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

Is language really “a set of alternations?”

The perspective that the study of linguistic data should be driven by studies of individual speaker choices has been the subject of attack from a number of linguists.

The first set of objections have come from researchers who have traditionally focused on linguistic variation expressed in terms of rates per word, or per million words.

No such thing as free variation?

As Smith and Leech (2013) put it: “it is commonplace in linguistics that there is no such thing as free variation” and that indeed multiple differing constraints apply to each term. On the basis of this observation they propose an ‘ecological’ approach, although in their paper this approach is not clearly defined.

Continue reading

EDS Resources

This post contains the resources for students taking the UCL English Linguistics MA, all in one place.

Session 15: Introduction to statistics

Sessions 18 and 19: Statistics Workshops

Suggested further reading

A methodological progression

(with thanks to Jill Bowie)

Introduction

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.

Continue reading

Verb Phrase book published

Why this book?

book coverThe grammar of English is often thought to be stable over time. However a new book, edited by Bas Aarts, Joanne Close, Geoffrey Leech and Sean Wallis, The Verb Phrase in English: investigating recent language change with corpora (Cambridge University Press, 2013) presents a body of research from linguists that shows that using natural language corpora one can find changes within a core element of grammar, the Verb Phrase, over a span of decades rather than centuries.

The book draws from papers first presented at a symposium on the verb phrase organised for the Survey of English Usage’s 50th anniversary and on research from the Changing English Verb Phrase project.

Continue reading