Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Chronically curious モ..

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

OMG! Saussure got it all wrong!

Not. Although this is how a recent paper by Farmer, Christiansen & Monaghan in PNAS (103(32), 12203-12208) begins its abstract:
Since Saussure, the relationship between the sound and the meaning of words has been regarded as largely arbitrary. Here, however, we show that a probabilistic relationship exists between the sound of a word and its lexical category.
It's the "however" that's most worrisome. Does the fact that there is a relation between the sound of a word and its lexical category somehow contradict the Sussurean claim? This seems to be what the authors are suggesting. How do they know? Well, they looked at a large corpus of English words. What did they find? (a) That certain sound patterns were more associated with verbs or nouns and (b) English speakers were sensitive to these correlations in bahavioural expeirments. So what's missing? The SAME experiment in Chinese. There are 2 ways of looking at the data: 1) Something about the sounds tells you something about the (syntactic) category. 2) 'Natural' distinctions in the mind (like Nouns or Verbs) might, over linguistic time, cause the accumulation of surface similarities, for example: [i] when verbalizing a noun, a speaker might choose for the verbalized noun to sound more like existing verbs [ii] processing similarities: due to sharing the same syntactic position, words might begin to conform to each other on the surface since this would make processing (producing) them easier. Farmer &al take Line (1). Which might even be correct. But to show that this is so, it is necessary to show that the surface features that separate nouns from verbs are language independent. If they are not, then (2) is the correct description of the facts.
Basically, it seems that there is too much ideological stuff happening, and as a result true progress will suffer.

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