Garden paths galore

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In two successive comments on different posts (here and here), Jarek Weckwerth asserts that this garden path post is "a timely follow-up" to the exuberant discussion on the parsing of a Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic (CC/LS) book title that took place in this post and the plethora of readers' remarks that followed it.  This is an interesting proposition, and it makes me wonder if CC/LS is prone to this sort of ambiguity because of the inexplicitness of its grammar.

During the more than half a century that I have been studying and teaching CC/LS, it has always seemed to me that checking out different possible "garden paths" is a sine qua non for responsible reading of such texts.

Sometimes it's maddeningly frustrating, sometimes it's exhilaratingly exciting.


Selected readings



  1. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 23, 2024 @ 1:29 am

    Thank you! In the inspiring discussion we had, Jerry Packard explained how my garden-path suspicions were probably misguided, and he knows much more about those things in Classical Chinese than I do.

  2. JPL said,

    January 24, 2024 @ 12:39 am

    I shouldn't comment on posts on the topic of Chinese or Sinitic languages, since I'm in complete ignorance about them, especially when it involves the differences between the "spoken language" and the language as expressed by the script that you call "Hanzi", but I was puzzled by this expression in the post above: "it makes me wonder if CC/LS is prone to this sort of ambiguity because of the inexplicitness of its grammar". "What could that mean?", I wondered. So it made me want to ask what may be a stupid question, and if it is, just say so, since I admit that I know nothing about it.

    Since in the case of Chinese, and specifically we're talking about the state of the language system in the Classical period, you seem to have (correct me if I'm wrong) two independent systems of signification (i.e., the means a language has for the effective expression of thoughts via perceivable shapes (Chomsky says language is a system for the expression of thought, and we can take "thoughts" in the Fregean sense), which is essentially what people refer to as the "grammar" of a language (or, as I would prefer, the "morphosyntax")), is this a case where what is expressed, and what is expressible, by the vocal signifiers includes elements of semantic content that are not explicitly expressed, or explicitly expressible, in the use of the written signifiers, e.g., where possibly the spoken language makes distinctions in the "putting into relation" types of meanings, perhaps, and the system of written symbols does not explicitly indicate such distinctions? A syntactic unit (in the case of the book title, a phrase), as opposed to a mere list, would include such elements that would relate the components into a unified structure. So the meaning expressed by the vocal phrase would not be completely equivalent to the meaning expressed by the written phrase. And of course, it may be that neither of these meanings is completely equivalent to the thought the speaker/writer intended to be expressed, which is the one you're trying to get at when you're exploring the different possible "garden paths" left open by the written symbols. (The differences between these three meanings may not be expressible, but they would be describable.) So, when you say "inexplicitness of its grammar" (as compared to the grammar of the spoken CC system?) do you mean this kind of difference in effective (and explicit) expression in relation to possible different meanings? Is this what is going on here? (Of course the question of evidence for the morphosyntax of the spoken classical era system would be similar to that for a language with no written form for a remote historical time.) And the modern language will have changed with respect to both of the systems of signification, so that may be why the interpretations of the students were more elaborate. And of course my assumption about the two systems of signification could be wrong. The problem of syntactic ambiguity, however, is interesting in general. E.g., it happens: what makes the phenomenon possible? (No flip answers, please!)

    BTW, couldn't a serviceable translation of the book title into modern colloquial English be something like the ChatGPT version in Richard Futrell's comment: "Audio-visual Aids for Western Literati"? (Not "possessive", but "benefactive", although these labels do not count as descriptions.) We would not claim that what is expressed by the English translation phrase is completely equivalent to what is expressed by the CC/LS phrase, only that they are equivalent in important respects. But the differences (and the equivalences) would be describable.

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