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Here on Language Log we have recently been twitted by readers who believe we have been insufficiently attentive to celebrity linguists, in particular Noam Chomsky (I find the idea that we should choose topics for our postings using personal fame as a guiding metric bizarre, but there it is). Mark Liberman has now responded, linking to a frivolous Facebook group pitting Chomsky against Labov. We've been frivolous about Chomsky before, in a posting about Ali G's interview of him; in two postings about Chomsky as the object of sexual arousal; and in a posting quoting Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa".

But (as Bruce Webster suggested to me) we seem not to have discussed the famous Chomskybot, which has been around in one version or another for about twenty years.

From the Wikipedia page:

The Chomskybot is a program that generates paragraphs which appear similar to those in the corpus of Noam Chomsky's linguistic works, but are humorously devoid of any meaning, by combining at random phrases taken from Chomsky's actual works. The Chomskybot is derived from another program called Foggy, which originally generated "fake"managerese —i.e., the language of business management.

A site with a Perl version of the program for people to play with is available here.

The title of this posting is the beginning of one of the Chomskybot's paragraphs (note the restrictive relativizer which, lifted directly from Chomsky's writing). Here's a whole sample paragraph:

Thus relational information is unspecified with respect to an important distinction in language use. Comparing these examples with their parasitic gap counterparts in (96) and (97), we see that this analysis of a formative as a pair of sets of features is not quite equivalent to a stipulation to place the constructions into these various categories. In the discussion of resumptive pronouns following (81), the notion of level of grammaticalness suffices to account for the requirement that branching is not tolerated within the dominance scope of a complex symbol. Presumably, the earlier discussion of deviance cannot be arbitrary in an abstract underlying order. Clearly, the systematic use of complex symbols is rather different from a descriptive fact.

And John Lawler's faq is available here. Lawler summarizes:

The Chomskybot is a demonstration of a peculiarly primitive variety of computational linguistics. Once you've seen how it works — if you care, and if you haven't recognized already how it's done — you are unlikely to be interested in the details, I expect. They're boring. The operation, however, can be amusing.

What I find interesting about it is how it just hovers at the edge of understandability, a sort of semantic mumbling, a fog for the mind's eye. Like Eliza (a much cleverer program), Julia (Eliza's great-great-grandaughter), and the other chatterboxes you can explore on Simon Laven's AI-NLP page, or Peter Suber's Minds and Machines philosophy class home page, foggy's most interesting effects are in the mind of the beholder, especially since its output not infrequently induces a strong feeling of inferiority in the unsuspecting, a sense of "I just don't get it, so I must be dumber than I'd thought." This is the Turing Test in reverse, and humans should resist allowing themselves to fail.

If it amuses anybody — and it's the only cheap thrill I have to offer for Web surfers — I'll be pleased.

One reason we haven't posted about the Chomskybot before is that it's so trivial; there's really nothing there of interest to general linguists or computational linguists. But it is entertaining.

 

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26 Comments »

  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    Anybody for a Derridabot?

  2. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    Look.

    It is not bizarre. Bizarre is George Bush doing the State of the Union dressed as a parrot. Bizarre is George Bush doing the State of the Union speech at all. Being interested in celebrity linguists is not bizarre, it is a rational, reasonable interest — for non-linguists, at least.

    Quickly, let me run you through what happened. I (a non-linguist) start reading a blog about linguistics. I figured it might help me develop my writing style. It did. At least I can now see that Mark Liberman has a superb writing style as do a few others here, and that my style will never be as good as Mark's. Well, that's ok, I don't do it for a living, just for fun. But then I noticed something. The one linguist I've heard of is Noam Chomsky, and it seemed like he hardly gets mentioned on this linguistics blog. So I asked why. Immediately, it's ha ha ha, what an idiot, can't you see we're above things like celebrity? And, by the way, Chomsky's mentioned in practically every other post. (Note to Arnold: I'm exaggerating.) When that happened it seemed odd to me. Why won't they discuss the one famous linguist? There's something linguistically political going on, I decided, some of this lot don't really like his work but they don't want to say so. Whatever. But why the coyness, why not be straightforward? Thank God, some commenters were, in the end.

    But they never got over the celebrity thing. I mean, How incredibly CRASS to be interested in celebrity, right? Comme c'est bizarre!

    I think if you're not familiar with linguistics, but you you kind of know that Chomsky is trustworthy (I saw a film about his politics in the nineties), then to want to know how he fits in to the whole scene of linguistics is not asking too much. Also I repeat what I said before: Mark said in a Guardian piece a couple of years ago, that part of the point of LL was to get people from outside the subject interested in linguistics — especially young people who might like to study it. It's safe to say that the young people of today are no stranger to the topic of celebrity. They too might be interested in how Chomsky fits in.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    They discuss language here, not people.

  4. JJM said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

    "I think if you're not familiar with linguistics, but you you kind of know that Chomsky is trustworthy (I saw a film about his politics in the nineties), then to want to know how he fits in to the whole scene of linguistics is not asking too much."

    Actually, I would never judge the linguistics Chomsky by the political one. If I did, I'd presume he was a complete crank.

    A friend and I once conjured up the famous political thinker Choam Nomsky, who dabbled in linguistics on the side. Nomsky was, we stated, one of the great trailblazers of modern political science theory. However, his ideas on language were barking mad.

  5. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    Part of the fascination of foggy's output, it seems to me, is that we've all read that paper — probably within the last week. (And I don't mean because we've been reading Chomsky.)

  6. Lance said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    I think, Bunny, that Ellen K.'s response is dead-on. Chomsky is particularly famous, it's true. But as a person, he's just not the focus of things here. Searching the "old archives" gives 69 hits for "Noam Chomsky". In comparison, some other prominent linguists from various fields: David Pesetsky gets 13 hits (many of them for times he's actually written in); Richard Kayne, 2; Mark Baker, 6. Chris Barker has six mentions total (old and new); Polly Jacobson, none; Irene Heim, none; Morris Halle, 12; Diana Archangeli, two; John McCarthy, six….

    [Disclaimer: these are the names that occurred to me; I make no claims about their relative importance, though I think they're uncontroversially non-obscure. They're roughly "the names that occurred to me", though I thought of others and didn't use them because they're regularly mentioned for personal connection reasons, or for references to the blogs they keep, etc.]

    The point is that it's not that Chomsky doesn't get mentioned; he gets mentioned far more than a non-random sampling of other people in the field. The point is that the linguists here are in no way avoiding Chomsky as a topic. They're just not talking about the people in linguistics here, nor are they even, by and large, talking about linguistic theory; they're talking about language, and often about its understanding in the media. The people that get mentioned often are those like Brizendine who make loud public statements about language. Chomsky doesn't; he makes quiet statements that linguists pay attention to, and loud public statements about politics, which I'm sure get discussed on political blogs.

    Believe me, you probably wouldn't want to read a linguistics blog that makes frequent mention of Chomsky–that is, linguists would, but you as a non-linguist wouldn't, because the blog would very likely be discussing extensive details of linguistic theory.

  7. Patrick Dennis said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    From Lance: "…nor are they even, by and large, talking about linguistic theory…" OK, maybe LL is not the place to look. Can anyone recommend books or blogs for those unschooled in the topic who might indeed have an interest in linguistic theory? Scientists from other disciplines often seem to enjoy the attempt to render the theoretical underpinnings (and controversies) of their disciplines understandible to the educated layperson; are there like-minded linguists?

  8. John Cowan said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

    Believe me, you probably wouldn't want to read a linguistics blog that makes frequent mention of Chomsky–that is, linguists would, but you as a non-linguist wouldn't, because the blog would very likely be discussing extensive details of linguistic theory.

    Even a linguistics gossip blog wouldn't be likely to mention him much. Anybody who's nice enough not only to be interviewed by Ali G, but to listen to a 16-year old babble at him for an hour about Quenya and Sindarin probably doesn't provide enough material for serious scurrility. But see also Nick Nicholas's rant.

  9. John Cowan said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    (For the record, I am mentioned about seventy times on the old Language Log, and I am not even a linguist.)

  10. John Laviolette said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw:

    "Anybody for a Derridabot?"

    Wouldn't that be the Postmodernism Generator, based on the Dada Engine?

  11. john riemann soong said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

    Okay Lawler, I cannot remain silent any longer. Has anyone told you, or am I the only one to do this, that your last name sounds like "a person who LOLs"?

  12. John Lawler said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

    Well, of course. I LOL all the time (occasionally, for a change of pace, I also loll while LOLing). Anybody who knows me can tell whether I'm in my office just by listening for my laugh.

    However, I have to point out that my name, as I pronounce it (/'lɔlɚ/), rhymes with taller, brawler, caller, but not with collar, dollar, holler, because I grew up east of the Mississippi and therefore distinguish AmE /ɔ/ from /a/. Depending on where you come from, and how you pronounce LOL, therefore, it may not sound that way after all.

  13. Lance said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

    Patrick Dennis asked: Can anyone recommend books or blogs for those unschooled in the topic who might indeed have an interest in linguistic theory? Scientists from other disciplines often seem to enjoy the attempt to render the theoretical underpinnings (and controversies) of their disciplines understandable to the educated layperson; are there like-minded linguists?

    Myself, I don't keep up with the linguablogosphere as well as I could. Actually, there are a lot of sub-blogospheres I don't keep up with…are scientists in other fields explaining them in blogs, or (say) books? There are certainly books about linguistics that fit the description (Mark Baker's The Atoms of Language comes to mind); but it strikes me as hard to do in a blog post, where it's hard to provide enough background and keep a coherent narrative running.

    Mind you, that does happen somewhat on LL. Arnold Zwicky's posts come to mind as the prime example of it; he not infrequently discusses a particular odd construction (e.g., an island violation) with an overview of theoretical approaches included (e.g., J.R. Ross's work).

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 12:59 am

    I'm a non-linguist. I see Chomsky's linguistic notions as barking mad, and his politics as interesting. His politics lead me to think about what I might not have. The linguistics, though, strikes me as ideological and anti-scientific, medieval, divorced from awareness of our evolutionary heritage. That leads me to be more distrustful of the political reasoning than I might have been otherwise.

  15. dr pepper said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:43 am

    I pronounce "LOL" to rhyme with "roll". And i pronounce "Lawler" to rhyme with "hauler" and think of the wrestler.

  16. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 8:53 am

    Ellen K. said, They discuss language here, not people.
    Lance said, I think, Bunny, that Ellen K.'s response is dead-on.

    She is half right: it is about language. The rest is absurd. Ellen can't tell the LL bloggers what not to write about. She herself is commenting on Arnold's piece about how Chomsky's idiosyncratic writing led to 'the famous Chomskybot'. If that isn't about people, I don't know what is.

    Language doesn't come out of nowhere. All the pieces here are about different kinds of people's use of language.

  17. language hat said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    Actually, I would never judge the linguistics Chomsky by the political one. If I did, I'd presume he was a complete crank.

    A friend and I once conjured up the famous political thinker Choam Nomsky, who dabbled in linguistics on the side. Nomsky was, we stated, one of the great trailblazers of modern political science theory. However, his ideas on language were barking mad.

    I'm biting my tongue so hard it hurts.

    Bunny, you've made your point many times now. You misunderstood the focus of the blog, people have explained it to you, and rather than saying "OK, I get it now, as you were" you're acting as though everyone is attacking you (and probably involved in some dark conspiracy). You might want to think about letting it go.

  18. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    Why are you biting your tongue?

  19. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    Language, I'll defer to you. Your judgment is good. I'll never mention Noam Chomsky, his politics or celebrity again, ever.

    I still don't understand why you're biting your tongue, though.

  20. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

    @Patrick: I attempt to do just that in my linguistics blog; check out Ryan's linguisitcs blog on the blogroll if you're interested. I'd love to hear how I'm doing from a non-linguist.

  21. Robert said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    >> I (a non-linguist) start reading a blog about linguistics. I figured it might help me develop my writing style.

    That seems to me to be like starting to read a theoretical physics blog with the aim of improving your golf swing.

  22. language hat said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

    I still don't understand why you're biting your tongue, though.

    Because I pretty much feel he is a complete crank and, if not barking mad, the cause of madness in others. I see his influence on linguistics as pretty much a total disaster. But I try to keep my animus out of the Log, because I have my own venue to spew venom in.

  23. baylink said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    The bots sound to me a lot like word-based Dissociated Press…

  24. John Lawler said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    Why, thank you. It's nowhere that complex, of course — it's (Chomsky-)phrase-based, and uses no probability at all, just random combination using Perl's random function. But then Chomsky's linguistic phrases often sound like a word-based Dissociated Press, which was the reason I put the Chomskybot on the Web in the first place. The amusing part is that it turns out to be hard to tell the difference.

  25. Aaron Davies said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

    People are starting to "spell out" LOL in various places on line, and two popular spellings are "lulz" (as in 4chan's "I did it for the lulz") and "lawls". The former seems to beat the latter in a Google fight by about 10:1, which presumably indicates something about how most people pronounce LOL. (For the record, I would render "lulz" as /lʌlz/, more or less (rhymes with "culls", for those of you who have trouble with IPA) and "lawls" as /lɔlz/ (rhymes with "calls").)

  26. panne said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

    I thought that this was so funny that I made my own version, called the Langacker-bot (my boyfriend did all the programming, I picked the phrases). It can be viewed at http://www.nilsbakken.com/lingvisme/ (I got Langacker's permission to use his phrases).

    I used Conitive Grammar a lot in my MA thesis, and reading the paragraphs the bot spews out remind me of late evenings at school, going cross-eyed over Foundations of Cognitive Grammar I. Ah, those were the times!

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