existence and reality

Tom Givon tgivon at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Sun Apr 6 21:03:36 UTC 2003

Dear y'all,

I guess I had better say something less flippant (sorry, Paul), tho temptation is
still strong.Chomsky with his intellectual Stalinism had pushed us to adopt
either extreme rationalism ("everything is innate, input doesn't matter") or
extreme empiricism ("nothing is innate, all knowledge derives from input"). In
the very same vein, we have been repeatedly pushed in the past 15 years or so by
our own extreme emergentists to subscribe to an equally reductionist position:
"If X--be it grammar or phonology--is not 100% generative, therefore it is 100%
emergent". I find this passion for reductive solutions suspect on both
theoretical and empirical grounds. I have always thought that the worse gift we
could give Chomsky is to counter his extreme reductionism with an equally extreme
reductionism in the opposite direction. That way he wins either way, because we
concede his main philosophical premise--either or, but God forbid a pragmatic

Theoretical considerations:

(i)  complex multi-factored systems: We are dealing with biologically-based,
adaptively- shaped complex systems. Most often, such systems display various
kinds of adaptive compromises between conflicting--but equally valid--functional
imperatives (cf. Bates-MacWhinney's "competition model"). This is true all over
biology, cognition & language. For running & flying animals, muscle-weight
conflicts with speed. For all populations, genetic variability (adaptive
flexibility) conflicts with genetic coherence (adaptive inheritance). In
phonology, articulatory speed (sound assimilation) conflicts with auditory
distinctness (sound dissimilation). In learning, innateness (relying on the
evolutionary experience of ancestors) conflicts with emergence (sensitivity to
changing context). Etc. etc.

(ii) Automaticity & performance speed: Both phonology and grammar are highly
automated processing systems. Not 100%, but way above 50%, probably--depending
how one counts in real-time communicative behavior--ca. 90% at any given moment.
It is all very nice to observe that emergence is--in principle--ever present. But
at any given time during fluent (non-Pidgin) communication, a spoken-language
user produces language at the speed of, roughly, 1-2 seconds per event/state
clause and 0.250 msecs per lexical word. This is an extremely demanding
processing rate, which can only be made possible by high level of automaticity.
And high automaticity depends heavily on high categoriality; that is, a high rate
of rule-governedness & either/or decidability. When Sapir said "all grammars
leak", I doubt it what he meant was "all grammar leaks 100% all the time". What's
the point of having a grammar then? Sure, grammar has it's counter-adaptive
"spandrels", but neither 100% or 50% of the total. More like 10% percent or even
less at any given time.

(iii) The S-shaped learning curve: This is a well known phenomenon in both
psychology and the linguistic change-cum-variation. The variation ratios of
90-to-10 (at the beginning of the process of  change) and 10-to-90 (at the end)
both last for a long time. The in-between phase, the transitions between 80-to-20
and 20-to-80 ratios, is extremely rapid. This is most likely because the more
even ratios of variation are not viable as processing systems. Most
highly-automated systems can cope with 10% residue ("garbage") by either ignoring
it (if it is adaptively irrelevant), or by investing high-energy resources to
attend to the fine details of context (if it is adaptively urgent). And I suspect
that S.J. Gould's "punctuated equilibria" phenomenon has a similar fundamental
explanation--the adaptive instability of intermediate stages.

Empirical issues:

One can easily test all this empirically, as I have tried to suggest in chs. 2-3
of Bio-Linguistics (Amsterdam:  J. Benjamins, 2002). One can, for example, take a
text of natural communication (unedited, strictly oral!) and compute how many of
the actual uses of all grammatical constructions there are highly
conventionalized & rule-governed ("generative")  vs. how many are in the midst of
change ("emergent"). The computation I did in ch. 2 of B-L yielded the ratio of
98%-to-2%, respectively. So this was only one conversational text of 5 pp. In ch.
3 of the book I did a similar assessment of cliticization (grammaticalization),
yielding a ratio of 90-to-10. And studies of the frequency distribution of marked
vs. unmarked constructions in text yield similar ratios (Givón 1991).

I think those of you who are interested in this as an empirical issue should
undertake similar text-distributional studies of variability ("emergence") vs.
stability ("generativity") in both our major linguistic coding ('structural')
systems-- phonology & grammar. To continue to just take for granted either
emergence or generativity without the benefit such performance tests has become,
to my mind, a bit stale. So if one sounds a bit impatient, Paul, it is because
Chomsky has been ignoring performance and taking 100% generativity for granted
since 1957.

Cheers,  TG

Rob Freeman wrote:

> On Sunday 06 April 2003 3:05 am, James MacFarlane wrote:
> > ...This is all about
> > frequency.  If two constituents (words, phonemes, morphemes) occur
> > frequently together then the boundaries become blurred.
> This is nice. The slow solidification of collocations over time shows a nice
> parallel with the slow formation of new phonemes.
> But we are still talking slow change over time here. Still in a mindset which
> sees categories as "mostly" fixed. I don't know if others are seeing this,
> but rather than thinking of two separate categories gradually merging to form
> a new one over time can we not imagine that two words put together, even for
> the very first time, immediately form a (very weak) new category (governed by
> paradigmatic frequency effects, for example). Every new sentence might be
> regarded as a weak (infrequent?) syntactic category in this sense. The slow
> process over time rather than the formation of a new category might be seen
> just as a gradual strengthening of this new combined category. The result is
> the same but the important thing is that every combination of words can be
> thought of (and should be modelled as) the formation of a new category.
> Is this a common perspective?
> I guess what I am really saying is has anyone considered the power of
> emergence in paradigmatic categories rather than just syntagmatic?
> > An article, which has done a great deal to shape the way I think about
> > phonemes is Phonogenesis by Paul Hopper. In that article he argues for a
> > continuum between grammar and phonology.  I think he has presented a great
> > deal of evidence for emergence at the phoneme level.
> I'd like to read it. I found a discussion
> (http://www.eva.mpg.de/~haspelmt/Directionality.pdf) but not the paper. Is
> Phonogeneis on the Web somewhere?
> Best,
> Rob
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