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Justin Colley
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I don't know if I could call myself a generativist, I've only just started studying linguistics. I have found their arguments to be more convincing thus far, so I guess you could say I'm a generativist-in-waiting! A quick couple of points. The point about processing power (working memory limitations, as Karthik puts it) is empirical, not metaphysical. If these limitations apply to all mental processes--processing of numbers, pictures, music-- then it is a general limitation that tells you nothing about the language faculty specifically. If there is a limitation that only applies to the production and understanding of sentences, then it does tell you something interesting about the language faculty. As far as I am aware, the evidence indicates a general limitation. You are vastly more knowledgeable in this area, though: I would be very interested if there is evidence to the contrary. Again, the sentence is difficult to understand, not impossible. This difficulty is--pending evidence to the contrary-- the result of limitations in working memory. Make the verbs uniform and this becomes clear. So: "Joan said that Peter said that Elizabeth said that James said that Helen said that Caulfield said that Harvey said that... x" It's pretty clear what's going on in this sentence; the difficulty is in remembering all the names! When the verbs change, as in your example, even more information is available to the listener. It is difficult to keep all this information in the head at the same time, but again, this is very probably a general constraint. So if you did diagram it out, like you suggest, I would have as much difficulty processing it as when it is expressed in English. Note also, that to make it comprehensible in a diagram, you would be forced to recreate to recreate the 'nestedness' of the original sentence. You couldn't, for example, paint a big panorama of the scene, and convey the same information. So again, you haven't shown that the nested sentence is unintelligible at all, merely difficult to process. (I'm afraid I don't know enough about linguistics to see the force of your example 'Peter told Jane that Jack is a liar.' From what I can tell, it's a bit like saying 'I can count to 10 and stop, therefore a discrete infinity isn't the crucial property of the human numerical faculty.' I'm sure you can see the fallacy in that. I might be missing the point here, though. Perhaps Karthik can chime in on this.) --------------------------- BLOGGER: i see we use "understand" in different ways. I'm using it as a kind of gestalt experience in which the sentence is grasped as a unit. So, I'm not much persuaded by talk of attention or memory limits since these put limits on understanding. You're using it differently. Something more to argue about.
Toggle Commented Jul 19, 2011 on Reconsidering Recursion at Babel's Dawn
What you point to is just the competence/performance distinction. I can't remember phone numbers very well, but that is just a limitation of processing power. It doesn't change the fact that my numerical capacity has a discrete infinity. You point out, correctly, that some cultures do not count past 2. Nevertheless, all humans have the capacity to do so, unless there is some evidence of which I am unaware. Some people from primitive cultures have initial difficulty interpreting two-dimensional images as three-dimensional, but there is no doubt that our visual systems are the same as ours. Similarly, the fact that the more nested a sentence becomes, the more difficult it is to understand, entails nothing about the language faculty. It is a processing constraint, which is probably a global constraint. Think, for instance, of my difficulty remembering phone numbers, or even of patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time! The very long sentence you give ('Joan knew that Peter knew that...' etc) is difficult to understand, but not impossible. Change the word order, however, and the sentence is unintelligible. The only known computational system that can make intelligible the semantic information in that sentence--or in most, if not all, of the sentences we're using--is one that has the property of recursion.
Toggle Commented Jul 18, 2011 on Reconsidering Recursion at Babel's Dawn
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Jul 18, 2011