Misused Terms in Linguistics.

Evelina Leivada, a psycholinguist at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, has an article in Inference, Misused Terms in Linguistics, that begins:

The evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry observed that linguists “would rather share each other’s toothbrush than each other’s terminology.” This is far from an isolated view. Peter Hagoort, an eminent cognitive neuroscientist, voiced similar concerns. […] Tanja Kupisch and Jason Rothman, psycholinguists working primarily on bilingual development, recently noted that “[o]nce offered to the public domain, terminology can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects, even—perhaps especially—when these are unintended by their original promoters.”

An effort to improve the terminological clarity and coherence of theoretical and experimental linguistics is long overdue. In this respect, linguists might consider following the lead of psychologists in identifying and discussing lists of inaccurate, ambiguous, misused, and polysemous terms. The focus throughout should be on key notions of the field. Terms such as feature, parameter, (grammaticality/acceptability) judgment, (language) universal, and Universal Grammar are omnipresent in linguistics. These notions are fundamental to the discipline and their misuse has important implications, not only for the coherence of the field, but also for its standing in the broader context of cognitive science. The following terms do not all satisfy the same criteria of inaccuracy, ambiguity, and misuse. The degrees to which they exhibit these characteristics vary, and this is part of the problem. This review will not focus solely on the conceptual clarity of these ten terms, but also on their inconsistent usage.

I’m so far removed from the kind of linguistics that depends on such terms that I find much of it hard to understand, but it will probably be of interest to some Hatters, and I am amused by her attempts to salvage a system in which she is apparently invested:

The identification of FLN and UG is wrong. If UG equals FLN, and if FLN is, indeed, an empty set—a possibility that Chomsky has once again left open in his latest book with Robert Berwick—scholars outside generative linguistics would inevitably question the need to assume a UG-shaped form of innateness. Furthermore, if UG and FLN are indeed the same, why are two terms needed to denote one object?

But, of course, FLN is not the same thing as UG. […]

Of course not! Perish the thought!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    The solution is evident. The use of any of these terms in any context is a misuse of Linguistics.

    When I were a lad, we used to dream of each ‘aving ‘is own toothbrush.

    The FLN is of course far from being an empty set, whatever ANC may think:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Liberation_Front_(Algeria)

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    It is … touching … to imagine that an institutionalised aversion to honestly confronting the failure of one’s basic methodology can be meaningfully addressed by terminological reforms.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    The evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry observed that linguists “would rather share each other’s toothbrush than each other’s terminology.”

    Huh, was that specific to linguists?

    (Incidentally, Eörs is not a typo. Hungarian is just that awesome.)

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    “A UG-shaped form of innateness”. I do not expect that such buzz will survive terminological reform. It usually goes pear-shaped.

  5. Bathrobe says:

    The objective of this essay is to attain a higher level of terminological clarity and coherence within the field of linguistics.

    The first problem is her lack of “terminological clarity and coherence” in equating Chomskyan linguistics to “the field of linguistics”. UG, FLN, FLB and the rest are terms found in only one part of linguistics.

    The writer maintains that “There are sentences that are not acceptable or in use—but for reasons that have nothing to do with violating linguistic rules.” If “linguistic rules” produce “grammatical sentences” like “That that that Bill left Mary amused Sam is interesting is sad” (the author explicitly states that this is “grammatical”), then there are grave problems with the concept of grammaticality itself under her conception of linguistics.

    they would certainly not rate it as acceptable as the very similar, “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary.”

    Surely such sentences would only emerge if (1) You were thinking aloud, trying to to put your thoughts into an appropriate form but not succeeding, (2) You were playing linguistic games for your own or someone else’s amusement, (3) You were an armchair linguist trying to push grammatical rules as far as you thought they might go, (4) You were a logician or philosopher trying to push logic to its limits. But I don’t think many speakers of English would rate “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary” as “acceptable”. That’s because most speakers are involved in communicating, not confounding people with outlandish sentences.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    # According to Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenblueth, “the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.” #

    Priceless ! Logical positivism much ?

    “Some of my best friends are metaphors, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    was that specific to linguists?

    Yes, aversion to the sharing of toothbrushes is indeed specific to linguists, and it can be explained by the fact that linguists evolved to cope with a very different environment, where sharing of toothbrushes was often rapidly lethal.

    When the aversion appears in non-linguist groups, it is clear evidence of palaeolinguistic genetic flow (though it should be pointed out that many supposed instances of such aversion among non-linguists are more parsimoniously accounted for by poor experimental design, exacerbated by confusion concerning the “toothbrush” concept itself, which has not been well-defined in the literature.)

  8. The first problem is her lack of “terminological clarity and coherence” in equating Chomskyan linguistics to “the field of linguistics”.

    Yes, that was particularly amusing to me.

  9. It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary

    I guess that it has something to do with much alleged infinite recursivity of language. Which, taken literally, is complete bunk, given well documented cases that people cannot remember which way a statement goes after 3 “no”s. However, if you make it into a statement “there is nothing in the grammar that prevents recursion of any depth” than it might make sense for some definitions of grammar.

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    The Chomsky-Schützenberger hierarchy got the study and implementation of programming languages really going, but before long it was completely understood and laid to rest. A dog growled, the monads moved on.

    In the study of natural languages it has turned out to be useless for anything other than publishing papers. I’m amazed anyone thinks there’s still cognitive lemon juice to be squeezed out of “recursion”, “context-free”, “context-sensitive” and so on. BORING and TRIVIAL.

    I wouldn’t give the time of day to recursion, after discovering by accident last year, all on my lonely, that depth-first and breadth-first searches in graphs only need lists ! Of course my first thought was “this smells like Lisp and is probably old hat” – which it does and is. Silly old me, reinventing the wheel at my age.

  11. Bathrobe says:

    For me, “That that that Bill left Mary amused Sam is interesting is sad” is ungrammatical, full stop.

    “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary” is “grammatical but weird”– who would say that?

    Linguists who play these kinds of games are severely stretching the meaning of “grammatical” and “acceptable”. Their judgements are out of whack because they are not dealing with “language”; they are just tunnelling deeper and deeper into their particular rabbit hole of “possible depth of recursion of linguistic rules”. Their reality distortion field makes even the weirdest sentences start to sound alright if repeated often enough.

    What we need is a linguistic term for sentences that linguists find acceptable but no one else does. Any suggestions, Evelina Leivada?

    And to think, she actually draws a salary to study this crap. The money would be better spent taking care of stray dogs in India (which comes up every so often on my Facebook feed).

  12. As I have said previously, a great deal might be gained by treating judgements of linguistic grammaticality or acceptability as statistical, not absolute. As you increase the level or recursion in a sentence, the level of acceptability is going to fall, especially with heavier constituents. The form of the recursion will obviously also affect how deep you can go. To me, “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary,” seems marginal, but, “That that that Bill left Mary amused Sam is interesting is sad,” even though it is of the same depth, is absurd. (Although, even in that case, there is a smidgen of grammaticality left; I read the sentence to myself about ten times—a few minutes apart each time—and once, in the middle, I did actually parse it as “intended.”)

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    If we’re looking for useful ideas in linguistics, how about harmonics ? In German, “gendered pronouns” later in a sentence resonate with nouns of the same gender earlier in the sentence, so you can hear the semantic melody.

    Or strands of DNA that fold back on themselves at non-arbitrary locations. Or something like that …

    Mathematics is perhaps of only limited usefulness here. Better get your thoughts straightened out first.

  14. Stu Clayton says:

    Apart from statistics. I like Brett’s ideas on that.

    Somewhere out there, linguistics may have a mute, inglorious Gibbs. Which he was, as I learned today.

  15. John Cowan says:

    a great deal might be gained by treating judgements of linguistic grammaticality or acceptability as statistical, not absolute.

    Quite so. I also hold that the only people who can make grammaticality judgments are syntacticians, because something is grammatical iff it agrees with some grammar they have devised. What ordinary speakers can and do make is acceptability judgments.

    As you increase the level or recursion in a sentence, the level of acceptability is going to fall, especially with heavier constituents. The form of the recursion will obviously also affect how deep you can go. To me, “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary,” seems marginal, but, “That that that Bill left Mary amused Sam is interesting is sad,” even though it is of the same depth, is absurd.

    Well, that particular example is qualitative, not quantitative: the tail recursion of the first sentence is iteration in disguise, and as such is fundamentally different from recursion.

  16. SFReader says:

    UG sounds like exclamation of disgust

  17. Tail recursion is its own reward
    As every dog knows.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Well, lists are usually implemented as a recursive datatype. The free monoid monad is most naturally expressed with a countable infinity of constructors but computers are bad at that stuff, and if they exist they are usually called counted arrays vel sim.

    (Actually the most common mathematical formalism for monoidial structure just has a nullary and a binary operator plus associativity, but it’s a different binary operator than the one functional programming uses. I will however claim that most people just think of the ‘product’ of more than two things as an actual object, not as an equivalence class under associativity. There do exist equivalent formulations with constructors of all arities, but little is won apart from conceptual purity– too many subscripts and you still have to have associativity rules, just infinities of them).

  19. PlasticPaddy says:

    I think that the fear is that someone (a civil servant or academic) might disappear into his own recursive sentence like “I am informed that you were told that it was hoped that you knew that your wife was aware that your son was informed that you were told that it was hoped that you knew that your wife was aware….”

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    A true bureaucrat can obfuscate without recursion.

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    Well, lists are usually implemented as a recursive datatype.

    Yeah, and Easter eggs are usually implemented as jewel-encrusted Fabergé objets d’art.

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    A true bureaucrat can obfuscate without recursion.

    Repetition and deviation are the tools of his trade, and there’s no time-out buzzer.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    (Incidentally, Eörs is not a typo. Hungarian is just that awesome.)

    Right, that’s how it’s spelt, but it doesn’t follow current Hungarian spelling rules, and should be Örs. I asked Eörs about it once, and he said yes, it doesn’t obey the rules, but it’s an old spelling and proper names don’t have to obey the current rules.

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry observed that linguists “would rather share each other’s toothbrush than each other’s terminology.”

    He could have said something rather similar about theories of life (one of his own fields). In the past few decades (since about 1957) several theories of life have appeared, by Robert Rosen, Manfred Eigen & Peter Schuster, Stuart Kauffman, Tibor Gánti (whose trumpet Eörs Szathmáry has devoted a lot of effort to blowing), and Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela. Although all have published books setting out their ideas, none of these mention any of the others. (All of them, I think, recognize Erwin Schrödinger’s contribution.)

  25. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Fabergé — I didn’t say they were implemented in a language capable of expressing recursive types, innit. Though come to think of it, most anything with structures and pointers will do that if you allow enough of the semantics to be specified in comments. Even if all the assembler code in the standard libraries have turned the tail recursion into loops, if the head of a list has a pointer to the rest which is also a list, that’s recursive.

    OK, C, sorry Dennis. Stupid grad student tricks department: Implementing recursive parameter types in Pascal. I think I told the story before.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Right, that’s how it’s spelt, but it doesn’t follow current Hungarian spelling rules, and should be Örs.

    Bummer.

    Wikipedia has impressive examples of Hungarian names that don’t follow the spelling rules. For instance, some bearers of the last name Török (common, like Türk in Austria) spell it Thewrewk.

    Yes, aversion to the sharing of toothbrushes is indeed specific to linguists

    Day saved.

    (I meant whether the saying was specifically about linguists. The version I know has scientists in general.)

    The writer maintains that “There are sentences that are not acceptable or in use—but for reasons that have nothing to do with violating linguistic rules.” If “linguistic rules” produce “grammatical sentences” like “That that that Bill left Mary amused Sam is interesting is sad” (the author explicitly states that this is “grammatical”), then there are grave problems with the concept of grammaticality itself under her conception of linguistics.

    No, it just means there are grammatical sentences that are nonetheless unacceptable because they run up against so-called performance constraints. I find that idea completely unremarkable.

    And no, I don’t think only syntacticians can judge grammatically. It took me half a minute, but in the end I could parse the that that that sentence before I read on to the explanation, and it did not give me any “BZZZT! Wrong.” reaction like I get from agreement mismatches, word-order mistakes or suchlike.

    (I do agree that grammaticality defined like this isn’t always either-or, but that’s not an issue here, as it happens.)

    Bill left Mary
    (the fact) that Bill left Mary amused Sam
    (the fact) that {(the fact) that Bill left Mary amused Sam} is interesting
    (the fact that {(the fact) that {(the fact) that Bill left Mary amused Sam} is interesting} is sad

    …and if I heard the sentence very slowly in very suggestive intonation, maybe I could parse it then, too, but no guarantees.

    Probably I couldn’t produce it in speaking, though; I’d lose track of it while planning it. That’s a performance constraint.

    “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary.”

    Surely such sentences would only emerge if (1) You were thinking aloud, trying to to put your thoughts into an appropriate form but not succeeding

    I totally do that.

    OK, I probably interrupt myself 2/3 of the way through and start over, because I notice that the result (grammatical or not) would not be understood, but I’m definitely capable of spontaneously producing such a sentence in speaking without even trying. That is not the case for the that that that version.

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    @Lars: Even if all the assembler code in the standard libraries have turned the tail recursion into loops

    Not available in Java. I was merely talking about the cognitive advantages of using lists (queues) to avoid function call recursion from the start. Lists are easier for young programmers (< 45) to understand, they are frightened by call recursion anyway. One small step for maintenance.

  28. AJP Crown says:

    some bearers of the [Hungarian] last name Török (common, like Türk in Austria) spell it Thewrewk
    The American pianist and Bach expert Rosalyn Tureck was in the same class at school in Chicago as Saul Bellow.

  29. Angus Macdonald says:

    “Incidentally, Eörs is not a typo. Hungarian is just that awesome.)

    Right, that’s how it’s spelt, but it doesn’t follow current Hungarian spelling rules, and should be Örs. I asked Eörs about it once, and he said yes, it doesn’t obey the rules, but it’s an old spelling and proper names don’t have to obey the current rules.”

    When I came across the name at the top of the article here it immediately made me think of Winnie the Pooh. How cute, I thought, his parents named him after Eeyore, but with Hungarian spelling! 🙂

  30. John Cowan says:

    The Chief Terminologist at this point is probably Martin Haspelmath, not because everyone listens and obeys par ordre du mufti, but because nobody can say that his terms (and he ha many) are bad because he uses the wrong framework. He doesn’t even use Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato, because (as he himself says) sometimes BLT is framework-free, and sometimes it’s a framework of its own, not infrequently in the same paper.

    The Ugric vowel ö is a curiosity; many of the languages have it, but it is not reconstructible to Proto-Ugric, and is often concentrated in borrowings, onomatopoiea, and other oddball words.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    In Hungarian it’s a pretty recent development.

    It hadn’t occurred to me to connect Turek (a last name not unknown in Vienna) with Türk…

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    @Lars: using a queue makes it possible to traverse a graph (DFS, BFS) by constructing it only on demand, as a stream. You can’t do that as easily with call recursion. I was implementing such a DFS visitor to an on-the-fly graph, when it occurred to me that turning the idea on its head gives a stream. You can stop at any time.

    An on-the-fly graph is a start node plus an adjacency function.

  33. Stu Clayton says:

    I call it a gonad because it creates successors.

  34. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Nice name. Stu, we are approaching the question of whether a thing contains recursion from two very different direction. It needs at least four beers to hash out.

  35. Stu Clayton says:

    Yes, of course I see that. I’m basically playing the curate to your prelate.

  36. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Your city or mine?

  37. Bathrobe says:

    No, it just means there are grammatical sentences that are nonetheless unacceptable because they run up against so-called performance constraints. I find that idea completely unremarkable.

    Let me get this straight. The grammar of a language is abstracted from actual linguistic facts on the ground (or linguists’ introspections, whichever you wish) according to some model.

    There are sentences that fit the abstracted grammar that are never actually produced by speakers, and are extremely difficult to understand, if at all.

    In such a case, you are saying that the model takes precedence over actual phenomena in determining “grammaticality”. This is where we differ.

    If the claim was that “x is licensed as a possible sentence by the abstracted ‘grammar'” (but is unacceptable to speakers of the language) I would be less inclined to object. I wouldn’t even mind if “performance constraints” were adduced as the reason why such a sentence doesn’t exist.

    But not “x sentence is grammatical”, full stop.

    Essentially this is an issue of terminology. If you like playing with abstractions, fine. But find a new term, like “theoretically possible” or whatever. Don’t burden us with terminology so divorced from ordinary usage as to sound ridiculous (and make the field sound ridiculous).

    It’s true that Chomsky has moved on from his early idea that the grammar of a language should generate all of the grammatical sequences of a language and none of the ungrammatical ones. This is no longer a requirement. (See this paper: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5613309/). Chomsky’s current approach doesn’t seem to have caught on among a lot of linguists in his own school and is probably the reason that Evelina Leivada wrote that piece in the first place.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    The grammar of a language is abstracted from actual linguistic facts on the ground (or linguists’ introspections, whichever you wish) according to some model.

    I’d say the grammar is what speakers actually have in their heads. They’re not fully conscious of it, at least if they didn’t learn the language exclusively from books; the models try to approximate it, but are unlikely to match it completely – in particular, they’re likely to underestimate how complex the rules are and how many exceptions they have –; different speakers of the same little subdialect may have subtly different grammars; a grammar can contain contradictions in edge cases, so that sometimes there’s no good solution to a given problem.

    I have such a thing in my head, and that’s why I get emotional responses like “BZZZT! Wrong.” without necessarily being able to immediately explain what exactly the issue is.

    See this paper:

    Oh, it’s in a Frontiers journal! That means it’s in open access, and you can link to the real thing which has a more legible layout. 🙂

    I’m going to read it just because of this reviewer:

    Ricardo Etxepare
    UMR 5478 Centre de Recherche sur la Langue et les Textes Basques (IKER), France

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’d say the grammar is what speakers actually have in their heads

    But we don’t have access to that, except in one case (each), and even then only indirectly: we are not directly conscious of it, but have to perform thought experiments to get at it.

    The doctrine is thus liable to lead to the Chomskyan original sin of doing grammatical analysis by introspection. Apart from the philosophical objections one might raise, this falls foul of two major practical problems:

    (a) a person’s actual usage demonstrably differs from what they consciously suppose it to be: you can’t rely on Sprachgefühl even in your mother tongue

    (b) the very last people whose subjective judgments are likely to consistently reflect community linguistic norms are linguists (especially Chomskyan linguists, of course, but also normal linguists)

    On the point of acceptability not being simply yes/no, It’s frankly a matter of everyday experience that this is the case. Some utterances would never be produced by a native speaker at all except by mistake; some are completely unremarkable; a great many strike one as perfectly comprehensible, but something only a particular sort of person might say in very particular circumstances. These sort of issues are not marginal: they come up constantly in Language As She Is Spoke. I cannot imagine any way of addressing such questions which doesn’t draw on sociolinguistics: they are insoluble by introspection not only in practice but in principle.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    For your convenience, I have summarised the paper:

    The purpose of the Theory is to be the Theory. Experiment has no bearing on its beauty (not even the good, clean kind of experiment that you do in your own head, as the Master taught us in the Beginning.) The Master has led us far beyond such untutored views. Sadly, even self-described disciples of the Master remain unenlightened, and persist in the blasphemous view that an inconvenient fact could call the Theory into doubt. This is manifestly absurd in principle. Wake up, sheeple!

  41. Linguistics of course is just one of many fields whose technical terms, used accurately by experts, are misused by the public. We term a big leap a “quantum leap”, to the anger of physicists, who know that a quantum leap is tiny. We talk of excitement at its peak “reaching a crescendo”, to the anger of musicians, who know that this peak is the crescendo’s end. All this prescriptivism amuses linguists. Which I’d find OK if it weren’t that linguists themselves express anger when the public misuse *their* terms. Which is sad. It is sad that it amuses linguists that it angers experts that people misuse technical terms.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think this is actually a rather more incestuous complaint: it’s about other linguists supposedly misusing the terminology.

    Journalists are still stuck at the stage of misusing the grammatical terms of the eighteenth century. They have yet to progress to the stage of misusing langue and parole, let alone mangling Chomskyan creole.

  43. Stu Clayton says:

    @Lars: Your city or mine?

    If you’re ever somewhere relatively nearby, like D’dorf, Frankfurt, Bonn, Cologne, let’s meet up. After commuting every day for years, now I never travel anywhere, except maybe once or twice a year to Frankfurt for hardware reasons (I have a notebook from the customer).

  44. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I usually get an (unplanned) overnight stay in Frankfurt when I try to go anywhere with DB, but right now it’s not clear when I can plan anything again, of course.

  45. John Cowan says:

    If we must have two terms ungrammatical and unacceptable, then I prefer the first to be reserved for something that violates a stated grammar of the language. An utterance in Latin is grammatical or ungrammatical according to whether it matches the (informal) rules in someone’s grammar of Latin, with no reference to whatever might have been found in the heads of people who are now dead. English and Mandarin are not different.

    What is different, however, is how people’s acceptablility meters work, and this is not just an individual matter. The characteristic acceptability judgment in English is “BZZZT! Wrong!” In Mandarin, though, it’s more like “Well, yes, you could say it that way, but usually we wouldn’t.”

  46. Stu Clayton says:

    an (unplanned) overnight stay in Frankfurt when I try to go anywhere with DB

    My DB commuting years occasionally brought long waits at the Frankfurt Flughafen station on my way back to Cologne from Mannheim or Frankfurt, especially in the summer. I usually succeeded in getting out before midnight, by going in to the HBf and taking the choo-choo up the Rhine instead of the ICE that skims the hilltops.

    I always had a few thousand pages of Luhmann with me, so there was no cognitive loss.

  47. David Marjanović says:

    For your convenience, I have summarised the paper:

    You left a point out that is emphasized rather strongly:

    The Master changed his mind at least 40 years ago from the Early View to the Revised View. Sadly and inexplicably, most of his self-described followers have not followed, and indeed seem to be blissfully unaware. The Early View is obviously stupid and wrong! Wake up, sheeple!

    The Early View is indeed silly enough that one wonders how Chomsky managed to hold it for up to 25 years. The Revised View, at least as portrayed in the paper, is – if nothing else – vague enough that it’s not obviously wrong. But what strikes me the most is that the author himself fails to notice how much Chomsky has changed his mind, as shown in the first sentence of the conclusions: “The theory of GG has undergone significant conceptual shifts.” Well, no. The Early View and the Revised View are two different theories of GG that flat-out contradict each other.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    This paper, also in open access, might be of interest. Abstract:

    Findings from the field of experimental linguistics have shown that a native speaker may judge a variant that is part of her grammar as unacceptable, but still use it productively in spontaneous speech. The process of eliciting acceptability judgments from speakers of non-standard languages is sometimes clouded by factors akin to prescriptive notions of grammatical correctness. It has been argued that standardization enhances the ability to make clear-cut judgments, while non-standardization may result to grammatical hybridity, often manifested in the form of functionally equivalent variants in the repertoire of a single speaker. Recognizing the importance of working with corpora of spontaneous speech, this work investigates patterns of variation in the spontaneous production of five neurotypical, adult speakers of a non-standard variety in terms of three variants, each targeting one level of linguistic analysis: syntax, morphology, and phonology. The results reveal the existence of functionally equivalent variants across speakers and levels of analysis. We first discuss these findings in relation to the notions of competing, mixed, and fused grammars, and then we flesh out the implications that different values of the same variant carry for parametric approaches to Universal Grammar. We observe that intraspeaker realizations of different values of the same variant within the same syntactic environment are incompatible with the ‘triggering-a-single-value’ approach of parametric models, but we argue that they are compatible with the concept of Universal Grammar itself. Since the analysis of these variants is ultimately a way of investigating the status of Universal Grammar primitives, we conclude that claims about the alleged unfalsifiability of (the contents of) Universal Grammar are unfounded.

    The first author is Evelina Leivada, and the mysterious “non-standard variety” is Cypriot Greek.

  49. My lords, (says he) with humble submission, That That I say is this; That, That That That gentleman has advanced, is not That That he should have proved to your lordships

    The Spectator No.80, 1711.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s good that Dr Leivada is aware that unfalsifiablity might be a problem, though unfortunately she doesn’t seem to notice that the availability of multiple “theories” of UG, which can be tailored to fit the data, may not altogether help forward the thesis that the entire scheme of UG is falsifiable.

    Still, this is the intellectual equivalent of vice paying virtue the tribute of hypocrisy, and is thus to be welcomed.

    Sadly it would appear, however, that Dr Leivada may be one of the canaille that Dr Ott has complained of. She cites a paper of the Master’s from 1980, before He Himself achieved full enlightenment. She seems to be under the impression that corpus studies could, in principle invalidate the Master’s teaching. We must move on from such revisionism.

    To be fair (when am I not?) what Chomsky has more or less explicitly claimed to be doing with his super-duper New UG is not setting up a Popperly falsifiable theory, but a research programme in Lakatos’ sense.

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lakatos/#ImprPoppScie

    In principle, this is a legitimate undertaking. In practice, the sociology of the Chomsky cult leads to institutionalised bad science. Chomsky’s UG is what Lakatos calls a degenerating programme.

  51. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I for one accept without qualifications the fairness of our Welsh overlords^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hsyntacticians.

  52. @rosie: Physicists do not, in the main, object to the widespread way that the expression “quantum leap.” The meme that quantum leap as it is commonly used is a solecism seems to have originated from a non-physicist who simply looked up quantum in a dictionary and somewhat misunderstood how that word is used, and then completely misunderstood “quantum leap” as as being a purely compositional expression. The point of a quantum leap is that it is a transition between states, without a smooth movement through intermediate states. It is thus an excellent analogy for a large, effectively instantaneous change or advance.

    @David Marjanović: Any evolution to a framework that is supposed to be a Theory of Everything will automatically contradict the original version.

  53. David Eddyshaw says:

    quantum leap

    So the idea that it is a solecism is a solecism!

  54. John Cowan says:

    A metasolecism, in fact.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Any evolution to a framework that is supposed to be a Theory of Everything will automatically contradict the original version.

    Well, yes.

  56. The Ugric vowel ö is a curiosity; many of the languages have it, but it is not reconstructible to Proto-Ugric, and is often concentrated in borrowings, onomatopoiea, and other oddball words

    Speaking of misused terminology, this sounds a bit broken-telephoneish. This is kind of the case for Uralic as a whole, but the Ugric languages are rather the exception from this. In Hungarian /ö/ straightforwardly continues Proto-Uralic *ü (though there has been also a sizable 20th century tradition of skeptics appealing instead of various ad hoc conditioning developments). Ditto for Eastern Khanty: the lax vowel /ʏ/ (conventionally transcribed ö̆) is again from PU *ü, possibly laxed to *ʏ as a common Ugric innovation, while tense /ö/ is a regular reflex of earlier *e next to velar consonants. /ö/ as an “oddball word” phoneme is still the case in the Central Mansi dialect continuum, where it e.g. continues Komi /o/ and /ə/ in a palatalizing environment in loanwords, but I don’t suppose this is what you were thinking of.

    The filling of the *ö gap of PU in the descendant languages (or the elimination of “unpaired” *ü) in various ways is of course fairly natural. As for the gap in the first place, my theory is that this indicates that *ü has arisen by a typical vowel chain shift *ɔ > *o > *u > *ü.

  57. @Brett I defer to physicists in that case! So that example of mine turns out not to be a good one. Still, my point remains, to given an example (natural in its context) of a sentence of the same structure as Evelina Leivada’s example “It is sad that it is interesting that it amused Sam that Bill left Mary.” “Confounding people with outlandish sentences” — really, @Bathrobe?

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GZadDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT264&dq=The+Stupendous+Success+of+the+Minimalist+Program&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjrwMrYhqXpAhUuZxUIHWesDlEQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=The%20Stupendous%20Success%20of%20the%20Minimalist%20Program&f=false

    Stupendous. Speaks for itself.
    I don’t, offhand, recall any chapter of a physics textbook with the title “The Stupendous Success of the Standard Model of Particle Physics.” That is probably because physics is lagging far behind linguistics, though, and there just aren’t that many stupendous successes to discuss.

  59. David Eddyshaw says:

    To be fair, the author is evidently being somewhat puckish with his choice of title. And he explicitly does not deny those of us outside the charmed circle some claim to intellectual worth (on our somewhat earthbound level.)
    Eirenic.

  60. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t, offhand, recall any chapter of a physics textbook with the title “The Stupendous Success of the Standard Model of Particle Physics.”

    Well, the real reason for that is the Standard Model is embarrassingly successful. It contains a number of parameters (19, IIRC) that seem arbitrary and have not been explained. Various attempts to explain them from a theory that would replace the whole Standard Model – supersymmetry, the simpler forms of string theory, whatever – have fallen as flat as the current size of accelerators allows, and instead the predictions of the Standard Model continue to be borne out to umpteen significant digits.

    In other words, its success is literally enough stupendous that it makes people feel stupid…

  61. John Cowan says:

    Oops, for Ugric read Uralic in my comment: I was not misinformed, I simply brain-farted. But it was a fruitful error, since it promptly spawned an explanation! As we have seen before, one good way to provoke spirited discussion here is to make such a mistake.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    Well, the real reason for that is the Standard Model is embarrassingly successful.

    Exactly.

  63. Trond Engen says:

    I may have said before that I find linguistic theory generally boring and any theory probably wrong when taken to its logical conclusion. What’s interesting is how it grows out of and informs whatever data you have at hand, as an approximation on a small scale.

    The Minimalist Program has been a tremendous success in bridging the gap between the two camps, and the more Minimal it gets, the less gap there is to bridge. Next thing you know, believers in UG do the same kind of research as non-believers, with the same methods and the same analysis of the data, leading to the same conclusions framed in the same language. And then those who find it intellectually stimulating and essential to the understanding of language write a final chapter on how these conclusions are to be understood in the framework(s) of UG. I can live with that, but it’s a little as if Christian paleontologists squared their personal beliefs with science by adding a chapter at the end on how the findings are to be understood in light of Christian cosmology. This runs the risk of distracting from the findings as well as attracting non-believers to a discussion that is none of their business and they don’t understand. So a natural next step could be to keep the discussion of these matters in separate papers under the label theology. I think the Leivada paper belongs here, and probably in the subfield of prolegomena.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    my theory

    …How did I miss this? I’ve been to your academia.edu page several times since 2017.

    Say, did Mordvin participate in the Tatar vowel flip-flop?

    Exactly.

    Biologists are more enthusiastic/smug about evolution, though.

    (Physics envy? We’ve got our Grand Unifying Theory of Everything.)

    as if Christian paleontologists squared their personal beliefs with science by adding a chapter at the end on how the findings are to be understood in light of Christian cosmology

    Teilhard de Chardin.

    And nobody since him.

  65. David Eddyshaw says:

    the more Minimal it gets, the less gap there is to bridge. Next thing you know, believers in UG do the same kind of research as non-believers

    This should be a Borges short story.

  66. @David Marjanović: The 19-parameter standard model was before the Discovery of neutrino masses. I can probably rattle them all off. Let’s see… 3 gauge couplings (strong, electromagnetic, weak), 3 lepton masses, 6 quark masses, 3 CKM mixing angles, 1CP-violating CKM phase, 1 Higgs mass, 1 Higgs self coupling, and 1 CP-violating strong vacuum angle.

    Some people did not count the vacuum angle, since it is, so far as we can tell, exactly zero. The angle θ is, roughly, the ratio between the sizes of the electric dipole and magnetic dipole moments of strongly interacting particles like protons and neutrons. However, so far as we can measure, the neutron electric dipole moment is zero (at the less than parts in ten billion level). In fact, we know that the proton and neutron do have electric dipole form factors, but the size predicted for them without a nonzero θ is orders of magnitude too small to observe.

    θ is one of the few standard model parameters that would be readily amenable to a simplifying explanation. The others are the three gauge couplings. These are also the only parameters that do not involve the Higgs field in a fundamental way. Besides the Higgs boson mass and self coupling, the other 14 parameters (although we usually observe them as masses and such) are all actually Yukawa couplings between the Higgs field and fermions. Moreover, every possible such coupling is present in the theory. You can actually construct the form of the standard model by knowing the fields it contains, then writing down every possible interaction that is allowed by the gauge symmetries and does not involve a coupling constant with units of an inverse power of energy. With the old standard model, this allowed for 14 Yukawa couplings. Introducing neutrino masses involves introducing new right-handed neutrino fields, and with the additional fields, 6 more Yukawa couplings can be constructed. (Not all of those, however, have been observed physically.)

  67. John Cowan says:

    As for “Stupendous Success”, it really is quite worth reading until it descends into gobbledygook. It begins by distinguishing languists, who think languistics is about studying languages as they are spoke, inferring grammars from them, and then inferring universals from them, from linguists (tendentious much?) who take the reverse procedure: UG is what matters, individual language grammars not so much, and actual speech is nothing at all (after all, says the author, its just contingent which language I speak!) It then tells us that in the days when clanking iron GGs ruled the Earth, linguists and languists could coexist quite nicely (ORLY?) and even collaborate.

    But with the arrival of Minimalism, which gives us the Merge, the whole Merge, and nothing but the Merge, even the etiolated empiricism of GG can be discarded. In fact (though this is my comparison and not the author’s), Minimalism is pretty much like Principia Mathematica, where we start with FOPL and the Axiomatic Trinity (infinity, choice, reducibility) and after hundreds of pages discover that 1 + 1 = 2. I am perfectly willing to take on faith that PM is correct as far as it goes, but then again, who cares? My concrete-operational mind will have none of it.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    I can probably rattle them all off. Let’s see…

    Yes, 3 + 3 + 6 + 3 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 19. But…

    θ is one of the few standard model parameters that would be readily amenable to a simplifying explanation. The others are the three gauge couplings. These are also the only parameters that do not involve the Higgs field in a fundamental way. Besides the Higgs boson mass and self coupling, the other 14 parameters

    1 + 3 + 1 + 1 + 14 = 20. What happened?

  69. Trond Engen says:

    What happened?

    The Spanish inquisition.

  70. David Eddyshaw says:

    As for “Stupendous Success”, it really is quite worth reading

    Yes, in its way, it’s quite interesting (and he doesn’t lack insight into some of the absurdities, which is engaging.)

    He basically takes the “findings” of the generativists as faits acquis, and says that the Minimalist Program has been tremendously successful because it can be used to show that the mechanisms used in generative grammar arise in a natural way from a few very basic principles. Because the “findings” are basically all correct and describe all of Language pretty much completely (though a few marginal points remain to be worked out) the only real remaining task is to see how few axioms are needed to justify the whole marvellous enterprise.

    If it really worked it would be lovely.

    He does seem to be another of those regarded by Ott of Ottawa as not keeping up with the Boss’s latest thinking, though. The Minimalist Program is a pure research programme, not susceptible of proof or disproof, and GG is a mere mortal hypothesis generated in the light of that mystic Sun; it is absurd to suppose that it could justify MP in some way. That would be putting the cart before the unicorn.

  71. David Marjanović says:

    Among our parameters are…

  72. ktschwarz says:

    David Eddyshaw said: “Some utterances would never be produced by a native speaker at all except by mistake; some are completely unremarkable; a great many strike one as perfectly comprehensible, but something only a particular sort of person might say in very particular circumstances.”

    Pullum’s table of preposition uses seems to be about the difference between the second and third categories: (huh, Pullum uses *both* “unacceptable” and “not grammatical” to label the starred ones, as well as “less felicitous”)

    Who did you talk to today?
    *Who did you talk near today?

    How many mayors have you written to this week?
    *How many towns have you cycled towards this week?

    What do you laugh at most often?
    *What do you laugh during most often?

    Tell me something you are happier about, will you?
    *Tell me something you are happier since, will you?

    The things I had been working for were now unimportant.
    *The things I had been working despite were now unimportant.

    After reading that post and the comments, I was pretty well convinced that for any of those, it’s possible to come up with a context where they would be sensible communication—as opposed to, say, “Who did you to talk today?”

    On the other hand, even though “Who did you talk (laugh, sing, cough) near today?” is an extremely relevant question in the spring of 2020, it still doesn’t feel like the most normal way of saying it, even in a contact tracing interview. I’d guess it would more likely be “Who was nearby when you were talking?”

  73. David Eddyshaw says:

    Nice thread (with some familiar faces, too.) And I like

    “Daddy, what did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?”

    even though the commenter paid the ultimate price. He was warned.

  74. Say, did Mordvin participate in the Tatar vowel flip-flop?

    No and maybe: you’re probably thinking of the Proto-Uralic to Proto-Mordvinic flip-flop, which is older, complete already by the time of Volga Bulgar loanwords. Later dialectal Mordvin shows some partial changes paralleling Tatar, but if these have any direct connection is not clear to me. (I used to hypothesize they would, but I’ve grown skeptical in recent times.)

    1 + 3 + 1 + 1 + 14 = 20. What happened?

    “Self-coupling” is not a separate parameter, but refers to “the three gauge couplings”.

  75. Bathrobe says:

    “Confounding people with outlandish sentences” — really, @Bathrobe?

    “It is sad that it amuses linguists that it angers experts that people misuse technical terms.”

    I agree that it is possible (therefore “grammatical”), although to be honest I thought your sentence was a parody.

    This kind of sentence can occur in linguistic games (like the house that Jack built), so it is definitely not beyond the pale. It is only outlandish in terms of ordinary, non-jocular, non-game types of English. The other sentence, however….

  76. To some degree, the “stupendous success” of the Standard Model is achieved by narrowing the questions you ask it to answer. If you tried to predict tomorrow’s weather as it will be experienced by me on a minute-by-minute basis, its success would be less stupendous. Heck, can they even predict the mass of proton? (Kozma Prutkov, as usual, was there first “Hours are a measure of time and time is a measure of human life, but how would you measure the depth of the Eastern Ocean?”)

  77. @J Pystynen: Actually, I just miscounted, and it should be 13. I was literally falling asleep as I finished that comment. Thursday and Friday have been very busy for me, with virtual meetings about high-stakes issues and a lot of time spent on computations. After dinner, I laid down on my comfy new couch (comfier even than Cardinal Fang’s comfy chair) and I started to drift off before I had finished writing that comment on my phone. I actually had to drag myself back from bring nearly asleep to complete the last sentence and submit it. So it appears that while I can sometimes do simple calculus in my dreams, I cannot do basic arithmetic while in a liminal sleeping-waking state.

  78. Stu Clayton says:

    Actually, I just miscounted, and it should be 13

    It’s those hidden parameters every time !

  79. David Marjanović says:

    25 parameters it is, then.

    complete already by the time of Volga Bulgar loanwords

    Ah.

    Heck, can they even predict the mass of proton?

    Well, yes, from the mass of the u quark, the mass of the d quark, the mass of the electron, and such things as E = mc²… those three masses can be predicted from the Yukawa couplings of these particles with the Higgs field, but those couplings are parameters of the model that cannot themselves be predicted so far.

  80. Stu Clayton says:

    Unpredictable prediction-promoters.

  81. This kind of sentence can occur in linguistic games (like the house that Jack built), so it is definitely not beyond the pale. It is only outlandish in terms of ordinary, non-jocular, non-game types of English.

    Actually, it’s not outlandish at all; people say sentences with that (quite mild) level of complexity fairly often. You’re in the position of someone who can’t stand any spiciness in your food tasting a bit of hot sauce and saying no one would ever eat that except a masochist. Seriously, I read it out loud and it didn’t even seem difficult, let alone outlandish. It’s just a little wordy.

  82. DM, I am not sure how much you are familiar with the field, but quark masses used in SM (or couplings to Higgs, if you wish) are so called current masses. They are on the order of a few MeV, the mass of proton is about a GeV. You need to find 2 orders of magnitude somewhere. It’s a long way to Tipperary.

  83. Bathrobe says:

    I don’t mind sentences like that as long as generativists don’t go on and on about them. Unfortunately I’ve developed a low tolerance for their linguistic games. There was a time when I thought that coming up with more and more convoluted and marginal examples meant approaching closer and closer to some kind of truth. Now, when I see generativists torturing native speakers with more and more outlandish (there, I’ve said it again) hypothetical examples, I just wonder why they can’t go and do something interesting — like field work in the wonderful variety of languages that actually exist. You can find out amazing things from languages without that kind of tiresome rabbitholing.

    OK, maybe I’m being unfair. There is to be sure some point in figuring out how the rules work by seeing how far they can be pushed. But the article that this thread was almost surreal, it was so preoccupied with pushing the limits of what is ‘acceptable’, and then declaring that what is ‘unacceptable’ is grammatical anyway.

  84. I don’t mind sentences like that as long as generativists don’t go on and on about them. Unfortunately I’ve developed a low tolerance for their linguistic games.

    Ah, well then we are in agreement.

  85. David Marjanović says:

    You need to find 2 orders of magnitude somewhere. It’s a long way to Tipperary.

    Oh. I didn’t know that – and even overlooked that the binding energies between the components of a proton (…why did I even mention electrons?) should make everything lighter, not heavier.

  86. @David Marjanović: The binding energy of a hadron is a tricky thing. The potential energy between two isolated quarks, separated by a macroscopic distance, is enormous. At large distances, the effective potential between particles carrying the strong non-Abelian charge* (known as color) is linear in the distance. So it takes an effectively infinite amount of energy to separate individuals quarks; this is known as “infrared slavery”—although that term is not actually used very much. The result of this is that bare quarks are never observed; they only appear as intermediate states during high-energy nuclear reactions, or as constituents of color-neutral hadrons (mesons, with a quark and an antiquark, or baryons, with three quarks; other possibilities—”tetaquarks,” “pentaquarks,” etc. might be possible, but they do not seem to exist in practice). So the energy of the quarks in a proton is much lower than the energy of the quarks separated out; there is indeed a negative binding energy. However, the net energy of the gluon field is nonetheless positive, and it actually accounts for nearly all the mass energy of nucleons and other light hadrons.

    As far as calculating the mass of the proton, given the known quark masses and the value of the strong gauge coupling, we are not really there yet. However, this almost surely just a matter of computational power, not any failure of fundamental understanding. The principal difficulty of the strong interaction is that it gets stronger (or, at least, not weaker) with distance, which renders the perturbative techniques that are so powerful in quantum electrodynamics (where the coupling strength is α ≈ 1/137) useless in quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the analogous theory of the strong interaction. The reason for this increase in strength is that the gluon field actually interacts with itself; it is as if the photon itself carried an electric charge. One of my academic grandfathers, Kenneth Wilson, developed a nonperturbative method of doing calculations in QCD, by discretizing the spacetime. This lattice QCD is extremely useful, both analytically and computationally, and it can be used to demonstrate properties such as the infrared slavery with relative ease. However, the nitty-gritty calculations of things like hadron masses and the matrix elements for hadronic couplings are extremely processor intensive. The smallness of the light up and down quark masses (less than about 10 MeV) compared with the QCD scale (in the form of the nucleon mass of about 1 GeV) make the computations particularly difficult, because the gluon field is actually full of virtual quark-antiquark pairs. The lighter the quarks are, the easier it is to create those virtual pairs and the more important their affects are.

    * There is a deep mathematical problem associated with the noncommuting charges that appear in QCD. The generalization of measure theory to a signed measure such as the electric charge is very simple. A signed charge is just a difference of two measures; that is, there are just positive and negative charges. The non-Abelian version must be much more complicated and probably intrinsically quantum mechanical, in the sense that coherent superpositions of different color charge configurations would be required to get sensible answers. However, no mathematician working on real analysis seem to be interested in this problem, despite its potentially profound physical and foundational implications.

  87. David Marjanović says:

    However, the net energy of the gluon field is nonetheless positive, and it actually accounts for nearly all the mass energy of nucleons and other light hadrons.

    Ah, that part had escaped me. (Or I forgot it in the last 20 years.)

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