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LINGUIST List 16.1251

Wed Apr 20 2005

Disc: Re: A Challenge to the Minimalist Community

Editor for this issue: Michael Appleby <michaellinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Martha McGinnis, Re: 16.1251156, A Challenge to the Minimalist Community
        2.    Peter Hallman, Re: 16.1251156, A Challenge to the Minimalist Community

Message 1: Re: 16.1156, A Challenge to the Minimalist Community
Date: 13-Apr-2005
From: Martha McGinnis <mcginnisucalgary.ca>
Subject: Re: 16.1156, A Challenge to the Minimalist Community

I was intrigued by Richard Sproat's challenge to the Minimalist 
community. As I understand it, the challenge calls for a renewed
connection between computational and theoretical linguistics. The
idea strikes me as intriguing -- it could create intellectual excitement
and lead to new discoveries (not to mention more of those bright
computer-science students in our syntax classes, always a good

Currently, the goals of the two fields are quite distinct: generative
syntactic theory seeks to identify the universal structural principles
constraining human language, which often manifest themselves most
clearly in rather obscure and rarely-used aspects of language, like
multiple wh-questions or passives, as well as in child language errors,
selective impairments in aphasia, and so forth. By contrast,
computational linguistics (at least the kind Richard Sproat is
describing) seeks to develop an engineering tool that can reliably and
efficiently parse a corpus into syntactic structures. Not surprisingly,
practitioners in the two fields spend their time solving very different
kinds of problems. Generally, I imagine, computational linguists have
enough to do without also internalizing the current theoretical
literature, and syntacticians have enough to do without also
internalizing the current computational literature.

Still, it seems as though there's a potential for convergence, if both
theoretical and computational linguistics could be brought to bear on a
computational model of the human language faculty, with all
its 'inefficiencies' and limitations, as well as its capacities. A promising
area for establishing an initial common ground would be sentence
processing. For example, Ted Gibson's work on sentence processing
is framed within a computational approach; and Colin Phillips' 1996
MIT dissertation proposes a very intriguing union of syntactic theory
with sentence processing. This syntax-processing-computation nexus
seems like an ideal starting point for anyone seeking to implement a
computational model of language processing within a current
principles-and-parameters approach.

I do hope that Richard Sproat's challenge will result in a surge of
interest and activity in this area. However, it seems to me that if such
an effort is to succeed, it will not be made by scholars in one field
submitting to the goals and assumptions of another. It will require
genuine collaboration, with syntacticians, psycholinguists, and
computational linguists working together to develop collective goals
and assumptions, and committing their knowledge, time, and
resources to cross-disciplinary interaction and the training of graduate
students. This kind of collaborative research is challenging and very
time-consuming, but it can pay big intellectual dividends. I imagine
there are many linguists who would be happy to act as resources on
Minimalist theory, if someone is looking for collaborators.


Martha McGinnis, Assistant Professor
Linguistics Department, University of Calgary
2500 University Drive NW, Calgary AB T2N 1N4
phone: (403) 220-6119 fax: (403) 282-3880

Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
                            Discipline of Linguistics

Message 2: Re: 16.1156, A Challenge to the Minimalist Community
Date: 13-Apr-2005
From: Peter Hallman <peter.hallmanmcgill.ca>
Subject: Re: 16.1156, A Challenge to the Minimalist Community

In issue 16.1156, Richard Sproat and Shalom Lappin challenge the 
Minimalist community to ''to produce, by May of 2008, a working P&P
[Principals and Parameters Framework] parser that can be trained in a
supervised fashion on a standard treebank, such as the Penn
Treebank, and perform in a range comparable to state-of-the-art
statistical parsers,'' between 80% and 90% accuracy under certain

The goals of the P&P approach to language acquisition are
dramatically different from those of statistical approaches, which
makes a comparison in terms of accuracy alone uninformative. The
P&P framework seeks to connect typological universals to the
mechanism of language learning, in effect explaining those universals
as properties of the initial state of the trainable parser. A statistical
parser can, within physical limitations, recognize and learn any
statistically significant pattern, not merely those patterns that occur in
human languages. The P&P approach finds this disadvantageous,
because the P&P framework seeks to answer the question ''What is a
possible human language (type)?'' The P&P parser that Sproat and
Lappin envision would answer this question; comparable statistical
parsers do not.

A successful P&P parser would not only acquire the target language
accurately, it would behave like a language learner in its acquisition
timeline and would fail to acquire languages that violate language
universals. It would have to display these properties in order to
successfully learn the target language, because these properties
ought to be inherent in the parameters underlying the system.

So the P&P parser that Sproat and Lappin envision would accomplish
much more than comparable statistical parsers, which makes the
proposed accuracy metric a poor yardstick for comparison, and
furthermore, I suspect, it makes the three-year timeline unrealistic,
especially since there is no reason to believe that the discovery of
parameters and implicational relations among them is finished at the
present time and ready to form the basis of a trainable parser.

Nonetheless, I hope someone takes up the challenge (it's not my
field), since the attempt can only benefit the P&P framework. Perhaps
there should be a prize.

Peter Hallman
Department of Linguistics
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
                            Discipline of Linguistics

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