Assignment: Productivity and Regularity

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Assignment: Productivity and Regularity

Assignment: Productivity and Regularity

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The linguist focuses on two aspects of language: its productivity and its

regularity. The term productivity refers to the fact that an infinite number of

utterances are possible in any language. Regularity refers to the fact that these

utterances are systematic in many ways. We need not seek far to convince

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ourselves of the highly productive and creative character of language. Pick a

random sentence from this book or any other book of your choice and enter it

as an exact string (quoting it) in Google. If Google can find the sentence in all

of its billions of pages, it will probably either be from a copy of the book or a

quote from the book. In fact, these sorts of methods are used by programs to

catch plagiarism.Most sentences you will find in books were created only once in

human history. And yet it is important to realize that the components that


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up sentences are quite small in number: English uses only 26 letters, 40 phonemes

(see the discussion in the Speech Recognition section of Chapter 2), and some

tens of thousands of words. Nevertheless, with these components, we can and do

generate trillions of novel sentences.

A look at the structure of sentences makes clear why this productivity is

possible. Natural language has facilities for endlessly embedding structures within

structures and coordinating structures with structures. A mildly amusing party

game starts with a simple sentence and requires participants to keep adding to

the sentence:

• The girl hit the boy. • The girl hit the boy and he cried. • The big girl hit the boy and he cried. • The big girl hit the boy and he cried loudly. • The big girl hit the boy who was misbehaving and he cried loudly. • The big girl with authoritarian instincts hit the boy who was misbehaving

and he cried loudly.

And so on until someone can no longer extend the sentence.

The fact that an infinite number of word strings can be generated would not

be particularly interesting in itself. If we have tens of thousands of words for

each position and if sentences can be of any length, it is not hard to see that

a very large (in fact, an infinite) number of word strings is possible. However,

if we merely combine words at random, we get “sentences” such as • From runners physicians prescribing miss a states joy rests what thought


In fact, very few of the possible word combinations are acceptable sentences.

The speculation is often jokingly made that, given enough monkeys working at

typewriters for a long enough time, some monkey will type a best-selling book.

It should be clear that it would take a lot of monkeys a long time to type just

one acceptable *R@!#s.

So, balanced against the productivity of language is its highly regular character.

One goal of linguistics is to discover a set of rules that will account for

both the productivity and the regularity of natural language.

Such a set of rules is referred to as a grammar. A grammar should be able

to prescribe or generate all the acceptable utterances of a language and be able

to reject all the unacceptable sentences in the language. A grammar consists

Assignment: Productivity and Regularity

of three types of rules—syntactic, semantic, and phonological. Syntax concerns

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word order and inflection. Consider the following examples of sentences that

violate syntax: • The girls hits the boys. • Did hit the girl the boys? • The girl hit a boys. • The boys were hit the girl.

These sentences are fairly meaningful but contain some mistakes in word combinations

or word forms.

Semantics concerns the meaning of sentences. Consider the following sentences

that contain semantic violations, even though the words are correct in

form and syntactic position: • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. • Sincerity frightened the cat.

These constructions are called anomalous sentences in that they are syntactically

well formed but nonsensical.

Phonology concerns the sound structure of sentences. Sentences can be correct

syntactically and semantically but be mispronounced. Such sentences are

Assignment: Productivity and Regularity

said to contain phonological violations. Consider this example:

The Inspector opened his notebook. “Your name is Halcock, is’t no?” he began.

The butler corrected him. “H’alcock,” he said, reprovingly. “H, a, double-l?”

suggested the Inspector. “There is no h’aich in the name, young man. H’ay is

the first letter, and there is h’only one h’ell.” (Sayers, 1968, p. 73)

The butler, wanting to hide his cockney dialect, which drops the letter h, is systematically

mispronouncing every word that begins with a vowel.

The goal of linguistics is to discover a set of rules that captures the structural

regularities in a language.

Linguistic Intuitions

A major goal of linguistics is to explain the linguistic intuitions of speakers of a

language. Linguistic intuitions are judgments about the nature of linguistic utterances

or about the relations between linguistic utterances. Speakers of the language

are often able to make these judgments without knowing how they do so.

As such, linguistic intuition is another example of implicit knowledge, a concept

introduced in Chapter 7. Among these linguistic intuitions are judgments about

whether sentences are ill-formed and, if ill-formed, why. For instance, we can

judge that some sentences are ill-formed because they have bad syntactic structure

and that other sentences are ill-formed because they lack meaning. Linguists require

that a grammar capture this distinction and clearly express the reasons for it.

Another kind of intuition is about paraphrase.A speaker of English will judge that

the following two sentences are similar in meaning and hence are paraphrases: • The girl hit the boy. • The boy was hit by the girl.

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Yet another kind of intuition is about ambiguity. The following sentence has

two meanings: • They are cooking apples.

This sentence can either mean that some people are cooking some apples or

that the apples can be used for cooking.Moreover, speakers of the language can

distinguish this type of ambiguity, which is called structural ambiguity, from

lexical ambiguity, as in • I am going to the bank.

where bank can refer either to a monetary institution or to a riverbank. Lexical

ambiguities arise when a word has two or more distinct meanings; structural

ambiguities arise when an entire phrase or sentence has two or more meanings.

Linguists try to account for the intuitions we have about paraphrases, ambiguity,

and the well-formedness of sentences.

Competence versus Performance

Our everyday use of language does not always correspond to the prescriptions

of linguistic theory. We generate sentences in conversation that, upon reflection,

we would judge to be ill-formed and unacceptable. We hesitate, repeat

ourselves, stutter, and make slips of the tongue. We misunderstand the meaning

of sentences. We hear sentences that are ambiguous but do not note their


Another complication is that linguistic intuitions are not always clear-cut.

For instance, we find the linguist Lakoff (1971) telling us that, in the following

case, the first sentence is not acceptable but the second sentence is: • Tell John where the concert’s this afternoon. • Tell John that the concert’s this afternoon.

People are not always reliable in their judgments of such sentences and certainly

do not always agree with Lakoff.

Considerations about the unreliability of human linguistic behavior and

judgment led linguist Noam Chomsky (1965) to make a distinction between

linguistic competence, a person’s abstract knowledge of the language, and

linguistic performance, the actual application of that knowledge in speaking

or listening. In Chomsky’s view, the linguist’s task is to develop a theory of

competence; the psychologist’s task is to develop a theory of performance.

The exact relation between a theory of competence and a theory of performance

is unclear and can be the subject of heated debates. Chomsky has

argued that a theory of competence is central to performance—that our

linguistic competence underlies our ability to use language, if indirectly.

Others believe that the concept of linguistic competence is based on a rather

unnatural activity (making linguistic judgments) and has very little to do with

language use.

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