Archive for February 25th, 2008

Dawkins in Telugu

February 25, 2008

Sarojini Premchand reviews a translation of Dawkins’ The God Delusion into Telugu (Devudi Bhramalo), and does not seem to be very impressed by the translation:

Inniah, actively involved with centre for enquiry, to promote rational thinking and scientific spirit deserves commendation for bringing out this translation. Those who wish to savour the slashing wit and compelling eloquence of Dawkins must go to the original.

Take a look!

Did thought precede language?

February 25, 2008

Bolles at Babel’s Dawn, after reading a recent piece by Chomsky on the evolution of language wonders if his own thinking and ideas on the problem need overhauling:

The founder of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, was famous for decades for his dismissal of interest in the evolution of language. In recent years he has moderated his position and in a lecture recently made available on line (here, registration required) he outlines his scenario for how language evolved. It is about as different from the account being developed on this blog as a theory can be, making it of keen interest because it forces me to ask whether I have gone hopelessly astray and should change course quite sharply.

Bolles goes on to summarise the arguments of Chomsky in a lucid manner:

Suppose I say

John is too angry to eat.

I can take that to mean John won’t eat anything because he is angry, but it could also be understood to mean I won’t eat John because he is too angry. This last reading may seem ridiculous, but it is exactly how we would be likely to interpret the sentence John is too angry to invite. I won’t invite John because he is so angry. As Chomsky says in one of his charmingly gotcha sentences, “The surface form in themselves tell us little about the interpretation.” [p. 16]

The syntactical explanation for the different interpretations is that the verb to eat requires an object, e.g., eat an apple. If no object is presented, we assume a general one (won’t eat anything). The verb to invite requires an indirect object, e.g., invite to a party. If that is missing, we assume a general one (won’t invite to anything). The meaning of the sentence came from “the generative procedures that yield the expressions, but cannot be detected in the physical signal.” He goes on:

For that reason it seemed then [fifty years ago]—and still seems—that the language acquired must have the basic properties of an internalized explanatory theory. [p. 17]

That’s why language must be primarily an internal process and that any external features must be secondary: the surface structure of a sentence does not include enough information to make its meaning clear. To be understood we must have access to the generative mechanisms producing the sentence. A speaker generates and knows what it means because of the generative process. The listener reverse engineers the sentences, understanding them by discovering the rules that generated them.

In the late 1950s Chomsky argument carried the day because his opponent gave no place to any internal processes, either perceptual or conceptual. Behaviorism described only reflexive responses to unambiguous stimuli. The replacement school, cognitive psychology, gives us an internal symbol processor, but still has no room for sensation-based knowledge (perception). If you take as your axioms that animals are computers and language becomes meaningful by organizing symbols, it is hard to escape Chomsky’s logic. The only reason I can resist is that I believe animals think perceptually rather than conceptually, and that meaning comes from piloting attention rather than following syntactical rules.

Take a look!

PS: May be it is because I am not a native speaker of English; but, if somebody says John is too angry to invite, I would have assumed that John will not invite me because he is too angry; if it indeed is the meaning that Bolles attributes to the sentence that I have in my mind, I would have said John is too angry to be invited, or John is too angry for me to invite him. But given a context, I can see why I would infer the same meaning as Bolles advances to that sentence.