Syntax Construction Kit: 1st draft

I think I’ve written a book. Now we must see whether this is so. As was foretold in the prophecies, this is where I ask for readers.


Contact me if you’re interested and have the time over the next few weeks— markrose at zompist dot com. I usually get more offers than I can handle, so get your offer in fast. 🙂

If you’ve only read the LCK, that’s fine; if you’re a Herr Professor Doktor of linguistics, that’s also fine.

Kids learning language

I just finished Language acquisition and conceptual development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson (2001), and I want to write down what I learned while it’s still fresh in my mind.

You may recall the book report on Everett & Jackendoff and their feud over innatism. The issue there is Chomsky’s longstanding contention that language learning is far too hard for children, therefore they must have a head start: grammar and vocabulary are already hard-wired into their brains. All they have to do is figure out which of a small series of switches to flip to get the grammar (“oh! verbs go last here!”) and work out that dog means Inbuilt concept #293291.

This book is a report from the trenches of language acquisition; if anyone knows how it goes, these people do. I note, by the way, that this is one of the few fields dominated by women: 20 of the 30 authors of these papers are female. Yay for linguistics!

There is no knockout punch— unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we don’t know about how children learn languages. And this book, at least, doesn’t have too much to say about how children learn syntax, much less whether they do so using Minimalism, Arc Pair Grammar, Role & Reference Grammar, etc. It’s mostly about the first three years, the first words learned, and what that tells us about children’s conceptual system.

The biggest news seems to be:

  • Children understand things far earlier than was once supposed. E.g. Piaget thought that children didn’t acquire the notion of object permanence till 3 years or so; we now know they have it at 5 months. He also thought that children didn’t understand the concept of time till about 8; but in fact they are clearly able to remember and refer to past events, and anticipate and refer to future events, at not much more than 1 year of age.
  • At the same time: universal, basic concepts are more elusive than ever. Languages really do divide up conceptual space differently, and this is evident in children’s speech from the beginning.

The object permanence result is due to better, cleverer technique: rather than relying on the baby’s actions, we only check what they’re looking at. Basically: babies can be surprised, and look longer at unexpected outcomes. So you show them a doll being placed behind a screen, then remove the screen. They’re surprised if they see no doll there, or two dolls.

Many of the authors refer to Quine’s problem. Quine envisioned a linguist eliciting words from a native. A rabbit goes by, and the native says gavagai. Does this mean “rabbit”, or “hop”, or “fluffy tail”, or “unspecified set of rabbit parts”?

Now, the linguists can’t bring themselves to say that Quine is just being a jerk. But there’s a pretty clear answer to this problem: we aren’t tabulae rasae; we’re animals with a hundred-million-year evolutionary history of perceiving objects, especially moving objects, and double especially animals. Some things are very salient for humans— we’re built to see rabbits as objects with a characteristic shape, size, and activity pattern. We’re not built to focus on rabbit tails or miscellaneous rabbit parts.

Early proposals were that children use some all-purpose generalizations: words are likely to refer to the most salient entities; words are normally not synonymous.

Going beyond this, there were assumptions that children would learn nouns before verbs, closed-class form words before content words, shape before materials, and that they would probably learn universal concepts first. This little list of assumptions turns out to be wrong: it depends on the language.

  • Many languages are far more verb-oriented than English. Kids still learn a lot of nouns, but sometimes the proportion of verbs is far higher.
  • Often very specific verbs are learned before abstract spatial words.
  • English children learn to pay the most attention to shape; Maya kids pay the most attention to material.

As for universal concepts, it’s worth looking in detail at an example provided by Levinson. The language is Tzeltal.

Pach-an-a bojch ta y-anil te karton-e.
bowl-put-cause.imp gourd at its-down cardboard-that

The intended translation is “Put the bowl behind the box.” But just about every detail in Tzeltal is different.

  • The shape and spatial information is largely encoded in the verb, not in nouns. Pach– means “place a bowl-shaped vessel upright on a surface.”
  • Corollary: the two NPs refer mostly to material. Bojch is really a word for a gourd; karton can refer to anything made of cardboard.
  • “Behind” is a relative term, which doesn’t exist in Tzeltal. Instead, an absolute frame of reference is used. “Downward” can refer to absolute height, but here it refers to horizontal location, because of a geographical particularity: Tzeltal territory is on a slope, so “downhill” also means “northward”.

Do children really master this system? Of course; they have a pretty good grasp of the slope system by age three. They also master a wide range of very specific verb forms rather than relying heavily, as English-speaking toddlers do, on “up/down”.

Another neat example: English toddlers quickly learn to distinguish “put ON” from “put IN”. Korean children divide up this semantic space quite differently, using at least seven verbs.

  • kkita means “fasten tightly”– this includes putting the top on a pen, placing Lego bricks together, putting a piece in a puzzle, placing a cassette in its box, or buttoning a button.
  • nehta means “place loosely”– e.g. put a book in a bag, or a toy in a box.
  • pwuchita is used for juxtaposing surfaces– e.g. placing a magnet on the fridge.
  • nohta is used for placing things on a horizontal surface.
  • for clothes, you have ssuta for hats, ipta for the body, sinta for the feet.

All this is fascinating because philosophers and linguists are apt to take English categories and assume they are universal concepts: UP, DOWN, IN, ON. Nope, they’re just projecting English words onto Mentalese. There is no stage where children use “universal” concepts before using language-specific ones. (Indeed, there’s evidence that children understand the language-specific concepts well before they can say the words.)

Does all this “affect how you think”? Of course. Levinson tells an amusing anecdote: he almost got his truck stuck in quicksand when his Australian Aborigine companion told him to “swerve north quick”. Levinson just couldn’t calculate where north was fast enough.

There’s also interesting tidbits like, did you know that there is a gradient between comitative and instrumental? It goes like this:

1 – give a show with a clown
2 – build a machine with an assistant
3 – captured the hill with his squad
4 – performed an act with an elephant
5 – the blind man crossed the street with his dog
6 – the officer caught the smuggler with a police dog
7 – won the appeal with a highly paid lawyer
8 – found the solution with a computer
9 – hunted deer with a rifle
10 – broke the window with a stone

In English, as you can see, we use “with” for all of these. In a multitude of languages, these meanings are divided up linearly. E.g.

  • Iraqi Arabic: 1-8 vs 9-10
  • Swahili: 1-6 vs 7-10
  • Slovak: 1-9 vs 10
  • Tamil: 1-2 vs 3-10

That’s pretty neat!

Anyway: there’s still a lot of argument on how exactly children learn, whether they start with particular cognitive abilities, whether they have particular linguistic abilities. Many authors point out that innatism doesn’t really help reduce the problem. E.g. to see if dog matches Inbuilt concept #293291, you pretty much have to have a sense of what a dog is. If you have that, what good is the inbuilt concept?

You could try to save innatism by multiplying the number of inbuilt concepts. E.g. you include the 10 steps of the comitative/instrumental gradient, and both Korean and English positioning concepts, and both English and Tzeltal directional systems. But this is only complicating the child’s problem. Rather than finding quick matches between the words they hear and a small number of universal concepts, they have to consider hundreds or thousands of alternative conceptual systems.

It’s also worth pointing out that parents are far more helpful than Quine’s native informant. People don’t just say words at random. As Michael Tomasello emphasizes, language is often presented as a commentary on a situation the child already understands, such as moving toys around with her mother. There’s a lot of repetition; the parents’ language is emphatic and simplified; the parents are not trying to confuse the child with talk of bags of rabbit parts.

BTW, this is in theory the last book I’m consulting for my syntax book.  So, I’ll soon have a first draft, at least.


Syntax toys

I wanted to talk about my latest syntax toys, so I decided to post all three of them: ggg, gtg, mg.

To fully understand them, you’ll have to wait for my upcoming syntax book. But in brief: they are all apps for generating sentences.

  • ggg rearranges strings. You can use this for the toy grammars that syntacticians and computer programmers always start their books with, but it can handle everything in Syntactic Structures. I’ve loaded it with some interesting sample grammars.
  • mg is the equivalent for the Minimalist Program. It’s actually way more fun than reading Chomsky, in much the same way it’s much more fun to try painting a watch than to watch paint drying. I’ll explain the basics in another post.
  • gtg rearranges trees. The idea is that the program knows about syntactic structure, so you can have rules that talk about or rearrange an NP, no matter what’s in it.  You can do this in ggg only by writing rules that apply to elements before they’re expanded into subtrees.

I’m going to talk some more about gtg, since I’ve been working avidly on it for the last few weeks.

I showed some of these to a non-linguist friend, and I think he was polite but didn’t get it. That’s fine; like I say, it requires a book to explain. But from his questions, like “Could you write poetry with it?”, it was clear that he expected it to be something rather different– a wide-ranging text generator.

That is, he was more or less measuring intelligence by the size of its vocabulary.  gtg only knows about a dozen nouns and a dozen verbs (and some other stuff). It would be possible to add a hundreds more, but that’s not the point.  The point is to model basic English syntax.  That’s hard enough!

It’s not an ultra-hard problem by any means, or I couldn’t have done it in a few weeks. On the other hand, I had Chomsky’s and other linguists’ rules to start with!

The thing is, English speakers all know these rules… unconsciously. Which means you’re not impressed when you see someone produce a simple but correct sentence. Well, let’s see how aware you are of the rules.  Here are some variants of sentences:

  • The fish were caught by her
  • She has eaten fish
  • She must like fish
  • She’s eating fish

That’s passive, perfect, modal, and progressive. All four can occur in one sentence. Without trying out alternatives in your head, what order do they appear in?

Here’s another: some sentences require an added do, some don’t:

  • We don’t keep kosher.
  • Did you take out the trash?
  • What does the fox say?
  • We aren’t going to St. Ives.
  • Can’t you keep a secret?

Again, without trying it out in your head, just from general knowledge: can you state when this added do appears?

Or, can you say precisely you use he and when you use him?  If you are a conlanger or you know an inflected language, you probably immediately think “He is nominative.”  Well, what about in Sarah wants him to move out? Him is the subject of ‘move out’, isn’t it?  (It’s not the object of want. What does Sarah want? “Him”? No, she wants “for him to move out”.)

The rules aren’t terribly difficult… indeed, if you look in the boxes on the gtg page, they’re all right there! But they’re difficult enough to make a fairly involved computing problem.

Now, syntacticians devising rules like to use formal notation… but they almost always supplement it with English descriptions. Programming forces you to be much more explicit.

Now, when I began the program, I started out with rules that looked something like this:


If you look at mg, the rules are still like that… and since I wrote that a few months ago, I don’t even remember how they work. But besides being unreadable, such rules are very ad hoc, and hide a bunch of details in the program code.

What I ended up doing instead was writing myself a tiny programming language.  This forced me to come up with the smallest steps possible, and to encode as little grammatical information as possible within the program itself.

Here’s an example: the rules for making a sentence negative.

* negative
maybe if Aux lex not insert Neg
maybe if no Aux find T lex not insert Neg

The first line is a comment. The rest are commands.

  • Maybe says that a rule is optional– the program will execute it only sometimes.
  • If looks for something of a particular category, in this case an auxiliary verb. If it’s not found, we skip to the next rule. If it is, we remember the current location.
  • Lex not means to look up the word not in the lexicon and keep it on the clipboard.
  • Insert says to insert what’s on the clipboard into the sentence at the current location.

Note that this mini-language only has two ‘variables’, what I’ve called the clipboard and the current location. I haven’t found a rule yet that requires more than that.

The help file for gtg explains all the commands and annotates each of the grammatical rules I used.

This is not how syntacticians write their rules; but one conclusion I’ve come to after reading a bunch of syntax books is that all the formalisms are far less important than their inventors think. Chomsky started people thinking that there was One True Theory of Syntax, but there isn’t. It’s less like solving the Dirac equation and more like proving the Pythagorean theorem: there are many ways to do it, and the fact that they look and feel different doesn’t mean that most of them are wrong. Writing rules in this simple language worked out for me and it’s no worse than, say, the extremely unintuitive rules of Minimalism.

Can you use these toys for writing grammars for your language or conlang?  Well, best to wait for the book to come out, but in general, sure, you can try.

I have to warn you, though: it’s not quite as straightforward as using the SCA, and plenty of people have trouble with that.  You have to think like a programmer: be able to break a problem into tiny pieces, and work out all the complications.

On the other hand, tools like gtg can help keep you honest: if the rules don’t work, the program produces crappy sentences, so you know something’s wrong. Plus it keeps you thinking about a wide variety of sentences. (Good syntacticians can quickly run through a bunch of transformations in their heads, applying them to some problem. When you’re new to the concept, you can think only about simple sentences and miss 90% of the complications.)

Also, I hope to keep improving the program, so it may be easier later on.

Language organ pro and con

The library has slim pickings on linguistics, but it happened to have a couple of books on opposite sides of the innatism debate: Ray Jackendoff’s Patterns in the Mind, and Daniel Everett’s Language: The Cultural Tool.


File photo of Everett in the Amazon researching Pirahã

Overall judgment: both books are full of interesting things; both are extremely convinced of their position; both reduce their opponents (i.e. each other) to straw men.

It’s a lesson, I suppose, in letting one’s speculations get ahead of the evidence. Many a Chomskyan book has a long annoying section on how children could not possibly learn language; the arguments are always the same and they’re always weak. The Chomskyans’ problem is that they don’t spend five minutes trying to think of, or combat, any alternative position. They present the “poverty of the stimulus” as if it’s an obvious fact, but don’t do any actual research into child language acquisition to show that it’s really a problem.

Yet Everett doesn’t do much better on the other side. He’s all about language as a cultural invention, and he mocks the Chomskyans’ syntax-centrism and their inability to explain how or why Minimalism is embedded in the brain and the genome, but he doesn’t really know how children learn languages either.

My sympathies are far more with Everett, but an honest account has to admit: we just don’t know. Well, the third book I picked up is a massive tome called Language acquisition and conceptual development, so I’ll report back if it turns out we do know.

Sometimes the two authors cover the same facts– e.g. what’s going on with Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the brain. Their account is different enough that it seems that both are cherrypicking the data. Jackendoff doesn’t mention the non-linguistic functions of these areas, while Everett pooh-poohs that they’re language-related at all.

What ends up being most valuable about both books is when they’re talking about other things. Everett is full of stories about Amazonian peoples and languages; Jackendoff has a very good section on ASL.  (They both also have quite a bit of introductory linguistics, which I could have used less of. Sometimes it’s a pity that academics only have two modes, “write for the educated high schooler” and “write for each other”. I suspect their editors overestimated just how many people entirely ignorant of linguistics would read each book. I guess I’m lucky that readers of my more advanced books can be assumed to have read the LCK.)

I don’t mean to sound entirely dismissive. In fact Jackendoff makes the Chomskyan case about as well as it can be made (far better than Chomsky ever does); but if you find him convincing, make sure you read Everett to get a fuller perspective.

(I may also be unfair to Jackendoff calling him a Chomskyan; apparently he’s broken with Minimalism. He also makes a point, when pointing the reader to books on syntax, to include a wide range of theories, something Chomsky himself and his acolytes don’t bother to do.)

Wrecking Ball vs. Hammond

I don’t always get a chance to combine linguistics and gaming, so STRAP ON.


So, Overwatch is getting a new hero who’s a hamster. An adorable hamster piloting a deathball.  It’s pretty neat, check it out.

PCGamer has an article today on the hero’s official name, Wrecking Ball, and why many people prefer the hamster’s name, Hammond. Which I kind of do too. Though the French name is even better: Bouledozer.

But the article has a density of linguistic errors that made me simmer.  Kids these days, not learning basic phoneme and allophone theory.  Listen:

The three syllables in Wrecking Ball use three main sounds: the ‘r’ sound, the ‘i’, and the ‘ɔ:’. …you position your tongue and lips very differently when you pronounce these sounds, and you can feel this when you say it. To make the ‘r’ sound in ‘wre’, you curl your tongue up to the roof of your mouth. To make the ‘i’ sound in ‘king’, you keep your tongue up high but bring it forward to the front of your mouth while stretching out your lips. Finally, to make the ‘ɔ:’ sound in ‘ball’, you put your tongue low and bring it to the back of your mouth while also bringing your lips together.

OK, everything sounds complicated when people don’t have the terms to discuss it. There’s only one big error– they’ve confused [i] as in machine with [ɪ] as in bin. You stretch your lips for [i] but not [ɪ]. Anyway, the word isn’t that complex: /rɛkɪŋbɔl/. You pronounce much harder words many times a day. (Try strength, or Martian, or literature.) In rapid speech it will probably simplify to [rɛkɪmbɔl] or [rɛkĩbɔl].

In other words, saying Wrecking Ball puts your tongue and lips all over the place with no clean pattern or loop to connect the sounds.

Huh?  Words do not need any “clean pattern or loop”.  There are some patterns to English words (phonotactics), but “wrecking ball” is absolutely typical English.

And it doesn’t stop there: the ‘wr’ consonant blend is naturally awkward in the same way the word ‘rural’ is awkward, and the hard ‘g’ and ‘b’ in Wrecking Ball put unnatural stops in your speech.

The wr isn’t a blend, it’s one sound [r]. Rural is mildly awkward because it has two r sounds, which wrecking ball does not.

Edit: Alert reader John Cowan points out that some speakers do have [i] in final –ing; also that initial /r/ may be always labialized. For me, there’s some lip rounding in /r/ in all positions.

There is no hard g in wrecking. There is no such thing as a hard b.  Stops are not unnatural; heck, let me highlight all the ones the author just used:

And it doesn’t stop there: the ‘wr’ consonant blend is naturally awkward in the same way the word ‘rural’ is awkward, and the hard ‘g’ and ‘b‘ in Wrecking Ball put unnatural stops in your speech.

I highlighted nasal stops mostly because the dude is terribly concerned with what the tongue does, and tongue movement for nasal stops is exactly the same as for non-nasal stops.

Compare that to Hammond, paying close attention to the way your mouth moves when you say it. Not only is Hammond two syllables instead of three, it also barely uses your tongue. Your lips and vocal chords do most of the work, which, ironically, is why it seems to roll off the tongue. Plus we get the added alliteration of Hammond the hamster.

Hammond is [hæmnd], with syllabic n. I’ll grant that it’s two syllables long, but I don’t know why the author is so focused on tongue movements– presumably he’s not aware that he’s moving his tongue for æ and the final [nd]?

It’s true that Wrecking Ball contains two liquids, which is hard for some children, but shouldn’t be a problem for adults. (And English’s syllabic n, not to mention the vowel æ, are hard for many foreigners.)

As for alliteration, Hammond Hamster is maybe too cutesy. They didn’t call Winston Gary Gorilla.

(In the French version, Roadhog and Junkrat are Chopper et Chacal, which is actually a pretty nice alliteration, calling out their partnership.)

Of [the longer] names, five end on long vowels: Orisa, Zarya, Symmetra, Zenyatta and Lucio. Interestingly enough, four of these five end on a long ‘a’ because it’s an easy and pretty sound for punctuating names (which, if you’re wondering, is also why so many elves in high fantasy settings have names like Aria).

Argh: these are not long a; that’s the vowel in mate. These end in shwas, [ə].

And while we’re at it, Tolkien is largely to blame for elven names, and in this long list of his elven names, just one has a final -a. He liked final [ɛ] far more. If other writers use more, they are probably thinking vaguely of Latin.

If the dude really doesn’t like the name, all he has to say is:

  • It’s longer
  • It’s final-stressed.

Names are a tiny bit awkward if they have two stressed syllables, especially if they end in one. The only other Overwatch hero with this stress pattern is Soldier 76, and he’s usually just called Soldier. But it’s not that awkward; it’s also found in such common expressions as Jesus Christ, Eastern Bloc, Lara Croft or U.S.A.





New Verdurian grammar

After 20 years, I’ve rewritten the Verdurian reference grammar.


The main motivation was my syntax book.  I want to be able to tell conlangers how modern syntax can deepen your conlang, and I figured I should make sure I have a really good example.

Now, you’ll see that I did it without drawing a single syntactic tree. That never seemed to be necessary, though I do have some discussion of transformations, and I mark subclauses and talk about underlying forms. The main influence of modern syntax is in adding more syntactic stuff, and thinking more about how things interrelate.

To put it another way, if you don’t know much modern syntax, you’ll write one relative clause and call it a day.  But once you’re familiar with syntax, you start to think about what you can relativize, and how nonrestrictive relative clauses work, and headless clauses, and what’s the underlying form for headless time clauses, and such things.

I also took the opportunity to add glosses to all the examples, provide a new long sample text, redraw the dialect map, add new mathematical terminology, add pragmatic particles, and in general update the presentation to how I write grammars these days. I also html-ized the Verdurian short story I translated long ago. And subcategorize all the verbs in the dictionary. And provide margins.

FWIW, though much of the content is similar, it’s all been rewritten– I very rarely simply copied-and-pasted. Plenty of little things have been added, and some old bits removed. (E.g. the descriptions of the dialects, which I hope to expand on in more detail.)

An example of a little change: the morphology section no longer goes case by case, a method that makes it hard to look up forms.  And I changed the expository order to nom – acc – dat – gen, which makes it easier to see when the nom/acc forms are the same. (If it’s good enough for Panini, it’s good enough for me.)

Verdurian is still not my favorite language (that would be “whatever language I created last”), but the problems are mostly lexical.  And it’s a little too late to redo the vocabulary yet again.  At least I can say I’m pretty happy with the syntax now…




Chomsky pro and con

The syntax book is coming along– I have about 300 pages written.  This project has required reading more by and about Chomsky than is, perhaps, compatible with mental health.

My general position on Chomsky is to defend him to linguistic outsiders, and complain about him to insiders.

In general the defense is going to be in the book– you can hardly talk about modern syntax without recognizing his influence and his discoveries. Generative grammar (GG) from the ’60s was galvanizing… a huge array of transformations and rules and weird syntax was quickly found.  An early book like John Ross’s Infinite Syntax! (1967; it was published under that title in 1986) is highly technical yet displays the contagious exuberance of discovering new things. Whether or not you like the theories, the facts remain, and we can no longer relegate syntax to a six-page section after doing the morphology, as the Port-Royal grammar did.

GG appealed almost at once to computer programmers, which is remarkable if you think about it: few programmers looked at the classic Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit grammars and said I want to program that! If anything, this part of the charm of GG is far more accessible today!  I’ve been creating some web toys that allow modeling transformations; they allow GG to come alive in a way that ’70s textbooks couldn’t really show.

So, on to the complaints!  One is more of a sad groan: it is really hard to keep up with Chomskyan syntax– it changes every ten years, often in dramatic ways. And Chomsky’s own books have become increasingly unreadable. I can barely follow The Minimalist Program; it seems to be barely about language at all.  He seems to prefer abstract pseudo-algebra to discussing actual sentences. The one exception to this generalization is Language and Problems of Knowledge (1988), which was written for the general public and shows that the man can write understandably when he wants to.

Generally speaking, other people have had to tidy up his theories and make them into readable textbooks. I’ve appreciated Andrew Carnie’s Syntax: A Generative Introduction and David Adger’s Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach.

The dude has a right to change his views over time; still, one might complain that so many of the changes are pointless or don’t seem to move toward greater correctness. Yet he has a way of stating his present views as if they were the only ones possible. In The Minimalist Program (1995), he’s gotten out of the habit of even arguing for his position, or acknowledging that there are any other views at all.

This must put Chomskyan professors into a terrible position.  Imagine teaching, for years, that you must have an N below an N’ below an N” even if you’re dealing with a single word like John, and carefully marking up students’ papers when they lack the extra nodes. And then Chomsky decides one day that all this is unnecessary.  Or, you have NPs for years and then are told that they are DPs.  Or you learn phrase structure rules, only to have them thrown out.  Even without looking at the many other syntactic theories, shouldn’t all this bring in some healthy doubt?

I know it’s almost impossible for humans, but really we should assign our statements a probability value– e.g. it’s 60% likely that the head of “these frogs” is an N, 40% that it’s a Det– and then take serious note of the fact that stacked hypotheses plummet in probability. If you think idea A is 90% probable and so is idea B, then idea AB is 81% probable. And idea ABC is 73% probable, and so on. And anything as complex as X’ theory or Minimalism is made up of dozens of stacked hypotheses.

I wish that Chomskyan syntacticians would take a lesson from math, or computer programming: the same problem can be solved in multiple ways. As a simple example, look at the multiple proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem. GG in the 1960s (not just Chomsky) was convinced that there was a right solution to any syntactic problem. (And it tended to see any linguist problem as a syntactic problem.) This attitude has continued, and it’s rarely acknowledged that it may just be wrong.

So, when we look at Minimalism, and Word Grammar, and Relational Grammar, and Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, and Construction Grammar, and Lexical Functional Grammar, and Arc Pair Grammar, and so on… it’s possible that none are entirely wrong. It’s quite possible, even likely, that the same language can be described in multiple ways.

Some of these systems probably will die with their creators, and that’s fine. On the other hand, I think relational grammars in general will continue, because they offer a needed corrective. Chomskyan syntax concentrates on constituent structure, and relational grammar on, well, relations between words. You can diagram a sentence either way and learn something each time; each approach is also better for different languages.

(Minimalism makes a great effort to represent relations, and yet does so very clumsily.  Really, try to get a Chomskyan to explain what a “subject” is, or what a “passive” does. Relational grammars start with these things, often not bothering to show the details of constituent structure.)

Another example is case assignment. X’ theory and Minimalism treat this very seriously and in the most cumbersome way. Here I feel that they’ve lost their way: was this really a terrible problem that needed to be solved again? Traditional grammar was actually pretty good at case assignment, and used far simpler terminology. GG’s forte is not handling case, it’s handling transformations.

Another lesson from programming is relevant: elegance is relative to the machine. Syntacticians (again, not only Chomsky) have spent way too much time worrying about the efficiency of their systems. Just one example: X’ theory decides that having general rules VP > NP, VP > NP NP, VP > NP PP, etc., is messy and we should instead let entries in the lexicon specify what frame they need: e.g. cry doesn’t need any object, put needs NP PP. Does that make the grammar simpler or not?  Maybe for the grammarian; we don’t know if it’s better or not for the brain.

The thing is, we know almost nothing about the machine we’re running on, i.e. the brain.  You can’t optimize for a machine if you don’t know its specs (and its hangups and limitations). The very little we do know suggests that our way of thinking about algorithms is probably a very bad way to think about mental abilities. Brains are not like a CPU running a program. They are more like 100 billion CPUs each running an extremely simple program. Its methods (e.g. in the visual system) run toward millions of sub-processes addressing tiny little problems (“is there an edge here?” “did my little bit of data change recently?”).

I don’t think any linguistic theory really makes use of this information, though cognitive linguistics may be getting there. One corollary I’d strongly suggest, though: the brain is probably fine with messy, encyclopedic data in multiple formats. Everything can be linked or stitched together; very little is refactored as new data comes in. Half of the general rules that linguists discover probably don’t exist at all in the brain; they’re historical facts, not brain facts.

I just finished an older introduction to Chomsky, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar by V.J. Cook (1988), and it’s actually more annoying than Chomsky. That’s because it foregrounds all of Chomsky’s worst ideas: universal grammar (UG), the language organ, and principles & parameters. Cook leads off with these things because he presumably finds them the most interesting for the outside world. Ironically, by his own account, these are precisely the ideas that are largely ignored or rejected by psychologists, language acquisition specialists, programmers, and language teachers.

Chomsky’s first books were quite neutral about the psychological status of his grammar– he was after a description of the sentences produced within a language, nothing more, and did not claim that speakers used that grammar in their brains. He has since become ever more convinced that not only is grammar preprogrammed in the brain, it’s programmed according to his system. And yet he develops his system entirely based on intra-theoretical concerns; he has never had any real interest in biological systems, genetics, neural behavior, or even language acquisition.

He even maintains that word meanings are innate, a position which is positively barmy. He finds it perfectly obvious that a word like climb is innately provided by UG. When you hear this sort of thing (Chomsky is not the only offender), take note that words like climb are all they talk about. Did the ancients really have genetically given concepts like airplane, microscope, neutron, phosphate, compiler?  How about scanning electron microscope?  How about generative semantics? It’s simply impossible that our poor little genomes can contain the entire OED; it’s also easily demonstrable that concepts do not neatly coincide between languages. (Takao Suzuki’s Words in Context has a very nice demonstration that words like break are far more complex than they seem, and can’t be simply equated to any one Japanese word.)

On the plus side, innatism on words doesn’t really come up much; on the minus side, Chomsky has doubled down on innatism in syntax, in the form of principles and parameters. This is the idea that UG contains all possible rules, and an actual human language consists of just two things: a small list of binary settings, and a rather longer list of words.

The examples that are always trotted out are pro-drop and head position. Supposedly, Italian is pro-drop and English is not– that is, English requires pronouns and Italian doesn’t.  Got that? Might have to explain more. Not quite so cut-and-dried as all that. Think about it.

Head position is a little harder to explain, but it basically means that the ‘important’ word goes first or last. English is head-first, because we have V + O (kill things), prepositions (on top), and head-first NPS (the one who laughs). Japanese is head-last in all these areas.

One problem: this is hardly binary either. There are good arguments that some languages don’t have VPs at all. Chinese has both prepositions and postpositions, and it isn’t alone. English is only mostly SVO; there are exceptions. Relative clauses arguably don’t attach to the noun at all in Hindi, but to the sentence. Chinese has RelN order combined with V+O.

You could ‘solve’ all this by multiplying parameters. But that only reveals the meta-theoretical problem: the parameters notion makes the theory unfalsifiable. For any weird behavior, you just add another parameter. Cook claims that no one’s found any grammars that don’t match UG, as if that’s a point in favor of the theory.  In fact it’s a point against: UG has been made refutation-proof.

Chomskyans do make a pretty strong claim: children should be able to set a parameter based on very little input– maybe just one sentence, Carnie boldly says. And the evidence from language acquisition… does not back this up at all. Children do not show evidence of randomly using one parameter, suddenly learning a setting, and thereafter getting it right. They show little evidence of learning overall abstract rules at all, in fact.  They seem to learn language construction by construction, only generalizing very late, once they know thousands of words.  See my review of Tomasello for more on this. (Also discussed in my ALC.)

Finally, there’s the infuriating arguments for the language organ. Chomsky, and each of the Chomskyan textbooks, invariably bring out the same tepid arguments. For some reason they always bring up Question Inversion. E.g. what’s the question form of this sentence?

The man who is tall is John.

Chomskyans love to run this through a number (usually two) of impossible algorithms. E.g., reverse every word:

*John is tall is who man the?

Or, reverse the first two words:

*Man the who is tall is John?

All this to come up with the apparently amazing fact that we reverse the subject and the verb:

Is the man who is tall John?

This is supposed to demonstrate the importance of constituent structure: the “subject” is not a single word, but the entire phrase The man who is tall. And this is entirely true! Constituent structure is an important building block of syntax, in every goddamn theory there is. It doesn’t prove UG or any version of Chomskyan syntax.

Plus, the “non-UG” alternatives are pure balderdash; even a completely dense child can see that no one talks that way. Cook talks about “imitation” as a (wrong) alternative to UG, but the default position would seem to be that children are trying to imitate adult speech. Their initial questions are very obviously simplified versions of adult questions. E.g. where bear? instead of where is the bear? The only rule the child needs here is to use only the words it understands.

There’s a gotcha in the sample sentence: there are two is‘s; a child might be tempted to invert based on the wrong one:

*Is the man who tall is John?

The claim is that children get this right without ever hearing examples of such nested sentences. This is the “poverty of the stimulus” argument: children learn or know things that they can’t pick up from the evidence. But the Chomskyans never check to see if their assumption is correct. More empirically oriented linguists have, e.g. Geoffrey Sampson, who found that corpora of language use do include quite a large number of  model sentences.

Moreover, the Chomskyans show little interest in what errors children do make, or what that might mean for syntax. It’s not the case that children always get questions right. They particularly get wh- questions wrong: What that man is doing?

Now, all the language organ stuff turns out to be, in the end, not very important. The Chomskyans forget it by Chapter 3 and so can we. Still, it annoys me that Cook or Steven (The Language Instinct) Pinker lay such emphasis on it, as if it was the Key Insight that separates Chomsky from the clueless masses. The fact that the same simple arguments and examples come up in each exposition should be a clue: this is more an incantation than any kind of knowledge.

Ironically, for such a Chomsky booster, Cook has a short passage that makes some trenchant criticisms of X’ theory. “One feels that the same sentences and constructions self-perpetuate themselves in the literature…” He regrets that X’ theory seems to have narrowed its focus considerably: there’s little discussion of the wide variety of constructions that earlier GG looked at.

Whew! Sorry, had to get all that off my chest.  Now to see if I can finish The Minimalist Program.








Projects: Verdurian, French

I’ve been working on a few projects. One is making flags for the nations of Ereláe. You can see what I’ve done so far here.


Rather more surprising: I’ve been translating a French novel. No, you haven’t heard of it; that’s why I’m translating it. 🙂  I hope the author won’t mind my naming it: it’s Damien Loch by Shan Millan. It’s a fantasy novel,  but a rather satirical and contrarian one. It’s more or less “What if your asshole neighbor turned out to come from another world… but he was still an asshole?”

One of the fascinating bit about translating is how styles and wording differ between even quite similar languages. Conlangers, take note! One way to put it is: if the word-for-word gloss from your language sounds just like English, you probably haven’t worked out your language’s style enough.

For me at least, the problem is that reading the French original, the French style starts to sound natural, and the English ends up strange and wooden. So of course I have to go over the English and make it sound, well, English.

In return, Shan is translating the Language Construction Kit— the book— into French! I tried to do this myself a few years ago, and didn’t get very far, mostly because of the same style problem. I could make a French version myself, but it would be horribly awful. 

Anyway, this will eventually be very exciting for English fantasy fans, and French conlangers.

The other project came out of my work on syntax: I decided to finally update the Verdurian grammar. In the syntax book I want to explain how you can use modern syntax to inform your conlang’s grammar, you see, and I thought I’d better do it myself first. (Not that there wasn’t syntax in the grammar before, but now there’s more.)

I’ve also taken the opportunity to make the grammar easier, and harder. Easier, in that I can explain some things better, and get rid of what I now think are confusing presentations. (Also, there will be glosses for all the examples, a practice I now think is indispensable.) Harder, in that I don’t feel that I have to explain basic linguistics in every grammar, especially since the ‘easy’ route is already there in the form of guided lessons.

(No finish date yet, but it shouldn’t be too long.)

(I’m also hoping to include actual Verdurian text, for people who have the right font.)

Ask Zompist: Alphabetical order

Is there a good methodology or series of questions one should ask themselves when determining what the “alphabetical order” will be of one’s alphabet or other writing system? Is there any particular reason why “A” should be before “B” and that before “C”?


Great question— the answer may be a bit disappointing. The obvious thing to do is to look at natural language alphabetical orders. Only…

  • The alphabet was really only invented once— by the Canaanites, some time after 2000 BC. Everyone else, including the Jews, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans, adapted their system and kept their order.
  • We really don’t know why that order prevailed. No one even seems to have any good guesses. The World’s Writing Systems never, so far as I could see, covers the topic.

(There are actually two attested ancient orders, you can see a comparison here.)

(Also, technically, the Canaanite writing system was a consonantal alphabet, or abjad. Later, partial vowel symbols were used. The Greeks were the first to represent all their vowels.)

So far so disappointing, but we also have the example of the Brāhmī script, which is the ancestor of Devanāgarī and other Indian and SE Asian scripts. This arose around 300 BC, and the interesting thing about it is that its order is phonetically motivated. Letters are grouped by point of articulation (it starts क ख ग घ ka kha ga gha), and the secondary order is from the back of the mouth to the front: ka…, ca…, ṭa…, ta…, pa… Finally there’s semivowels and then sibilants. A linguist couldn’t have done a better job. The Brāhmī order very likely influenced the order in Korean and Japanese.

(The a‘s aren’t just part of the letter— in these systems a symbol has an inherent vowel. So क alone is ka. You add diacritics for other vowels: कि ki, कु ku, etc.)

There’s one other scheme that might appeal to you: mnemonics. A real-world example is the iroha order for the Japanese kana. It’s a poem which includes every character in the syllabary just once, and still serves as an alternative order for the kana.

Since there aren’t many real-world examples, I think a conlanger is also entitled to use any crazy system they can come up with…

Analyzed is what your syntax is gonna get

When you’re reading and writing about syntax, then you see syntax everywhere.  E.g., I just found this gem on Twitter:

Quoted in NYT is not something I was expecting to get when becoming a socialist.

Let’s do some syntax!  First, what is this?  It’s not quite like anything else in my bestiary of transformations. It’s an extraposition of a V’ from the VP, but I can’t make parallels with other auxiliaries:

?Quoted in the NYT is not something I was expecting to be.

?Printed by a major publishing firm is not something I was expecting to be.

*Brought down three prime ministers is not what Brenda thought she would ever have.

The first two are maybe marginal. But simpler statements definitely fail:

*Eaten tripe and onions is not something that I have.

*Eating tripe and onions is not something that I am.

*Compared to a troglodyte is not something that I’ve got(ten).

The sentences seems closest to Pseudo-Clefting, but it doesn’t quite work:

What ended the Martian threat was bacteria.

What he dreams of is being profiled by both Forbes and Dungeon.

What he never expected was getting quoted in the NYT.

*What he never expected getting was quoted in the NYT.  

On the other hand, other uses of get seem to work:

A case of 200-year old wines is not something I was expecting to get from my grandfather.

A rock is what I got.

So I think the best I can come up with is that the Twitter sentence works by analogy from the physical to the auxiliary sense of get. This would help explain why the sentences with get sound better than those with be.

It’s fine, by the way, if you don’t quite accept the original sentence. I’m not 100% sure I do either, but I don’t find it clearly ungrammatical either.

If you’re a conlanger, this construction is worth thinking about— not that you should copy it, but are there any other areas where the syntax can be stretched like this? It’s all too easy to just come up with a straightforward example of (say) the passive, and never think about possible, impossible, and in-between variants.