Another Project

I've started working on another flash project. It's called "The Keats Machine". Simply, it's a slot machine whose jackpot is "truth is beauty, beauty truth"... However, it's an unlikely jackpot, and the other combinations of words it comes up with are bizarre and, potentially, more fun to discover.

So, if you have the time, go take a look at it. It's still very rough, and I'm probably going to redesign it soon. I'd appreciate any feedback someone reading this might have to offer.

Click on "Keats Machine" to CHECK IT OUT!


know his priorities Yoda does

today in syntax, we began talking about 'extraction,' a process for moving parts of sentences out of lower clauses and (in the pertinent case) to the beginning. this is known as 'topicalization.' it's used in certain instances of discourse to signify the centrality of a certain part of the sentence:
'he promised to fly'
'fly he did!'
here 'fly' has been moved from its normal position at the end of the sentence for emphasis.

this technique is also effective to demonstrate contrast:
'did he go to the store?'
'went to the MOON he did.'
this time a whole verb phrase has been moved to emphasize the contrast between 'store' and 'moon'

these are pretty believable example sentences, but for the most part the professor just sounded like Yoda all class period. and then it struck me: a while back there was a thread in several of the linguistics blogs about why Yoda talks so funny.

Eric Bakovic at Language Log 'lumps' Yoda together with all the fanciful Lucas characters and provides a breakdown of who can understand whom in the Star Wars universe. He claims that because it takes longer for us to decipher Yoda-speak, we think he must be smarter than other characters.

Eric Lippert cites another well-known use of linguistic tom-foolery in fantasy: Tolkien. He believes that Yoda is written to sound ancient, the same way as Tolkien's elves. Comments discuss whether Yoda is supposed to be German or Japanese. Neither seems right.

I know there's more out there than this, but I'll leave you with the most syntax-heavy (but still requiring little to no background) of the bunch:
Geoffrey K. Pullum, also at Language Log explores the fact that Yoda sometimes nails English syntax perfectly. Other times he extracts the object and places it first (leading many to comment that he speaks in Object-Subject-Verb word order--unnatural if anything is!), and other times he extracts a verb, adjective or verb phrase. Pullum concludes that this variety simply reflects the fact that Yoda is an alien and might not have learned English very well.

But I think that confusion sounds pretty familiar. It sounds just like topicalization! It doesn't slow down comprehension too much, and anyone who's seen a Star Wars movie can mimic Yoda pretty well without too much thought.

I believe Yoda sounds wise because he puts the most important part of his thought first. He knows what's critical. He saves his breath in general, speaking mostly in short declarative sentences. Additionally, he's a great teacher, and he knows how to make Luke focus on only what is important. All great reasons to topicalize your sentences.

Yoda sentence insert here!!


Son of 'On Like Usage'

Once upon a time, I posted this classic: On Like Usage, which briefly shot Invented Usage to the top of search engine results everywhere and sparked a most interesting debate about the meaning and usage of "like."

As I draw close to the conclusion of my first actual syntax class, I have a few more tools with which to discuss 'like' and why it illustrates a challenge to the contemporary study of linguistics.

Categorial Grammar (CG) operates on the assumption that we can tell what type of word we're dealing with by where it's found in relation to other words. That is to say, we know 'ran' is a certain type of verb because it follows a noun phrase and provides a sentence. Another way to think of these relationships is as input-output functions. 'Gave' requires three noun phrases as inputs, and then provides a sentence (or, more accurately, a truth value) as output.

in the post linked above, I illustrated the myriad ways 'like' can be distributed throughout a sentence. it can modify nouns, adjectives prepositions, verbs... pretty much anything, now that i think of it. most linguists probably wouldn't consider this a problem, since they would claim that 'like' does not contribute to truth conditions. that is, that 'she went to the store' and 'she went, like, to the store' are true in exactly the same instances. if that's the case, 'like' doesn't contribute any meaning, and doesn't have to be accounted for in the grammar. linguistics adheres to a strict separation between language as a formal system (which syntax can describe) and language as it is used by people.

but 'like' DOES change the meaning, and in some cases the truth conditions (i don't believe they're the same thing) of sentences. it's one of many reasons why I think language use cannot be separated from language itself.

while syntax is interesting as an attempt to understand the patterns that arise from language use, the way it is actually implemented seems to forget that purpose. all linguists can do, at this point, is describe (to a limited degree) an idealized language that no one actually speaks.


check this out!

After much work last week, my flash project is finished. If you want to take a look it's pretty simple. A grid of letters each containing a sound. Two words per grid spot forming words reading left to right and top to bottom.


PLEASE! Leave me comments and let me know what you think.