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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: Oren Sadeh-Leicht
Description: Peter Svenonius (LINGUIST List 16.1491) wrote that:

 Then I would use that corpus as the training ground for testing my
 simulacrum, because P&P (Principles and Parameters) theory is not
 trying to describe a Language Acquisition Device that can learn a
 language from the Wall Street Journal (with or without labelled
 brackets), but a Language Acquisition Device that can learn a
 language from a learning environment like the one described in the
 preceding paragraph.
 If my concerns are well-founded, then building a parser of the kind
 described by Sproat & Lappin would not even be a milestone on the
 road to a workable model of language; it would be a detour.


 As a theoretical linguist, I remain unconvinced from the discussion so
 far that building a parser of the kind proposed by Sproat & Lappin
 (LINGUIST 16-1156) would be as important as they suggest.

These words remind me of the age-old debate between empiricism
and rationalism in that they imply that theoretical linguistics is 'the real
scientific study': trying to work out how natural language is acquired
under natural conditions, whereas corpus parsing is studying just that:
how to annotate a given corpus. Therefore, corpus parsing is
irrelevant to the task at hand which is answering the question 'how
language is acquired'. It appears that the linguistic community should
wait for the right theoretical linguist who will put all aspects of
language together (intonation, context, syntax and what not) and by
that will solve once and for all this problem.

Surely this is not the way to go about things. The way science
progresses is by simplification and by testing narrow hypotheses.
Later on, these might be expanded to become more general. In the
study of human motion, scientists build up robots to test the movement
of the human hand, for instance, in the hope to apply this practical
knowledge to the movement of other limbs. Surely a human being
does not move a hand like a robot, and other factors need to be
considered (planning a movement, eye-hand coordination, balance,
etc.), but just modelling a certain aspect of movement is essential to
the understanding of human movement.

It is therefore essential to model parsing of a limited corpus, even if it
does not contain intonation contours or context like Peter Svenonius
would like it, since this is just one little step forward in a scientific

I think what Sproat & Lappin had in mind, in contrast to what Peter
Svenonius wrote, was to show that given the innateness hypothesis, a
given corpus will be quicker and easier to 'learn'. That is the main
point: if a child possesses a-priori knowledge, the task of learning a
language as complex and intricate as human language, becomes
easier. They are asking to test this aspect of innateness (or UG), and
do not claim that this would have a bearing on real human language
acquisition. It would just be a little step forward in a scientific study.
Date Posted: 11-May-2005
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Discipline of Linguistics
LL Issue: 16.1506
Posted: 11-May-2005

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