptable-to-Chomskyans
    only-unacceptable-to-Chomskyans
    unacceptable-even-to-Geoffrey-Pullum
    so-acceptable-its-just-boring
    wtf

    I don’t think this can be reduced to a single dimension. Eleven, bah! Hilbert spaces may become necessary.
    There’s a PhD in this for someone. I expect an acknowledgment.

  117. David Eddyshaw says:

    Talking of unacceptability, it just occurred to me the other day that Chomsky’s pet “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is, in point of fact, ungrammatical. (I doubt whether I am the first to notice this.) The trouble is that you can’t have two colour adjectives at the same level in the same slot in the noun phrase. There are syntactic constraints against this in English. The semantic incompatibility is just a colourless green herring.

    “Green ideas sleep furiously.”

    and

    “Colourless ideas sleep furiously.”

    are absolutely fine. Romantic-poetic-acceptable. Gnomic, even.

    So (to make it a bit clearer what I mean) is

    “Colourless-green ideas sleep furiously.”

  118. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suppose you might have a

    colourless [green idea]

    but Chomskyite introspection reveals clearly to me that for this to be a possible parsing, [green idea] must have some sort of specialised sense (along the lines of “Black Death”); it cannot be merely an idea which happens to be green.

    One might, I suppose, be saying that one feels that the conceptual underpinnings of the ecological movement are somewhat lacking in interest; indeed, that despite the fuss attendant on their promulgation, they are, in the last analysis, quite inactive. A melancholy thought. Or perhaps a call to arms:

    Colourless Green ideas [merely] sleep furiously, comrades!

    (Obviously I myself feel that Red Green ideas are the way forward.)

  119. AJP Crown says:

    Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

    you can’t have two colour adjectives at the same level

    It doesn’t have to be two adjectives.

    Chomsky, linguistics professor and amateur golf-course designer, was very angry when he was asked to make all nine greens appear identical. There had also been an unimaginative local council proposal to redirect traffic straight across his village green, so he was tossing and turning at night.

    OR
    they don’t have to be colour adjectives: The WWF has many green ideas but it’s very establishment-driven for an NGO, and so they’re all a bit colourless.

  120. you can’t have two colour adjectives at the same level in the same slot in the noun phrase.

    Chomskyan introspection reveals to me you’re talking through your hat. If there’s any such prohibition (which I doubt), that’s semantically based, not syntactic.

    I can’t find anything wrong with “verdant green lawns love the rain”.

    ” sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. ” Dylan Thomas’s language might be many things, but not ungrammatical. Not just three colour adjectives, but essentially the same three adjectives.

  121. While I’m at it, ‘Under Milk Wood’ has a fine example contra the peevers who prefer ‘Active voice’ on the spurious grounds it makes the agent explicit and/or it makes the action more direct:

    Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

    Oy vey nothing dynamic at all; and not a passive anywhere.

  122. David Marjanović says:

    pechkohlrabenschwarz

    “pitch-coal-raven-black”

  123. David Eddyshaw says:

    @AntC

    Thank you for contributing your insights.
    You have discovered a further poetic degree of acceptability: dylan-thomas-acceptable.

  124. David Eddyshaw says:

    What is “verdant” modifying in “verdant green lawns”?

  125. Bathrobe says:

    you’re talking through your hat

    I thought that was encouraged at *cough* Language Hat.

  126. SFReader says:

    What is “verdant” modifying in “verdant green lawns”?

    Green, obviously.

    There are many shades of green color, so it specifies that lawns are green as grass as opposed to, say, emerald green.

  127. David Eddyshaw says:

    That was my feeling, too. The construction is therefore [verdant green] lawns, and is not a counterexample.

  128. AJP Crown says:

    You don’t usually specify that your lawns aren’t emerald green, only that they aren’t parched brown or mossy. The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green.

  129. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, I was getting ghostly memories of that gentleman, too. In the last chapter he is “married and done for”, IIRC.

  130. David Marjanović says:

    That was my feeling, too. The construction is therefore [verdant green] lawns, and is not a counterexample.

    But neither are the [colourless green] ideas, except semantically.

  131. The construction is therefore [verdant green] lawns, and is not a counterexample.

    But neither are the [colourless green] ideas, except semantically.

    Quite. So colourless green lawns are lawns that aren’t quite parched, but will be next week without some rain, given there’s a hosepipe ban.

  132. David Eddyshaw says:

    OK, AntC, so long as “colourless” is modifying “green” you are not talking through your colourless green accessory. (Suits you, by the way.)

  133. Anyway, Chomsky merely claimed that sentence is grammatical. He didn’t give a parse for it; he didn’t claim ‘colourless’, ‘green’ are “at the same level”.

    Furthermore Phrase Structure Grammar has no notion of ‘at the same level’: there’s no iteration of non-terminals, only nesting/embedding.

    IOW there’s two possible parses, depending how you choose to nest the constituents. [colourless green] ideas vs colourless [green ideas]. And of course semantically the grammar does not come with a claim as to what the adjectives qualify: [fake diamond] earrings vs fake [diamond earrings] might or might not amount to the same thing. Our poor monkey brains would give an advantage there in not sweating the small stuff.

  134. Bathrobe says:

    The other half is also semantic. You can’t “sleep furiously”. (Well, maybe orcs, trolls, and ogres can, I don’t know.) Nor can ideas “sleep” under ordinary circumstances.

    I’m not sure why this sentence became so famous. I guess it was meant to prove that you can’t just fit parts of speech into slots without regard to meaning and collocation.

  135. David Eddyshaw says:

    The reverse, I think; I believe that the point of it was to illustrate Chomsky’s (certainly false) idea that syntax is wholly autonomous, so that you can assess grammatical “acceptability” without having to worry your head about semantics. You can tailor your concept of “acceptability” carefully enough to make that seem true, with sufficient perverse ingenuity.

    His contrast with “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless” does certainly show that there are very different ways for a sentence to be unacceptable. His deduction from this that syntax is autonomous (in the sense he meant) is of course invalid.

    There are (for example) ordering constraints on English modifying adjectives depending on their meaning. (A famous example is where Conrad makes one of the very rare slips betraying that he is not a native English speaker when he writes “black long shadow.”)

  136. A famous example is where Conrad makes one of the very rare slips betraying that he is not a native English speaker when he writes “black long shadow.”

    Oh? I find nearly all of Conrad reads like it’s written by a non-native speaker. Like somebody who’s learnt their English by reading only high-brow literature, not by speaking it. That’s not to say Conrad’s writing is not English; but I would call it stilted and heavily stylised. Some sort of EFL exercise. Nabokov I have a similar reaction, though not so strange-feeling.

    Anyhoo, you can shuffle the usual adjective ordering in English for emphasis: if there’s two long shadows of which the other is only dark-grey, I mean the black long shadow. So that should be amongst your categories of quasi-acceptability.

  137. Bathrobe says:

    But of course, that mostly works in spoken English, where stress and intonation come into play. Even with italics, the written language is only partly able to capture these aspects.

  138. Hmm? A subtle writer can set up the context so that the reader can ‘hear’ the stress and intonation from the page.

    The sort of subtle writer that Conrad isn’t.

    BTW the Conrad quote is Nostromo: The front of the house threw off a black long rectangle of shadow

    That’s tin-eared in so many ways. Also while we’re on Conrad, blackness and shadows A great recrudescence of obscurity embraced the boat.

    Well OK somebody like Anthony Burgess likes to throw around obscure words. Never the less I’m sure Burgess reads back his prose in his mind’s ear. Whereas if Conrad ever read back his prose, it would be his Polish mind’s ear, methinks.

  139. Trond Engen says:

    David E. His contrast with “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless” does certainly show that there are very different ways for a sentence to be unacceptable.

    All that sentence needs is some punctuation: “Furiously sleep ideas, green, colorless.” It’s metaphors all the way down, but I could easily see it in, say, a novel about the struggle to achieve a blend but important compromise at a UN environmental summit.

  140. David Eddyshaw says:

    Or

    Furiously, sleep ideas green colourless.

    That is to say, Sleep (very unwillingly) allows one to conceptualise “green” as colourless. To a considerable extent, it’s essentially a question of whether one dreams in colour. That’s how I myself idea the matter, anyhow.

    In any case, it’s clearly more acceptable syntactically than “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” What’s up with that?

  141. January First-of-May says:

    Ever since I’ve seen an essay describing it as such, I keep thinking of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as a pretty good (if mildly poetic) depiction of plant buds.

  142. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed yes: “green idea” = “plant bud” is a particularly happy and natural metaphor; and apparent inactivity hiding vigorous metabolic activity. The definitive interpretation!

    (It’s more than dylan-thomas-acceptable: it’s even carlos-williams-acceptable.)

  143. The definitive interpretation!

    Indeed! I shall bear it in mind for future explications.

  144. John Cowan says:

    I understood the point of the Chomsky Sentence to be a refutation of the behaviorist claim that grammaticality was a matter of collocation, that “He sold me a goat” is grammatical because people say it (or things very like it), whereas “A goat he me sold” (in alphabetical order) is not because people don’t. So Chomsky constructed a sentence which was not only hitherto unheard-of, but all its substrings, like “colorless green” and “green ideas sleep” and so on, were equally unheard-of, yet the whole sentence was grammatical. Neither side of the debate was interested in semantics at all.

    When I walked into my first psychology course in college, the professor began to speak about conditioned learning: we learn what we experience often enough, and when we cease to experience it, we forget it. I raised my hand and asked “Does that mean I only remember my own name because people use it to me fifty times a day?”

    “Well, yes, but —” I got out of my seat and departed that class forever (passing by the administration building where I could formally drop it). My mother afterwards told me that I was lucky to escape from a brush with behaviorism so lightly.

  145. David Eddyshaw says:

    “So you feel we should not anthropomorphise … people?”

    The anti-behaviourist reading would be of a piece with ANC’s fight on the side of the angels in that battle. However, the offending words are from that origo malorum

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syntactic_Structures

    (as I am sure you know.)

  146. AJP Crown says:

    “The editor had Chomsky rename the book Syntactic Structures for commercial purposes.[note 26]”

    …Chomsky had been unwilling to accept the first suggestion, Harry Potter and the Syntactic Structures From Hell.

  147. David Eddyshaw says:

    Probably worried that Voldemort might be taken as a portrait of the artist. The name is (significantly) absent from the Janua Linguarum version.

  148. Stu Clayton says:

    Has anyone considered that even the Devil is only a secondary demon ? There is another, greater Evil behind him. I wouldn*t trouble about Chomsky too much.

  149. David Eddyshaw says:

    You don’t mean …?

  150. Stu Clayton says:

    Yea, the worst is yet to come upon us. Soon. Soon ,,,,

    Unilateral Gnosticism has lead us astray.

    [These random thoughts brought to you as I watch a silly Ridley Scott film “Alien: Covenant”]

  151. David Eddyshaw says:

    Enough said. Perhaps too much …

  152. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ridley Scott is from Stockton-on-Tees. Bleak existential despair is perfectly natural in the circumstances.

  153. Stu Clayton says:

    Bleak existential despair is perfectly natural in the circumstances.

    I can see why:

    # Stockton is known to be the home of the fossilised remains of the most northerly hippopotamus ever discovered on Earth. In 1958, an archeological dig four miles north-west of the town discovered a molar tooth from a hippo dating back 125,000 years ago. However, no-one knows where exactly the tooth was discovered, who discovered it, or why the dig took place. The tooth was sent to the borough’s librarian and curator, G. F. Leighton, who then sent to the Natural History Museum, London. Since then the tooth has been missing, and people are trying to rediscover it.[1][2] #

  154. The tooth will reappear throned in glory in the Last Days.

  155. Trond Engen says:

    So far it’s purely hippopothetical.

  156. David L says:

    Stockton was also one end of the Stockton-to-Darlington railway, the first (1825) passenger-carrying rail line in the world, started by Mr George Stephenson himself. Perhaps he thought to himself, what town can I think of whose inhabitants will be inexpressibly happy to leave at the unprecedented and dizzying pace of 25 miles per hour?

    Although they would have ended up Darlington, so only a modest step up.

  157. It was an illegal hunting souvenir (allegedly)

  158. AJP Crown says:

    Who Will Be Eaten First?

    George Monbiot? George Lakoff? Victor Mair looks very much like the one in the specs and vice versa. George Clooney? George Orwell & George Stephenson have already been eaten.

  159. SFReader says:

    Colorless green ideas eat furiously

  160. Chewed up by the Chompsky. He hid the “p”, but we won’t be deceived by cheap tricks like that. His mad chanting about colourless green ideas is meant to awaken the elder gods. Be afraid! Be very afraid!

  161. Bathrobe says:

    Ok, I’m not overly fond of Chomsky, but the man should be taken a bit more seriously than that.

    My mother afterwards told me that I was lucky to escape from a brush with behaviorism so lightly.

    Behaviourism in moderation is a Good Thing. Taken to the extreme it is ridiculous. Similarly with Chomskyanism. Linguists seem condemned to strive for pure explanations, resulting in one malevolent extremism or another.

  162. I believe in at least one bit of behaviorism. If not forced to fill so many forms so often, I would have happily forgotten my birthday.

  163. Ok, I’m not overly fond of Chomsky, but the man should be taken a bit more seriously than that.
    Don’t worry, I take him more serious when I’m in a less silly mood.

  164. John Cowan says:

    Chewed up by the Chompsky.

    All his relations, I am told, pronounce the name with /x/, and only he and his offspring use /tʃ/. As someone whose surname pronunciation (GOAT > MOUTH) was assigned by my father’s first football coach (his siblings picked it up too), I may not understand, but I do not condemn.

  165. Ok, I’m not overly fond of Chomsky, but the man should be taken a bit more seriously than that.

    I don’t see how you could take him more seriously than suggesting he could awaken the elder gods. If you mean take his ideas seriously, I strongly disagree. Linguistics would be in far better shape if he’d never been born.

  166. All his relations, I am told, pronounce the name with /x/, and only he and his offspring use /tʃ/.

    American relations? I find that very, very hard to believe; it would take video evidence to convince me. Syllables starting with /x/ are simply not part of the English repertoire (leaving aside dialects influenced by Yiddish, German, etc.).

  167. David Eddyshaw says:

    Interesting about Chomsky-with-a-/x/. I Did Not Know That.

    By undermining its scientific methodology, Chomsky has done vastly more harm than good to linguistics. Any actual positive theoretical achievements are far too little to set in the balance against that.

    Such positive achievements are largely discernible only by fellow-cultists. However, I think one can reasonably claim that he is responsible for a huge growth in the attention paid to syntax in modern linguistics.

  168. Much as global warming is responsible for a huge growth in the attention paid to the environment.

  169. Stu Clayton says:

    Would it be accurate to describe him as a huge growth on the body linguistic ?

  170. David Eddyshaw says:

    Similar analogies did occur to me …

    I don’t think it’s quite so straightforward, though (much as I would like it to be …)

    Chomskyans have made worthwhile contributions to the study of syntax: I would be the first to agree that this is in general despite being Chomskyans, rather than because of it. Fas est et ab hoste doceri.

    However, as I say, the value of such contributions is nugatory compared with the damage done by the combination of pseudoscientific methods with the toxic sociological effects of the Chomsky cult in academia.

  171. Stu Clayton says:

    How involved has he been in promoting the actual mathematical excesses ? I often read that a mathematician named Schützenberger worked with him for Syntactic Structures. Maybe it makes no difference: the very Ansatz by itself is an open invitation to whiz kiddies.

  172. David Eddyshaw says:

    JC linked the other day to a paper by Gazdar and Pullum on this not long ago. Syntactic Structures refers to a proof in The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (then unpublished) that it is impossible for finite-state devices to generate all grammatical sentences of English; the proof is invalid, but the job was done.

    EDIT: I think it was in fact this paper:

    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/CreationMyths.pdf

  173. Stu Clayton says:

    # The use of symbols in the SS analysis is promiscuous and occasionally misleading. For example, SS uses no less than 6 competing and inconsistently defined symbols that might be said correspond to the informal notion ‘verb’: Verb, V , v, V1, Va, and V2. The text contradicts itself about several of them. Verb is introduced as a lexical node on p. 28, but is clearly treated as a phrasal node on p. 39. #

    I guess P omitted the “to” in order to show that he’s not promiscuous, but only human.

    It seems as if Ch was in such a hurry to publish that he couldn’t have the MS proofread. Careless typos like that can make a math paper unreadable.

    There can’t be any typos in the MS the bible is based on. Quillos, sure, but not typos.

  174. David Eddyshaw says:

    The final paragraph is interesting in the context of discussing Chomsky’s influence. Pullum, assuredly no Chomskyite, writes:

    SS [Syntactic Structures] is credited with a degree of originality, explicitness, and technical coherence that it does not actually exhibit, but to say that is not to deny that somehow it managed to stimulate other linguists to strive for these virtues. Its effect was catalytic rather than substantive (it contains no results that are defended in detail today). It may be that some will dismiss the foregoing discussion as just a negative book review offered fifty years too late, but in a sense that would underrate the importance of SS. Only in the light of the subsequent developments in linguistics that SS managed to encourage could my evaluation of its content have been undertaken. It would have been very useful for linguists to have access, by about 1960, to a detailed critical review of SS; but the simple fact is that it would have been impossible, because absolutely no linguist at that time could have written it.

  175. David Eddyshaw says:
  176. John Cowan says:

    Well, Khomsky’s parents were immigrants and he has only one sibling, his brother David (and he might have switched as well, who knows). His other relatives, older than he, were probably immigrants as well; it’s from them he got his socialist-anarchist politics.

  177. Stu Clayton says:

    it’s from them he got his socialist-anarchist politics.

    Can’t you imagine that he might have grown out of those influences ? Gone on to more establishment views ? If not, your remark about Ch has a behaviorist touch – once impressed, Forever Amber, you seem to say.

    As you recently related, you once rejected the idea that you might forget the name your parents inculcated in you. You suggested that this amounted to rejecting behaviorism. Does behaviorism impose forgetting for lack of external stimulus? Is it anathema to the Autonomous Subject ? I don’t find that to be so.

  178. John Cowan says:

    Can’t you imagine that he might have grown out of those influences ? Gone on to more establishment views ?

    Certainly. Why not? I don’t understand what point you’re making.

  179. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pullum discusses Chomsky’s statistical error in Syntactic Structures regarding “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” in section 6 of

    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/EACL_Athens.pdf

    It will surprise no Hatter that JC was quite right about what ANC was trying (and failing) to do with this example.

  180. David Eddyshaw says:

    Idly browsing Pullum’s publications on his personal site, I find to my dismay that he has anticipated my revolutionary concept of multidemensional grammatical acceptability:

    I am familiar with this view, naturally. It is basically the one defended at book length by Carson Schūtze (1996): it says that grammaticality is strictly boolean, and only the variable and idiosyncratic data of acceptability judgments exhibit gradience. I believe, on the contrary, that we should give some consideration to a way of formalizing grammars that rejects Schütze’s view, and instead takes the view adumbrated by Howard Lasnik and others (see e.g. Lasnik and Saito, 1984, pp. 266ff; Lasnik, 2004, pp. 219ff): that grammaticality is gradient, probably along several dimensions.

    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/Consigning.pdf

    I’ll not give up the day job just yet, then.

  181. David Eddyshaw says:

    Silly typo in my last post: for ‘multidemensional’, read ‘multidemonsional.’

  182. I say grammaticality is strictly beelzebubean.

  183. John Cowan says:

    Thus spake Noam ‘Asmodeus’ Khomskiy.

    Update: While I don’t remember reading “EACL” before, it is quite unlikely that my adoption of these views are wholly independent of Pullum’s.

    Update^2: I don’t think the Grand Grammaire referenced there was ever published.

  184. David Eddyshaw says:

    I say grammaticality is strictly beelzebubean.

    A monodemonsional model is inadequate: all correct sentences are alike, but every incorrect sentence is incorrect in its own way. Strait is the gate that leadeth to grammaticality.

  185. Spinning Bathrobe says:

    May I ask our esteemed readership a question? Are these sentences “acceptable” to you?

    1. I took with me the three books that there were on the table.

    2. I took with me the three books there were on the table.

    3. I took with me the three books which there were on the table.

  186. Yes, to all three. Unless they are mine and you didn’t ask the permission. Then they none of them is acceptable.

  187. David L says:

    Hmm, I find all those sentences acceptable (2 just barely, for reasons I can’t put my finger on) but none of them very natural. I would say:

    4. I took with me the three books that were on the table

    or, for emphasis,

    5. I took with me the three books that were there on the table.

  188. I have the same reactions as David L.

  189. All three are grammatical but not very likely. David L’s alternatives sound much more natural.

  190. David Eddyshaw says:

    All three fine by me.

  191. PlasticPaddy says:

    1. I took with me the three books that there were on the table.

    2. I took with me the three books there were on the table.

    3. I took with me the three books which there were on the table.
    I think this depends on a mental map for the relative pronouns. To disambiguate using French,
    1. that = QUE- no clash
    2. [] = understood QUE- poor flow
    3. which = QUI/LESQUELS – seems redundant with there, so collision but not absolutely wrong

  192. January First-of-May says:

    I’d say 1>2>3 for acceptability, with 3 definitely going across the line into unacceptable, and 2 just barely acceptable (1 better than 2 but still only barely acceptable).
    If I saw 3 in a text I would probably think it was one of those Early Modern English syntax things.

    I agree with David L about 4 and 5.

     
    There is, of course, another option:

    6. I took with me the three books which were there on the table.

    I think 5 is better than 6 (for reasons similar to what PlasticPaddy is saying), but it’s close. All three of 4-6 would sound natural, all three of 1-3 wouldn’t.

  193. AJP Crown says:

    3. I took with me the three books which there were on the table.

    There were seven books and four were missing. I took with me the three books w̶h̶i̶c̶h̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶e̶r̶e̶ on the table. (or …three books that still were lying on the table.)

    It works for the lazy, rambling, jumbled-up way most people (me) speak half the time. I’d still write ‘that’ not ‘which’.

  194. David Eddyshaw says:

    Continuing my Pullum-browse, I found

    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/Metatheory.pdf

    which, despite its somewhat forbidding title, contains a quite illuminating comparison between the generative approach and Pullum’s preferred “MTS” (for “Model-Theoretic Syntax.”)

    It boils down to a difference between “only what the law allows is permitted” (generative model) and “everything is allowed unless the law forbids it” (MTS), and among other potential advantages MTS gets around the problem that the generative model doesn’t fail gracefully (which is more or less what we’ve been discussing.)

  195. Bathrobe says:

    Thank you for your responses. This is really a bit tangential, but according to a paper called STRANGE RELATIVES OF THE THIRD KIND by Alexander Grosu and Fred Landman (1998), one Greg Carlson claimed in ‘Amount Relatives’ (published in Language 53, 1977) that acceptability status is as follows:

    a. I took with me the three books that/Ø there were on the table.

    b.#I took with me the three books which there were on the table.

    I have problems with all three sentences. They’re clumsy, although I would have to admit that they’re possible.

    Given that they’re all clunky, I’m wondering exactly why the ‘which’ version was pushed outside the bounds of perfect acceptability. Perhaps Greg Carlson (being American) had internalised Fowler’s rule on using ‘that’ for restrictive clauses?

    Of course, if you add ‘all’ the sentence sounds a lot better:

    I took with me all three books that there were on the table.

    And substituting ‘which’ definitely detracts from acceptability:

    I took with me all three books which there were on the table.

    But I don’t understand how you can build a theory on flimsy stuff like this. Perhaps clear logical thinkers like JC, DM, or AntC can enlighten me.

  196. John Cowan says:

    “The statements was interesting, but tough.” I’ll move on to a different Pullum article, praps.

  197. Bathrobe says:

    I find Pullum refreshing because he has a good grasp of the logic and mathematics behind Chomskyan models, something I’m not particularly good at, and something I certainly don’t feel like devoting a significant portion of my life attempting to unravel.

    Reading Chomsky (and I never went past Aspects), I always had the feeling not that I agreed with him (i.e., that he was convincing), but that I had to force my thinking to conform with the categories he set up in order to make sense of what he was saying. What Pullum has is a wonderful ability to take apart the assumptions that Chomsky asserts in his imperious, leaden prose.

  198. But I don’t understand how you can build a theory on flimsy stuff like this.

    Acceptability judgments come before theory: If you already set in your mind a theory to the effect ‘which’ can’t be used in a restrictive context, you’re very likely to find it skewing your judgment of acceptability.

    I believe on this judgment there’s a difference between BrE vs AmE: for me (BrE, never heard of Strunk & White until well after I was confident in my command of written English), restrictive ‘which’ is just as acceptable as ‘that’. It’s the comma that indicates an attributive subclause/the pause in spoken English.

    Those forms with ‘there’ seem rather clunky/old-fashioned to me; I wouldn’t use them myself. I don’t find the form with ‘which’ more clunky.

    There’s a thought experiment from Wittgenstein, something like: pick up a pencil, twirl it round in your fingers, roll it along the desk, tap it, scrape the blunt end along the desk, scuffle it on some paper, …; all the time saying to yourself ‘carrot’, ‘carrot’, ‘carrot’. At some point your mind will reset, that the name for thing you’re holding in your hand is ‘carrot’.

    I think acceptability judgments are like that: they’re so fine-tuned they can be easily overridden; and suggestion from Fowler or S&W is sufficient to sway you.

    … which is a long-winded way to say: I don’t put any store in acceptability judgments. And I think the whole Chomskyan exercise predicated on dividing word-sequences into grammatical vs ungrammatical is bunkum. A grammar is useful as (one of the) tool(s) to get the meaning out of an utterance. Then Chomsky wanting to make syntax autonomous/independent of meaning tells me only the whole enterprise is a waste of decades.

  199. Bathrobe says:

    The “rule” on using “that” for restrictives and “which” for non-restrictives is, of course, a purely opportunistic one.

    It arose because Fowler or S&W (it matters not who), noticed that “which” could be used for either restrictives or non-restrictives while “that” is mostly (although not always) confined to restrictives. So they had a bright idea: “In the interest of clearer English, why not bring about a clear division of labour here: ‘that’ for restrictives and ‘which’ for non-restrictives! Isn’t that much clearer?”

    Well, consistency was not their strong suit: with their narrow stylistic focus they failed to extend their recommendation to all antecedents. So while, in the interest of clarity, they suggested distinguishing between

    The cat that was sitting on the mat

    and

    The cat, which was sitting on the mat,

    they failed to recommend the same distinction for human antecedents:

    The man that was sitting on the mat

    and

    The man, who was sitting on the mat,

    Their recommendation actually betrays ignorance of the larger picture of English grammar.

    Fast-forward to the present day, and we now find that most people who presume themselves to be educated in grammatical and stylistic matters see only a clearcut, simple-minded choice between “which” or “that”, with no inkling of a larger system of relative pronouns/subordinators in English. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

    Nowadays there even appear to be people who go so far as to insist that “that” should not be used for human beings at all; it should be confined to things or animals. If you follow this recommendation to its conclusion, you have no means at all — beyond the use of commas — of distinguishing between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses for human beings:

    The man that was sitting on the mat BAD!

    The man, who was sitting on the mat, ok

    The man who was sitting on the mat ok

    Sigh.

  200. Trond Engen says:

    There’s a similar case in Norwegian with a felt-to-be-important bur mostly bogus distinction between the temporal pronouns da and når as relativizers.

  201. On acceptability judgments, an omission from the (all excellent) links above to Pullum is the response by Neeleman to Pullum’s Model-Theoretic Syntax. It’s Pullum’s response to Neeleman’s response “that grammaticality is [a] gradient, probably along several dimensions.”

    Neeleman has a laboured and patronising explanation in terms of ‘performance limitations’. I agree with Pullum’s assessment this stratagem is “disappointing”. I’d go further and say it renders any linguistic model unfalsifiable.

    Humans don’t produce/can’t understand sentences with 6 levels of embedding? That’s a performance issue, not the fault of the grammar model; arbitrary depth of embedding is still grammatical. Humans have no strict judgments of grammaticality of restrictive vs relative “which”? Well either it’s grammatical or not; it must be a performance issue they give such vague and inconsistent answers.

    And in general: the corpus is inconsistent with the grammar? Must be the corpus is limited by performance factors. This is sounding a lot like the 19thC defence of ‘ether’; or (as Pullum points out) cosmologists appeal to dark matter as ‘explaining’ [not] why their sums don’t work out.

    In fact Generative Grammarians regularly pull this sort of stunt: witness the debate (contra Everett/Pirahã) that all languages exhibit embedding; which has now retreated to something like: embedding is in the mental toolbox of the Language Facility; whether it is actually expressed in some/all languages is irrelevant. Seems there’s an extra defence: if some speakers never produce utterances exhibiting embedding, that must be a performance limitation, not necessarily a feature of the language, we can go ahead and write our grammars with embedding.

    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/mila.12030

  202. Bathrobe says:

    I had to stop at this sentence:

    The human language faculty is of course a computuational device.

    What a breathtaking assertion, brushing aside potential questions with a breezy “of course”.

    I do want to ask Hat a question: when you were professionally copyediting, did you religiously follow the prescription on “that” and “which” in relative clauses?

  203. David Marjanović says:

    dark matter

    Bad example. One purpose of that hypothesis is to explain why galaxies rotate like wheels instead of like whorls, and that, reportedly, is as easily explained by messing with our understanding of gravity a little. But there are others. There’s a galaxy cluster most of whose mass, as seen by gravitational lensing, is not where most of the stars are, which is in the center; this can be explained as a collision, where the stars and gas have slowed each other down due not only to gravity but also to collisions (i.e. electromagnetic repulsion), while the dark matter, ex hypothesi affected only by gravity, has just passed through and continues almost unimpeded. Further evidence that visible and dark matter can separate is provided by two Ultra-Diffuse Galaxies whose mass, as determined again by gravitational lensing, is more or less entirely accounted for by the visible stars and I guess a reasonable estimate for interstellar gas; that is highly unusual. On top of that, there’s a galaxy for which the opposite holds true: it’s much heavier than the visible matter can explain, and much more so than other galaxies.

  204. dark matter

    than the visible matter can explain I think is the key issue, and here I’m trying to remember what Neil deGrasse Tyson says on youtube somewhere [last year IIRC]: I agree current physics can’t explain the observations. Then we can label the difference between theoretically-expected versus observed as ‘dark matter’; we can even attach a number and a position, being the gravitational effect that’s otherwise inexplicable.

    That’s no more than using fancy words/numbers to say ‘our sums don’t work out’. This doesn’t prove the discrepancy is due to ‘matter’ in any sense used currently by cosmologists/physicists. It doesn’t explain how this ‘matter’ was created at the big bang or whenever. It doesn’t say it’s ‘matter’ composed of the welter of so-far identified subatomic particles or their antiparticles/whether it has charge or charm or yadayada.

    Or … perhaps the measurements (observations) are just plain wrong. I note the mass of the universe (and even of our galaxy) gets re-estimated frequently, and by large orders of magnitude differences each time. We can’t see from our solar system’s spiral arm the black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, we’re guessing at its mass by seeing effects bouncing off obliquely; cosmologists seem more sure of the mass of distant galaxies that we can observe looking sideways out our disc. Cosmology is not the sort of science you can conduct experiments; you have to wait for the cosmos to throw up some sort of gravitational belch.

    Ah, also note Pullum’s comment is from 2013. I just can’t remember how ‘dark matter’ was being bandied-about back then.

    I might even say that a so-called explanation in terms of ‘dark matter’ is as much an unfalsifiable tenet as The human language faculty is of course a computational device. (Hopefully cosmologists would have more sense than to say “of course”.)

  205. I had to force my thinking to conform with the categories he set up in order to make sense of what he was saying.

    I will say I don’t know anything about generativism, but isn’t that the case for basically any complex subject one doesn’t understand? Etienne once posted a comment (which I can’t find) in which he mentioned someone being baffled by the ability to use Romance historical linguistics to understand Portuguese without actually having learned Portuguese. Does the unintuitive nature of the way of thinking involved in historical linguistics mean there is something wrong with it?

  206. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pace Geoffrey Pullum, I think “dark matter” is not a pretend solution: it’s a handy label for the problem. “Dark energy” even more so. They’re ways of saying that there are huge questions for which existing theory has no adequate answers yet. Journalists misunderstand this.

    That’s quite different from pseudoscientific dodges whose sole purpose is to avoid having to admit that your theory is untenable (like attributing all failures of prediction to “performance.”) The besetting sin of Chomskyanism is not that it points to huge unanswered questions, but that it claims to have all the answers. (This indeed is the assumption underlying Norbert Hornstein’s The Stupendous Success of the Minimalist Program: everything is now fully accounted for except a few minor details, so all that remains is to see how few assumptions we need while still being able to recreate the whole wonderful Theory of Everything.)

  207. I do want to ask Hat a question: when you were professionally copyediting, did you religiously follow the prescription on “that” and “which” in relative clauses?

    Nope. If it sounded bad to me, I changed it; otherwise I left it alone.

  208. Bathrobe says:

    isn’t that the case for basically any complex subject one doesn’t understand?

    You’ve got me there. Possibly, but the problem with Chomsky is that his explanations sound like the imposition of a world view rather than an explanation. For instance, if I remember rightly (which is highly doubtful, but even if the details are wrong the principle is correct), Chomsky has said that when cats and people grow up in the same household, only the people learn language. Therefore human beings have a hard-wired Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in their heads that cats don’t. (Perhaps he didn’t state it so baldly, but shorn of all his hedging that is what he appears to be saying.)

    Sounds logical and reasonable, but it’s actually very Chomskyan. The concept seems to have come out of his head rather than actual research. His ideas seem to reflect the view that that’s the way things must be, a belief in the possibility of reaching a perfect description of language through the sheer power of thought and abstract reasoning.

    That is why he is so fixated on ‘competence’, the innate knowledge of language in a person’s head, rather than ‘performance’, the way language actually emerges. Initially ‘performance’ was simply meant to filter out the mistakes, corrections, etc. of language in action and describe people’s idealised grammars. Later the concept seems to have taken on a life of its own to become an explanation why people don’t find ‘grammatical sentences’ (according to Chomskyan grammar) acceptable. Their brains are not capable of ensuring that their linguistic performance matches the theoretical competence they have in their heads. In my view, that is a really back-to-front way of looking at language.

    I think the opposing view to Chomsky’s LAD is that the ability to use language is something of an emergent property, a combination (or coordination) of different capabilities that exist within the brain (and maybe the physiology) that happen to allow human beings to learn and speak languages. Chomsky doesn’t appear to like this alternative, possibly because he is so in love with his own abstractions.

    Sorry I can’t be more convincing but that is how I see it.

  209. AJP Crown says:

    If it sounded bad to me, I changed it; otherwise I left it alone.
    Thank God there are people what have this attitude. I haven’t the foggiest what the rule is but I know when ‘that’ or ‘which’ sounds off to me, and that’s all I require. I don’t need rules, even ones I’d agree with.

  210. But what happens if your judgement disagrees with somebody else’s judgement?

  211. Bathrobe says:

    But what happens if your judgement disagrees with somebody else’s judgement?

    The classic way of explaining it is to say you have different ‘idiolects’. That is, everyone has a slightly different grammar.

    And, of course, as has been pointed out a number of times in this thread, it’s perhaps better to consider grammaticality as a cline. That means the borders are fuzzy, so finer judgements might differ.

    (We are not considering prescriptivists who make judgements of grammaticality based on certain ‘grammatical rules’ rather than how language is actually used.)

  212. But what happens if your judgement disagrees with somebody else’s judgement?

    What Bathrobe said, but if you’re asking specifically about my editorial judgement: I’m the one who’s getting paid to make the call, so screw ’em.

  213. That means the borders are fuzzy, so finer judgements might differ.

    And that’s what makes the question interesting. Why do they differ? I am not expecting an answer. I am pointing out that we do not have them.

  214. What answer could there be beyond “different people are different”?

  215. Bathrobe says:

    Generative grammar has always been very interested in probing how far grammaticality can be pushed, in order to probe for the rules that produce well-formed sentences in language. They are interested in how far recursivity can be pushed, etc., which can get very tedious and counterproductive, because the more you repeat a marginal sentence, the better it sounds.

    If you don’t believe in an overarching “Theory of Everything”, you might be content to believe that what is correct and what is not partly depends on what people are used to. Grammar might not be a single coherent system; it could be a set of different systems with messy edges and overlaps. Some things just aren’t said — although if people say them enough they might gain currency and become part of the language.

    Perhaps I am not adventurous or curious enough to go out on limbs like that. Climbing out on a limb to determine exactly when it will break and under what conditions is only interesting up to a point. Maybe useful if you like climbing trees but not necessarily if you’re interested in the life of trees.

  216. What answer could there be beyond “different people are different”?

    How do I know? They’ve read different books, they intellectual interests are in different fields, they pay different amount of attention to what other people think, some have a better ear for language and feel fine distinctions where for others it’s just a big blur, it depends on your family and neighborhood, acceptability judgments in borderline areas are inherently unstable and the same people can have different judgments at different moments.

    And finally, it depends on so many interacting factors that there is nothing more than to say “different people are different”. But I don’t think we should default to this conclusion right away.

    The thing is, there are “rules” = coherent statements about language with which overwhelming majority of speakers “complies” in the vast majority of cases. Then some of those “rules” are sort of working, but not as well. Why? Worth exploring, in my view.

  217. Fair enough, but I suspect you’ve outlined the answer yourself:

    They’ve read different books, they intellectual interests are in different fields, they pay different amount of attention to what other people think, some have a better ear for language and feel fine distinctions where for others it’s just a big blur, it depends on your family and neighborhood, acceptability judgments in borderline areas are inherently unstable and the same people can have different judgments at different moments.

  218. J.W. Brewer says:

    One thing about the sort of “how far can we push recursivity” sort of examples is that they reflect a mindset that insists on a sharp division between “grammar” in the sense of syntax and everything else (pragmatics, sociolinguistics, etc) that influences how grammatical sentences are and aren’t used in actual practice. “Performance” and failures thereof is not only a characteristic of speakers/writers but of listeners/readers and the more syntactically complex an utterance becomes, the more cognitively demanding it is for the listener/reader to figure it out and different listeners/readers will hit the limit of either their ability or their actual willingness to do so at different points. (Oftentimes that point will be in a different location for reading than for listening.) On the other hand, the “performance” capacity of listeners/readers is often so good in the other direction that when the speaker/writer makes a performance error (produces a sentence we would judge ungrammatical if our attention was focused on it as a proposed example sentence) we don’t even notice because we subconsciously replace the defective sentence with a corrected version that is probably what the speaker/writer intended and keep moving forward from there.

    Even the notion of “idiolect” may have different boundaries for speaking v listening (and parallel for writing v reading). Consider register. There are quite a lot of AmEng native speakers who cannot themselves get the most formal register of the language right and if they try they will fall into comical errors and hypercorrection. But they can understand it reasonably well, and *maybe* (this is where I’d be interested in seeing some rigorous research) notice (at least in a vague, that doesn’t sound quite right way) if someone speaking in the formal register slips up and violates the specific grammatical rules of that variety. And the same in the other direction — people not fluent in a given non-prestige variety of AmEng (whether a variety marked by region, race/ethnicity, or class) will often get it comically wrong if trying to imitate it even if they can generally understand that variety perfectly well when they hear it spoken by someone fluent in it. And again it would be interesting to see research on whether they’d notice if someone speaking that variety started making errors within that variety’s own grammar. And maybe the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no — e.g. the standard account of AAVE grammar provides that copula deletion is okay (maybe even mandatory?) in some contexts but not others, but because the contrast drawn is not one that is explicitly marked in many other varieties of English, if someone speaking otherwise plausible-sounding AAVE got that rule wrong and just omitted/included copulas (copulae?) at random, an outsider might not notice.

  219. AJP Crown says:

    D.O. But what happens if your judgement disagrees with somebody else’s judgement?

    D.O. acceptability judgments in borderline areas are inherently unstable and the same people can have different judgments at different moments.

    Q.E.D.

  220. Stu Clayton says:

    The more J.W. Brewer expands on their (?) views about linguistic phenomena, the more I find myself in agreement with them [referent ?]. It’s a pity that those views have an air of common sense about them, since to exercise common sense is no longer generally acknowledged as being only common sense.

  221. ktschwarz says:

    J.W. Brewer:

    the “performance” capacity of listeners/readers is often so good in the other direction that when the speaker/writer makes a performance error (produces a sentence we would judge ungrammatical if our attention was focused on it as a proposed example sentence) we don’t even notice because we subconsciously replace the defective sentence with a corrected version that is probably what the speaker/writer intended and keep moving forward from there.

    That deserves underlining! (Though we can quibble about whether we literally “replace the defective sentence” or simply jump straight to the interpretation.) For example, take so-called “dangling modifiers”. Arnold Zwicky has written a lot about how they are easily interpreted when their missing subject is already topical in the discourse. His most recent post:

    TIL [Today I Learned] Due to their reclusive nature, scientists are unsure how long a pangolin lives in the wild.

    No context, you have to fall back on the default Subject Rule, and that gives you reclusive pangolinists, solidly.

    But suppose Z4.87 is in a news report headed something like “New Evidence About the Endangered Pangolin”; then the pangolins would be discourse-topical and the scientists would be backgrounded, and, whizzo, Z4.87 gets a whole lot better (even with the difference in grammatical number between their and a pangolin).

    It’s the miracle of context.

    Or consider misnegations, and how rarely they’re noticed. So much of our understanding of language comes from shared context, overriding grammatical composition.

  222. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Innit.

  223. J.W. Brewer says:

    Uh oh. Do I need to get one of those “my pronouns are …” stickers on my lapel? Stu and others should feel free to use conventionally masculine pronouns in referring to me w/o risk of giving offense. For whatever reason I got into the habit a dozen or more years ago of posting here and at language log with initials rather than my full name but it is not actually a state secret that my baptismal name is John. (Not saying that using other pronouns would actually create offense rather than amusement, necessarily.)

  224. David Marjanović says:

    I think “dark matter” is not a pretend solution: it’s a handy label for the problem. “Dark energy” even more so.

    Dark energy is definitely a label for a problem.

    Dark matter, though, is a label for a set of problems that can be, to general surprise, be seen as the same problem. There wasn’t any reason to think the wheel-like rotation of most galaxies and the gravitation lenses next to the Bullet Cluster could be explained the same way, and yet there it is – I haven’t presented the math because I don’t understand it and haven’t seen it, but it has of course been done.

    That has at the very least the potential to be a great breakthrough like the insight that electricity and magnetism are sides of the same coin, or that matter for the purposes of gravity and matter for the purposes of inertia are identical.

    The occasional speculations about what dark matter is are another issue. The particles predicted by the theory of supersymmetry would have been good candidates, but so far they’re not showing up in the LHC.

    What answer could there be beyond “different people are different”?

    Specifically, different people infer different grammars from the input they get when they learn their native language(s). That’s also an important mechanism of language change.

  225. Bathrobe says:

    Thanks to J.W.Brewer, ktschwarz, and David Marjanović for coming through with interesting responses to D.O.’s question.

    J.W.Brewer’s comments make sense, but I wonder how you would actually test this? Pushing native speakers into making judgements on more and more precarious grammatical structures (as generativists are wont to do) doesn’t seem likely to produce clean results because it involves bombarding the poor informant with constant suggestions, with eventual confusion (and possible impatience) about what exactly is acceptable.

    And as is well known, the knowledge that you are being observed or tested can alter people’s responses. I’m reminded of m-l’s comments early in this thread (21 Nov 2017) about the potentially poor samples of Kathlamet:

    One problem with tales collected before tape-recorders or other means of recording speech in real time is that when someone is speaking slowly in order for someone else to write everything down, the speaker is probably going to simplify their speech, especially in the narrative portions, which will consist or short, apparently simple sentences which the recording person will also repeat to the speaker to make sure the words are right. In such cases, possible subtleties tend to be avoided, and to disappear both from the original language and the translation.

    David M’s comment:

    Specifically, different people infer different grammars from the input they get when they learn their native language(s). That’s also an important mechanism of language change.

    is backed up by research into linguistic change but it doesn’t scratch the itch of generativists to find out how far recursion can be pushed.

  226. J.W. Brewer:

    One thing about the sort of “how far can we push recursivity” sort of examples is that they reflect a mindset that insists on a sharp division between “grammar” in the sense of syntax and everything else (pragmatics, sociolinguistics, etc) that influences how grammatical sentences are and aren’t used in actual practice.

    I actually think that the Chomskyan distinction between “grammaticality” as a purely syntactic property, and issues of semantics and pragmatics related to whether something is meaningful and comprehensible, is a pretty accurate description of how my brain interprets sentences. There is probably no level of recursion, for example, that would make a statement ungrammatical or “unacceptable.” It might make it incomprehensible (or at least inelegant), meaning that it is not useful for communicative purposes, but that is, in my mind, a separate issue. I am sure that not everyone thinks about grammaticality judgements this way, and I may be vastly in the minority on this question in practice. However, I am also sure that I am not unique in this regard; I am just far to one side (along one particular axis) of the multidimensional distribution space of individual internal grammars.

    Separately, on the subject of dark matter: It is by far the most parsimonious explanation for the behavior of matter on galactic and cluster scales that the predominant component of matter in the universe (“matter” meaning stuff that gravitates conventionally and thus naturally clumps around galaxies and similar structures where there is other matter to attract it). It explains gravitational rotation structure and gravitation lensing in many, many different situations. As for the objection that it is not explained by our current understanding of particle physics, that is a red herring. A stable, heavy elementary particle that only interacts through the gravitational and (maybe) weak interactions is simply not something that we would expect to have observed directly! In fact, the fact that the dark matter particle(s) interact so minimally is a large part of why they would have survived since the early days of the universe. There is nothing special about the energy scales that are currently accessible to us, and there is no reason to believe that there not (and, in fact, every reason to believe there are) elementary particles that are much more massive than the roughly electroweak scales at which recent generations of accelerators have operated.

  227. Bathrobe says:

    However, I am also sure that I am not unique in this regard; I am just far to one side (along one particular axis) of the multidimensional distribution space of individual internal grammars.

    To the extent that everyone thinks of what word to fit into what sentence, this is a truism. But how many historical epochs and cultures are you taking into account in making this sweeping statement about this particular conceptualisation of language?

    China around 200 BC? Yupik culture in the 12th century? Kusaal speakers in the 1800s? Kannada speakers in the 5th century?

    Sanskrit did have a genius who algorithmorised the language so it’s not unique to Western culture in the 20th-21st centuries, but still….

  228. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kusaal speakers in the 1800s

    It’s not inconceivable.

    On the one hand, Kusaasi have strong notions about correct speech: for example, my middle-aged informants quite often complained about the incorrect grammar of the young (which I suspect of being a human universal) or constructions that they thought were Mooré rather than proper Kusaal.

    On the other, Kusaal just loves multiple layers of embedding and recursion, even in quite informal styles.

    So the ingredients are present, at any rate, for a nineteenth-century Kusaasi A-Brett.

  229. @Bathrobe: I’m afraid I don’t understand what you are asking.

  230. I actually think that the Chomskyan distinction between “grammaticality” as a purely syntactic property, and issues of semantics and pragmatics related to whether something is meaningful and comprehensible, is a pretty accurate description of how my brain interprets sentences.

    @Brett I think you should tape yourself talking informally/un-selfconsciously (if possible) in conversation with others; and observe how often you’re perfectly well able to understand less-than-grammatical utterances; and how often you even echo back the same structures for sake of keeping the conversation going, without gagging at the prospect.

    OK after the fact you might say some utterance is ungrammatical, but I suspect that’s your rule-based side of the brain analysing language, not performing it/not interpreting in real time. You should read the Pullum MTS paper, particularly section 4.2 ‘Gradience of Ungrammaticality’ and sections following.

    I’m very much reminded of the musical theory drummed into me at school. And then the be-bop jazz that clearly broke all the ‘rules’ but entirely works as music. I then go back in history to find that Bach was criticised in his day for breaking rules; indeed the Cathedral committee several times docked his pay for introducing too much opulence into the Lutheran churches. His response? Listen to the overture of the St John Passion: just when you think it can’t get any more dissonant he heaps on another plangent discord in the high woodwind. Of course he knew all the rules and was perfectly well aware what he was doing. An artist’s reply to just criticism: up yours!

  231. @AntC: The main point is was trying to make was that I would never judge an utterance (or written text) to be ungrammatical because of a pragmatic statement that it was unintelligible. The converse (that I would never judge an intelligible but syntactically ill-formed statement grammatical) is probably not quite true. I do notice lots of slightly ungrammatical statements that do not impair my ability to communicate (in standard English; in certain areas of AAVE or in German, my internal parser is not nearly so well trained, and I have to rely much more on pragmatics to guide me on grammaticality). However, some undoubtedly slip by me, although I would catch almost all of them if I had time to examine the wording more closely.

    Of course, this would violate the experimental conditions you suggested, but that is actually key to my point. My perception of grammaticality is not necessarily based on snap judgements. Naturally, the vast majority of the time, I can decide almost instantaneously whether something is grammatical. However, if I read or heard something with too many layers of embedding for my low-level parser to decode it immediately, I would withhold judgement until if and when I had a chance to examine the wording more carefully. (Something like this applies to judgements in pragmatics too. Just because I do not comprehend something the first time I hear it, that does not mean it was unintelligible or “wrong.”. And everyone agrees with that.)

    Finally, I should point out that I have consistently asserted that grammaticality judgements should be scalar, not binary. There are plenty of borderline ways of phrasing things for which my idiolect is insufficiently trained to provide a clear-cut grammatical judgement. There are a lot of inductively learned rules, and it is possible to construct sentences in which they seem to conflict. This is, however, a different phenomenon from my not having yet reached a decision about grammaticality (due to insufficient time to parse something), as described above. However, to cycle back around to my original point, I do not think I would ever decide that grammaticality was uncertain because the syntax was too complicated to be comprehensible.

  232. @Brett did you try my suggested experiment? Or read those suggested sections? Or am I to take your remarks as unburdened by evidence.

    You seem to be talking only about the inside of your head. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    I have consistently asserted that grammaticality judgements should be scalar, not binary. Then you need to stop regurgitating Chomskyanism. Those Pullum sections provide plenty of explanations for why acceptability judgments are a gradient and multi-dimensional; and for why judgments differ between speakers and differ for the same speaker in different contexts.

  233. Bathrobe says:

    @ Brett

    I actually think that the Chomskyan distinction between “grammaticality” as a purely syntactic property, and issues of semantics and pragmatics related to whether something is meaningful and comprehensible, is a pretty accurate description of how my brain interprets sentences…. I am also sure that I am not unique in this regard; I am just far to one side (along one particular axis) of the multidimensional distribution space of individual internal grammars.

    If I want to be clear, I guess I have to say I found your picture of how language works parochial. If you look into how other cultures or traditions I suspect you will find plenty where that particular envisioning of the process doesn’t exist at all. For instance, I’m not sure the ancient Chinese saw language as divided into syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. They might have been concerned with choosing the right word for the situation or choosing the right character, or choosing the right word for rhyming in poetry, or using the right quote from ancient works, or using the right appellation in addressing a person, but I’m not so sure that they envisaged this is a syntactic process, with semantics and pragmatics assigned to the role of deciding “whether something is meaningful and comprehensible”.

    I threw in Yupik because that was an unwritten culture and I’m even more sceptical that they saw language that way. Of course people are always concerned with word choices, but I suspect that many other considerations were equally important. And in saying this, I’m not implying that some languages or cultures are too “primitive” to embrace such conceptions. In any language, it seems to me that many other factors (such as stylistic or social appropriateness) are more likely to enter into play than a mental model of language divided into syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

  234. PlasticPaddy says:

    @antc, bathrobe, brett
    I think this may be a matter of terms. Acceptability and grammaticality are not necessarily the same thing. I would have thought grammaticality represents purely syntactic elements of acceptability and is a theoretical, rule-based judgment. It is true that there are fuzzy or overlapping/contradictory rules which result in many borderline cases, especially for “unnatural” constructed examples.

  235. Bathrobe says:

    Acceptability and grammaticality are not necessarily the same thing.

    That is the point of the discussion. In most disciplines, my understanding is that if a theory doesn’t properly predict the outcome, you have to modify the theory. Under Chomskyanism, you just discard the outcome and hide behind terms like “grammatical but unacceptable” or “grammatical but for performance issues”.

    Chomskyanism is not a theory dealing in objective phenomena like physics or chemistry; it claims to deal with something considerably more elusive, the human mind. More specifically the language ability, for which it claims to be closing in on “universals”. How seriously can you take such a theory if it dismisses something that doesn’t fit it as a problem with the object under study?

    “According to our theory, the paramecium should be able to fly through the air at the rate of 1 metre per day. We’ve never found a paramecium that can do that, but that’s a problem with the paramecium, not with our theory.” (Sorry, a rather ridiculous parallel, but that’s how Chomskyanism strikes me.)

  236. @AntC: I have indeed read Pullum’s paper (which I basically agree with, in the main). I also explained the reasons why your suggested experiment was not really germane to what I was talking about.

    @Bathrobe: None of what you say about other languages seems to have any relevance to my introspective conclusions about how I judge grammaticality of my native American English.

    Both you appear to be so accustomed to debating with orthodox adherents of Chomsky’s theories that you have failed to recognize that I was trying to express a somewhat different observation. This seems to leaves you arguing against an apparition—a viewpoint that is not present either in what I said or what I believe. I was not “regurgitating Chomskyanism,” and I tried to make it clear that the way I process grammaticality was not universal at all. In fact, the observation that I do think of grammatical correctness in something rather like the way Chomsky suggested actually shows how applying pure introspective analysis could have led Chomsky and others to mistaken conclusions about the ultimate nature of grammatical evaluation. For someone like Chomsky, who presumably has a rather algebraic turn of mind, the rule-based way he described judgements of correctness might have been reasonably accurate (in the abstract; in practice, the rule set was always too spare to reflect real processing). But there is a fundamental error in the Chomskyan presumption that everyone makes those judgements in the same way.

  237. David Eddyshaw says:

    accustomed to debating with orthodox adherents of Chomsky’s theories

    Sadly, we seem to have frightened them all away from the Hattery. I’d actually quite like to see some contributions by clued-up paid-up Chomskyites now and again, because I like beautiful reductionist theories on aesthetic grounds even when I don’t actually believe them at all, and moreover I might actually learn something.

    I’m sure we could all be polite. Perhaps the orthodox C-folk just think we’re incorrigible. Or maybe they all hang out together on some parallel-universe Antihattery (like that episode in Star Trek where they’re all evil and carry swords and Spock has a beard.)

  238. Trond Engen says:

    We define grammar differently. That’s because we still haven’t decided exactly what grammar is. And I think that boils down to the uncomfortable fact that grammar doesn’t really exist. Grammar is whatever our hyperefficient patternfinder makes out to constitute a system, or at least a set of partly integrated subsystems. All a grammarian can do is to describe widely agreed interpretations of patterns in a general and fairly coherent manner.

  239. David Marjanović says:

    some parallel-universe Antihattery

    Here it is! …And I see I should leave a comment on the latest post, though I don’t think it’ll affect the point.

    grammar doesn’t really exist

    I think you have a point.

  240. Bathrobe says:

    None of what you say about other languages seems to have any relevance to my introspective conclusions about how I judge grammaticality of my native American English.

    I’m not accustomed to debating with generativists and I didn’t regard you as one. But yours represents a fairly orthodox modern linguists’ view of language, not purely Chomskyan, I might add, and you did appear parochial in presenting it as you did.

    However, I take your point that what you said perhaps illustrates how “applying pure introspective analysis could have led Chomsky and others to mistaken conclusions about the ultimate nature of grammatical evaluation”.

    @ David M

    Yes, I’ve peeked into that parallel-universe Hattery, and I found it a dreary, parochial, masturbatory sort of place. You are very brave trying to engage with these people — in fact, the only other one at that post was spam from a translation service. Unlike Pullum, I could never debate with them on any terms because we don’t speak the same language or share the same interests.

    @ Trond Engen

    All a grammarian can do is to describe widely agreed interpretations of patterns in a general and fairly coherent manner.

    Linguistics!

  241. Bathrobe says:

    @ David M

    Oops, there were two other comments. And it’s all about “recursion, recursion, recursion”.

  242. John Cowan says:

    “Nobody can make a grammaticality judgement except a grammar theorist; the rest of us can only make acceptability judgments.” —me

  243. David Marjanović says:

    You are very brave trying to engage with these people —

    No, all I did was pick a nit. I think it’s unrelated to the post’s point; we’ll see if it is, I suppose.

    In the vast majority of discussions there, I’m completely unable to participate because I’ve simply never learned the theory/terminology. I haven’t even understood Merge, and presently have no interest in learning it.

  244. Holy pseudoscientific fabulising! I retract all the aspersions I cast on cosmologists. To build on J.K.Galbraith: Economic Forecasting was invented to make Astrology look respectable. The Language Faculty was invented to make Economic Forecasting look respectable.

    Following a few links from David M’s AntiHattery got me to Berwick & Chomsky 2019 ‘All or nothing: No half-Merge and the evolution of syntax’

    we both agree that it is important to determine how Merge is implemented in the brain. In …, we advance a specific proposal about this neural “wiring,” grounded on recent explicit neurological and comparative primate findings

    an explicit proposal about the use of content-addressable memory, as this sort of memory is often considered more congenial with known neuroscience

    it would be important to discover the long evolutionary history that preceded the appearance of Merge.

    That appears to mean primate/human evolutionary history. I hope anthropologists are busy analysing DNA to find the Merge gene.

    This is utterly unfalsifiable metaphysical claptrap. ‘Merge’ might or might not be a effective/efficient rule or syntactic mechanism with descriptive power in some model of syntax. There’s no possible evidence humans use such a rule, or any rule; indeed there’s no evidence humans’ mental processes are effective/efficient or use high-level rationalisations. All the evidence about language-processing performance suggests quite the opposite.

    Breathtakingly stupid!

  245. Spinning Bathrobe says:

    David, I don’t think anyone’s going to read your comment. The spam keeps building up and nobody seems to ever clean it out, suggesting that no one is looking.

    Merge appears to be central to Chomsky’s Minimalist Theory. It has its own Wikipedia article, which is as opaque as all hell but gives an idea what Chomsky is going on about.

    Merge is commonly seen as merging smaller constituents to greater constituents until the greatest constituent, the sentence, is reached. This bottom-up view of structure generation is rejected by representational (non-derivational) theories (e.g. Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Lexical Functional Grammar, most dependency grammars, etc.), and it is contrary to early work in Transformational Grammar. The phrase structure rules of context free grammar, for instance, were generating sentence structure top down.

    Does the Little End come first or the Big End come first? Could Norbert or someone come along and explain exactly what the fuss is all about?

  246. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I looked at WP. Takeaway: Merge is an ordered pair, and MP syntax is the theory of ordered binary trees.

  247. David Eddyshaw says:

    The interesting thing about the whole Chomsky shtick is how a whole set of ideas, which as AntC rightly says, appear prima facie ludicrous, have been and continue to be aggressively promoted by a great many people who are plainly neither stupid nor operating in bad faith. While it’s all too tempting to suggest that the issue is more psychological and sociological than linguistic, I’m always easier in my mind if I can understand how clever people got that way, and the very fact that the system seems obviously flawed makes me wonder if I’ve missed something significant. I’m prepared to entertain the idea, anyhow …

    (There’s an analogy with my work: I get quite a lot of referrals for sight-threatening disease which – happily – turn out to be false alarms. But I’m always happier to come to this conclusion when I can identify some real abnormality which the referrer has misinterpreted, rather than when I can see no actual abnormality at all.)

  248. John Cowan says:

    I’ve always assumed it was the Emperor’s New Clothes.

  249. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suspect you’re right. But I can dream …

  250. @David Eddyshaw: I think it’s easy to underestimate how bad the psychological understanding of language (among other things) was when Chomsky started working. The behaviorists were overwhelmingly in control of the field, and most of their ideas about language were just as over-broad and obviously false as Chomsky’s. Both Skinner and Chomsky started with interesting and not useless ideas that offered new ways to look at cognition. When scientists saw those ideas, they recognized that they contained germs of usefulness; at the very least, they offered new lenses through which certain forms of learning could be studied, and those lenses seemed potentially useful in precisely the areas where the previous paradigms of understanding had been failures. However, both sets of ideas were quickly applied far beyond the regimes where they might be useful, and they both developed collections of rote followers who looked upon the respective theories’ tenets as fundamental principles, rather than phenomenalistic descriptions of observed behavior.

    I saw the remnants of the mid-century behaviorist hegemony when I was taking classes in animal and human psychology in the 1990s. There were occasional points in the discussion when the instructors would spend what seemed like inordinate amounts of time dealing with peculiar objections and explaining the experimental basis for being sure that certain alternative explanations for given phenomena could not be correct. I found myself wondering why it was felt to be necessary to rebut some of these other theories, which, quite frankly, seemed fairly bizarre at times; and I had a hard time conceiving of why anybody would ever have believed in them so strongly that they needed such careful, point-by-point rebuttals. Yet, decades earlier, when the actual experimental work in question was being done, established scientists really had made those objections, sometimes quite forcefully, and the basis of the objections was usually some point of behaviorist orthodoxy. Sometimes I thought our class time could have been better spent looking at other potential problems with the experimental conclusions—such as objections predicated on a modern ethological understanding of the evolutionary origins of behaviors.

  251. David Eddyshaw says:

    Makes sense (and I’ve noticed this same brush-clearing in textbooks in other fields, where apparently disproportionate time seems to be spent on demolishing theories you didn’t realise that anyone had actually held.)

    Classic Bloomfieldian structuralism actually did have some pretty odd theoretical dimensions (all those bits one scoots over quickly at the beginning of Language before you get into Bloomfield being Bloomfield …) Not altogether unlike behaviourism …

    And the classic structuralist descriptions really didn’t do justice to syntax: it’s still disappointing how it’s skated over or even ignored altogether in otherwise wonderful work from the first half of the 20th century, and later. I think this refocusing can reasonably be ascribed to Chomsky’s pseudorevolution, even though lasting contributions directly made by him and his epigones are so – unimpressive.

    I think your insight is right regarding our internal grammars, by the way: we do have separate intuitions of grammatical correctness and performance limitations, and I don’t believe this is just part of internalising a modern Western concept of “grammar.” Chomsky is not obviously wrong in distinguishing the two: it’s the use he makes of the distinction that is problematic.

  252. Bathrobe says:

    we do have separate intuitions of grammatical correctness and performance limitations

    I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this.

    Much more common in my experience is where a language learner (e.g. me) says something that seems completely grammatical, and the teacher says “We could say it like that but we don’t”.

    I remember one seminar in my MA course in Japan, with foreign and Japanese participants, where a bright foreign student produced the following sentence in response to the lecturer’s request to express sadness over an empty wallet in idiomatic Japanese:

    Karappo-na saifu de kanashinde iru
    “Empty wallet at grieving be.”

    The correct form was:

    Saifu-ga karappo de kanashii
    “Wallet empty being [I’m] sad.”

    The first is grammatically possible; the second is idiomatic. I assume this isn’t very interesting in the hunt for limits on recursion.

  253. we do have separate intuitions of grammatical correctness and performance limitations,

    ‘We’ being literate commenters on language blogs? Over the history of language use, most societies have been non-literate, even with widespread literacy most people don’t study grammar. I suspect they’d be unable to distinguish ‘grammatical’ vs the the rules of peevery drummed into them at school — or the idiomatics @Bathrobe mentions.

    In my experience E2L learners know far more explicit grammar than the person on the Clapham omnibus. The bus-rider would be more likely to say “that’s hard to follow” or “we don’t say it like that” or think: that’s a furriner/that’s some high-fallutin’ intellectual.

    I don’t think I had a notion of specifically grammatical correctness until I studied Latin, which the Latin master took as an opportunity to tell us a) what a degenerate language English is; and b) how nobody teaches English grammar any more, so he had to do that (in particular teach how to parse) before he could teach us how to ‘translate’ cases, person, gender agreement, etc. He was an adamant peever against the split infinitive; but not against ‘passive voice’ — indeed he was keen we should understand what is a passive vs what appears to be but isn’t, in English. This by the way was at a ‘Grammar School’ half a century ago.

  254. Bathrobe says:

    Britannica has an article on Chomskyan thought called Rule systems in Chomskyan theories of language.

    Interestingly, it has this to say:

    As suggested earlier, UG, or the language faculty narrowly understood (FLN), may consist entirely of Merge and perhaps some parameters specific to language. This raises the question of what the biological basis of FLN must be. What distinctive fact of human biology, or the human genome, makes FLN unique to humans? In a 2005 article, “Three Factors in Language Design,” Chomsky pointed out that there is more to organic development and growth than biological (genomic) specification and environmental input. A third factor is general conditions on growth resulting from restrictions on possible physical structures and restrictions on data analysis, including those that might figure in computational systems (such as language). For example, a bee’s genome does not have to direct it to build hives in a hexagonal lattice. The lattice is a requirement imposed by physics, since this structure is the most stable and efficient of the relevant sort. Analogous points can be made about the growth, structure, and operation of the human brain. If the parameters of UG are not specified by the language-specific parts of the human genome but are instead the result of third factors, the only language-specific information that the genome would need to carry is an instruction set for producing a single principle, Merge (which takes external and internal forms). And if this is the case, then the appearance of language could have been brought about by a single genetic mutation in a single individual, so long as that mutation were transmissible to progeny. Obviously, the relevant genes would provide great advantages to any human who possessed them. A saltational account such as this has some evidence behind it: 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, humans began to observe the heavens, to draw and paint, to wonder, and to develop explanations of natural phenomena—and the migration from Africa began. Plausibly, the introduction of the computational system of language led to this remarkable cognitive awakening.

    I will leave it to the reader to decide what to make of this.

  255. David Marjanović says:

    Fair enough, but still largely too abstract to be testable. And the timing depends on a very sporadic fossil record; to the factor of 2 between earliest and latest dates, we should add at least another. (50,000 is way too late.)

    Also… there had been several prior migrations from Africa…

  256. David Eddyshaw says:

    @AntC:

    It’s not necessary to call it grammatical correctness in order to have a feeling for it. In Kusaal, a language in which few people are literate, and for which there is no established grammatical tradition at all, all informants will nevertheless say without hesitation that la na’ab kpiya is impossible for “the chief has died”, which must be na’ab la kpiya. That is surely based on a grammatical intuition, unless one is a true-believer behaviourist who disbelieves in any kind of intuition ex hypothesi. The fact that they wouldn’t call it a grammatical intuition is neither here nor there.

    In contrast, in Kusaal as in English it’s easy to make up sentences involving multiple layers of recursion which in practice exceed anybody’s likely processing capacity. My limited experience with trying out such things on informants (not a very fruitful exercise in trying to discover the grammar) is that they dither about acceptability just as English-speaking informants do.

    It’s certainly true that we have no direct access to other people’s grammatical intuitions, and can even make mistakes about our own, so at the end of the day the actual process of working out a grammar does in fact proceed by analysing (speech) behaviour. In that sense, whether people do have an I-language is in principle irrelevant. That doesn’t entail the conclusion that it is just an illusion engendered by formal grammatical education.

    Perhaps people actually differ in this regard. I remember an old music teacher, surprised at my hopelessness at sight-reading, asking if I didn’t hear a voice speaking the words when I read ordinary text, and being obviously astonished when I said that I didn’t. Brett and I both have such a strong sense that we possess an I-language that it seems obvious: you and Bathrobe evidently don’t. And we’re all linguistically sophisticated Hatters, so that can’t be the distinguishing feature.

    I will leave it to the reader to decide what to make of this

    ANC seems very taken with this idea of single mutation producing language. As I’m not the first to point out, this implies the scenario that language-users conquered the human world after one family acquired the power of presumably very rudimentary speech (but only with one parent, and half the siblings.) It’s natural for a linguist to daydream that superior linguistic ability makes you irresistible to the opposite sex, I guess …

  257. David Eddyshaw says:

    A less exotic example: no native English speaker says “I am owning a car”, even though it is perfectly comprehensible. This cannot possibly be because of traditional grammar teaching, because the explanation has never been touched on in the sort of grammar taught to anglophone schoolchildren (on the other hand, all TEFL teachers know what’s wrong with it straight away.) The great majority of English speakers cannot tell you what is wrong with “I am owning a car”, and many could probably be bullied into saying it’s “grammatical.” Nevertheless, they know it’s wrong; and this is absolutely nothing to do with performance.

  258. Plausibly, the introduction of the computational system of language led to this remarkable cognitive awakening.

    That use of “plausibly” actually made me LOL.

  259. AJP Crown says:

    no native English speaker says “I am owning a car”…they know it’s wrong; and this is absolutely nothing to do with performance.

    I am renting a bike.

  260. David Eddyshaw says:

    I am renting a bike

    That is indeed likely to improve performance.

  261. David Eddyshaw says:

    Now I think of it, the whole process of elicitation in linguistic fieldwork implies a belief in some sort of internal grammaticality checker in your informant (which they need not be consciously aware of, but that is a separate question.) Elicitation is a sort of poor relation to text analysis in fieldwork, because it’s quite easy to “lead the witness” if you’re not careful, and also because what people say they find acceptable quite often doesn’t match their actual usage. Nevertheless, even purist ultras accept that life is too short to expect all important grammatical features to turn up somewhere if you just record enough texts, so elicitation has its place; ergo, judgments based on introspection by native speakers reflect something real.

    Note that the informant will generally not be able to explain his judgments, and if he does, his explanations may well not hold water. That doesn’t mean his judgment itself is wrong.

  262. PlasticPaddy says:

    These sort of relational/linkage verbs that do not take a progressive are quite subtle. For example, I think one could say “I am loving my time in X” but not “I am loving my mother and father” and “I am being awkward” but not “I am being hungry”.

  263. AJP Crown says:

    Loving & I am loving currently have a whole nother life among the younger crowd. Someone on facebook has written:

    FAVOURITE QUOTES
    i am loving my mother and father

  264. Someone on facebook has written

    Do you have reason to think this is a native speaker? You get all sorts on FB.

  265. Bathrobe says:

    @ David Eddyshaw

    I am totally happy with the idea that people can tell what is grammatical and what is not. That is, innate knowledge of the language. Competence. Langue. People don’t need to be able to explain something in terms of “grammar” to know it is “wrong” or “strange”. This is uncontroversial.

    But I don’t quite see what that has to do with your statement that “we do have separate intuitions of grammatical correctness and performance limitations”. This implies (from the long discussions we’ve been having till now) that you can see that a certain sentence is grammatically correct in terms of your I-language but don’t find it acceptable and can’t process it because of your own performance limitations. How many people think like this?

    I’m confused.

    My problem with what Brett said was not his claim to knowledge of a language (competence), but his statement that he mentally conceptualises language as being set up in a particular way.

    In Kusaal, a language in which few people are literate, and for which there is no established grammatical tradition at all, all informants will nevertheless say without hesitation that la na’ab kpiya is impossible for “the chief has died”, which must be na’ab la kpiya.

    That is completely uncontroversial. The question is not whether Kusaal speakers can make acceptability judgements about sentences; the question is whether they are saying to themselves “This is correct in terms of the syntactic component but violates semantic conditions”. Do people really frame their conceptualisation of language in this way?

    I’m pretty sure that the ancient Chinese would not have made judgements like “This is syntactically correct but the semantics is wrong”. Of course they would have known intuitively that a sentence was wrong according to some kind of internal grammar, but that’s not the question here. What I do find curious is your implied claim that certain ancient Chinese with a heightened consciousness of grammar might even have thought “this sentence is correct in terms of my I-language but due to performance limitations on my part it is unacceptable” (or in similar terms using ancient Chinese terminological equivalents).

    I await your response because I suspect we are talking at crosspurposes.

  266. AJP Crown says:

    Looks like a native English speaker to me, possibly African. I just googled the phrase. Youn (ger than me) people use “loving” in circs that I wouldn’t, all the time, is my point. “I’m loving this X” rather than “I love this X” as I would say.

  267. Youn (ger than me) people use “loving” in circs that I wouldn’t, all the time, is my point.

    Yes, I understand that, but age is irrelevant if they’re not native speakers. And just as with owning a car vs. renting a bike, “I’m loving this X” is very different from “I’m loving my mother and father.” You can’t just make a random change and assume the linguistic situation is the same.

  268. To take a well-studied example, you can say “I’ve been in town today” and you can say “I’ve been in town since yesterday” but you can’t say “I’ve been in town yesterday.” The “present perfect” (as it’s traditionally called) cannot be used about a past occasion that does not continue into the present. This is something non-native speakers frequently get wrong, and native speakers sense but cannot explain its wrongness.

  269. David Eddyshaw says:

    I await your response because I suspect we are talking at crosspurposes

    Looks like it (and a good catch.) I think what Brett means (what I mean, anyway) is that we have conscious awareness of competence phenomena. That might indeed vary spontaneously between people, and might very well be something grammatically-inclined people could deliberately strive for. Chomskyans, in that regard, would be like Freudians learning to remember their dreams (and learning to have the right sort of dream, come to that.)

    I think Chomsky’s I-language/E-language is just Saussurean langue vs parole with a light dusting of obfuscating jargon. As such, it’s uncontroversial (except presumably for Skinnerites.) It’s the uses that C puts the distinction to that are objectionable. That’s pretty much all I meant.

  270. AJP Crown says:

    Thanks Language, and maybe my ignorance of linguistics is just distracting here (you must say, I won’t be offended!) However on the facebook person, others with the same name are Nigerian and I’m guessing this one is too. They (others with that name) are using English as if it were a first language, if not exactly like we would:
    Enjoy rain dosen’t fall on one roof,it may be my turn 2morrow mhiz rachy [Ms Rachael] is knocing at de door yet to come

  271. David Eddyshaw says:

    That might indeed vary spontaneously between people

    Certainly my Kusaal informants varied quite a bit in their abilities to reflect on their own acceptability judgments (for example in their ability to come up with similar utterances that were acceptable or unacceptable for different reasons, or to imagine contexts in which something that couldn’t be said in isolation would be perfectly acceptable.) In that situation, this sort of linguistic insight obviously didn’t have anything to do with formal grammar teaching.

  272. Bathrobe says:

    @ David Eddyshaw (again)

    Imagine that you are correcting an essay written in English by a foreign student who speaks a language don’t know. You come to a section that makes no sense at all. You can’t make head or tail of it. You don’t know what he/she is trying to say. The words seem wrong. The logic seems wrong. The grammar seems wrong. You can’t figure out what the problem is because you don’t know exactly why the student made those mistakes.

    Once you ask the student you realise. They’ve used the wrong word here. The grammar is mixed up. The connectives are wrong. Etc. But only after you ask the student do you realise what the problem is — syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic.

    This is where I would agree with AntC. Many unsophisticated native speakers (and even sophisticated ones) are perfectly able to perceive when something in English is wrong. They know the English is flawed and will possibly be able to offer suggestions for improvement based on what they think the person is trying to say. But they won’t necessarily go through the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic components to locate the error. They are much more likely to try and figure out the message and suggest improvements or corrections based on this.

  273. However on the facebook person, others with the same name are Nigerian and I’m guessing this one is too. They (others with that name) are using English as if it were a first language, if not exactly like we would

    Quite so, and I was sloppy in my phrasing. What I meant was native speakers of Standard English (differences between UK and US versions are not, as far as I know, relevant here); native speakers of Nigerian English do their own thing, and more power to them, but their usages are not relevant to judgments about Standard English, any more than are the usages of Scots speakers.

  274. I’m reminded of an occasion years ago when a Russian-American friend of mine asked me to look at a short piece she’d written in English. She’d emigrated as a young adult, and her English was excellent but not native (she worked as a translator). The only thing wrong with what she’d written was that she had put ‘the’ in a couple of places where it wasn’t appropriate, and had left a couple of ‘the’s out in places where they were needed. I was about to (try to) explain the reasons, but she cut me off and said, “Don’t bother, no one knows why, you just have to get used to it.” She was right. Maybe an ESL teacher could have provided a semi-plausible explanation, but I don’t think I could have.

  275. J.W. Brewer says:

    “i am loving my mother and father” sounds wrong because (for whatever varieties of English we’re talking about) it is the wrong syntax to use for the way in which we assume love of parents ordinarily works (as an enduring, open-ended phenomenon). If one assumes a generally dysfunctional and loveless family where there’s for some unexpected reason a brief outburst of such love that’s expected to be transient, that might indeed be the right syntax, or at least acceptable syntax? Similarly, if one were engaged in some sort of complicated transaction where instead of A transferring title to a car to B the car was for some reason (tax dodge, whatever) going to briefly pass through your hands as a matter of formal ownership en route from A to B you might grammatically, if a bit jocularly, say “Looks like I’ll be owning the car from 2 pm until 3 pm tomorrow afternoon.” The problem is sort of right on the border of semantics and pragmatics, but maybe more pragmatics – we don’t expect filial love or car ownership to work that way, because in our experience it generally doesn’t, just as we don’t expect hovercraft to be full of eels, because they generally aren’t.

  276. David Eddyshaw says:

    only after you ask the student do you realise what the problem is — syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic

    Maybe sometimes, but not always, or (I would have thought) typically. For example:

    (a) This analysis not is correct.
    (b) Because you insulted me, my heart has gone white.
    (c) I hear that tomorrow you’re going to Accra. God will help you walk.

    (a) is obviously a syntax error. (b) and (c) are perfectly “grammatical” English. No syntax errors at all. However “my heart has gone white” does not mean “I am angry” in English: a semantic error. As for (c), while you perfectly well could say that to someone leaving on a journey, as a matter of fact L1 English speakers don’t. Pragmatic error.

    I don’t think you’d actually need to know Kusaal to see what kind of errors (b) and (c) were, though it would immediately explain why those particular errors had been made.

    One might argue about semantic vs pragmatic, but the distinction between those and syntactic errors is usually pretty clear, it seem to me, unless the student has come up with some sort of complete word salad.

  277. David Eddyshaw says:

    Looking more carefully at what you actually wrote (must get into the habit) I see that your “you” there is not me, but a generic person who is presumed to be linguistically unsophisticated. But I think that’s a bit of a circular argument: if you assume that they are unable to pin down exactly what’s amiss with a piece of foreigner-talk, well, yes, they won’t be able to. But I think it’s actually quite likely that speakers to whom grammar is an alien concept can recognise an inappropriate metaphor or peculiar pragmatic usage. In their ensuing dialogue with the foreigner, this would surely come to light.

    (a) “No, we say ‘is not’, not ‘not is’.”
    (b) “What do you mean by ‘my heart has gone white’? I don’t understand that.”
    (c) “When people go on a journey, we say ‘See you later, alligator.’ But I like your quaint foreign ways. I may take to saying that myself.”

    Note that these different dialogue snippets come before the student has a chance to explain himself. Linguistically-unsophisticated-prof (probably an astrophysicist) has already reacted in three distinct ways to the different sorts of error.

  278. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t want to protest too much here: not only do I not subscribe to the Chomskyan view that syntax is quite autonomous and can be treated in isolation from semantics and pragmatics, I think it’s a fundamental error. But that’s not to deny that a lot of syntax can be treated as if it were autonomous: without such thoroughgoing regularisation we’d all have to communicate in holophrases all the time.

  279. Bathrobe says:

    @ David Eddyshaw

    I think it depends greatly on the sophistication of the speaker. I chose the foreign speaker as as an example of error because many unsophisticated native speakers (especially if they don’t know any foreign languages) don’t have very good intuitions on this.

    If you know the language they are coming from you can hazard a guess as to what went wrong and what they really mean. If you don’t know that language you are more likely to be in the dark as to the source of the error.

    I have seen unsophisticated native speakers (especially those who don’t know a foreign language at all) react to the misuse of words or collocations by guessing at a similar but unrelated word. (Sorry, I can’t give any examples but I’ve seen it happen.)

  280. What distinctive fact of human biology, or the human genome, makes FLN unique to humans? … a requirement imposed by physics, since this structure is the most stable and efficient of the relevant sort. Analogous points can be made about the growth, structure, and operation of the human brain.

    Evolution whilst it sometimes produces amazingly subtle ‘designs’, in general does not lead to the most ‘efficient’ solution: it leads only to something sufficient for the species to survive; there’s plenty of evolutionary examples of ‘solutions’ that are bloody awful (no engineer would do that), but just good enough. (The human female reproductive tract, for example; the human appendix; haemophilia; lack of resistance to viruses.)

    I see no reason that within the human brain, something corresponding to FLN has arrived at a mechanism that is most parsimonious in terms purely of managing language. I see it as far more likely there are general cognitive abilities which are effective for many purposes, and very far from the most ‘efficient’ for one particular purpose. (Leaving aside the question of what are the criteria for ‘efficient’.)

    It’s true that of a kitten and a child growing up in the same environment, one will learn language, one won’t. Also one will learn to operate the dishwasher, one won’t. Then is there a dishwasher-specific gene? No: quite possibly one of those clever parrots or an octopus might figure it out. But only humans can design/build dishwashers and the plumbing/electrical system; and plumbing/irrigation goes back through human history. Is there a hydraulics gene? Yes lots of the requirements for gravity-fed hydraulics are imposed by physics. So what?

    Of course I’m spouting more unfalsifiable metaphysics. The point is this is insoluble; and nothing turns on the solution anyway. Please stop wasting public money on it; please put the money into recording endangered languages.

  281. David Marjanović says:

    Somehow I forgot:

    this implies the scenario that language-users conquered the human world after one family acquired the power of presumably very rudimentary speech (but only with one parent, and half the siblings.)

    Not at all. It means that this one mutation made language possible; language may actually have developed tens of thousands of years later – and when it finally was developed, it was able to spread immediately because the mutation was already fixed in the population.

    Compare reading. Any idiot from any continent can learn to read; it follows that whatever genetic underpinnings this ability has must have been present, and fixed in the human population, for a hundred thousand years at least. And yet, very few cultures have ever made use of this, and then only in the last 6000 years.

    The human female reproductive tract, for example; the human appendix; haemophilia; lack of resistance to viruses.

    DNA. It falls apart when kept in water. Something like a quarter of our basic resting metabolism goes into constant DNA repair.

  282. AJP Crown says:

    “But only humans can design/build dishwashers.”

    An epitaph for the human race.

  283. David Eddyshaw says:

    one mutation made language possible; language may actually have developed tens of thousands of years later – and when it finally was developed, it was able to spread immediately because the mutation was already fixed in the population

    Fair enough (and indeed many other genes are obviously necessary for language to be possible): though that doesn’t in fact seem to be what Chomsky is imagining: rather than a sine qua non for language, the way he links it all with behavioural modernity as all having suddenly taken off together implies that he is imagining this mystery mutation as the final trigger that at last enables language as we know it, by supplying “Merge: the Missing Link.”

    He may go on to adopt your (much more sensible) position, of course, as part of the ongoing project to make his distinctive position as content-free as possible. Though how you would even go about identifying a “gene for recursion” seems a bit unclear to me. Chomsky seems to have a somewhat – er – pretheoretical – notion of genetics.

    Also, the alleged fact (evidently intended to add plausibility to this a priori unlikely scenario) that this merge-gene would be very likely to spread through a whole population because of the enormous advantage it conveys, would need to be explained in terms of some enormous advantage other than language. I can imagine that something like it might improve nonlinguistic cognitive ability in some way: but you would then be committed to a very unChomskyan (albeit eminently reasonable) position: viz, that language is possible because it exploits a whole lot of separate cognitive abilities which had proved advantageous already, quite apart from Language.

  284. An epitaph for the human race.

    “Dishwashers are made by fools like me,
    But only God can make a tree.”

  285. David Eddyshaw says:

    I can’t even make a dishwasher …

  286. In the end, aren’t we all just washers of dishes?

  287. David Eddyshaw says:

    Deep, man.

  288. AJP Crown says:

    “Take [our pet bird] Diego – he should be in the woodlands of Brazil with other sun conures, not flying around a house with primates.”

  289. Bathrobe says:

    “Tan’s Australian mother and father, a Chinese immigrant from Malaysia, married in 1967, six years before the White Australia policy was finally dismantled.”

    I had to read it a couple of times….

  290. AJP Crown says:

    Do you think they’re doing it on purpose? I know some newspaper subeditors derive job satisfaction from writing obscure double meanings in headlines. Mark Lieberman at Language Log said the incidence of typos in the Guardian was nowadays no worse than in other papers, but that just means he’s not paying attention. It’s MUCH worse than in the New York Times (say).

  291. Yes, I was surprised at that statement. Citation needed!

  292. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I like the idea (which I think was once mooted in this august assemblage) that there was a pre-linguistic facility for symbolic reasoning / world modelling even among the ‘higher apes’ with enough of an evolutionary advantage that it would be universal, and that the language virus was the trick of mapping sounds to those internal symbols so that ideas could be shared — and that possibly that trick was what conferred great selective advantage on even larger brains and the linked neoteny (giving longer time to learn).

    I don’t have the specialist knowledge to tell if this is utter bollocks, of course.

  293. Bathrobe says:

    To hear it from the horse’s mouth:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JScy7ulDpE

    Anyone convinced?

  294. Anyone convinced?

    Utterly not. If it was an unknown saying that stuff, I’d call it the ravings of a madman; similar to some of the more vertiginous parts of ‘A Beautiful Mind’.

    Leaving aside the specifics of Merge itself, why (in the first few minutes) is there any need to talk about genetics or 100,000 years ago? Nothing turns on it beyond saying language is distinctively human; and humans have distinctive cognitive abilities, of which language is an example — also using tools. Other species exhibit some such abilities, but at such a quantitatively lower level as to make a qualitative difference.

    Also: Whilst I accept that the expression of this cognitive ability is not restricted to the oral/auditory channel, I’m puzzled by the claim Merge is independent of sequencing. All means of representation of thought exhibit sequencing — even and especially the stuff ANC draws on the blackboard. Why try to subtract that from language? (Don’t I remember some early Chomsky observing that even in allegedly free word-order languages, random word salad was ungrammatical?)

  295. David Marjanović says:

    Don’t I remember some early Chomsky observing that even in allegedly free word-order languages, random word salad was ungrammatical?

    There are some in Australia that really seem to have completely free and random word order, unlike Latin poetry where all the prepositions stay prepositions at all times.

  296. AJP Crown says:

    What distinguishes humanity from apes, birds & bugs is the seemingly innate anxiety that causes it to draw a hierarchical tree with itself at the top: a) different and b) better than all the other species. Fish cannot do this; they cannot draw with their stubby little fins. A micro version is racism, and all the way at the top, the most needy and anxious to be best-of-all, is Trump.

  297. Trond Engen says:

    Even if word order is free, human speech is sequencing of phonetic and semantic elements. I haven’t seen the video, but sequencing could be a key also to advanced toolmaking. Another human-specific* skill is long-term planning. Yet another is negotiation. And distribution. Division of labour, maths. The list could go on. Conceptualizing sets of interactions and structuring them into sequences.

    *) “Other species exhibit some such abilities, but at such a quantitatively lower level as to make a qualitative difference.”

  298. There are some [allegedly free word-order languages] in Australia that really seem to have completely free and random word order, unlike Latin poetry where all the prepositions stay prepositions at all times.

    Hmm. I am presupposing we know what is a word in those languages, but … Do they have inflection? Are they agglutinating?

    Can the inflection appear randomly beginning/middle/end of a word? Can the elements to agglutinate be freely reordered? Or is there at least strict sequencing within a word? Is that really any different to restricting prepositions to be preposed?

    (Of course you can represent sequences using superficially non-ordered sets: for example Kuratowski’s model for ordered n-tuples https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordered_pair#Kuratowski's_definition. Toward the end of the video that might be what ANC is trying to say in his typically state-the-bleedin-obvious-backwards way. But that seems to this particular monkey-brain to be far from the most parsimonious explanation. I still can’t understand why it’s so crucial that the theorist be modelling the inside of a brain; rather than merely giving a model that corresponds to observation. Of course we must remember that it’s the Minimalist Program, not a theory.)

  299. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm,antC
    There is a fixed phrase “mihi contra” used in Latin prose and poetry, meaning something like “but i don’t think so”. I don’t know how this is parsed, since contra takes accusative as a preposition. And of course there is mecum/tecum.

  300. Lars Mathiesen says:

    There is even a garbled version of Kuratowski in WP:Merge — since there seems to be a ‘primordial’ merge without the head/dependent relation, and a second one with it. I’m not sure if that tries to imply something about when children become capable of using head/dependent structures.

  301. And of course there is mecum/tecum.

    And populusque. Do we count those as single-words each but agglutinative? Except the initialism is SPQR. Quick! look inside a Legionnaire’s brain: how many words do you see?

    there seems to be a ‘primordial’ merge

    That might be what in the video and WP calls ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’ Merge. There’s no word for how many fucks I don’t give.

  302. David Eddyshaw says:

    It shows that Chomsky has progressed from the view that grammaticality is to be determined by introspection the the more advanced view that the entire basis of Language itself is to be determined by introspection.

    It’s interesting that (in among this masterclass in handwaving) he states as if it were obvious the notion that the ultimate basis of language must be the very simplest that we can imagine. I can think of no actual reason to believe this at all.

    The principle he comes up with is the notion of set membership. He then smuggles in the idea that there are two kinds of set membership, depending on whether one element includes or resembles another element of the same set (producing two kinds of “merge”, a concept which then has to do all the work of reconstructing his whole generative system, which he still believes in.) If he means “resemble”, then we need to know what constitutes this “resemblance”: it implies at its very simplest a whole set of equivalence classes, which will then need in reality to be (an unacknowledged) foundational part of his universal grammar. If he means only “inclusion”, he has recreated the industry-standard definition of ordered pairs, as AntC rightly points out. That does seem to be his intention, which means the wittering about minimalism is pointless, really. Only fellow-cultists believe that the concept of ordered pairs is by itself enough to encompass all you need for an adequate account of syntax, of course: here, Chomsky does a sort of meta-version of his E-language/I-language dodge: absolutely everything about actual grammatical systems which cannot be “explained” by ordered pairs is due to pragmatic constraints of one kind or another, like processability.

    Here, in fact, one can actually agree with the man: absolutely everything about language which is non-trivial falls outside the scope of his overarching theory, which itself has no substantive content whatsoever. And, who knows, maybe the human race did acquire his pet gene 100,000 years ago – a gene which does nothing in particular.

    I now incline to the view that Chomsky’s entire career has been an elaborate (and perhaps somewhat cruel) prank, along the lines of the Sokal affair.

    Incidentally, I think it’s true to say that there are no languages with completely free word order. There are plenty in which word order does not serve syntactic purposes as it does in (say) English: but there are always reasons for a particular order, typically to do with information structure. The idea that this sort of thing “doesn’t count” as grammar is, of course, one of the many things fundamentally wrong with the entire Chomskyan project.

  303. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kikirig ya’a mɔr bʋʋdɛ, fʋn tis o ka o lɛbig o mɔɔgin.
    “When a demon is innocent, let it go back home to the bush.”

    [So] to be fair, Chomsky does by implication in that lecture address the objection I raised about “merge” needing to be useful quite apart from enabling language, when he says that the primary purpose of language is to enable complex thought, with communication secondary. This implies an extension of the meaning of “language” to include quite a bit that is generally regarded as the province of psychology rather than linguistics, and raises a whole lot of awkward issues besides, but I suspect that his putting it that way is a response to exactly that sort of objection.

  304. Bathrobe says:

    I still can’t understand why it’s so crucial that the theorist be modelling the inside of a brain; rather than merely giving a model that corresponds to observation.

    I suspect the answer is (and I’ve seen notions something like this cited in defence of the Minimalist Program) is that grammars have been through the observation-based phase; the Minimalist Program gets at the roots of grammatical theory. We can no longer be satisfied with these older approaches.

  305. We are approaching the transition to Actually Existing Communism, comrades! We must redouble our efforts!!

  306. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Wikipedia page on “merge” shows that pair-ordering is indeed what is meant by all this jargon about two kinds of merge, as you need that in order to have head-dependent structures. The word “recursion” is flung about in a way that suggests that the writer is not quite clear on what it actually means (it need not involve head-dependent relationships at all in real-life grammar: perhaps it has to for Chomskyans, presumably by definition.)

    Putting all this in set-theoretical form seems to serve no purpose, other than presumably impressing the groundlings. There is absolutely no value to linguistics in exhibiting a mathematical definition of an ordered pair, any more than there would be in constructing Peano arithmetic (we use numbers in our grammars …)

  307. David Eddyshaw says:

    I must admit I hadn’t actually grasped the full horror of “merge”, which I innocently took as just a bit of Chomskyan jargon for recursion. But it’s much worse.

    Basically this is a psychological rather than linguistic theory (so far, so OK.) The idea is that the uniquely human capacity which (among other things) enables us to use language is quite simply that we can entertain a concept which contains other concepts. That’s it. In particular, ordering is not part of this basic ability. Ordering arises, in psychological reality exactly as in mathematical theory, from sets of the form {A, {A, B}}. This is what the ordered pair A,B actually is psychologically. In language, this is the actual underlying form of all head-dependent relationships. They all contain a repeated form of one of the elements: however, this repeated form is never actually spoken. But this is purely for pragmatic reasons: the repeated element is always redundant in practice. It is this practical limitation on our communicative apparatus, and this only, which leads to the creation of a whole lot of secondary rules (of no fundamental theoretical importance) which delete all these repeated elements or transform them into “traces” of various kinds.

    I don’t think I’ve distorted or misrepresented this doctrine. I think that’s really it. That’s what the man was actually saying in his lecture while all those fresh-faced innocent young students took notes. Lovecraft material …

  308. Lars Mathiesen says:

    That’s what I thought it looked like the Wikipedia article was saying too, but I naively thought it was allegorical or something. Not literal, at least.

  309. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Numbers, like vegetables, don’t exist. They are just labels for equivalence classes of finite well-ordered sets.

  310. There are four categories of interpretation of the Word of Chomsky: literal, typological, moral, and anagogical.

  311. David Eddyshaw says:

    He’s got a particularly annoying way of hedging when asked questions about the exact ontological status of his imaginary organs. One of the things that rings alarm bells …

  312. David Eddyshaw says:

    Over against Chomsky’s declaration that the fundamental basis of language must be simple (for some reason), a real philosopher of language wrote:

    Die Umgangssprache ist ein Teil des menschlichen Organismus und nicht weniger kompliziert als dieser.

    This was something Wittgenstein clearly never changed his mind about.
    It would make a fine epigraph for any competent descriptive grammar, now I think of it (up there with Sapir’s “All grammars leak.”)

  313. Bathrobe says:
  314. The most convincing is the last panel of the first pdf. Is it a silent cry for help?

  315. Bathrobe says:
  316. David Eddyshaw says:

    Proofs within Chomskyan linguistics are structurally impeccable

    Yes, indeed. This is true rigor (as in mortis.)
    The author does seem to have taken on board the fact that language is complicated. In fact, he seems to feel that the usual descriptions are not complicated enough, and it’s up to the followers of the One True Path to remedy this sorry state of affairs.

    One can only applaud such industriousness.

  317. Just one more epicycle will do it!

  318. David Eddyshaw says:

    For some reason I was reminded of this:

    https://xavierleroy.org/stuff/how-to-prove-it.html

  319. Trond Engen says:

    Everytime I read about movements, I think “‘epicycles”. When finally all the P’s and the small letter P’s and the apostrophised P’s have been moved to the same level up front, there will come a model were the basic categories and the relations between them and the symbolic representation of meaning in sound and the sequence of output are set by the speaker according to fixed rules and general strategies acquired through childhood. And the MP-ror will decree that generalization of patterns emerging from individually understood syntacs is the very essence of MERGE, and he will call it E-MERGE.

  320. David Eddyshaw says:

    I did at one stage wonder whether the Grand Plan for Universal Grammar was indeed for it to softly and suddenly vanish away, leaving real grammarians in effective possession of the field, but it’s clear that ANC and the ANColytes in fact still regard all the government and binding stuff and the like as eternal verities, which is why such ingenuity is needed to get the facts to fit the theories. Perhaps with yet greater ingenuity, it might prove possible to render genuine grammatical insights into a form that the Chomskyites mistook for Orthodoxy: it is, after all possible in principle to translate any Lisp program into Brainfuck.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainfuck

  321. David Marjanović says:

    For some reason I was reminded of this:

    Oh, the proofs by ghost reference I’ve seen…

    (I’m still reading up on the word-order stuff that is halfway up the thread now.)

  322. Spinning Bathrobe says:

    I have to say that this has been an instructive thread, if only as an opportunity to get better acquainted with Chomsky’s theories (I won’t say “understand”) and hear the acerbic views of some Hatters.

    Reading arguments against Chomsky around the Internet the case against him seems pretty clear. Reading defences of Chomsky, on the other hand, is like an excursion into the surreal.

    Norbert writes like an exasperated parent speaking to a retarded child, essentially claiming that true universals can only be formulated in terms of Chomskyan rules:

    as a matter of logic, it takes more than a review of contrasting surface patterns to debunk a Chomsky universal. It requires a discussion of the rules that generate said surface forms (i.e. a discussion of the generative procedures (i.e. Gs)). As we shall see, Evans’ discussion is entirely oblivious to this, and this makes his critique entirely worthless, as will become clear as we proceed.

    Then we are treated to Norbert’s forte: examining sentences to see how far he can push the envelope without your eyes glazing over.

    He came up with the following sentences:

    * a) Where1 did the supermodel say that the window cleaner had to get off the train t1 to meet her?
    b) Where1 did the supermodel say t1 that the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her?
    c) Who1 did the supermodel ask t1 whether the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her?

    I read and reread these sentences, but I think I must have missed something. According to Norbert,

    a), which is asking where the cleaner had to get off the train, is grammatically incorrect.

    b), which is asking where the supermodel uttered her remark, is grammatically correct.

    c), which is asking who the supermodel asked, is grammatically correct.

    But damn it, a) is fine for me! It’s a bit long but it’s grammatical. Use pronouns and it’s something I might even say.

    a’) Where did she say she had to get off the train to meet her?

    It goes on with even more mind-numbing discussions of island effects. I blame myself for not having made a detailed study of grammatical issues in sentences like “The book that John asked whether to review”. Obviously we need to explain why some sentences work while others fail, and since I haven’t worked out a detailed theory of movements and constraints I am in a poor position to criticise those who do. But I am convinced that people who pronounce a) to be incorrect have had their brains addled by exposure to too many edge cases. Which doesn’t seem like a good start to finding linguistic universals.

  323. Bathrobe says:

    Neglected to read Norbert’s footnote (the link actually led to a warning that I did not have permission to access):

    Structures are ‘grammatical’ or not, sentences are ‘acceptable’ or not. Linguists explain unacceptability in part via the grammaticality of the structures they supervene on. But the two notions are distinct and must be kept conceptually separate.

    So that’s why I thought it was ‘acceptable’ even though it was ‘ungrammatical’!

    Back to square one.

    (My thanks to everyone who persevered with this thread. It’s been a valuable experience.)

  324. David Eddyshaw says:

    I agree that (a) is fine.
    (Norbert may need to look up the term modus tollens.)

    it takes more than a review of contrasting surface patterns to debunk a Chomsky universal

    says he. Of course. Nothing can debunk a Chomsky universal. The very idea is absurd. If it conforms to a Chomsky universal, it’s grammatical, whether “acceptable” or not; and vice versa, of course. This is kindergarten stuff. I’m surrounded by fools. Fools, I tell you! Bring me my Death Ray!

  325. That post really is indistinguishable from self parody.

    Noam Chomsky himself is, of course, one of those truly rare individuals who have achieved stratospheric heights of unintentional self parody in two completely different areas of thought.

  326. Bathrobe, I think that offending word in 3a) is supposed to be “that”. Without “that” the sentence seems to be ok (I am not going to use dangerous terms such as grammatical or acceptable) though unnecessarily leaden. With “that”, I don’t know. As a general matter, if you truly believe in Universals (which, I assume, supposed to be universal, that is valid in all cases, if not, ignore this whole sentence), you have to look at the edge cases, they are the best tests for your theory. If that addles someone’s mind, well as Russians say “science requires sacrifice” (apparently, not only Russians, but they say it a lot).

  327. Bathrobe says:

    “That” makes it a bit clumsier; in conversation it’s more common to omit it. But it doesn’t make it unacceptable.

    I wouldn’t call it leaden. It’s pushing the limits of the language slightly, but it’s the opposite of leaden — it’s quite conversational.

    If that addles someone’s mind, well as Russians say “science requires sacrifice”

    So Chomskyites are martyrs! 😀

  328. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think I have seen the light!

    We Followers of the Way have been troubled by the fact that the fully developed government-and-binding apparatus has (how shall I say this) a certain unnatural quality, as if the system might seem perhaps to be in some respects arbitrary and gratuitously complicated. [The fact that the system is a poor fit for the, like, data, is not a bug but a feature: a whole industry of matching the facts to the theory depends on this being difficult, so as to generate papers, theses, tenure … why do you suppose it’s called generative grammar?]

    The (apparent!) unnaturalness is a problem though. It’s unaesthetic, and it makes it seem (whisper it!) implausible that the whole shebang is both genetically determined and the same for all normal human beings.

    Happily, the Master Himself has come to the rescue. He has shown us that all this apparent complexity is simply due to the effect of wholly contingent pragmatic effects operating upon an underlying scheme of truly breathtaking simplicity: so simple, in fact, that it is intuitively obvious to all but the unaccountably prejudiced and those who (not to put to fine a point on it) are frankly out of their league when it comes to the intellectual grip necessary to follow the inevitable process whereby government-and-binding [or whatever] is a simple logical consequence of the basic principles!

    I was wrong to assert that the ever-increasing abstraction of Universal Grammar is simply a way of avoiding making refutable claims. I’ve been blind. It is simply a principled way of showing that criticism of the complexity and opacity of generative grammar is misguided (if understandable, in those less sadly able to deal with complex intellectual arguments than ourselves.) In a Pickwickian sense, the system is not only simple, but as simple as we can possibly imagine. That’s how we can be confident that it is the Truth! Evolution always leads to the simplest solution!

  329. David Eddyshaw says:

    Actually, it has only just now become clear to me that the extreme abstraction of Minimalism really isn’t a dodge to avoid refutability, as I have somewhat lazily supposed hitherto, but a response to the evident unnaturalness of the baroque fully developed Chomskyan generative system, which is regarded by the Initiates as all very much still valid, not only in general but in detail.

    It’s not a retreat: it’s an origin myth.

  330. Stu Clayton says:

    If that addles someone’s mind, well as Russians say “science requires sacrifice”

    Germans say: “Wer schön sein will, muß leiden“.

  331. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Man maa lide noget for stadsen!

    — H.C.Andersen, 1837. As the dowager queen tells the little mermaid when she complains about the pain of the eight big oysters attached to her tail to show her high estate — this is possibly apposite.

  332. David Marjanović says:

    It’s not a retreat: it’s an origin myth.

    Physics envy!

    “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.”

  333. “In the beginning, there was nothing, which Merged.”

  334. Huh? Of course, it’s physics envy. I thought everyone knew it. That’s how greatest achievements in physics work. There is a seemingly bizarre idea (left alone, any object will move with constant velocity indefinitely; electricity and magnetism are two sides of the same thing; speed of light is the same no matter whether the source stays or moves; electrons are particles and waves simultaneously) which, when worked out in sufficient detail, satisfy all “surface” observations/experiments. Chomskian idea of innate universal grammar and generative process of speech production (I confess that details are hazy for me here) is not even all that bizarre.

  335. Except that physics has nothing to do with linguistics.

  336. Trond Engen says:

    Physics envy or not, the problem I have with (what I’ve seen of) chomskyan analysis is that it has no explanatory value. It’s not that they dont use data, but that it always ends up in making adjustments to the underlying model so that it might have predicted the data, not using the model to predict (and thus explain) what they do and what they don’t see. That might be a worthy endeavor if there were any evidence that the process actually converged on something rather than nothing, and if experimental psychologists and neurologists working on the origin of language didn’t believe their results would have to be given a chomskyan interpretation, thinking that UG represents a consensus among scientifically based linguists. It’s as if particle phycisists thought relating their results to epicycles would somehow help bridge the gap to cosmology.

  337. Exactly.

  338. Except that physics has nothing to do with linguistics.

    Of course not, I just thought it is obvious where intellectual framework (maybe it is called meta-theoretical or philosophical, but I am afraid of big words) comes from.

    I am not in a position to describe the relationship of theoretical physics to experiment, it is complicated and multilayered, but by and large it requires a model to mediate between theory and experiment and than physicists prefer to look at a situation where there are some core features of both theoretical prediction and phenomenon, which can be related through the model and in which the precise details of everything else can be ignored.

  339. Trond Engen says:

    In fairness, physics can always be modeled mathematically, which is natural, since the two have developed together. The chomskyan project may be (or at some point have been) as much about developing a formal language for linguistic analysis as about micro-founding* it.

    *) Borrowing a term from another science where one camp accuses the other of physics-envy.

  340. When I was in the process of switching from a math major to linguistics, I had the brilliant idea of developing a mathematical analysis of language. I got over it remarkably quickly.

  341. David Eddyshaw says:

    the problem I have with (what I’ve seen of) chomskyan analysis is that it has no explanatory value

    True: it adds nothing.
    However, I think the central problem is that it doesn’t generate unexpected testable predictions.

    The typical Chomskyan paper is an elaborate demonstration that some awkward phenomenon that the uninitiated might think vitiated the theory can in fact be brought into conformity with it. The theory is always playing catch-up. There’s never anyone going “If this theory is valid we’d expect all these interesting unforseen consequences for what we might find in actual texts. Let’s go out and see whether we do!”

    It’s a degenerating research program in Lakatos’ terminology (in fact, a particularly good example of one.)

    A fair Chomskyite rejoinder, of course, might be “Well, what unexpected testable predictions does your theory make?”

  342. John Cowan says:

    * a) Where1 did the supermodel say that the window cleaner had to get off the train t1 to meet her?
    b) Where1 did the supermodel say t1 that the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her?

    When Norbert says that (a) is ungrammatical, he’s literally correct: it violates the grammar he and his colleagues have devised. But neither (a) nor (b) can be unacceptable, because what people say doesn’t contain de Bruijn indices or trace markers: they are theoretical posits. Indeed, (a) and (b) are the exact same sentence: their acceptability stands or falls together.

    But we can interpret Norbert’s asterisk as follows: the string (s) “Where did the supermodel say that the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her?” cannot mean what (a) means in his theory, but can mean what (b) means in this theory. This presumably is true because Norbert-et-alii cannot say (s) when they intend (a), whereas Bathrobe-et-DE-et-alii can say (s) when they intend (a). My own introspection makes me stand with Norbert, unless the sentence is an echo question spoken just after the speaker has partly failed to hear “The supermodel said that the window cleaner had to get off the train at … to meet her”, where “…” is mumbled. In which case it is indeed too long.

    So again Norbert is right to say “Structures are ‘grammatical’ or not, sentences are ‘acceptable’ or not.” But what he’s lost track of is that the structures are inferred from the acceptability or non-acceptability to Norbert-et-alii of the sentences. Or anyway that’s the best sense I can hack out of this thicket. But if I had my druthers, I would just burninate it all, screaming “WE HATES THEM, YES WE DOES, WE HATES THEM FOREVER!!”

    Bring me my Death Ray!

    The Death Ray is regrettably off line. Will you settle for your Arrows of Desire, Master? I have the Bow right here (ignites it with fire-starter).

    Man maa lide noget for stadsen!

    Quoth GT: “You have to like something for the city!” But I suspect it of being more like “Il faut souffrir pour être belle.” Haroun go bragh.

  343. Trond Engen says:

    The semantic change of Danish lide “suffer” -> “like, love” is peculiar. I suspect it started as an ironic understatement Jeg kan godt lide det. “I can surely suffer (=tolerate) it”, which was reinterpreted as “I can well like it”, helped along by the near homonomy of lide and lige “like”. A contamination that backfired or something.

  344. David Eddyshaw says:

    Passion.

  345. I think that the attraction of the Chomskyan viewpoint is, in part, a desire to make linguistics “rigorous” in the sense that term was used by the (a translator of) Edmund Husserl:

    By “rigor” (not Husserl’s word, obviously; I don’t remember what word he used in German), he meant the ability to derive new science without direct recourse to experimental data. By this standard, math has been rigorous for millennia, physics for centuries, and chemistry for decades. Biology might get there in my lifetime.

    There is a real appeal to be able to discover new science just by thinking things through, and I imagine that is one of the biggest things behind “physics envy.” I have had a number of recent (and not so recent) encounters with these kinds of issue of rigor, actually, which have had me thinking about them more than I usually do.

    My doctoral student who is due to graduate in August and I recently looked at an abstract physical system that we realized would have some special properties. The behavior of a 1/r² in two dimensions is quite well understood, both classically and quantum mechanically. However, we discovered that that if you add free motion in a third dimension, the problem can be split into the equivalent of two separate Kepler/Coulomb problems, one with an attractive potential and the other one equally repulsive. This is unquestionably doing real physics, even though it was not until our own work was mostly complete that we discovered that just a few years some experimenters had actually produced the very same cylindrical potential that we were studying in an experiment. (In retrospect, it seems obvious how to create the potential, with a long charged wire and a polarizable atom, although implementing it in practice is very clearly not trivial.)

    An old friend and I also recently got a grant from the National Institutes of Health to work on improving high-throughput immunological studies, and my own part of the project is quite far divorced from anything obviously biological. I get sequences of data to work with, which have no obvious relationship to antibody protein sequences. You have to trace what we are going back several steps to get a comprehensible connection to the biology. Things have not quite reached the point where a pure theorist can make biological discoveries, but with massive databases of genomic and other biological data, as well as the tremendous computing power than can be used to analyze that data, we may be fast approaching that turning point.

    It occurs to me that that same friend and I had a peculiar encounter with a tremendously important example of rigor in chemistry many years ago as undergraduates. We were taking inorganic chemistry (a class renowned at MIT for the low quality of the instruction; and although the very worst professor was not teaching it that year, neither of the two lecturers was particularly good). We were covering outer shell electron transfer reactions, which Rudolph Marcus won a Nobel Prize for explaining. Marcus’s work was important, because he looked at what seemed to be happening in these systems and made a number of unexpected predictions. Marcus predicted that the photochemical activation energy for these processes should be four times the thermal activation energy; that was odd, but not totally out of line with other known facts. However, he also predicted how the rate of an electron transfer process would depend on its thermodynamics. As a reaction becomes more energetically favorable, it generally occurs more rapidly. Marcus showed that his reactions would eventually reach a point where they occurred spontaneously, with no kinematic barrier whatsoever. However, if the reaction became even more thermodynamically favorable, the kinetic barrier would actually reappear, and the reaction would start slowing down again. This prediction (that ΔG‡ was a quadratic function of ΔG⁰) was utterly bizarre and contrary to everything previously understood about the relationships between energetics and kinetics. However, this “Marcus forbidden region” was eventually observed experimentally, demonstrating the effectiveness of Marcus’s theoretical techniques.

    The lecturer for this part of the course certainly understood that this had been an incredibly important development (along with a number of other simultaneous developments that had proved theoretical chemistry to be an important autonomous field). However, he still did not quite “get it.” The lectures and our textbook talked about Marcus theory in very different ways. The book’s account was extremely intricate, trying to account for all the complicated experimental realities that could arise when dealing with real compounds containing multiple multivalent coordination centers. The version we got in lecture, however, was much simpler—too simple, in fact. The lecturer gave us an equation relating the thermodynamic and kinetic quantities in a simplified version of the problem, but the units of the equation were not quite right. I had messed up rather badly on a test question the previous term in an advanced classical mechanics course, and afterwards, the professor pointed out that the errors that I and a lot of other students had made could have been avoided if we had recognized that our answers had the wrong dimensions or units. So, having learned the physicist’s habit of paying close attention to units to tease out potential errors the (relatively) hard way, I asked in class about the units of the Marcus theory equation we were supposed to be using. The lecturer gave a rambling, incoherent answer—clearly not understanding what I was meaning to ask about—and eventually advised the class not to worry about it. I was somewhat disappointed, and I simply resolved to comb through the textbook’s overly complicated explication to figure out the real answer. My friend, however, seemed deeply offended on my account, and thought the professor had been quite rude to me by not giving a substantive answer to my substantive question.

  346. David Marjanović says:

    Schönheit muss leiden.

    Jeg kan godt lide det

    Northern German: ich kann das gut leiden “I like that”, ich kann das nicht leiden “I can’t stand that”. I think the positive is more often used of people, though.

  347. ktschwarz says:

    Indeed, (a) and (b) are the exact same sentence: their acceptability stands or falls together.

    They collapse to the same written string, but that’s just the narrow end of the funnel. They would probably be spoken with different intonation, and you can’t describe the structure, acceptability, etc. of the string without an assumed interpretation, any more than you can for “Time flies like an arrow” or “Spiro conjectures Ex-Lax” or “the a are of I”. Zwicky writes:

    Linguistic expressions are not just form — phonological content or marks on paper — but form paired with meaning; they are signs. Unfortunately, the folk notions of sentence, word, phrase, etc. are purely formal, and even professional linguists often speak in ways that presuppose the folk notions. We say that the word pen, the phrases saw her duck and visiting relatives, and so on are “ambiguous”, when, to be precise, we should be saying that there are several distinct words pen, several distinct phrases saw her duck, and so on.

    That makes (a) and (b) distinct sentences, and Norbert is right to present them with interpretive markup. But who cares about anyone’s personal opinion about which of them is acceptable? Show me the corpus evidence.

  348. Bathrobe says:

    Just out of curiosity, is this sentence ok?

    Where did she say I had to stop the car to pick her up?

    It’s ok for me but perhaps not everyone would agree.

    However, I do think that if I were at the wheel of a car scanning the street for a spot to stop, it would seem a mite uncooperative to answer (as Norbert obviously would) “In the living room”, unless that particular detail was of overriding interest to the people in the conversation.

  349. would seem a mite uncooperative …

    You’re not drinking enough of the kool-aid. Clearly communication is a secondary purpose of language, of little to no interest to the syntactician. The chief purpose of language is to encapsulate grammatically correct thoughts — not even to speak or write them.

    Yes I found your sentence OK. OTOH if an obviously stressed driver were to ask it of me whilst they were negotiating traffic, I think I’d put it down to the stress that the q is hard to follow; I’d check back for a few clarifications (in as least-stress inducing manner as possible).

  350. David Eddyshaw says:

    Fine for me, though as JC notes, it would be more readily acceptable if it had a contrastive stress on “where”, as in the context of asking a question to refresh your memory about something you knew in principle but had forgotten.

    This sort of fine-in-the-right-context phenomenon is exactly what the Chomskyan scheme is most inadequate at dealing with, as I think we’ve all concluded. Not accidental: the doctrine that grammaticality can be determined without reference to communicative function in context is likely to result in a theory unable by design to cope with everyday phenomena like this. The theory is too impoverished to account for the data.

  351. David Marjanović says:

    The chief purpose of language is to encapsulate grammatically correct thoughts —

    The Chomskyan origin story of language is that its original purpose is to enable some sort of “abstract thought”. Grammar is a means to that end. Communication grew out of language at some later point.

  352. AJP Crown says:

    Roy Horn’s white tiger attacked him on stage

    He succumbed in May from the Covid virus.

  353. Northern German: ich kann das gut leiden “I like that”, ich kann das nicht leiden “I can’t stand that”. I think the positive is more often used of people, though.
    Yes, in my experience, the positive is exclusively used of people, while the negative is also widely used of things.

  354. XKCD hits the nail on the head (again right on time)

    The ‘problem’ could be the mass discrepancy in galaxies; or the annoying propensity of people to be unsure about perfectly grammatical sentences.

  355. Here’s a link to the actual xkcd (with scrollover text and everything) rather than an image.

  356. David Eddyshaw says:

    Economists do it with models (according to the T-shirt, anyhow.)

  357. Bathrobe says:

    contrastive stress on “where”, as in the context of asking a question to refresh your memory about something you knew in principle but had forgotten

    Two intonations are possible. One is rising, asking to reconfirm the location.

    The other is falling, with a menacing tone (“Where the hell did you…”). This one doesn’t demand noticeable stress on “where”.

  358. John Cowan says:

    I found myself wondering why it was felt to be necessary to rebut some of these other theories, which, quite frankly, seemed fairly bizarre at times

    A particularly notable case is U.S. high school biology textbooks, which explain Lamarckian evolution, then Darwinian evolution, then the neck of the giraffe, each text copying from its predecessors. (Nobody actually knows just why giraffes have long necks, natural or sexual selection or who knows what.)

  359. David Marjanović says:

    The “necks for sex” hypothesis has fallen flat in the last few years, and the chief advantage of the long neck really is high browsing, though I forgot all the details.

  360. David Marjanović says:

    Incidentally, I think it’s true to say that there are no languages with completely free word order. There are plenty in which word order does not serve syntactic purposes as it does in (say) English: but there are always reasons for a particular order, typically to do with information structure.

    That is precisely what has been denied for a few languages in Australia. Unfortunately I probably got that from a book that I don’t have here right now, though I’ll probably get a hold of it tomorrow. I can’t remember which language the examples were from either. But what I can remember is that word order did not seem to have anything to do with emphasis or whatever, and when repeating or quoting a sentence, people would repeat the words but not their order, as if they didn’t remember the order at all.

    Also, in languages where word order is not completely free, it’s sometimes surprising which parts are. A few days ago we had a German case where two word orders have the exact same range of meaning, and which part of that range actually comes across depends on intonation instead. In Nunggubuyu, word order isn’t completely free either (demonstrative pronouns “often directly precede or follow a coreferential noun”), but word order is not used to distinguish nouns from adjectives (nothing else is either), members of noun compounds (which don’t exist either, unless you count the small closed class of lexical prefixes, some of which are cran morphemes, and many of which are irregular “in form and meaning”), which words are negated and which are not (instead, negative concord is driven to dizzying heights), or to distinguish agents, patients or experiencers; even the order of prefixes in the verb is determined by the animacy hierarchy instead, so that “I saw him” comes out as 1sg-3sg.m-see-PAST while “he saw me” comes out as 1sg-INVERSE-3sg.m-see-PAST.

    There are some [allegedly free word-order languages] in Australia that really seem to have completely free and random word order, unlike Latin poetry where all the prepositions stay prepositions at all times.

    Hmm. I am presupposing we know what is a word in those languages, but … Do they have inflection? Are they agglutinating?

    Can the inflection appear randomly beginning/middle/end of a word? Can the elements to agglutinate be freely reordered? Or is there at least strict sequencing within a word? Is that really any different to restricting prepositions to be preposed?

    All these languages have lots of inflection, and the order of affixes is fixed as far as I know, but bound and free morphemes can easily be distinguished. That the Latin prepositions are not bound is evident from the fact that other words can be inserted between them and the nouns they refer to.

    There is a fixed phrase “mihi contra” used in Latin prose and poetry, meaning something like “but i don’t think so”. I don’t know how this is parsed, since contra takes accusative as a preposition. And of course there is mecum/tecum.

    These are left over from an earlier stage in which the pre- were postpositions. In several other Italic languages, en remained such a strict postposition that it became a locative ending (South Picene esmen vepses vepeten “buried in this tomb”), but in Latin it was a strict preposition.

  361. Thank you @David. And how does it go with suffix que in Latin?

    SPQR is maybe a fixed phrase. Does SenatusQue Populus Romanorum appear? PopulusQue Senatus Romanorum? That is, can the ‘que’ freely attach to any of the nouns; must the nouns appear in some fixed sequence relative to the ‘que’? What if conjoining three or more nouns?

    What if there are adjectives in the NP? Must the ‘que` attach to the last-appearing word, whatever its class?

    Talking of negative concord, and sticking with Latin, how to show which part of a clause you’re negating

    – I act for the people, not for the Senate. Or v.v.
    – I endorse not the Senator you mention, but that other one. (Contrastive emphasis)
    – I do not agree with that Senator on this matter.

    That last example is also tricky in English: I oppose that Senator’s views vs I am neutral/don’t positively agree. Positioning the negating element wrt quantifiers, determiners, other clause elements has all sorts of nuances in English.

    Can you genuinely reorder negating (or intensifying) elements in Latin?

  362. John Cowan says:

    The syntax of -que is that it attaches to all words (not phrases) except the first, as in Sanctus Matthaeus Marcusque Lucasque Iohannesque. Occasionally in poetry we find it on the first word as well: hominumque ferarumque ‘both of men and of beasts’ (Georgics III). Semantically it indicates a tighter connection than et, which is the regular conjunction and the only one to survive into the Romance languages.

    The words being connected don’t have to be nouns: they can be pronouns (me meosque ‘me and mine’), infinitives (augeri amplificarique ‘to be increased [in one way] and to be increased [in another way]’), or even adverbs (saepe diuque ‘often and for a long time’). There is also a reduplicative use: plus plusque/minus minusque ‘more and more / less and less’. Finally, there are many words with the clitic frozen into them: atque ‘and’ < ad ‘to’, neque or nec ‘not’ < ne ‘not’, ubique ‘everywhere’ < ubi ‘where?’, quisque ‘each one’ quis ‘who?’ (ablative quoque ‘also’).

    The second most famous (or notorious) instance of -que today is in the Latin version of the Nicene Creed: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’; the insertion of filioque was one of the reasons for the Catholic/Orthodox split. Note, however, that when the Catholic Church recites the Creed in Greek, either ad hoc or in a Greek Catholic particular church, nothing corresponding to filioque is present. Per contra, the Anglican Orthodox Church uses the regular Anglican form who proceeds/proceedeth from the Father and the Son but omitting the last words.

  363. Rodger C says:

    There was an Anglican trial liturgy, back in the day, that omitted the Filioque. Everybody went WTF and it was restored.

  364. There is an Anglican Orthodox church? My mind is blown.

  365. No no, if they were Orthodox they wouldn’t have gone WTF, they’d never have had the Filioque in the first place.

  366. John Cowan says:

    I was wrong to speak of the Anglican Orthodox Church (also known as the Orthodox Anglican Church) in this connection. They are one of the groups who left the Anglican Communion because gay marriage, ordination of women, etc., though much earlier than most. I should rather have spoken of Western Orthodoxy, a vaguely similar group of parishes who use Roman or Anglican liturgy and ritual that have been corrected to remove “post-Schism corruptions”.

    Western Orthodoxy is a tangled mess even by Orthodox standards: there is the Orthodox Church of France, and there are parishes associated with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia or with the Orthodox Church in America or with neither. In addition, there are French and British offshoots that accept all seven Ecumenical Councils as doctrinally correct, but say that only the first three were truly ecumenical, so that they recognize both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental (Ancient) Orthodox churches as sister churches. This is, to say the least, a very unusual position.

    “Christians agree that Christians agree on the major points of the Faith and disagree only on the minor points. Unfortunately, which points are major and which minor is itself a point of disagreement!”

  367. David Marjanović says:

    From the Wikipedia article:

    Western Rite Orthodoxy remains a contentious issue for some; however, the movement continues to grow in numbers and in acceptance.

    Yeah, to the extent that today I even learned it existed! I’m not surprised (there are Anglican-rite Catholic parishes, for instance), but I didn’t know.

    Also from there:

    In 2018, a discovery was made of a very ancient missal which included a nearly complete Ambrosian Rite Liturgy that is in the process of being translated into English.

    One wonders.

    The article on the Ambrosian rite, which is used in most of Milan and much of its surroundings all the way into Switzerland, doesn’t mention any such thing, but then it’s mostly taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907…

  368. Thank you @JC re Latin -que

    So to the point of (allegedly) free word-order Latin: -que is very much positionally specified. (It must appear on the non-first of connected words; optionally also on the first.)

    Re Filioque I was boggling at how minor of a point it is possible to have a doctrinal dispute about. These are the people who became trolls as soon as there were chat groups, right(?)

    For the benefit of someone who hasn’t paid close attention to doctrine since … well, since ever, but especially since I noticed there weren’t any female priests in English Anglican churches and there were in Baptist/Methodist/etc: to say ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’ presumably either alleges the Son had carnal relations whilst on earth; or ascribes as much primogenerative power to the Son as to the Father. Given that all God’s creations can procreate, why emasculate the Son specifically?

    It’s the Catholics who insist on celibacy, not the Orthodox, so I’d expect the lack of proceeding-from to be the other way round(?) Foolish of me! As with internet trolls, logic/consistency has nothing to do with dogma.

  369. J.W. Brewer says:

    I really really haven’t fact-checked this bit from wikipedia, but I imagine many Hattics would love it because it raises the issue of the irreducible complexity of translation. Supposedly the recent (no doubt trying to be eirenical) Vatican position is that the filioque would concededly be heretical if backtranslated into the Greek original of the Creed, but is okay in the Latin version, because the Latin verb has a different/broader semantic scope than the Greek verb and whatever it is that the Vatican asserts the Son is doing w/r/t the Holy Spirit falls within the semantic scope of the Latin verb but not of the Greek verb:

    “The Vatican stated in 1995 that, while the words καὶ τοῦ Υἱοῦ (“and the Son”) would indeed be heretical if used with the Greek verb ἐκπορεύομαι (from ἐκ, “out of” and πορεύομαι “to come or go”) – which is one of the terms used by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and the one adopted by the Council of Constantinople— the word Filioque is not heretical when associated with the Latin verb procedo and the related word processio. Whereas the verb ἐκπορεύομαι in Gregory and other Fathers necessarily means “to originate from a cause or principle,” the Latin term procedo (from pro, “forward;” and cedo, “to go”) has no such connotation and simply denotes the communication of the Divine Essence or Substance. In this sense, processio is similar in meaning to the Greek term προϊέναι, used by the Fathers from Alexandria (especially Cyril of Alexandria) as well as others. Partly due to the influence of the Latin translations of the New Testament (especially of John 15:26), the term ἐκπορευόμενον (the present participle of ἐκπορεύομαι) in the creed was translated into Latin as procedentem. In time, the Latin version of the Creed came to be interpreted in the West in the light of the Western concept of processio, which required the affirmation of the Filioque to avoid the heresy of Arianism.”

  370. @AntC: I have to agree with you about the seeming absurdity of people arguing about these doctrinal differences. However, we did have an interesting discussion of the topic just last month, and while I did not find the arguments for why these disputes should be important very convincing, it was an illuminating debate.

  371. I’m loving my mother and father is a plausible sentence of standard English for me these days. As JC gets at, I’m loving my mother and father wouldn’t describe a sense of permanent and continuing love, but it doesn’t require any previous condition of love lost either. It’s just an exclamation of enthusiasm. For instance, if we let my daughter play games on the iPad, or have a popsicle, she’d just say she loves us. But if we offered her both at the same time, she might turn to her sister and say “I’m loving my mother and father.”

    I think the boom for “I’m loving [X]” resulted mostly from the McDonald’s “I’m loving it” campaign.

  372. I have to agree with you about the seeming absurdity of people arguing about these doctrinal differences.

    I don’t, unless you’re putting stress on the “seeming,” which wouldn’t make sense because the original comment straight-out called the people who insisted on the differences “trolls.” It only seems absurd to those removed from the issues, and of course any issue can seem absurd to those removed from it. Everything any of us is passionate about seems absurd to someone else. To give in to that feeling and mock is easy; the only intellectually responsible thing to do is to try to understand why it was important to those people (which does not, of course, entail sharing their passion). Otherwise you might as well mock everyone else’s love for their families, since you don’t share it.

  373. Rodger C says:

    @AntC: I’m completely at a loss to know what you think the two things have to do with each other.

    By the way, I once collaborated on an article with a Western Orthodox priest.

  374. @Rodger I’m completely at a loss to know which two of the several things I mentioned are the particular two that you think I said have to do with each other. (Trying out that sentence as a Complexity in Language exercise … for a friend 😉 My “Foolish of me!” should clue you that logic had already abandoned hope.

    @Hat re my “Troll”. Somewhere in last month’s discussion that @Brett linked to, it was pointed out that the secular powers used to tee up some doctrinal point, get their priests to argue it out; all the time knowing which power bloc they wanted to align with, so that bloc’s doctrinal point would be what they’d agree with; meanwhile the secular powers (which of course didn’t exclude the Pope) cared not a hoot for doctrine. Professing to some doctrine became a badge of membership, irrespective of the content of the doctrine. That sense of “troll”.

    My not sharing the concern/seeing the issue as absurd isn’t what makes the participants trolls: it’s that the doctrinists were being manipulated by people who at the time didn’t share the concern/probably saw it as absurd.

    It was a Monty Python argument clinic. Or …

    I am minded of the wearing of face masks in the U.S. currently. For us in the rest of the world, it’s an open debate whether/when/why to wear a mask: does it protect (who?) or does it in fact increase the likelihood of infection? (And early doors in the U.S. there was insufficient PPE, so Fauci/Birx wished to hold back masks for health professionals.) In the U.S. not wearing a mask has become a badge of patriotism even if it kills you (or more likely kills your grandfather). That’s the sense of “troll”/absurdity of the doctrine.

  375. David Eddyshaw says:

    I would imagine that what Rodger C wondered about was your belief that the notion of the Holy Spirit proceding from the Son implies that the “Son had carnal relations whilst on earth”; you evidently hope to oust Trond from his current eminence as Hattic Supreme Heresiarch (but Trond has defences in depth; I think you’ve got your work cut out for you there.)

  376. J.W. Brewer says:

    As the wiki bit I quoted above indicated, there may have been some historical confusion about what the verb “procedere” and its various derivatives meant in theological Latin, but it’s definitely conceptually distinct from “carnal relations.” The ancient heretical (because of the filioque plus it isn’t even really extant in Greek so duh) Western creed known as the Quicunque Vult, often improbably attributed to St. Athanasius, says quite explicitly: Spiritus Sanctus a Patre et Filio: non factus, nec creatus, nec genitus, sed procedens. (In the traditional translation: “The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.”) So whatever the Son supposedly does to cause the Spirit to proceed is rather different than what the Son would have needed to do in order to beget someone.

  377. Trond Engen says:

    but Trond has defences in depth

    I have never been accused of depth before…

  378. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah! Now we see the masterful misdirection of the Arch-Heresiarch at its most awesome and perilous! Note, my brothers, that he does not deny his depth …

  379. For us in the rest of the world, it’s an open debate whether/when/why to wear a mask: does it protect (who?) or does it in fact increase the likelihood of infection?

    This is nonsense; you need to read more studies. And don’t speak for “the rest of the world”; there are plenty of deniers here in the US, and plenty of people who understand science in the rest of the world.

  380. you evidently hope to oust Trond from his current eminence as Hattic Supreme Heresiarch

    Yeah nah nah. My depths are in ignorance of heresy. I was going by English “proceed from” not theological Latin “procedere”. Would there be something actually heretical with suggesting The Son had carnal relations/that he had issue? Wouldn’t that reinforce the propaganda that he was God made flesh? Wasn’t there some suggestion about Mary Magdalene?

    I was star performer at the (Baptist) Sunday School Bible Quiz; of course nothing of carnal relations or doctrinal disputes; all milk-sop Christ-in-the-manger fairytales.

    My better informed judgment these days is that there was no such person as Christ; that the stories are an amalgam of at best snippets from the lives of various wandering troublemakers; heavily laced with the necessary Judaic mythology to boost the assorted doctrinal powerplays. (House of David my foot; there’s no independent evidence for any sort of Roman census at the time, let alone requiring people to return to their place of origin.)

    I should demure at @Brett’s “seeming absurdity”: “tragedy” seems nearer the mark, given the amount of bloodshed Organised Christianity has engendered.

  381. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah, yes. A solar myth. The best kind of myth.

    http://languagehat.com/max-muller-as-a-solar-myth/

  382. @Hat you seem to have misunderstood my point about face masks (but I don’t follow what opinion on the topic you are ascribing to me). By ‘open debate’ I mean the science is unclear and people are debating it. I am saying exactly that the rest of the world does understand the science and also understands that the science is unclear/needs subtle judgments. (Yes I’m not speaking for all of the rest of the world — in particular not for Brazil; but I am trying to keep informed about most OECD countries, shall we say — especially the ones that have the disease under some sort of control.)

    The point about mask-wearing possibly increasing the risk of infection was made by our Director of Health (position equivalent to Fauci) — based on his reading of studies.

    Specifically in New Zealand there has never been any medical recommendation to wear masks in general — and that applied all through the lockdown. Now that our biggest threat is from people bringing in the disease from overseas, travellers are required to wear masks whilst in transit, as are aircrew and anybody interacting with them at the borders/in their 14-day quarantine.

    Some retailers here request customers wear masks; some don’t; I am happy to comply. Simply there is no heat in the debate/people don’t get into shouting matches about it/it’s not a badge of patriotism to not wear a mask nor to wear one.

  383. David Marjanović says:

    The point of a mask is to protect other people from the viruses you are spreading. They’re pretty good at that. Remember that asymptomatic carriers spread the new coronavirus for weeks before, if ever, they get sick themselves.

    To protect yourself, most masks are rather useless (there are some made for that purpose, but they’re not easy to get); and when they get wet, they become worse than useless, so make sure your masks dry after each use and don’t use them for too long at once.

  384. Yes, what DM said.

  385. (Of course, a lot of people don’t seem to care very much about other people.)

  386. Yes, what DM said.

    And I agree with DM as far as it goes. So when @Hat talks of “deniers”, what opinion is he ascribing? They deny that masks protect other people from those who are infectious? They deny that masks prevent the wearer getting infected (a reasonable doubt)? They deny all the science tout court? — of that last, yes there seem to be plenty in the U.S.

    To protect yourself, most masks are rather useless …; and when they get wet, they become worse than useless, Yes after more than an hour wearing the cheap paper disposable masks, they’re incubating the germs; so when the wearer fiddles with them (because they’re damp/itchy) that spreads the disease onto the wearer’s hands thence on to surfaces/people/their own eyes/mouth, whatever they touch — is the point the NZ MDofH was making.

    So by that science you’d expect that in the countries that have succeeded in holding the disease at the border, they’d be neutral or actually against general mask-wearing. However other than in NZ or Aus, masks are ubiquitous; in Taiwan the government issues exactly the cheap paper disposable masks — however not in a sufficient ration for wearers to change them every half hour — even in high-contact workplaces like restaurants and hawker food stalls. And Minister of Health Chen regularly is to be seen wearing such masks in public places and press conferences, even with everybody socially distant.

    Sorry to get down into the weeds, but that’s the open debate I’m seeing outside the U.S. Whereas the U.S. seems to have bifurcated into those who claim a God-given right to breathe freely (that’s more or less a quote) vs those who’ve driven to the other extreme of saying wear a mask everywhere in public.

    Either doctrinaire extreme is absurd, to parallel “Filioque”. And I don’t feel at all removed from these issues.

  387. Trond Engen says:

    However other than in NZ or Aus, masks are ubiquitous

    Health authorities in Norway have made similar judgments as in NZ.

    I think, though, that one major factor to be counted in is the likelihood that people go out while infected. This will vary with culture, geography, social organization, and economy, and the official recommendations might vary accordingly. Countries that got it down towards zero curbed the (first wave of) contagion without use of masks or curfew-like restrictions.

  388. Lars Mathiesen says:

    There can be all sorts of subtexts in mask wearing. In Denmark, the officially xenophobic parties argue that concealing your face is against the open culture that “we” want (because saying that niqabs are bad because Muslim is against the constitution; as a result concealing your face in public is actually a misdemeanour these days, with exceptions for motorcycle helmets and carnivals — and health reasons). So there was never a recommendation for general mask use; on the other hand the virus was a welcome opportunity to implement a hard border closure to keep out the “other ethnic” hordes that in their world view infest the neighbouring countries.

    Luckily, solidarity is a strong trait here and there has been almost no resistance to social distancing and frequent application of sanitizers — except of course among the rebellious youth whose job it is to attract the reprobation of their elders — and the R number was quickly slashed enough to make the head health honcho happy and keep infection numbers low. (I suspect that many ethnic Danes are still a bit leery about all that hugging stuff and standing too close when you talk, so it was not really a hardship. Though handshakes have been a hard habit to shake).

  389. David Marjanović says:

    (Of course, a lot of people don’t seem to care very much about other people.)

    That’s not the big issue here. The issue is that, due to simple lack of information, lots of people believe the point of a mask is to protect the wearer. Then some of them remember the early days of the lockdown when they were told they shouldn’t buy masks…

    So when @Hat talks of “deniers”, what opinion is he ascribing? They deny that masks protect other people from those who are infectious? They deny that masks prevent the wearer getting infected (a reasonable doubt)? They deny all the science tout court?

    All of the above at once. Compare: the climate isn’t warming; and it is, but it’s not our fault; and it’s our fault but it’s actually a good thing; and it’s a bad thing but we can’t do anything about it, at least not without imposing full-on Stalinism, which would be even worse; and look, if you pick your data juuust right, it’s not warming anymore and has therefore never warmed at all.

    the U.S. seems to have bifurcated

    Not for the first time – and not along different lines than pretty much ever before.

    Actually, most existing bifurcations seem to have attracted each other and become largely congruent, as if by crank magnetism. The great exception is that the antivaxxers seem to be evenly distributed across left, right and center.

    Countries that got it down towards zero curbed the (first wave of) contagion without use of masks or curfew-like restrictions.

    And Sweden tried that, and it’s been failing pretty scarily.

  390. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Sweden kept shopping centres, gyms, bars, and schools open, and of course that meant public transport was stuffed to capacity as well even though private companies let many desk workers work from home. Denmark never had a curfew or internal travel restrictions (or masks), ‘just’ a work-from-home policy including all public workplaces except health care and only essential shops open — the few times I took a bus there were only two-three passengers in it.

    The major beauty product chain defined itself as essential because what would I ever do without my favourite lip gloss — and they also sell stuff like incontinence pads — but that was allowed to pass.

  391. Trond Engen says:

    Norway managed to get the numbers down with measures very much like Denmark’s. Finland managed even without closing down kindergartens. I haven’t seen a breakdown of the Swedish numbers, but reportedly, one main difference from other Nordic countries is a massive failure to keep nursing homes free from virus early in the epidemic.

    Most countries have put in place a broad range of measures. Since nobody could know which would work, they were meant to overshoot the target, Mostly this was done by political decision rather than the initially more measured approach of public health officials. With contagion temporarily under control, it’s easy to think that all measures were equally necessary, but they obviously weren’t. For one thing, hardly two countries had exactly the same mix of measures.

    I’m not against wearing masks. I would have put one on without hesitation if that was the official advice. They are a sensible measure to take where sufficient isolation of the contagious and the vulnerable can’t be acheived in other ways. They may also work as a nudge or a disciplining measure, a constant reminder of the seriousness of the crisis and the necessity of solidary action. There’s nothing wrong with that. Closing of schools and kindergartens may have worked in much the same way. But as for actual efficacy of each measure under different circumstances, I’ll leave that to future research on the mounting comparative evidence.

  392. The issue is that, due to simple lack of information, lots of people believe the point of a mask is to protect the wearer.

    I wonder if there’s a bit of deliberate obfuscation on the part of public health messaging: to tell people wearing a mask is protecting others is to stigmatise the wearer as a carrier/as infectious/as a danger. Whereas if people wear masks (for whatever reason they choose to believe), that promotes the right behaviour, even if for the wrong reason.

    If that obfuscation is part of the intent in the U.S., it’ll play right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists who suspect the State/the experts are talking down to the citizenry whilst serving their self-interests.

    Contrariwise, in Sweden there’s been too much trust of public health officials, who have served the self-interest of avoiding the hospital systems getting overwhelmed, whilst failing to foresee that a large amount of the medical treatments ended up taking place in rest homes, which were ill-prepared, under-equipped and under-staffed.

  393. My understanding is that a main reason for the initial hesitation to recommend wearing masks was the fact that there were too few disposable masks available, and the health authorities preferred them to be available for heavily exposed persons, like e.g. medical staff. When it became clear that self-made and commercially made reusable textile masks were quite effective in protecting people from infection by the wearer, the equation and the advice changed

  394. David Eddyshaw says:

    The evidence is indeed not that (ordinary unfitted) masks protect the wearer, but that they may protect others from the wearer. The evidence is weak, and there are really are concerns about what happens if you wear such a mask for longer than quite a short time; it is quite possible in principle that they could do more harm than good. “Common sense” is a very unsafe guide in such matters.

    We actually stopped using masks in the operating theatre some years ago after reviewing the literature about it (all different now, of course.)

    There does, on balance, seem to be evidence for a weak protective effect (to others) from wearing an ordinary mask. However, this is not quite the right way of looking at it. Measures which on an individual level have only marginal effects may still affect the course of the pandemic if adopted widely. Our own inept government in the UK has made a pig’s ear of explaining this to the public (but then, explaining complex facts clearly to the public is not their preferred modus operandi; I don’t think they know how to any more.)

    There is a tragedy-of-the-commons aspect to this, as AntC implies. (As with vaccination, of course.)

  395. Sorry to get down into the weeds, but that’s the open debate I’m seeing outside the U.S. Whereas the U.S. seems to have bifurcated into those who claim a God-given right to breathe freely (that’s more or less a quote) vs those who’ve driven to the other extreme of saying wear a mask everywhere in public.

    Maybe you could work a trifle harder to get past your simplistic/xenophobic division “outside the U.S.” = good, “U.S.” = bad. There is debate everywhere, there are idiots everywhere, and your wholesale smearing of the US is no better than the more simple-mindedly patriotic Americans wholesale smearing of furriners.

  396. Rodger C says:

    David Eddyshaw, J. W. Brewer: Thanks, that’s exactly what I meant. I was even about to pull in the Athanasian Creed.

    The Mormons are quite sure that Jesus has descendants, including their Mr. Smith.

    As for Jesus’ existence in the first place, if it’s good enough for Ernst Bloch and Hyam Maccoby, it’s good enough for me.

  397. John Cowan says:

    those who’ve driven to the other extreme of saying wear a mask everywhere in public.

    I fail to see what is extreme about this position (full disclosure: that’s what I do). I impose a small cost on myself to decrease the probability of infecting others and damaging society. Furthermore, I usually slip the mask up or down if I can see that there is no one within 40m (half a NYC block) of me. When I see others not wearing masks, I walk so as to avoid them. This is self-interest, since I am a diabetic in my early 60s, and I also indirectly protect my wife, who is in her late 70s.

    I am, as you doubtless all know by now, an American patriot: “My country, right or wrong: when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” —Carl Schurz

  398. David Marjanović says:

    one main difference from other Nordic countries is a massive failure to keep nursing homes free from virus early in the epidemic

    Yes, that’s been quite drastic.

    As for Jesus’ existence in the first place, if it’s good enough for Ernst Bloch and Hyam Maccoby, it’s good enough for me.

    …It’s not like we’ve learnt nothing since them, though.

  399. David Eddyshaw says:

    Trying to find out if I had misremembered that there was an official Soviet line on the matter, I discovered that Wikipedia has an entire very full article on the “Christ Myth Theory” (should really be “theories”):

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

    Seems pretty implausible that there was never anyone called Jesus/Joshua/Yēšūaʕ at all at the back of the stories (seemed implausible to me when I was an atheist too); mind you, you do swiftly run into the Radio Yerevan Moses problem:

    http://languagehat.com/bryusovs-fiery-angel/#comment-3897685

    There was a Jesus; but he wasn’t Jesus. (The Muslim position, come to that …)

  400. Bathrobe says:

    Maybe you could work a trifle harder to get past your simplistic/xenophobic division “outside the U.S.” = good, “U.S.” = bad.

    With the Internet and particularly Facebook, the views and actions of a relatively nutty part of the American population are transmitted almost instantly to the rest of the world, whether it’s armed protesters in front of a State capitol or the wacky views of a small community in Florida (“I don’t wear underwear because things have to breathe”). Not to mention the views and actions of your president. That’s the world we live in and it’s difficult to be objective with all this “viral” information around.

  401. With the Internet and particularly Facebook, the views and actions of a relatively nutty part of the American population are transmitted almost instantly to the rest of the world, whether it’s armed protesters in front of a State capitol or the wacky views of a small community in Florida (“I don’t wear underwear because things have to breathe”). Not to mention the views and actions of your president. That’s the world we live in

    Yes, I understand that.

    and it’s difficult to be objective with all this “viral” information around.

    Nonsense. It’s only “difficult” if you choose to embrace the bullshit. No one who comments here can get away with that excuse.

  402. possessing no substantial claims to historical fact. says the wiki. That’s not what I said. (Anytime soon the Hat is going to object we’re no longer talking about language or doctrinal schisms based on exegesis, and ask us to take this outside.)

    I’m quite happy with the idea there were a bunch of Aramaic-speaking troublemakers circulating in the Roman province of Judea, some with grandiose delusions of divine descent; quite possibly some of them were named Jesus; quite possibly some of them were sons of Josephs; even maybe some of them claimed to be descended from the House of David. I’m saying there wasn’t a single individual source for all the Gospel stories. I’m saying (for example) that the myth of the Virgin Birth and Roman census needing travel to Bethlehem was tacked on long after. I find it implausible the Romans would have left no record whatsoever of such a census.

    ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ breaks both ways: I can’t prove there wasn’t a single individual who mysteriously slipped through the cracks of historical record; any more than anybody can prove there was, subject to a modern ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ test.

    Somewhere on the interwebs there’s a debate between a theologist and Christopher Hitchens, where (and this is one of the few occasions I’ve seen Hitchens dumbfounded) the theologist says that if it were possible to prove Christ existed, and all the stories were of one individual, and that God existed, and that Christ was God made flesh; then that would be a question of scientific knowledge, not belief. So to count as a (true?) believer you must believe precisely in the face of insufficient evidence/indeed better still in the face of counter-evidence.

    The trouble I see is that this lack of evidence is equally strong for the Catholic God or the Protestant God or the Orthodox God or the God of the Jews (who at least has historical precedent) or the Muslim God or the mythology around the Buddha or … And (to try to get back to “Filioque”) equally strong for the Spirit proceeding from the Son or him having descendants named Smith, etc, etc. Why does it need close textual reading of the Scriptures if you can just consult your internal belief? Why carry disputes about textual readings to the point of killing God’s creations?

  403. John Cowan says:

    And of course there was a Homer, but he certainly wasn’t ‘Homer’.

  404. I’m quite happy with the idea there were a bunch of Aramaic-speaking troublemakers circulating in the Roman province of Judea, some with grandiose delusions of divine descent; quite possibly some of them were named Jesus; quite possibly some of them were sons of Josephs; even maybe some of them claimed to be descended from the House of David. I’m saying there wasn’t a single individual source for all the Gospel stories. I’m saying (for example) that the myth of the Virgin Birth and Roman census needing travel to Bethlehem was tacked on long after.

    That’s pretty much my take on it, though I don’t much care whether there was or wasn’t a single individual source.

    Somewhere on the interwebs there’s a debate between a theologist and Christopher Hitchens, where (and this is one of the few occasions I’ve seen Hitchens dumbfounded) the theologist says that if it were possible to prove Christ existed, and all the stories were of one individual, and that God existed, and that Christ was God made flesh; then that would be a question of scientific knowledge, not belief. So to count as a (true?) believer you must believe precisely in the face of insufficient evidence/indeed better still in the face of counter-evidence.

    This is not some weird exotic flight of the imagination, it’s a standard theological position. One of the many things that piss me off about professional atheists like Hitchens is that they feel no need to learn anything at all about religion, since it’s so obviously wrong all you need to do is sneer and quote selected passages that seem absurd or contradictory. They give atheism a bad name, just as the idiots who delight in random destruction at protests give anarchism a bad name.

  405. @David Eddyshaw: The very first thing that happens in The Master and Margarita is that the literary apparatchik Berlioz explains to the poet Ivan that the correct way to mock Jesus is not by describing Jesus as a horrible person, but rather by insisting that he could not have even existed. Satirizing the “proper” Stalinist way of writing about Jesus is one of the major motifs of the novel.

    On the question of the historical Jesus, I tend to believe that there was one particular Jewish preacher whose mission and probable execution formed the original foundation of the first-generation Christians’ beliefs. Obviously, the whole nativity story is a mythologized add-on, as is the resurrection (although it’s not beyond belief that Jesus’s body might have disappeared). There is a lot of marginal stuff, like the Sermon on the Plain/Mount, that might be real, or might have involved someone different, or might have made up later.

    However, there is one thing in Jesus’s story that strikes me as quite likely to be authentic: his use of parables. The parables, which may have been the core of his ministry, are rather unusual. They were not a completely new idea, but neither were they a significant cultural tradition in first-century Judea. And, more importantly I think, some of them are terrible! Some of them work, on their own terms, but there are a number that are utterly incomprehensible as metaphors; only with the follow-up explanations that Jesus evidently provided could they have any relations to the lessons he was trying to teach. Had these not been taken down or memorized by the original teacher’s loyal cadre of disciples, it is really hard to imagine how they could have made their way into the received version of his story.

  406. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Boys, if you are going to fight in here, do it outside! But that’s not Hat’s style.

    Inb4 “Liberty Hall.”

  407. do it outside (I’ll try to keep up a languagey perspective; but yes it’s time to stop.)

    it’s a standard theological position.

    Do you mean newly and only in C21st; or also throughout the Mediaeval furious debates on doctrinal minutiae? In which case isn’t it about time to do the Christian thing (or do I mean small-c catholic thing) and shake hands about those old silly-billies. But no: there seems to be vanishing likelihood of calling it quits over the interpolation of “Filioque”. And the reluctance seems quite uncoloured by any distaste for (say) the heinous crimes perpetrated by one schism or other under His name.

    Why bother showing up to a debate at all if you’re merely going to deny any debate could bring forward any ‘evidence’ you would consider valid? (The moderator was pretty nonplussed as well.)

    The Vatican seems to be very ready to call for stringently validated evidence from eye-witnesses when it comes to getting their senior officials out of jail. IIRC the DD in the Hitchens debate was from that same bunch that facilitate buggering little boys and girls, then turn round and doubly abuse the victims by discrediting their heartfelt testimony. So don’t lecture me about “selected” reading or choosing a different grounds for truthhood.

    One of the many things that piss me off about professional atheists like Hitchens is that they feel no need to learn anything at all about religion, …

    Hitchens is a nasty piece of work, a bully and an intellectual thug. He even seems thuggish towards other atheists, going by the ‘Four Riders of the Apocalypse’ recordings. But when it comes to failing to do his scriptural homework, your charge is utterly baseless. Hitchens knows more scripture than any Christian I’ve come across; and more than most theologians. That he chooses to dig out sources theologians would rather no-one look at as well as the ones they typically quote from does not make his reading ‘selective’. (I’m using present tense there because Hitchens is still very much alive on youtube.)

    Gives a bad name? I see clear blue water between Hitchens’ offensiveness (which I don’t deny) and the Fundamentalists of Mike Pence’s ilk that are happy to take refugee kids away from their parents and lock them in cages; or brown-nose the blaggard Trump’s disdain for ‘family values’/common decency; or lynch Blacks; or condemn and persecute those of non-hetero sexuality; or exclude women from the Ministry; or … (shall I continue to Christianity’s C20th atrocities? Or atrocities from other followers of the God of Abraham?) Sorry, all possible bad names were already taken long before Hitchens started stirring.

  408. those who’ve driven to the other extreme of saying wear a mask everywhere in public.

    I fail to see what is extreme about this position

    John I apologise: I wasn’t trying to alarm anybody. Merely, if a more nuanced debate were possible away from the noise of “a relatively nutty part of the American population “; the mask-wearing is of less priority than the social distancing and the scrupulous hand-hygiene. Pointing that out will of course just escalate those protections into the same confrontational status.

    I usually slip the mask up or down if I can see that there is no one …

    Apply sanitizer to your hands before touching the mask; apply sanitizer to your hands after touching the mask and before touching other surfaces or people. Failing that, slipping the mask down is (marginally) worse than not; and maybe worse than not wearing a mask at all — is the current advice from the science I can see at the moment. (I’ll say that very much sotto voce lest the “nutty part” overhear.)

    This is self-interest, since I am a diabetic …

    I very much feel for you. In your position I would be driven half-mad out of worry for my own health and my family’s. I would say NZ should offer sanctuary to the vulnerable; but of course the virus is so sneaky it’ll hitch a ride with just anybody — like all those who ‘escaped’ the Plague in C17th London, only to infect the rest of the country.

  409. David Eddyshaw says:

    his use of parables

    I’ve seen this very point made by respectable academic liberal (in the theological sense) theologians.

    I vaguely recall an ultra from this school opining somewhere that the only thing we could unequivocally state about the historical Jesus was that he was prone to start sentences with “verily, verily.”

    As a purely personal matter, it was reading the parables specifically that undermined my own atheism. Much as it doesn’t really matter whether an actor called “Shakespeare” wrote Shakespeare‘s plays, some (at least) of the parables are, as it were, self-signing. Not least because a lot of them are downright weird, in a way that people familiar with them since childhood often miss.

    @AntC:

    White Evangelicals of the Pence kind do indeed give the Gospel a bad name. They are a scandal, in the original theological sense. My own feeling is that it is impossible for an unbeliever to blaspheme: you can hardly take the Lord’s name in vain if, for you, the Name is just a sound, a word with no referent. On the other hand, proclaiming that it’s God’s will that a man like Trump became President, and that efforts to impeach him were ‘demonic’ – that‘s blasphemy, in the exact sense of the word.

    However, for Pence to be a logically valid argument against Christianity, you need to demonstrate that Pencean views logically follow from core Christian doctrines. (They don’t. Very far from it.) Otherwise, the argument is of the form: Hitler was evil. Hitler was a vegetarian. Therefore, vegetarians are evil.

  410. PlasticPaddy says:

    @antC
    I do not think that the objective of Christian apologists is to facilitate the molestation of children or to allow crazed albino members of the Jesuit order to emulate agent 007, when they are not too busy mortifying their flesh. So why bring up such matters in the context of a discussion on the merits (or “logic”) of the apologist’s position on the existence of God? I would observe that some atheists seem to evince a visceral reaction to an idea or complex of ideas involving authority, societal control and individual freedom, which they (probably correctly) associate with mainstream Christianity, although I think it is difficult to distinguish corresponding Christian beliefs from the folk myths and beliefs of the societies in which believers are embedded.

  411. David Marjanović says:

    On the subject of free word order… I now have the book I was thinking of, and it very briefly states Kayardild has it, so that if you don’t understand a sentence in one of the six canonical orders (SVO, SOV…), people will repeat it in the other five in the hope that one will work. There’s lots of case marking on the nouns. I haven’t yet found a mention of whether the order of other words is significant.

    Navajo, it hadn’t quite clicked from the Wikipedia article, is another pure direct/inverse language like Nunggubuyu (and very much unlike Kayardild), with the word order determined by the very detailed animacy hierarchy.

    then that would be a question of scientific knowledge, not belief. So to count as a (true?) believer you must believe precisely in the face of insufficient evidence/indeed better still in the face of counter-evidence.

    Ah, fideism… condemned by the Catholic Church. 🙂

    Homer

    Author of the Odyssee, editor of the Iliad.

    when they are not too busy mortifying their flesh

    That’s not the Jesuits so much, that’s the Opus Dei.

  412. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve actually got Nick Evans’ grammar of Kayardild. I’ll have a look at it when I get home. Kayardild might have been specifically put on this earth to make typologists give up and retrain as dental hygienists, so if any language at all does that …

  413. Trond Engen says:

    The Catholics believe that God’s existence can be proven by reason.

  414. David Eddyshaw says:

    You mean, they have proven by reason that God can be believed in?

  415. David Eddyshaw says:

    OK: Kayardild.

    The relevant section has two pages; starts off by saying that “discussion of word order is rendered both difficult and unimportant by the frequent ellipsis of arguments.” Goes on to cite various word orders: all permutations of SVO are possible, though VSO seems to be very uncommon. However 77.9% of transitive sentences had at least one argument ellipted, with 66.6% having ellipted subjects.

    A footnote says “When I was first working on the language and failed to understand a sentence, certain speakers would systematically permute the word order for me.” (This might be the origin of the statement in DM’s book.)

    Then Evans says “there is a tendency for new discourse participants to be fronted, regardless of their grammatical function.” Illustrates this by saying that it’s common in extended narratives for “the verb, which refers to a new event, to precede the subject pronoun, which refers to a well-established participant.”

    “The reappearance of the subject pronoun after a series of clauses in which it is elided suggests a faint change in discourse direction, often translatable by English ‘then.’ With third person pronominal participants this is almost a frozen idiom …”

    “Within both NPs and verb complexes word order is relatively fixed.”
    “Finite subordinate clauses are normally adjoined … but they are occasionally emebedded […] In such cases all words of the adjoined [sic] clause are contiguous.”

    It sounds like this is the fairly familiar case of a heavily inflected language using clause constituent order for information-packaging/presenting purposes.

    I don’t think the statement about informants permuting sentences refutes this. If you hypothesise that word order reflects information structure, this would just be analogous to an English speaker trying out different sentence stress patterns to get him/herself understood (along with the Englishman-abroad’s traditional SPEAKING VERY LOUD, of course.)

    On first principles, I’d say that to claim that a language actually does have totally free word order is an “extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.” In particular, you’d need copious evidence from both texts and elicitation to rule out information-packaging/presentation as the key; and it would be hard to do; these questions of focus and foregrounding and emphasis are about the hardest of all to get any kind of handle on in analysing a new language (or at least, I hope it’s not just me that finds it so …)

  416. David Marjanović says:

    That’s what they believe.

    The book is indeed Nick Evans’ Dying Words. Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us in German translation.

  417. David Eddyshaw says:

    BTW Evans says that NPs are a thing in Kayardild; the components have to be contiguous (except in unusual discourse contexts) and the order is fixed. In particular, adjectives can’t really be regarded as a sort of noun in apposition, as they can in other Australian languages.

  418. David Eddyshaw says:

    Evans might have made a more convincing claim for another Australian language that he’s produced a masterly grammar for, Bininj Gunwok (poster child for polysynthesis. Also, cool name.)

  419. atque ‘and’ < ad ‘to’

    More likely from at (which gets translated “but” but has a wide range of hard-to-define functions), both on semantic and formal grounds.

  420. John Cowan says:

    You mean, they have proven by reason that God can be believed in?

    No, the converse. Here’s the text (in English; I can’t find the Latin) of the relevant part of Vatican I:

    If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.

    Or as Lytton Strachey put it, it became a matter of faith that faith was not necessary for a knowledge of God.

  421. David Eddyshaw says:

    I was actually attempting facetiousness (rarely a wise move.)

    I think Vatican I is expressing the orthodox view in this (Paul himself says something which implies this pretty clearly.) It’s a doctrine I myself find particularly implausible, though my finding things particularly implausible has never cut much ice with the Vatican to date. (I have also noticed that a fair range of things I find implausible seem, in fact, to be true. Life is complicated …)

    The doctrine is, of course, bad news.

  422. Bathrobe says:

    along with the Englishman-abroad’s traditional SPEAKING VERY LOUD, of course.

    There is a good reason for Englishmen talking loud: you can’t understand them when they mutter politely. I had a lot of trouble catching was said in the Harry Potter films. Perhaps they should have been set in America after all, as Warner wanted.

  423. The role of reason in Christianity is one of the major topics in the “Syllabus of Errors,” although the odd construction of that document—highlighting only statements that are untrue—makes it difficult to tease out exactly what role Pius IX thought reason should actually play, as of 1864,

  424. But when it comes to failing to do his scriptural homework, your charge is utterly baseless. Hitchens knows more scripture than any Christian I’ve come across; and more than most theologians.

    Irrelevant; that’s what I meant about quoting selected passages that seem absurd or contradictory. If he knew anything about Christianity, he could not have been dumbfounded at the idea that faith cannot rest on scientific knowledge. Hell, he must not even have read Dostoevsky. Any fool can cite Scripture for his purpose; being able to quote Kant doesn’t make me a philosopher.

  425. David Marjanović says:

    A footnote says “When I was first working on the language and failed to understand a sentence, certain speakers would systematically permute the word order for me.” (This might be the origin of the statement in DM’s book.)

    It is; that’s described in the book.

    It sounds like this is the fairly familiar case of a heavily inflected language using clause constituent order for information-packaging/presenting purposes.

    Yes.

    I don’t think the statement about informants permuting sentences refutes this.

    Indeed not. Throughout Slavic, all six orders occur in the wild, but SVO is a strong default.

    these questions of focus and foregrounding and emphasis are about the hardest of all to get any kind of handle on in analysing a new language (or at least, I hope it’s not just me that finds it so …)

    That’s definitely hard, especially from written texts where you can only guess the intonation, and in languages whose intonation is too far from what you’re used to. Heath’s description of Nunggubuyu stresses that the words are long enough to be intonational phrases in their own right, so that intonation is useless for deciding whether e.g. noun phrases exist, and then there’s a near-falsetto monotone used for background information.

    The doctrine is, of course, bad news.

    Yeah. The “creator and lord” that can be inferred “from the things that have been made” is not exactly of the sort “the universe loves and helps you”.

  426. David Eddyshaw says:

    That’s definitely hard, especially from written texts where you can only guess the intonation, and in languages whose intonation is too far from what you’re used to

    Very true; to which I’d add, that in elicitation work with focus it’s very easy to fall foul of a sort of observer effect, where the very setup of your elicitation alters the exact feature you’re trying to investigate.

    There’s a lot of dispute about the whole theoretical basis of focus, too, even in familiar intensively-studied languages like English; and it seems to be very variable across languages, not only in terms of how it’s marked, but also what is marked.

    In my Kusaal grammar I originally put in a disclaimer about the highly incomplete and provisional nature of my treatment of focus, until finally deciding that anybody who knew about the issues would find that perfectly obvious anyway.

  427. Thank you both Davids for the deep research on allegedly free word-order. I note the conclusion about extraordinary claims calling for extraordinary evidence.

    it’s very easy to fall foul of a sort of observer effect, where the very setup of your elicitation alters the exact feature you’re trying to investigate.

    Yeah. I wonder how Chomskyans would represent that in the Faculty of Language/Minimalist Program? I’d guess it’s not just a Language universal, but a cognitive universal: you can’t observe your prey on the savanna without risking them detecting you and getting scared off.

    Anyhoo it pretty much invalidates any probing with informants as to ‘grammaticality’/’acceptability’ judgments. So Chomsky might as well sit in his armchair and hand down judgments; saves shoe-leather.

  428. Bathrobe says:

    Somewhat belatedly, this line finally sank in:

    Linguistics would be in far better shape if he’d never been born.

    This is the kind of devastating thought I might occasionally have about Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. And maybe Derrida or Foucault.

    I hope Noam doesn’t follow this blog.

  429. Linguistics would be in far better shape if he’d never been born.

    This is the kind of devastating thought I might occasionally have about Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. And maybe Derrida or Foucault.
    I know that Stalin dabbled in linguistics. I don’t know about Mao. But I’m quite sure that Hitler, notwithstanding his other crimes, didn’t do any harm to linguistics. 😉

  430. David Eddyshaw says:

    it pretty much invalidates any probing with informants as to ‘grammaticality’/’acceptability’ judgments

    It doesn’t make it impossible, but it introduces a whole lot of extra sources of potential error. I was very lucky with two of my Kusaal informants, who rapidly cottoned on to what I was trying to do, and were (for example) very good at thinking up contexts in which you actually would say something that in isolation seemed unacceptable. (Just as various Hatters have been doing with English in this very thread.)

  431. David Eddyshaw says:

    Another contribution in line with Evans’ war on putative “universals” (which I am generally all in favour of, despite being dubious about the particular word-order thing):

    https://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~hyman/papers/2011-hyman-gokana.pdf

    The conclusion is interesting, even if detailed discussion of the phonotactics of a Cross-River language isn’t quite your thing (there may be one or two Hatters of whom this is true.)

  432. Bathrobe says:

    This paper is a good presentation of arguments against Chomskyanism.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311450032_Language_in_a_New_Key

  433. David Eddyshaw says:

    Stalin’s most well-known journal contribution to linguistics is pretty sound:

    https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1950/jun/20.htm

    (I’m struck once again by the Radio-Yerevan-ish format. Evidently a feature of the genre.)

  434. David Eddyshaw says:

    (If we’re going to go all Godwin’s Law: N Y Marr, the A N Chomsky of Soviet Linguistics ….)

  435. Sheesh there’s a lot of traffic on closely-related topics. (The combo of Public Holiday and lockdown is driving everybody to their keyboards, presumably.) I’m struggling to keep up, but I wanted to come back on this one …

    On fideism [there’s a language point coming soon]

    [Hitchens] quoting selected passages that seem absurd or contradictory. If he knew anything about Christianity, …

    My youtube feed just served up Hitchens talking about Mormonism. He includes just enough snide comments to let you know he’s being ironic, but all the absurdness and contradictions come deadpan straight from Joseph Smith himself. I presume even the most Evangelical of other Evangelicals want to find some grounds for distancing Christianity from a convicted con-man (though perhaps not so much from his other repellent characteristics). Since fideism rejects such reasoning (and there’s at least one prominent Mormon politician with a track record of some sort of business/administrative rationality outside his religion), I can see why Catholicism wants to avoid going down that rabbit-hole.

    If [Hitchens] knew anything about Christianity, he could not have been dumbfounded at the idea that faith cannot rest on scientific knowledge. Hell, he must not even have read Dostoevsky.

    To set the record straight, it was me who was ignorant of fideism and allied trades. I’m pretty sure Hitchens knows of it; but merely he didn’t expect to be invited to a debate with someone who made that the first and only move. After opening speeches, how to proceed with a ‘debate’? Like turning up at a bring-a-plate dinner only to sit in the corner with your own sandwiches and flask of coffee. Which reminds me of …

    That fideistic move seems to be exactly Chomsky’s tactic: he doesn’t need a reason to believe that Merge is the only deepest-of-deep structure. He’s prejudged that what’s deep in one language must be a Universal, so he only need examine any one speaker’s intuitions in any language at which they’re competent, and job done. Well the speaker might as well be Chomsky and the language might as well be English.

    When Pullum asks how this accounts for the ‘computational device’ that hearers need to replicate the process getting from deep to surface, in order to understand some utterance: a) communication is a secondary purpose of language; b) any failures of communication are a matter of performance not competence. When child acquisition psycholinguists ask how kids figure out Merge: c) it’s innate so don’t need no figuring out, and any kid can learn whatever language they’re exposed to so Merge must be innate QED; d) again, language acquisition is in the realm of performance not competence.

    And e) since Merge is isomorphic to the Kuratowski representation of an ordered pair, and that can be extended to represent any arbitrarily complex data structure (viz. relationship between nodes, possibly multidimensional), Chomsky can always claim that any competing model of structure is merely Merge ‘in disguise’.

    Chomsky has arrived at an unassailableable position. I guess all Linguistics can do is build a bypass.

  436. N Y Marr, the A N Chomsky of Soviet Linguistics …

    Tush! Marr is profligate compared to Chomsky: he has so many as four universals (“diffused exclamations”).

    (But it seems to be his naivete at Marxist dialectics that got Marr in trouble with Comrade Jugashvili.)

  437. David Eddyshaw says:

    I presume even the most Evangelical of other Evangelicals want to find some grounds for distancing Christianity from a convicted con-man

    Mormons do indeed describe themselves as Christian, but no orthodox Christian would accept this (especially not those who describe themselves as Evangelicals.) This is nothing to do with conmen: the core theological beliefs of Mormonism are very greatly at variance with mainstream Christianity. “Finding grounds for distancing” is not the issue at all.

  438. David Eddyshaw says:

    (After all, Evangelical Christianity has produced plenty of its own conmen. No need to coopt any Mormons. Being a conman is entirely compatible with pronouncing correct theological formulations.)

  439. no orthodox Christian would accept this … the core theological beliefs of Mormonism are very greatly at variance with mainstream Christianity.

    Thank you David; that’s what I expected Christians might say. (And the core beliefs of proselytes knocking at my door are very greatly at variance with the crimes of the Catholic Church, they say.) If I might speak as someone without His illumination, and I’ll try to step lightly …

    The story about the golden tablets and magic stones seems to me prima facie no less plausible than the Virgin Birth. The story of descent from the Nephites seems no less plausible than the descent from the House of David. The grounds for disputes between Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant/Evangelical seem to me different grounds variously but no better reasoned than the grounds for Mormons vs ‘mainstream Christianity’ — indeed if ‘mainstream Christianity’ is supposed to include the Greek humanism that Paul injected, there’s been scant evidence of ‘turning the other cheek’ down the centuries. So are small-o “orthodox Christians” at variance with “mainstream Christianity”? I can’t tell.

    Joseph Smith’s life story seems better corroborated than whoever the people were whose lives got gathered into the Gospels.

    In face of fideism, I have no way to tell these sects apart. I have no way to tell ‘true’ Christian from charlatan — except by my usual measures of charlatanism, which is to say someone’s religion is no indicator whatsoever. (Some sects seem to attract particular varieties of charlatans; some sects seem to facilitate particular evils; by all means say it’s the ‘organised’ part of ‘organised religion’ rather than the ‘religion’, but those I can’t tell apart either.)

    As it is with Chomskyanism, so it is with religious fideism: the only strategy I see is to bypass it.

  440. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah. Gotcha. They all look the same to you.

  441. In face of fideism, I have no way to tell these sects apart.

    In other words, you don’t care enough to bother investigating, but that doesn’t stop you from issuing blanket condemnations.

  442. Rodger C says:

    To refine the point, saying that Mormonism and normative Christianity are equally suspect has nothing to do with how different they are from each other, unless you regard doctrinal differences as insignificant variations of the same absurdity.

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