Why Chomsky was Wrong About Corpus Linguistics

Introduction

When the entire premise of your methodology is publicly challenged by one of the most pre-eminent figures in an overarching discipline, it seems wise to have a defence. Noam Chomsky’s famous objection to corpus linguistics therefore needs a serious response.

“One of the big insights of the scientific revolution, of modern science, at least since the seventeenth century… is that arrangement of data isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to ask probing questions of nature. That’s what is called experimentation, and then you may get some answers that mean something. Otherwise you just get junk.” (Noam Chomsky, quoted in Aarts 2001).

Chomsky has consistently argued that the systematic ex post facto analysis of natural language sentence data is incapable of taking theoretical linguistics forward. In other words, corpus linguistics is a waste of time, because it is capable of focusing only on external phenomena of language – what Chomsky has at various times described as ‘e-language’.

Instead we should concentrate our efforts on developing new theoretical explanations for the internal language within the mind (‘i-language’). Over the years the terminology varied, but the argument has remained the same: real linguistics is the study of i-language, not e-language. Corpus linguistics studies e-language. Ergo, it is a waste of time.

Argument 1: in science, data requires theory

Chomsky refers to what he calls ‘the Galilean Style’ to make his case. This is the argument that it is necessary to engage in theoretical abstractions in order to analyse complex data. “[P]hysicists ‘give a higher degree of reality’ to the mathematical models of the universe that they construct than to ‘the ordinary world of sensation’” (Chomsky, 2002: 98). We need a theory in order to make sense of data, as so-called ‘unfiltered’ data is open to an infinite number of possible interpretations.

In the Aristotelian model of the universe the sun orbited the earth. The same data, reframed by the Copernican model, was explained by the rotation of the earth. However, the Copernican model of the universe was not arrived at by theoretical generalisation alone, but by a combination of theory and observation.

Chomsky’s first argument contains a kernel of truth. The following statement is taken for granted across all scientific disciplines: you need theory to analyse data. To put it another way, there is no such thing as an ‘assumption free’ science. But the second part of this argument, that the necessity of theory permits scientists to dispense with engagement with data (or even allows them to dismiss data wholesale), is not a characterisation of the scientific method that modern scientists would recognise. Indeed, Beheme (2016) argues that this method is also a mischaracterisation of Galileo’s method. Galileo’s particular fame, and his persecution, came from one source: the observations he made through his telescope. Continue reading

What might a corpus of parsed spoken data tell us about language?

AbstractPaper (PDF)

This paper summarises a methodological perspective towards corpus linguistics that is both unifying and critical. It emphasises that the processes involved in annotating corpora and carrying out research with corpora are fundamentally cyclic, i.e. involving both bottom-up and top-down processes. Knowledge is necessarily partial and refutable.

This perspective unifies ‘corpus-driven’ and ‘theory-driven’ research as two aspects of a research cycle. We identify three distinct but linked cyclical processes: annotation, abstraction and analysis. These cycles exist at different levels and perform distinct tasks, but are linked together such that the output of one feeds the input of the next.

This subdivision of research activity into integrated cycles is particularly important in the case of working with spoken data. The act of transcription is itself an annotation, and decisions to structurally identify distinct sentences are best understood as integral with parsing. Spoken data should be preferred in linguistic research, but current corpora are dominated by large amounts of written text. We point out that this is not a necessary aspect of corpus linguistics and introduce two parsed corpora containing spoken transcriptions.

We identify three types of evidence that can be obtained from a corpus: factual, frequency and interaction evidence, representing distinct logical statements about data. Each may exist at any level of the 3A hierarchy. Moreover, enriching the annotation of a corpus allows evidence to be drawn based on those richer annotations. We demonstrate this by discussing the parsing of a corpus of spoken language data and two recent pieces of research that illustrate this perspective. Continue reading

Coping with imperfect data

Introduction

One of the challenges for corpus linguists is that many of the distinctions that we wish to make are either not annotated in a corpus at all or, if they are represented in the annotation, unreliably annotated. This issue frequently arises in corpora to which an algorithm has been applied, but where the results have not been checked by linguists, a situation which is unavoidable with mega-corpora. However, this is a general problem. We would always recommend that cases be reviewed for accuracy of annotation.

A version of this issue also arises when checking for the possibility of alternation, that is, to ensure that items of Type A can be replaced by Type B items, and vice-versa. An example might be epistemic modal shall vs. will. Most corpora, including richly-annotated corpora such as ICE-GB and DCPSE, do not include modal semantics in their annotation scheme. In such cases the issue is not that the annotation is “imperfect”, rather that our experiment relies on a presumption that the speaker has the choice of either type at any observed point (see Aarts et al. 2013), but that choice is conditioned by the semantic content of the utterance.

Continue reading

Random sampling, corpora and case interaction

Introduction

One of the main unsolved statistical problems in corpus linguistics is the following.

Statistical methods assume that samples under study are taken from the population at random.

Text corpora are only partially random. Corpora consist of passages of running text, where words, phrases, clauses and speech acts are structured together to describe the passage.

The selection of text passages for inclusion in a corpus is potentially random. However cases within each text may not be independent.

This randomness requirement is foundationally important. It governs our ability to generalise from the sample to the population.

The corollary of random sampling is that cases are independent from each other.

I see this problem as being fundamental to corpus linguistics as a credible experimental practice (to the point that I forced myself to relearn statistics from first principles after some twenty years in order to address it). In this blog entry I’m going to try to outline the problem and what it means in practice.

The saving grace is that statistical generalisation is premised on a mathematical model. The problem is not all-or-nothing. This means that we can, with care, attempt to address it proportionately.

[Note: To actually solve the problem would require the integration of multiple sources of evidence into an a posteriori model of case interaction that computed marginal ‘independence probabilities’ for each case abstracted from the corpus. This is way beyond what any reasonable individual linguist could ever reasonably be expected to do unless an out-of-the-box solution is developed (I’m working on it, albeit slowly, so if you have ideas, don’t fail to contact me…).]

There are numerous sources of case interaction and clustering in texts, ranging from conscious repetition of topic words and themes, unconscious tendencies to reuse particular grammatical choices, and interaction along axes of, for example, embedding and co-ordination (Wallis 2012a), and structurally overlapping cases (Nelson et al 2002: 272).

In this blog post I first outline the problem and then discuss feasible good practice based on our current technology.  Continue reading