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Can anyone overtake Syntax in the Subfield Challenge ?

Grad School Challenge Leader: University of Washington

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Discussion Details

Title: Re: A Challenge to the Minimalist Community
Submitter: Seth Cable
Description: Although they have worked to clarify their position on the matter, it still
puzzles me what Drs. Sproat and Lappin intend to learn from “the
community’s” success or failure at their proposed challenge. There is
the strong suggestion from their words in passages such as the
following that they see the challenge as some sort of ‘crucial
experiment’ weighing on the whole edifice of related P&P proposals.

  It seems to us that if the claims on behalf of P&P approaches are to
  be taken seriously, it is an obvious requirement that someone
  provide a computational learner that incorporates P&P mechanisms,
  and uses it to demonstrate learning of the grammar of a natural
  Surely it is long past time to ask for some substantive evidence in
  the way of a robust grammar induction system that this view of
  grammar induction is computationally viable. Most other major
  theoretical models of grammar have succeeded in yielding robust
  parsers in far less time, despite the fact that they do not, as far we
  know, make analogous claims about the nature of language learning.

Suppose that we learn (somehow) that in its present form P&P is
thoroughly, inescapably computationally ‘unviable’, and that a learner
of the sort Drs. Sproat and Lappin imagine cannot be built. This
would certainly stand as a consideration against the theory in its
present form. But, it would simply be one consideration within an
expansive, turbulent sea of supporting and conflicting data. There
exist, after all, a great many phenomena which stymie the P&P model –
tough-movement being one well-known case. On the other hand,
there are other domains of fact that P&P handles rather superbly, in
ways superior to ‘competing’ proposals. The Root-Infinitive Stage in
language development, for example, has been most productively
studied and analyzed by researchers assuming some version of P&P.

At the risk of sounding banal, there are advantages and
disadvantages to P&P as there are to *any* model at this very early
stage of our understanding (and it *is* early yet to seek out theories
which approach anything near a widely-encompassing model of the
language faculty; no one even knows how relative clauses work). We
do ourselves a great disfavor by setting up ‘litmus tests’ for proposals.
One is not being ‘unscientific’ in pursuing HPSG, LFG or statistical
models despite their being unable to illuminate the Root Infinitive
Stage, nor is one being ‘dogmatic’ by adopting the TAG system of
Frank (2002) despite its being unable to derive sentences in which wh-
movement interleaves with raising (Frank 2002, chapter 6). The most
reasonable goal for researchers interested in questions regarding the
language faculty is to assess the advantages and disadvantages of
each proposal, always with an eye towards incorporating and
combining the insights of each. In this regard, posing ''challenges'' to
one another is unproductive and a little absurd. If one wishes to
examine how ideas developed to cover one domain of fact could apply
to another, the standard operating procedure is for one to take up the
mantle themselves.

In this light, consider the following statement by Drs. Sproat and

  Finally since our challenge has actually stimulated relatively little
  discussion from the P&P community, we suspect the following may
  also be one response:
  8. Ignore the challenge because it's irrelevant to the theory and
  therefore not interesting.
  RESPONSE: This is the ''answer'' we had most anticipated. It does
  not bode well for a field when serious scientific issues are dismissed
  and dealt with through silence.

I am one of many individuals who did not earlier contribute to this
discussion. Was it because I found this challenge “irrelevant to the
theory”? Of course not; success or failure at the task could stand as
consideration for or against certain ideas in the P&P literature.
Indeed, it might be that success at the task Drs. Sproat and Lappin
imagine would be an interesting feat for a P&P learning algorithm
(though, surely, not any more interesting than the discovery of some
subtle prediction regarding language acquisition). I maintain,
however, that this challenge is not the Great Race Around the World
they seem to imagine it, but only one part of a very long, slow and
plodding discussion that we should not seek to bring prematurely to its

Arguing in Defense of Disinterest,

Seth Cable.
Date Posted: 09-May-2005
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
LL Issue: 16.1454
Posted: 09-May-2005

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