Skip navigation

Linguistics and Language

Linguistics and Language

  • Page 4 of 29
Building Computers That Understand Speech

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey famously featured HAL, a computer with the ability to hold lengthy conversations with his fellow space travelers. More than forty years later, we have advanced computer technology that Kubrick never imagined, but we do not have computers that talk and understand speech as HAL did. Is it a failure of our technology that we have not gotten much further than an automated voice that tells us to “say or press 1”? Or is there something fundamental in human language and speech that we do not yet understand deeply enough to be able to replicate in a computer? In The Voice in the Machine, Roberto Pieraccini examines six decades of work in science and technology to develop computers that can interact with humans using speech and the industry that has arisen around the quest for these technologies. He shows that although the computers today that understand speech may not have HAL’s capacity for conversation, they have capabilities that make them usable in many applications today and are on a fast track of improvement and innovation.

Pieraccini describes the evolution of speech recognition and speech understanding processes from waveform methods to artificial intelligence approaches to statistical learning and modeling of human speech based on a rigorous mathematical model--specifically, Hidden Markov Models (HMM). He details the development of dialog systems, the ability to produce speech, and the process of bringing talking machines to the market. Finally, he asks a question that only the future can answer: will we end up with HAL-like computers or something completely unexpected?

A Study of Pronominal Agreement

Normally, a speaker uses a first person singular pronoun (in English, I, me, mine, myself) to refer to himself or herself. To refer to a single addressee, a speaker uses second person pronouns (you, yours, yourself). But sometimes third person nonpronominal DPs are used to refer to the speaker--for example, this reporter, yours truly--or to the addressee--my lord, the baroness, Madam (Is Madam not feeling well?). Chris Collins and Paul Postal refer to these DPs as imposters because their third person exterior hides a first or second person core.

In this book they study the interactions of imposters with a range of grammatical phenomena, including pronominal agreement, coordinate structures, Principle C phenomena, epithets, fake indexicals, and a property of pronominal agreement they call homogeneity.

Collins and Postal conclude that traditional ideas about pronominal features (person, number, gender), which countenance only agreement with an antecedent or the relation of the pronoun to its referent, are much too simple. They sketch elements of a more sophisticated view and argue for its relevance and explanatory power in several data realms. The fundamental proposal of the book is that a pronoun agrees with what they call a source, where its antecedent constitutes only one type of source. They argue that the study of imposters (and closely related camouflage DPs) has far-reaching consequences that are inconsistent with many current theories of anaphora.

Linguists have mapped the topography of language behavior in many languages in intricate detail. To understand how the brain supports language function, however, we must take into account the principles and regularities of neural function. Mechanisms of neurolinguistic function cannot be inferred solely from observations of normal and impaired language. In The Neural Architecture of Grammar, Stephen Nadeau develops a neurologically plausible theory of grammatic function. He brings together principles of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and parallel distributed processing and draws on literature on language function from cognitive psychology, cognitive neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, and functional imaging to develop a comprehensive neurally based theory of language function.

Nadeau reviews the aphasia literature, including cross-linguistic aphasia research, to test the model's ability to account for the findings of these empirical studies. Nadeau finds that the model readily accounts for a crucial finding in cross-linguistic studies--that the most powerful determinant of patterns of language breakdown in aphasia is the predisorder language spoken by the subject--and that it does so by conceptualizing grammatic function in terms of the statistical regularities of particular languages that are encoded in network connectivity. He shows that the model provides a surprisingly good account for many findings and offers solutions for a number of controversial problems. Moreover, aphasia studies provide the basis for elaborating the model in interesting and important ways.

The contemporary discipline of biolinguistics is beginning to have the feel of scientific inquiry. Biolinguistics--especially the work of Noam Chomsky--suggests that the design of language may be “perfect”: language is an optimal solution to conditions of sound and meaning. What is the scope of this inquiry? Which aspect of nature does this science investigate? What is its relation to the rest of science? What notions of language and mind are under investigation? This book is a study of such foundational questions. Exploring Chomsky’s claims, Nirmalangshu Mukherji argues that the significance of biolinguistic inquiry extends beyond the domain of language.

Biolinguistics is primarily concerned with grammars that represent just the computational aspects of the mind/brain. This restriction to grammars, Mukherji argues, opens the possibility that the computational system of human language may be involved in each cognitive system that requires similar computational resources. Deploying analytical argumentation and empirical evidence, Mukherji suggests that a computational system of language consisting of very specific principles and operations is likely to be involved in each articulatory symbol system--such as music--that manifests unboundedness. In that sense, the biolinguistics approach may have identified, after thousands of years of inquiry, a specific structure of the human mind.

The Natural Semantics of Quantifiers

In Taking Scope, Mark Steedman considers the syntax and semantics of quantifier scope in interaction with negation, polarity, coordination, and pronominal binding, among other constructions. The semantics is “surface compositional,” in that there is a direct correspondence between syntactic types and operations of composition and types and compositions at the level of logical form. In that sense, the semantics is in the “natural logic” tradition of Aristotle, Leibniz, Frege, Russell, and others who sought to define a psychologically real logic directly reflecting natural language grammar.

The book reunites the generative-transformational tradition initiated by Chomsky--which views the formal syntactic component as entirely autonomous---with the older, strongly lexicalist, construction-based tradition, which has sought to define a more lingistically transparent theory of meaning representation. Steedman offers a logical formalism that relates directly to the surface form of language and to the process of inference and proof that it must support. Such a natural logic, although formal by definition, should be allowed to grow organically from attested language phenomena rather than be axiomatized a priori in terms of any standard logic. Steedman also considers the application of natural semantic interpretations to practical natural language processing tasks, emphasizing throughout the elimination of traditional quantifiers from semantic formalism in favor of devices such as Skolem terms and structure-sharing among representations in processing.

When two or more languages are part of a child's world, we are presented with a rich opportunity to learn something about language in general and about how the mind works. In this book, Norbert Francis examines the development of bilingual proficiency and the different kinds of competence that come together in making up its component parts. In particular, he explores problems of language ability when children use two languages for tasks related to schooling, especially in learning how to read and write. He considers both broader research issues and findings from an ongoing investigation of child bilingualism in an indigenous language–speaking community in Mexico. This special sociolinguistic context allows for a unique perspective on some of the central themes of bilingualism research today, including the distinction between competence and proficiency, modularity, and the Poverty of Stimulus problem.

Francis proposes that competence (knowledge) should be considered as an integral component of proficiency (ability) rather than something separate and apart, arguing that this approach allows for a more inclusive assessment of research findings from diverse fields of study. The bilingual indigenous language project illustrates how the concepts of modularity and the competence-proficiency distinction in particular might be applied to problems of language learning and literacy.

Few investigations of indigenous language and culture approach bilingual research problems from a cognitive science perspective. By suggesting connections to broader cognitive and linguistic issues, Francis points the way to further research along these lines.

Exploring Language with Game Theory

In Meaningful Games, Robin Clark explains in an accessible manner the usefulness of game theory in thinking about a wide range of issues in linguistics. Clark argues that we use grammar strategically to signal our intended meanings: our choices as speaker are conditioned by what choices the hearer will make interpreting what we say. Game theory--according to which the outcome of a decision depends on the choices of others--provides a formal system that allows us to develop theories about the kind of decision making that is crucial to understanding linguistic behavior.
Clark argues the only way to understand meaning is to grapple with its social nature--that it is the social that gives content to our mental lives. Game theory gives us a framework for working out these ideas. The resulting theory of use will allow us to account for many aspects of linguistic meaning, and the grammar itself can be simplified. The results are nevertheless precise and subject to empirical testing.
Meaningful Games offers an engaging and accessible introduction to game theory and the study of linguistic meaning. No knowledge of mathematics beyond simple algebra is required; formal definitions appear in special boxes outside the main text. The book includes an extended argument in favor of the social basis of meaning; a brief introduction to game theory, with a focus on coordination games and cooperation; discussions of common knowledge and games of partial information; models of games for pronouns and politeness; and the development of a system of social coordination of reference.

In The Connectives, Lloyd Humberstone examines the semantics and pragmatics of natural language sentence connectives (and, or, if, not), giving special attention to their formal behavior according to proposed logical systems and the degree to which such treatments capture their intuitive meanings. It will be an essential resource for philosophers, mathematicians, computer scientists, linguists, or any scholar who finds connectives, and the conceptual issues surrounding them, to be a source of interest.
This landmark work offers both general material on sentence connectives in formal logic, such as truth-functionality and unique characterization by rules, and information on specific connectives (including conjunction and disjunction), considering their pragmatic and semantic properties in natural language as well as various attempts to simulate the latter in the formal languages of different systems of propositional logic. Chapters are divided into sections, and each section ends with notes and references for material covered in that section. If a section covers numerous topics separately, the notes and references are divided into parts, each with its own topic-indicating heading. When topics are not covered in detail but are relevant to matters under discussion, the notes and references provide pointers to the literature. Readers may find it useful to browse through a topic of interest and then follow the references within it forward and backward on the topic in question, or those to the extensive literature outside it.

From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism

In 1995, Robert Barsky met with Noam Chomsky to discuss hiswork-in-progress, Noam Chomsky: A Life ofDissent (MIT Press, 1997). Chomsky told Barsky that he shouldfocus his attention instead on midcentury linguist and activist Zellig Harris,who was, Chomsky modestly insisted, more interesting than Chomsky himself.Intrigued, Barsky began to research Harris (1909–1992) and discovered thestory of a major figure in American intellectual life "sitting in acorner in the middle of the room"—partof crucial twentieth-century conversations about language, technology, labor,politics, and Zionism. The intersecting worlds of Harris’s intellectualand political activities were populated by such figures as Louis Brandeis,Albert Einstein, Franz Boas, Nathan Glazer, and Chomsky. Barskydescribes Harris’s work in language studies, andhis pioneering ideas about discourse analysis, structural linguistics, andinformation representation. He also discusses Harris’s part in the pre-1948Zionist movement—;when many Jews on the Leftenvisioned a socialist Palestine that would be a haven not only for persecutedJews but also for disenfranchised Arabs and anyone seeking a sanctuary againstoppression—;and recounts Harris's debates on the subject withBrandeis, Einstein, and a large group of students involved with a Zionistorganization called Avukah. And Barsky describes Harris’s views oncapitalism, worker-owner relations, and worker self-management, the legacy ofwhich can be found in some of his students’ writings, notably those ofSeymour Melman. Barsky shows how Harris, as mentor, teacher, and colleague,powerfully influenced figures who came to dominate the twentieth century'spolitical discussion—;thinkers as different as Noam Chomsky and NathanGlazer.

This volume brings together contributions by prominent researchers in the fields of language processing and language acquisition on topics of common interest: how people refer to objects in the world, how people comprehend such referential expressions, and how children acquire the ability to refer and to understand reference. The contributors first discuss issues related to children's acquisition and processing of reference, then consider evidence of adults' processing of reference from eye-tracking methods (the visual-world paradigm) and from corpora and reading experiments. They go on to discuss such topics as how children resolve ambiguity, children's difficulty in understanding coreference, the use of eye movements to physical objects to measure the accessibility of different referents, the uses of probabilistic and pragmatic information in language comprehension, antecedent accessibility and salience in reference, and neuropsychological data from the event-related potential (ERP) recording literature.

  • Page 4 of 29