Sunday, November 19, 2017

235: Syntax Wars

Audio Link

Recently my daughter was complaining about having to do a "sentence diagramming" assignment in school.   As you may recall, this is when you take sentences and break up their words into a kind of chart, showing clearly the subject, verb, and object, and with outlying slanted lines representing modifiers such as adjectives or adverbs, and similar structures to represent subordinate clauses.   Many middle-school English students find this kind of tedious, but I always liked these assignments.   They transformed the dry subject of Language Arts into a kind of geometry exercise, which in my geekiness I found much more appealing.   But aside from the visual appeal, I liked the idea that language follows rules of syntax:  the pieces need to fit together like a computer program, and if you don't combine a reasonable set of pieces in a reasonable order, you end up with gibberish.

Thinking about the concepts of language syntax reminded me of a famous sentence created by Noam Chomsky as an illustration to linguistics academics:  "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously".    According to Chomsky, and my linguistics professor, this illustrated how a sentence could follow all the formal the rules of syntax and yet still be meaningless.    You can see that its grammar is very straightforward:  the subject is ‘ideas’, the verb is ‘sleep’, and they each have some standard modifiers.  Chomsky’s claim was that the sentence is effectively nonsense, since the meanings of the words just do not fit together.    However, I disagreed with my professor when he made this claim.   Because it does follow the rules of syntax, the sentence doesn't seem inherently broken to a native speaker-- and with a properly poetic interpretation, it makes perfect sense.    For example, a "green idea" might be one motivated by jealousy.   It might be "colorless" for lacking subtlety and nuance.   And it might "sleep furiously" as it sits in the back of your mind, building up resentment over time.   So, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is not only meaningful, it might be a profound statement about what happens when you let jealous resentments build up in the back of your mind.     Due to its correct syntax, it's not too hard to think of many somewhat reasonable interpretations on that sentence.   

I was amused to see that this famous sentence had its own Wikipedia page.   On it, I found that I wasn't the only one to have the idea that it could be sensibly interpreted-- in fact, there was even a contest held in 1985 for the most sensible and concisely explained legitimate usage!   Here is the winner:  “It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.”   It looks like they focused on “green” as pertaining to nature when composing this version, and “ideas” as a metaphor for still-underground plants.    Personally, I prefer my interpretation.

Anyway, I think the opposite case-- where the words make sense, but are not following the rules of syntax-- is actually much worse.   Here's an example from John Cage, this podcast’s favorite source of artistic absurdity.    He generated it with the aid of some I-Ching-inspired random numbers applied to a starting point of works by Thoreau.  "sparrowsitA gROsbeak betrays itself by that peculiar squeakerIEFFECT OF SLIGHGEst tinkling measures soundness ingpleasa We hear!"    That's just the opening of the poem "Mureau", in Cage's strange collection "M".   You're actually not getting the full effect in this podcast, because in Cage's version, the typeface of the letters varies randomly too.   Perhaps it's just my unpoetic colorless green jealousy, but that sounds like nonsense to me.    Cage, on the other hand, considered abandoning syntax to be a virtue.   As he wrote in the introduction to M, "Syntax, according to Norman O. Brown, is the arrangement of the army.  As we move away from it, we demilitarize language....  Translation becomes, if not impossible, unnecessary.    Nonsense and silence are produced, familiar to lovers.   We begin to actually live together, and the thought of separating doesn't enter our minds."

I'm afraid I'll just have to respectfully disagree with Cage on that one.     I’m not sure if he was even serious about that explanation, given that his starting point for the text was Henry David Thoreau, not exactly known for separatism or violence.    But in any case,  I like having some structure to my linguistic utterances, and I don't think it's been significantly damaging to world peace.   In fact, I think the mutual understanding provided by sticking to well-understood rules of syntax has been critical to diplomatic relations throughout human history, and prevented far more violence than it has caused.   Let that idea sleep furiously in the back of your mind for a while, and see if you agree with me.

And this has been your math mutation for today.