Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Witty Linguistic Chickens

I just ran across this cute article (pdf) by Bonatti et al which unapologetically takes a stand in the great rules vs. statistics debate currently raging within linguistics. It’s a useful follow-up to my previous posts regarding frequency and language. I like the article because it engages in the kind of point-by-point debate that is common in lab meetings (which is often missing in published material); but I also love the wit and sense of humor the authors have. The article starts with a jab at Italian drivers, and ends with a metaphorical playfulness rarely seen (outside of Jackendoff’s work, of course). Here are the first and final paragraphs (but the 2 page article is well worth the read):

With the possible exception of Italian traffic regulations, any rule will generate a statistically detectable advantage for items instantiating the rule. Thus, although attempts to reduce structural phenomena … to statistical computations … have been unsuccessful so far …, it would be no surprise if one or another statistical measure would correlate with the structural phenomena under investigation. But would this mean the statistics caused the apparently rule-abiding behaviors, or are the statistics epiphenomena of underlying structures? Questions about chickens and eggs are always difficult to settle…Thus, although we admire demonstrations of powerful statistical abilities in humans, we remain convinced that it is the linguistic chicken that lays statistical eggs, and not the statistical eggs that hatch into linguistic chickens.

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