Why I Abandoned Chomskian Linguistics, with Links to 2 FB Discussions with Dan Everett

It wasn’t a matter of deep and well-thought princple. It was simpler than that. Chomsky’s approach to linguistics didn’t have the tools I was looking for. Let me explain.

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Dan Everett’s kicked off two discussions on Facebook about Chomksy. This one takes Christina Behme’s recent review article, A ‘Galilean’ science of language, as its starting point. And this one’s about nativism, sparked by Vyv Evans’ The Language Myth.

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I learned about Chomsky during my second year as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I took a course in psycholinguistics taught by James Deese, known for his empirical work on word associations. We read and wrote summaries of classic articles, including Lee’s review of Syntactic Structures and Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. My summary of one of them, I forget which, prompted Deese to remark that my summary was an “unnecessarily original” recasting of my argument.

That’s how I worked. I tried to get inside the author’s argument and then to restate it in my own words.

In any event I was hooked. But Hopkins didn’t have any courses in linguistics let alone a linguistics department. So I had to pursue Chomsky and related thinkers on my own. Which I did over the next few years. I read Aspects, Syntatic Structures, Sound Patterns of English (well, more like I read at that one), Lenneberg’s superb book on biological foundations (with an appendix by Chomsky), found my way to generative semantics, and other stuff. By the time I headed off to graduate school in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo I was mostly interested in that other stuff.

I became interested in Chomsky because I was interested in language. While I was interested in language as such, I was a bit more interested in literature and much of my interest in linguistics followed from that. Literature is made of language, hence some knowledge of linguistics should be useful. Trouble is, it was semantics that I needed. Chomsky had no semantics and generative semantics looked more like syntax.

So that other stuff looked more promising. Somehow I’d found my way to Syd Lamb’s stratificational linguistics. I liked that for the diagrams, as I think diagrammatically, and for the elegance. Lamb used the same vocabulary of structural elements to deal with phonology, morphology, and syntax. That made sense to me. And the s work within his system actually looked like semantics, rather than souped up syntax, though there wasn’t enough of it. Continue reading


The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD

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Posted at 3 Quarks Daily: Evolving to the Future, the Web of Culture

Europeans had been trading with Asian peoples since ancient times. But things began to change in the 15th Century when the Spanish and Portuguese sent ships across the oceans, followed by Northern Europeans in the 17th Century. By the late 19th Century Europeans had colonized most of the rest of the globe and, on the whole, held themselves superior to other peoples.

And why not?

How else would you account for their success? After all, the Europeans were vastly out-numbered by the peoples they’d subjugated and the subjugated territories were far away from the European homelands. Military technology of all sorts gave Europeans decisive advantage in armed conflicts of all types. Technologies for travel, transport, and communication were important as well. And, I suspect, modes of social organization played a role too. Isn’t capitalism, after all, a mode of social organization?

We can argue the details in many ways, but there’s no getting around European superiority. But how do we account for that superiority? That’s the question.

The obvious account is to declare innate superiority, and that’s what our ancestors did. The white race was superior to other races and that’s that, so they believed. As such, they were destined to rule the world. Not only that, but it was their responsibility to bring the benefits of their superiority to other peoples.

We no longer believe in racial superiority, and the idea of human races is in trouble as well. Whatever it is that accounts for Europe’s superior capacity for conquest and governance, it is not biology. It isn’t in the genes.

Which means that it must be in culture, for what else is there? And now things get tricky, for culture is poorly understood. All too often we talk about culture as though it were a homogeneous essence that flows through nations like water between the banks of a river. For all practical purposes, the way this conception of culture accounts for European conquest differs little from chalking it up to superior genes. Continue reading

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Workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences

The MPI for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig is hosting a workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences on April 13 – 15, 2015.

There is a call for talks and posters here (deadline January 10th, 2015).

Invited speakers include Balthasar Bickel, Claire Bowern, Morten Christiansen, Dan Dediu, Michael Dunn, T. Florian Jaeger, Gerhard Jaeger, Anne Kandler and Richard Sproat.

From the conference website:

Although the tenet of “correlation does not imply causation” is still an important guiding principle in language research, a number of techniques developed in the last few decades opened new scenarios where testing causal relations becomes possible. Recent advances in information theory, time series analysis, phylogenetics, stochastic processes, dynamical systems, graphical models and Bayesian inference (among many others) set the stage for a new and exciting chapter in the field.

In parallel, in the last few decades an unprecedented amount of data became available on a large number of language-related phenomena. We have massive matrices of voxel activation in the neural circuits involved in speech production and comprehension, several years of annotated conversations between young children and their caregivers, hundreds of hours of phonetic and anatomical measurements and multiple environmental, genetic, and demographic variables related to populations of speakers for a large number of the world’s languages.

The aim of this workshop is to address these two issues: how do we properly test causal relations in (eventually noisy, sparse or incomplete) data, and how can we infer or test the mechanisms underlying them?

Following a half a day school on cutting-edge methods for causal analysis, world class scientists will present their research on topics ranging from language history, writing systems, speech processing, typology, lexical semantics, and others.

We invite contributions from researchers facing specific problems in determining causality in language systems and also from researchers offering perspectives from the methodological and theoretical point of view of causal inference.


Language as a multimodal phenomenon

The issue of multimodality has become a widely discussed topic in several branches of linguistics and especially in research on the evolution of language. Now, a special issue of the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B” has been dedicated to “Language as a multimodal phenomenon”. The issue, edited by Gabriella Vigliocco, Pamela Perniss, and David Vinson, features a variety of interesting papers by outstanding scholars from different fields such as gesture research, signed language research, neurolinguistics, and evolutionary linguistics.

For example, Susan Goldin-Meadow discusses “what the manual modality reveals about language, learning and cognition”, arguing that, in child language acquisition, manual gestures “precede, and predict, the acquisition of structures in speech”.

Ulf Liszkowski addresses the question of how infants communicate before they have acquired a language, and Aslı Özyürek reviews neuroscientific findings on “Hearning and seeing meaning in speech and gesture”. Jeremy Skipper discusses “how auditory cortex hears context during speech perception”, and Stephen Levinson and Judith Holler, in a paper entitled “The origin of human multi-modal communication”,  talk about “the different roles that the different modalities play in human communication, as well as how they function as one integrated system despite their different roles and origins.”

Martin Sereno, in his opinion piece on the “Origin of  symbol-using systems”, argues that we have to distinguish “the origin of a system capable of evolution from the subsequent evolution that system becomes capable of”. According to Sereno,

“Human language arose on a substrate of a system already capable of Darwinian evolution; the genetically supported uniquely human ability to learn a language reflects a key contact point between Darwinian evolution and language. Though implemented in brains generated by DNA symbols coding for protein meaning, the second higher-level symbol-using system of language now operates in a world mostly decoupled from Darwinian evolutionary constraints.”

Padraic Monaghan, Richard C. Shillcock, Morten H. Christiansen, and Simon Kirby address the question “How arbitrary is language?” Drawing on a large-scale corpus analysis, they show that

“sound–meaning mappings are more systematic than would be expected by chance. Furthermore, this systematicity is more pronounced for words involved in the early stages of language acquisition and reduces in later vocabulary development.”

Mutsumi Imai and Sotaro Kita propose a “sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis for language acquisition and language evolution”, arguing that “sound symbolism helps infants and toddlers associate speech sounds with their referents to establish a lexical representation” and that sound symbolism might be deeply related to language evolution.

Karen Emmorey discusses the role of iconicity in sign language grammar and processing, and in the final paper, Pamela Perniss and Gabriella Vigliocco argue that ” iconicity in face-to-face communication (spoken and signed) is a powerful vehicle for bridging between language and human sensori-motor experience, and, as such, iconicity provides a key to understanding language evolution, development and processing.”

The special issue is available here. Some of the papers are open access, all others can be accessed freely until October 19th ( User name: language; Password: tb1651 – since this information was distributed by the Royal Sociaty via several mailing lists, I guess I’m free to share it here).



The Direction of Cultural Evolution, Macroanalysis at 3 Quarks Daily

As soon as I finished up my series of posts about Matt Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History, I set up a file on my Mac for further thoughts, knowing full well I’d keep thinking about the book. I’ve now posted the first of those continuing thoughts at 3 Quarks Daily: Macroanalysis and the Directional Evolution of Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels.

The issue is cultural evolution, a notion that Jockers flirts with, but rejects. Of course I’ve been committed to the idea for a long time and I’ve decided that his data, that is, the patterns he’s found in his data, constitute a very strong argument of conceptualizing literary history as an evolutionary phenomenon. That’s what my 3QD post is about, a fairly detailed (a handful of new visualizations) reanalysis of Jockers’ account of literary influence.

From Influence to Evolution

It is one thing to track influence among a handful of texts; that is the ordinary business of traditional literary history. You read the texts, look for similar passages and motifs, read correspondence and diaries by the authors, and so forth, and arrive at judgements about how the author of some later text was influenced by authors of earlier texts. It’s not practical to do that for over 3000 texts, most of which you’ve never read, nor has anyone read many or even most them in over 100 years.

Here, in brief, is what Jockers did: He assumed that, if Author X was influenced by Author Q, then X’s texts would be very similar to Q’s. Given the work he’d already done on stylistic and thematic features, it was easy for Jockers to combine those features into a single list comprising almost 600 features. With each text scored on all of those features it was then relatively easy for Jockers to calculate the similarity between texts and represent it in a directed graph where texts are represented by nodes and similarity by the edges between nodes. The length of the edge between two texts is proportional to their similarity.

Note, however, that when Jockers created the graph, he did not include all possible edges. With 3346 nodes in the graph, the full graph where each node is connected to all of the others would have contained millions of edges and been all but impossible to deal with. Jockers reasoned that only where a pair of books was highly similar could one reasonably conjecture and influence from the older to the newer. So he culled all edges below a certain threshold, leaving the final graph with only 165,770 edges (p. 163).

When Jockers visualized the graph (using Force Atlas 2 in the Gephi) he found, much to his delight, that the graph was laid out roughly in temporal order from left to right. And yet, as he points out, there is no date information in the data itself, only information about some 600 stylist and thematic features of the novels. What I argue in my 3QD post is that that in itself is evidence that 19th century literary culture constitutes an evolutionary system. That’s what you would expect if literary change were an evolutionary process. Continue reading


Language Evolution at Nacht van Kunst en Kennis festival

This year’s Nacht van Kunst en Kennis Science Festival in Leiden features an experiment on language evolution.  Come and take part in our interactive iterated learning experiment at the Museum Boerhaave from 19:30 on Saturday 20th September.

Mark Dingemanse, Tessa Verhoef, Shawn Tice, Marisa Cassillas and I will be there to answer questions.  Our results will be displayed live on the night!

You can read more about the experiment at the Taal in de reageerbuis page.


Report on Cultural Evolution for the National Humanities Center, Revised Edition

Back in 2010 I wrote a piece for the National Humanities Center (USA), Cultural Evolution A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities, which is online at their Forum along with comments. I have since revised it to include a section on Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods in Literary History (2013). You can download the revised version from my SSN page. I’ve placed the added section below.

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A Start: 19th Century Anglophone Literary Culture

Let me set the stage by quoting a passage from the excellent review Tim Lewens (2014) wrote for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The prima-facie case for cultural evolutionary theories is irresistible. Members of our own species are able to survive and reproduce in part because of habits, know-how and technology that are not only maintained by learning from others, they are initially generated as part of a cumulative project that builds on discoveries made by others. And our own species also contains sub-groups with different habits, know-how and technologies, which are once again generated and maintained through social learning. The question is not so much whether cultural evolution is important, but how theories of cultural evolution should be fashioned, and how they should be related to more traditional understandings of organic evolution.

Building on discoveries made by others, we can see that kind of process in a graphic that Matthew Jockers used late in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods in Literary History (2013), though that’s not what Jockers had in mind in that particular investigation. He was working with a corpus of 3346 Ninetheenth Century novels by American, British, Irish and Scottish authors and was interested in tracking influence among them. It is one thing to track influence among a handful of texts; that is the ordinary business of traditional literary history. You read the texts, look for similar passages and motifs, read correspondence and diaries by the authors, and so forth, and arrive at judgements about how the author of some later text was influenced by authors of earlier texts.

It’s not practical to do that for over 3000 texts, most of which you’ve never read, nor has anyone read them in over 100 years. Jockers was using recently developed techniques for analyzing “big data,” in this case, a pile of 19th Century Anglophone novels. Without going into the details – you can find most of them in Jockers, pp. 156 ff.) – Jockers had the computer ‘measure’ each text on almost 600 different traits and then calculated the pair-wise similarity of all the texts. He then tossed out all values below a certain relatively high threshold and then had the computer create a network visualization of the remaining connections. Each text is represented as a ‘node’ in the network and the similarity between two texts is represented by the ‘edge’ (of link) connecting them. The length of the edge is proportional to the degree of similarity. Jockers then had the computer create a visualization of this network, where each text would be next to similar texts in the resulting image. Here’s that image (Figure 9.3 in the book, p. 165, color version from the web):


It turns out that the visualization routine laid the graph out more or less in chronological order, going from older to newer, left to right. Note that there was no temporal information in the data from which that graph was derived (pp. 164-65):

The fact that they line up in a chronological manner is incidental, but rather extraordinary. The chronological alignment reveals that thematic and stylistic change does occur over time. The themes that writers employ and the high-frequency function words they use to build the frameworks for their themes are nearly, but not always, tethered in time. At this macro scale, style and theme are observed to evolve chronologically, and most books and authors in this network cluster into communities with their chronological peers. Not every book and not every author is a slave to his or her epoch.

On Jockers’ first sentence, it’s neither incidental nor extraordinary IF an evolutionary process regulates cultural change. For evolution proceeds through “descent with modification,” as Darwin put it, and that goes for cultural as well as biological evolution. If a later individual is modified from its immediate predecessors, it will in fact resemble them a great deal; the modifications do not change the basic character of the descendants.

As his language indicates, Jockers wasn’t looking for THAT result. It surprised him. Though he alludes to cultural evolution here and there in the book, he rejected it as a basic premise of his investigation (pp. 171-172). The evolutionary interpretation is mine, not his.

We must further realize that that interpretation is an assertion about the collective mentality. Jockers wasn’t examining the minds of millions of 19th century readers of English-language novels in Britain and America, but the history of those novels is a function of the tastes and interests of those readers. Those books wouldn’t have been written if publishers didn’t think they could see them to the public. Those tastes changed gradually, with the themes and styles of novels appealing to those tastes changing gradually as well.

The study of cultural evolution is thus the study of collective mentality. We are interested in the collective psyche. How can we think of the collective psyche without falling into hopeless mysticism?


Reading Macroanalysis: Notes on the Evolution of Nineteenth Century Anglo-American Literary Culture

Matthew L. Jockers. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History. University of Illinois Press, 2013. x + 192 pp. ISBN 978-0252-07907-8

I’ve compiled all the posts into a working paper. HERE’s the SSRN link. Abstract and introduction below.

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Abstract: Macroanalysis is a statistical study of a corpus of 3346 19th Century American, British, Irish, and Scottish novels. Jockers investigates metatdata; the stylometrics of authorship, gender, genre, and national origin; themes, using a 500 item topic model; and influence, developing a graph model of the entire corpus in a 578 dimensional feature space. I recast his model in terms of cultural evolution where the dynamics are those of blind variation and selective retention. Texts become phenotypical objects, words become genetic objects, and genres become species-like objects. The genetic elements combine and recombine in authors’ minds but they are substantially blind to audience preferences. Audiences determine whether or not a text remains alive in society.

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Introduction: Get in the Driver’s Seat

I knew it was going to be good. But not THIS good. A better formulation: I didn’t know it would good in THIS way, that it would put me in driver’s seat, if only in a limited way.

The driver’s seat, you ask, what do you mean? In this case it means that I could actively work with the data. When, for example, I read Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, I read it as I do pretty much any book, though this one had a bunch of charts and diagrams, which is unusual for literary criticism. There wasn’t anything for me to do other than just read.

If I didn’t have ready access to the web, reading Macroanalysis would have been the same. But I do have web access and I use it all the time. So, when I got to Chapter 8, “Theme,” I also accessed the topic browser that Jockers had put on the web. Through this browser I could explore the topic model Jockers used in the book and, in particular, I could use it to investigate matters that Jockers hadn’t considered.

So I moved from thinking about Jockers’ work to using his work for my own intellectual ends. I ended up writing four posts (6.1 – 6.4) on that material totaling almost 12,000 words and I don’t know how many charts and graphs, all of which I got from Jockers’ web site. Once I’d worked through an initial curiosity about a spike that looked like Call of the Wild (but wasn’t, because that text isn’t in the database) I settled into some explorations framed by Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Edward Said’s anxiety on behalf of the autonomous existence of the aesthetic realm.

Data is Independent of Interpretations

You can do that as well, or whatever you wish. While the web browser gives you only limited access to Jockers’ corpus, that access is real and useful. A lot of work in digital criticism, and digital humanities in general, is like that. It produces ‘knowledge utilities’ that are generally useful, not just the private preserves of the original investigator.

There is an important epistemological point here as well. Jockers was led to this work by a certain set of intellectual concerns. Some of those concerns are quite general–about literature and the novel–while others are more specific–he has a particular interest in Irish and Irish-American literature. But I had no trouble putting his results to use in service of my own somewhat different interests. Continue reading


From Macroanalysis to Cultural Evolution

The purpose of this post is to recast the work reported in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History in terms appropriate to cultural evolution. The idea is to propose a model of cultural evolution and assign objects from Jockerss analysis to play roles in that model. I will leave Jockers’ work untouched. All I’m doing is reframing it.

Before doing that, however, I should note that in the last quarter of a century or so there has been quite a lot of work on cultural evolution in a variety of discipline including linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and biology. Though it must be done at some time, I have no intention of even attempting to review that work here and so to place the scheme I propose in relation to it. That’s a job for another time and another venue. I note, however, that I have done quite a bit of work on cultural evolution myself and that some of that discussion can be found in documents I list at the end of this post.

Why Evolution?

First of all, why bother to recast the processes of literary history in evolutionary terms at all? Jockers wrote an excellent book without creating an evolutionary model, though he mentioned evolution here and there. What’s to be gained by this recasting?

As far as I can tell, much of the work that has been done on cultural evolution has been undertaken simply to exercise and extend the range of evolutionary discourse. It has not, as yet, resulted in an understanding of cultural process that is deeper than more conventional forms of historical discourse. Much of my own work has been undertaken in this spirit. I believe that, yes, at some point, evolutionary explanation will prove more robust that other forms of explanation, but we’re not there yet.

This work in effect is looking to evolutionary accounts as exhibiting something like formal cause in Aristotle’s sense. Evolutionary accounts are about distribution of traits across populations. In biology such accounts have a characteristic formal appearance so that, e.g. phylogenetic analysis of a population of entities tends to “look” a certain way. So, in the cultural sphere, let’s conduct a similar analysis and see how things look even if we don’t have our entities embedded in the kind of causal framework that genetics and population biology, molecular biology, and developmental biology provide the biologist.

That’s fine, as long as we remind ourselves periodically that that’s what we’re doing. But we must keep looking for the terms in which to construct a causal model.

What I specifically want from an evolutionary approach to culture is

  • a way to think about Said’s autonomous aesthetic realm,
  • a way to prove out Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”
  • a way of restoring agency to writers and readers rather than casting them as puppets of various vast and impersonal forces, and
  • a way of thinking about the canon in relation to the whole of literary culture.

That’s what I want. Those requirements imply having a causal model. Whether or not I’ll get it, that’s another matter.

Current critical approaches, however, in which individual humans are but nodal points in the machinations of vast and impersonal hegemonic forces, have trouble on all these points. Individual human beings are deprived of agency thus turning readers into zombies watching the ghosts of dead authors flicker on the remaining walls of Plato’s cave. The canon is captive to those same hegemonic forces, which have promulgated Shelley’s defense as an opiate for the masses, which R’ us.

The critical machine is broken. It’s time to start over. Before we do that, however, I need to dispense with one objection to seeking an evolutionary account of cultural phenomena. Continue reading

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween