《镜子大全》《朝华午拾》分享 http://blog.sciencenet.cn/u/liwei999 曾任红小兵,插队修地球,1991年去国离乡,不知行止。

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Parsing nonsense with a sense of humor

已有 2458 次阅读 2015-6-24 20:47 |个人分类:立委科普|系统分类:科普集锦|关键词:syntax,semantics,nonsense,Chomsky| syntax, Semantics, chomsky, nonsense


Chomsky is said to be one of the five most quoted men/sources in human history (the other four are all history now, including Karl Marx, Bible, etc.). He is a superstar in linguistics as well as arguably the most prominent political dissident in the US.

Here are some of my personal stories about Chomsky’s famous quote on the colorless ideas.

[1] Tanya had fun with Chomsky’s quote:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

“Dad, it does not make sense at all”, as soon as I taught this sentence to Tanya, she had so much fun in playing with it, “haha, this is the stupidest sentence I have ever heard. How can ideas sleep? Ok, even if they can sleep, how can they sleep furiously? Ideas have color? Green? Come on. Ok, if it is green, how can it be colorless.”

Indeed none of the binary gramatical relationships (e.g. Subject-Verb “ideas sleep”, Modifier-Noun “green ideas”, Verb-Adeverbial “sleep furiously”) in the sentence makes common sense. However, every native speaker admits this nonsense is perfectly grammatical. Otherwise how do we make sense of nonsense if nonsense itself is not expressed in understandable form (grammar)? Nonsense here is not incomprehensible gibberish. This brilliant thought experiment of Chomsky shows that syntactic structure (grammar) can be independent of semantics (meaning). In late 50s when Chomsky made his linguistics revolution, Chomsky was trying to tell linguists and the world that syntax shold be studied with no interference from semantics, which made the syntax study more profound. Although this view has its own defects, it did deepen the linguistic study at the time.

Interestingly enough, even nonsense can make perfect sense from the perspective of pragmatics. When we put it in the right discourse, it can be very natural and well imaginable, as I showed it in a post to Linguist List when I was a PhD student.

[2] I wrote the following “story” years ago about Chomsky’s quote in Linguist List.

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 95 3:30:13 PSTInterpreting “colorless green ideas…” From: Wei Li  Subject: Interpreting “colorless green ideas…”

Does it make sense?

In a certain domain, the Chomsky’s famous sentence is well imaginable.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Imagine the following context:

As we know, Esperantists wear a badge of “a green star”, a symbol for Esperanto
and its ideals. From there, “green ideas” would be easily conprehensible to
their minds.

Suppose now comes an opponent to Esperanto, he may say,

“Your green ideas are really colorless, not only colorless, those ideas are no
longer popular! Colorless green ideas sleep now!”

Well, what is a possible reaction from some Esperantists?

“Yes, our ideas (or ideals) sleep or seem to sleep now. But remember,
colorless green ideas sleep furiously! ”

[3] Tanya's fun in playing with the quote continues

October 25, 2007 01:23AM

Tanya is very quick-witted, a born comedian, good at word-smithing and making jokes, with a sense of humor.  She loves to argue on any topics and her utterance is often faster than her mind. .

This morning, we were picking up Chomsky's syntax-independent declaration sample again (I had mentioned this to her before in [1]): Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.  

“Dad, it actually makes sense to me.”

How?

“well”, apparently she was making up as she spoke,”colorful green really means fancy green, shining green, …”

No, not colorful green, it is colorless green.

“Oh, yeh, colorless green is even better, it means transparent green, right? ideas sleep in a beauty sleep dream, too.”

beauty sleep? it sleeps FURIOUSLY.

“right, that must be a nightmare!”

Wow, you are really good at interpreting nonsense.

“hehe”,  seemingly with a sly smile, ”I am a nonsense kid after all.”


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