Why Chomsky was Wrong About Corpus Linguistics


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


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.

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A methodological progression

(with thanks to Jill Bowie)


One of the most controversial arguments in corpus linguistics concerns the relationship between a ‘variationist’ paradigm comparable with lab experiments, and a traditional corpus linguistics paradigm focusing on normalised word frequencies.

Rather than see these two approaches as diametrically opposed, we propose that it is more helpful to view them as representing different points on a methodological progression, and to recognise that we are often forced to compromise our ideal experimental practice according to the data and tools at our disposal.

Viewing these approaches as being represented along a progression allows us to step back from any single perspective and ask ourselves how different results can be reconciled and research may be improved upon. It allows us to consider the potential value in performing more computer-aided manual annotation — always an arduous task — and where such annotation effort would be usefully focused.

The idea is sketched in the figure below.

A methodological progression

A methodological progression: from normalised word frequencies to verified alternation.

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Three kinds of corpus evidence – and two types of constraint

Text corpora permit researchers to find evidence of three distinct kinds.

1. Frequency evidence of known terms (‘performance’)

Suppose you have a plain text corpus which you attempt to annotate automatically. You apply a computer program to the text. This program can be thought of as comprising three elements: a theoretical framework or ‘scheme’, an algorithm, and a knowledge-base (KB). Terms and constituents in this scheme are applied to the corpus according to the algorithm.

Having done so it should be a relatively simple matter to index those terms in the corpus and obtain frequencies for each one (e.g., how many instances of may are classed as a modal verb, noun, etc). The frequency evidence obtained tells you how the program performed against the real-world data in the corpus. However, if you stop at this point you do not know whether this evidence is accurate or complete.

2. Frequency evidence of unknown terms (‘discovery’)

The process of annotation presents the opportunity for discovery of novel linguistic events. All NLP algorithms have a particular, and inevitably less-than perfect, performance. The system may misclassify some items, misanalyse constituents, or simply fail. Therefore

  1. first-pass frequency evidence is likely to be inaccurate (and potentially incomplete),
  2. errors may be due to inadequacies in the scheme, algorithm or knowledge-base.

In practice we have two choices: amend the system (scheme, KB or algorithm) and/or correct the corpus manually. A law of diminishing returns applies, and a certain amount of manual editing is inevitably necessary. [As a side comment, part-of-speech annotation is relatively accurate, but full parsing is prone to error. As different systems employ different frameworks accuracy rates vary, but one can anticipate around 95% accuracy for POS-tagging and at best 70% accuracy for parsing. In any case, some errors may be impossible to address without a deeper semantic analysis of the sentence than is feasible.]

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