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Monday, May 01, 2006

The Role of Intuition in Linguistics

In doing science, there are certain principles that are widely believed to be inviolable. One is that the science (and the scientists that practice it) be objective. Another is that the results obtained in any investigation be replicatable. These two principles help to put sciences on as solid a foundation as possible.

I originally was trained as a theoretical linguist, specializing in syntax, the theory of sentence structure. The original goal of syntax was to construct a theory of sentence formation and within that theory, provide descriptions of the sentences that comprise each language we want to describe. In this way, our theory was to have universal applicability. Chomsky argued that the set of sentences in any language is unbounded, which is to say, infinite in size. He also argued that it would be wrong to gather our data from observation by, say, transcribing the sentences we hear. One must, instead, use our linguistic intuitions as to what is and is not a sentence in the languages we are native speakers of. In short, he argued that it would be wrong to use actually occurring linguistic data, data most naive observers would say is "real data."

Chomsky noted that the gathering of data from observation would be very unlikely to contain data critical to theory construction. There is some merit to that view. We all recognize that
Which girl did John tell the boy who kissed to get out of town.
is utterly uninterpretable. It is unlikely that we would encounter it in real speech but suppose we did. What would we do with it? Throw it on the scrap heap and continue on without inferring anything at all from it? That doesn't seem to be a very good idea. Indeed, speakers of languages that are sufficiently like English to allow for construction of such a sentence find them uninterpretable (the last I heard -- remember I have been retired for awhile). The general consensus has been that such sentences illustrate what is called the "A over A" Principle: if you have construction of type "A" (a noun phrase like "the boy who kissed some girl" which contains a construction of the same type, as is true of "some girl," which is also a noun phrase, then you cannot "extract" the subordinate instance of A from the superior instance of A. In
Which girl did John tell [the boy who kissed [e] ] to get out of town.
I have put in the "identity element "e" in the position from which one could say "which girl" was extracted. There have been many ways of trying to account for this phenomenon. Without perusing the recent literature I think I can say with confidence that no real consensus has developed. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is real and it seems we must employ our imagination to think up such a possible sentence and our intuition to judge it unacceptable.

A second reason Chomsky said we should use one's intuition is that real speech can be rather chaotic: full of false starts, pauses, pause fillers like "uh", and the like. In my book, Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction, I analyzed a conversation that was full of these and other messy things. This conversation can found at pages 109, 110, and 111,. Here we find inward and outward breathing (the .h's and h's), pauses, the lengths of which are indicated within parentheses, and numerous pause fillers, incomplete sentences, and the like. I had access to a copy of this conversation before going to a conference in Italy where Manny Schegloff, a Conversation Analyst, played the actual tape recording. As "defective" as this conversation is, it sounded perfectly natural, like those we engage in every day. The fact that I had read it before hearing it might make me into a problematic source but no one in the crowd said they found it to be nothing but word salad.

What made this conversation so interesting was that the incomplete sentences are easily filled out. When Donny says, "I don't know if its possible but I have to open up the bank" he means "I don't know if its possible for you to give me a ride but I need for you to do so because I have to open up the bank." In my book, I provide a theory of certain classes of conversations, inspired in large part by work I did with Terry Patten and Barbara Becker on computer simulation of conversation, as well as much reading in the speech act, conversational analytic, sociolinguistic, and artificial intelligence literatures, that makes perfect sense out of what Donny said as well as what Marsha said in the next turn of the conversation. What she says means "I know you want a ride and i would give you one but I can't because I've got to leave in about five minutes." Her shift from "but" to "except" is socially significant for "except" means "in every circumstance other than the current one" in this context. This is powerfully strong and is intended to mitigate the face threat associated with her rejection of his request. What is most remarkable about this conversation is that there is no direct reference to someone giving a ride to someone else; the request is never explicitly made; and it is never explicitly rejected. Yet the conversation was perfectly clear to the participants.

I have talked to linguists who say that they believe they have intuitions as to what are and are not well-formed conversations. To that, I say, and "4 million angels can dance on the head of a pin." The idea that we have intuitions as to the well-formedness of conversations is one of the silliest things any putative linguistic scientist could possibly say. Nevertheless, linguists and semanticians routinely work on "home made" conversations the way that syntacticians work on "home made" sentences. I'm not going to tell syntacticians that they shouldn't use intuition as they do even though doing so is clearly problematic. My reason is that I believe that what linguists should be working on is conversations like the Donny and Marsha ride request. Real data. It will force a radical revision in how linguists do theory construction. No longer would constructing a grammar Chomsky-style be a desideratum and to some degree some of the motivations for using intuition would vanish. A better idea would be to create what Michael Halliday called a systemic functional grammar in the form of a complex "munge" of pragmatic, sociolinguistic, semantic, morphological, and syntactic features, examples of which are in my book. That is the sort of grammar that Patten, Becker, and I1 worked with in a computer simulation of conversation.


1Terry Patten, Michael L. Geis, and Barbara D. Becker. Toward a theory of compilation for natural language generation. Computational Intelligence, 8(1):77--101, February 1992.


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18 Comments:

Blogger L>T said...

O.K., I looked up all the hard words (couldn't find 'munge' in any dictionary, btw) checked out the links, but i'm holding back my comments so I can gauge what the 'smarties' have to say, first.

How do you like my new avatar? I thot i needed something a bit more sopisticated.

11:58 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

I never trusted made-up examples. In fact, when I studied linguistics, we were taught the importance of real data. Our teacher would never have accepted research that wasn't supported by a corpus (spoken or written). Not that we didn't have any use for linguistic intuition, quite the contrary: intuition was the root of the investigation into meaning. We were taught to start from our intuition based on what we had observed, posit a hypothesis as to the meaning and effect of a given structure, then confront the hypothesis to the corpus data and go back to step one for refinement of the idea.

Coming from a "hard" science background, that made much more sense to me than making up data. And instead of just saying this is grammatical and this isn't, we actually looked for examples of things that would usually be deemed ungrammatical, and try and figure out why it was actually used; try and see what unexpected utterances tell us about the syntax and semantics.

Isn't much more fun to try and figure out what Orwell meant by "How tell her?" than to discard it as ungrammatical?

9:28 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

marc, I agree with you as to the use of intuition in semantics. In fact, critical to such investigations is the notion of entailment and only humans can say whether or not A entails B, which is critical to understanding synonymy. No corpus data will ever answer the question whether "I will leave if you leave" has the same meaning as "I will leave in any circumstance in which you leave." Only intuition can be used to discern that. And refine the analysis as well.

For instance, suppose a Chair tells a prof, "I will promote you if you publish another book," and the prof publishes his book but also is caught having sex with an underage girl by the cops on the same day. The Chair is off the hook. This sort of thing led Bill Lycan and me to argue that the universal quantifier is a restricted quantifier -- to something like "in all reasonably expectable circumstances." Our intuition that the Chair should be let off the hook of promoting the guy is critical to the analysis.

10:18 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Trying to find something I could get out of this post(I mean apply to my life & use in a practical way) The whole intuition idea is fascinating me. I've never given it much thought as to how much it is a part of everyday conversation.
Off the top of my head I can come up with two examples in my own family;
I have a mother who won't finish a sentence, but expects everyone else to figure out what she means. She pauses waiting for you to finish what she started.
And my kids, when they want money, they go around the corner & up the block, as you say; 'requests never explicitly made.'
Acually I'm thinking in real life conversations, intuition plays a large role.

10:52 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Actually, I was referring to the use of the linguist's intuition as to meaning or, in the case of syntax, the linguist's intuition os to the well-formedness of sentences. However, I was thinking about blogging about how we do interpret language in cases you refer to L>T. And by the way, what is "tartish" about you? Is it that you are a "working girl" or that you are a pie of sorts or are a bit sour. I am, of course, jerking your chain.

11:57 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I like your "reasonably expectable circumstances" remark. It's true, and similar phrases are read into most statutes by the courts.

I also find the first sentence of your post to be rather quirky. "In doing science" is kind of an odd phrase worthy of discussion in itself. Most scientists wouldn't say they "do science." I'm not sure if science can be "done" or not, but it just doesn't have the same ring to it as "I am a scientist" or "I do scientific experiments and analysis."

I mean no ill will by that analysis, of course.

Intuition is surely necessary in any kind of science that studies the behavior of language and people. The problem with it is that it opens up the door to error.

12:45 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

I'll forgive you your interpretation (or intuition) of the meaning of 'tart'. 'Lusty Tart' is my alter ego. It can from my fascination of certain women that come off as innocently sluttish Example: the fish-wife. The 'Tart' part comes from my idea of a certain kind of woman that you might find in a dickens story. Middle-class, slovenly(relaxed), ready to get in the middle of any situation, whether she belongs there or not, not caring what everyone else thinks. Acually the Tart thinks everyone loves her, that's where the Lusty come in;
The 'Lusty' part has more to do with the 'Tarts' zest for life (in a carnel sense). Like, "Damn, we are going to have fun no matter what you think." As you know l>t can be quite persistent. :)

1:15 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

To continue; l>t is not glamorous (except in her own eyes)or educated (she's a graduate of the school of hard knocks) but she is honest, hard-working & loves the common man (& the uncommon man).

What else can I say? Well, I think when i die i want to be dressed as the Tart.

6:55 PM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

In addition to the specialized usage in Linguistics, isn't intuition also somewhat important in Science in the creation of hypotheses and deciding which to test before others?

As for "doing science", the phrase gets a raw score of about 511,000 Ghits (not all of which are used in LG's sense, of course). "Pursuing or engaging in scientific research" might feel more correct, but actually get very few hits (501 and 585, respectively; "doing scientific research" gets 35,200, btw). Maybe the phrase is simply more often used in our field?

Either way, for most of the last half-century "doing Linguistics" and "doing Science" have rarely meant the same thing in real terms. : (

2:51 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Yes, ibbi, intuition plays a huge role in the practice of science but not in the determination of what is and is not appropriate data.

8:04 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Actually, LG, I'd change the "but not in" to "but shouldn't in". I've seen the ill effects of intuition (or plain old ingrained bias) in the determination of what is appropiate data in many more scientific fields than just linguistics.

8:40 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Thanks for your observation, marc. I have been a little surprised at some reading one of my commenters on the previous blog has caused me to do at how vague -- even mystical -- theoretical physics sometimes seems to be. I think their ideas have outrun their ability to experiement, which is not that surprising given the difficulties involved.

10:30 AM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

(ibbi? I actually kinda like that. : )

Preaching to the choir on the data issue, onshi* mine!

It's a bit disturbing, though, to learn that "data selection" is a problem in other fields as well. I wonder if these are separate developments or somehow results of Reb Noam's attempts to redefine the scientific method?


* 恩師 honored teacher

1:26 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

I remember talking to a friend of mine doing his Masters' in biochemistry who had just read a (peer-reviewed) article where it was obvious that the graphs were actually drawn *before* the data set was acquired. Any data that didn’t fit was labelled anomaly, or the “scientist” found a reason to discard it.

I don’t think it’s anything new. There’s a good part of it that stems from the beliefs the scientist has acquired in the first few years of college (as Kuhn showed nearly 50 years ago).

BTW, Nature has a series of article on the subject of fraud (cf. http://blogs.nature.com/news/blog/2006/05/fraud.html). Unfortunately, all but one of them is only available by subscription.

3:33 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Yes, data cooking, my least favorite branch of gastronomy. Given how competitive academia is and how badly some demented souls crave respect no matter what the cost, it is not surprising that some will cheat. But if you are caught you are doomed, as you should be.

8:41 AM

 
Anonymous dsfaraway said...

Of course it's a highly dubious practice when linguists act as their own informants. And "well-formedness" as a theoretical term seems outdated. But the reliance on the intuitions (if there is such a thing, which I doubt) of language users remains untouched. The term "intuition" just points to the fact that language and other social activities are rule-based.
People play language games and linguists (sociologists, etc.) try to (re-)construct the rules of these games. In order to understand the workings of language, it is vital to broaden the range of descriptive and explanatory models, and to integrate the sciences of man. I only hope you don't believe in such mythical entities as "raw data".

5:43 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I will not dignify your "I only hope you don't believe in such mythical entities as `Raw data'" with a comment. That is a juvenile argument style.

I do believe in actual data -- recorded conversations and experimentally derived data. The normal practice of a scientist. I hope that makes you happy.

By the way, who are you disfraray? Why are you hiding?

9:30 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

I don't understand, dsfaraway, how intuition "points to the fact that language and other social activities are rule-based." To me it indicates that we don't overtly know what's going on (as one writer defined it, intuition is coming to the right conclusion without (consciously) having all the facts). Doesn't mean that what is going on is rule-based.

2:03 PM

 

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