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Learning resources from INTO UEA

Syntax: Communicating Complicated Ideas

Watch the video, answer the questions on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. What does syntax let you do?
    Combine words into phrases and phrases into sentences
  2. How did von Humboldt describe the trick used by syntax?
    Infinite use of finite media
  3. What three things does he mention that have a combinatorial system?
    Language, music and DNA
  4. What is the infinity mechanism?
    Recursion
  5. How do you make a sentence in his imagined language?
    By taking a noun, any noun, putting a verb after it and then following that verb with a noun
  6. What does the number 18 refer to?
    The number of possible sentences you can make with this rule
  7. What is the new rule for making a sentence?
    A noun followed by a verb followed by a sentence
  8. Give an example of a sentence formed by the new rule.
    Fred thinks Barney likes Wilma. My roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese. (etc.)
  9. What is the sentence Kids make nutritious snacks an example of?
    Ambiguity
  10. What sentences is linguistic theory used to remove ambiguity from?
    Sentences in the Constitution, legislation and some criminal cases
  11. What were the two possible meanings of the sentence shouted by the brother?
    Shoot him and Give him the gun

Words from the Academic Word List have been hidden in this transcript. Watch the video, complete the gaps on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. Finally
    , syntax. So, we have the sound system of a language, the phonology. We have the words of a language, the morphology, but all that gives you is "dog," "cup," "chair," "house," "story," "idea." That won’t allow us to
    communicate
    complicated ideas. So, the
    final
    step in the story is syntax. And syntax refers to those rules and
    principles
    that allow us to combine words into phrases and phrases into sentences. And syntax uses another neat trick and this is
    defined
    by Wilhelm von Humboldt as the "
    infinite
    use of
    finite
    media
    ." So, here’s the question. Your vocabulary is
    finite
    . There are just so many words. You have to learn them one by one, but you could produce a
    virtual
    infinity of sentences. How can you do that? How can you go from a
    finite
    list of
    symbols
    to an
    infinite
    number of sentences? And the answer is you have a combinatorial system. Now, language is not the only thing in
    culture
    or nature that has this sort of combinatorial system. Music also has a combinatorial system. There’s a
    finite
    number of notes but a limitless number of musical compositions. DNA also has this sort of combinatorial system where you have a
    finite
    number of, I guess, bases or amino acids that could combine to a possible infinity of strings, of DNA strings. So, how does this happen? Well, the infinity
    mechanism
    , and many of you will be familiar with this from mathematics or
    computer
    science, is recursion. And there’s a lot to be said about this but it could be pretty simply
    illustrated
    in language.
  2. So, here’s an example of a simple language. It’s not — It’s actually close to how linguists describe
    normal
    languages, but it’s very simple. It has three nouns, "Fred," "Barney" and "Wilma," and two verbs, "thinks" and "likes." A very simple language. And one rule. And the way to read this rule is you make a sentence by taking a noun, any noun, putting a verb after it, and then following that verb with a noun. Now, when you do this, how many — And then so, for
    instance
    , you get the sentence "Fred likes Wilma." When you do this, how many possible sentences are there?
  3. Let me just take a second. Okay. Any guesses? Eighteen. The sentences are "Fred likes Fred," "Fred likes Barney," "Fred likes Wilma," "Fred thinks Fred," "Fred thinks Barney," "Fred thinks Wilma," and so on. The three nouns followed by any of the two verbs followed by any of the three nouns. That is not a very interesting language. But now, take a more complicated language — same vocabulary, the same three nouns, the same two verbs, the same sentence, but now one other sentence. This sentence
    expands
    to a noun followed by a verb followed by a sentence and there you get recursion. You have one rule
    invoking
    another rule and then you can get a sentence like "Fred thinks Barney likes Wilma." And here you get a
    potential
    infinity of sentences.
  4. And this is
    obviously
    a toy example but you could see the use of recursion in everyday life and in everyday use of language. You could say, "John hates cheese," "My roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "It disturbed Mary when I told her that my roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "I was amazed that it disturbed Mary when I told her that my roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "Professor Bloom had
    devoted
    way too much of his
    lecture
    talking about how I was amazed [laughter] that it disturbed Mary when I told her that my roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "It really bothered me that — " and there’s no limit. There’s no longest sentence. You could keep producing a sentence deeper and deeper embedded until you die. And this is part of the power of language.
  5. Now, the syntactic rules are complicated. And one of the puzzles of syntactic rules, or one of the
    issues
    of them, is that different rules can conspire to
    create
    the same sentence. So, you take a sentence like — This is a
    classic
    line from Groucho Marx: "I once shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How it got into my pyjamas I’ll never know." And the humour, such that it is, revolves around the
    ambiguity
    of rules that
    generate
    it, like this versus like this. Often, to
    illustrate
    the
    issues
    of
    ambiguity
    , people have collected poorly thought-out headlines in newspaper reports that play on — that inadvertently have
    ambiguity
    . "Complaints about NBA referees growing ugly." So, that’s the beauty of that
    structure
    . "Kids make nutritious snacks." "No one was
    injured
    in a blast which was
    attributed
    to the build-up of gas by one town official." Last summer I was in Seoul visiting the — visiting Korea University and the big headline there on the front page was "General arrested for fondling privates." [laughter]
  6. Now, there actually is — The
    ambiguity
    is actually quite difficult to avoid in the
    construction
    and understanding of sentences. It’s one of the ways in which it’s often difficult to write clearly, and in fact, there’s a whole sub-field of the law
    involving
    the use of linguistic
    theory
    to disambiguate sentences both in the
    Constitution
    , in
    legislation
    , as well as in some criminal cases.
  7. And there was, several years ago, a very serious criminal case that rested on a sentence. And here’s what happened. There were two brothers, one of them retarded, and they get into a robbery. And a police officer sees them and points the gun at them. And one of the brothers points a gun at the police officer. The police officer shouts for the brother, the non-retarded brother, to drop the gun. Actually, he said, "Give me the gun." The retarded brother shouted, "Let him have it," whereupon the brother shot and killed the police officer. Now, the brother who did the shooting was plainly a murderer. What about that brother who shouted, "Let him have it"? Well, it depends on what he — on how you
    interpret
    that sentence because the sentence is beautifully
    ambiguous
    . It could mean "shoot him, let him have it," or it could mean "give him the gun, let him have it." And in fact, the trial, which I think somebody could — If people out there know about this, please send me an e-mail. My understanding was he was
    found
    guilty but a lot to turn on the
    ambiguity
    of a sentence.

  1. Finally, syntax. So, we have the sound system of a language, the phonology. We have the words of a language, the morphology, but all that gives you is "dog," "cup," "chair," "house," "story," "idea." That won’t allow us to communicate complicated ideas. So, the final step in the story is syntax. And syntax refers to those rules and principles that allow us to combine words into phrases and phrases into sentences. And syntax uses another neat trick and this is defined by Wilhelm von Humboldt as the "infinite use of finite media." So, here’s the question. Your vocabulary is finite. There are just so many words. You have to learn them one by one, but you could produce a virtual infinity of sentences. How can you do that? How can you go from a finite list of symbols to an infinite number of sentences? And the answer is you have a combinatorial system. Now, language is not the only thing in culture or nature that has this sort of combinatorial system. Music also has a combinatorial system. There’s a finite number of notes but a limitless number of musical compositions. DNA also has this sort of combinatorial system where you have a finite number of, I guess, bases or amino acids that could combine to a possible infinity of strings, of DNA strings. So, how does this happen? Well, the infinity mechanism, and many of you will be familiar with this from mathematics or computer science, is recursion. And there’s a lot to be said about this but it could be pretty simply illustrated in language.
  2. So, here’s an example of a simple language. It’s not - It’s actually close to how linguists describe normal languages, but it’s very simple. It has three nouns, "Fred," "Barney" and "Wilma," and two verbs, "thinks" and "likes." A very simple language. And one rule. And the way to read this rule is you make a sentence by taking a noun, any noun, putting a verb after it, and then following that verb with a noun. Now, when you do this, how many - And then so, for instance, you get the sentence "Fred likes Wilma." When you do this, how many possible sentences are there?
  3. Let me just take a second. Okay. Any guesses? Eighteen. The sentences are "Fred likes Fred," "Fred likes Barney," "Fred likes Wilma," "Fred thinks Fred," "Fred thinks Barney," "Fred thinks Wilma," and so on. The three nouns followed by any of the two verbs followed by any of the three nouns. That is not a very interesting language. But now, take a more complicated language - same vocabulary, the same three nouns, the same two verbs, the same sentence, but now one other sentence. This sentence expands to a noun followed by a verb followed by a sentence and there you get recursion. You have one rule invoking another rule and then you can get a sentence like "Fred thinks Barney likes Wilma." And here you get a potential infinity of sentences.
  4. And this is obviously a toy example but you could see the use of recursion in everyday life and in everyday use of language. You could say, "John hates cheese," "My roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "It disturbed Mary when I told her that my roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "I was amazed that it disturbed Mary when I told her that my roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "Professor Bloom had devoted way too much of his lecture talking about how I was amazed [laughter] that it disturbed Mary when I told her that my roommate heard a rumour that John hates cheese," "It really bothered me that - " and there’s no limit. There’s no longest sentence. You could keep producing a sentence deeper and deeper embedded until you die. And this is part of the power of language.
  5. Now, the syntactic rules are complicated. And one of the puzzles of syntactic rules, or one of the issues of them, is that different rules can conspire to create the same sentence. So, you take a sentence like - This is a classic line from Groucho Marx: "I once shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How it got into my pyjamas I’ll never know." And the humour, such that it is, revolves around the ambiguity of rules that generate it, like this versus like this. Often, to illustrate the issues of ambiguity, people have collected poorly thought-out headlines in newspaper reports that play on - that inadvertently have ambiguity. "Complaints about NBA referees growing ugly." So, that’s the beauty of that structure. "Kids make nutritious snacks." "No one was injured in a blast which was attributed to the build-up of gas by one town official." Last summer I was in Seoul visiting the - visiting Korea University and the big headline there on the front page was "General arrested for fondling privates." [laughter]
  6. Now, there actually is - The ambiguity is actually quite difficult to avoid in the construction and understanding of sentences. It’s one of the ways in which it’s often difficult to write clearly, and in fact, there’s a whole sub-field of the law involving the use of linguistic theory to disambiguate sentences both in the Constitution, in legislation, as well as in some criminal cases.
  7. And there was, several years ago, a very serious criminal case that rested on a sentence. And here’s what happened. There were two brothers, one of them retarded, and they get into a robbery. And a police officer sees them and points the gun at them. And one of the brothers points a gun at the police officer. The police officer shouts for the brother, the non-retarded brother, to drop the gun. Actually, he said, "Give me the gun." The retarded brother shouted, "Let him have it," whereupon the brother shot and killed the police officer. Now, the brother who did the shooting was plainly a murderer. What about that brother who shouted, "Let him have it"? Well, it depends on what he - on how you interpret that sentence because the sentence is beautifully ambiguous. It could mean "shoot him, let him have it," or it could mean "give him the gun, let him have it." And in fact, the trial, which I think somebody could - If people out there know about this, please send me an e-mail. My understanding was he was found guilty but a lot to turn on the ambiguity of a sentence.

Paul Bloom, Introduction to Psychology (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), https://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed 10 June 2013). Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. Terms of Use