KISSing semantics: Subregular complexity of quantifiers

🕑 9 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 July 26, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 subregular, strictly local, tier-based strictly local, monotonicity, quantifiers, semantics, typology

I promised, and you shall receive: a KISS account of a particular aspect of semantics. Remember, KISS means that the account covers a very narrowly circumscribed phenomenon, makes no attempt to integrate with other theories, and instead aims for being maximal simple and self-contained. And now for the actual problem:

It has been noted before that not every logically conceivable quantifier can be realized by a single “word”. Those are very deliberate scare quotes around word as that isn’t quite the right notion — if it can even be defined. But let’s ignore that for now and focus just on the basic facts. We have every for the universal quantifier \(\forall\), some for the existential quantifier \(\exists\), and no, which corresponds to \(\neg \exists\). English is not an outlier, these three quantifiers are very common across languages. But there seems to be no language with a single word for not all, i.e. \(\neg \forall\). Now why the heck is that? If language is fine with stuffing \(\neg \exists\) into a single word, why not \(\neg \forall\)? Would you be shocked if I told you the answer is monotonicity? Actually, the full answer is monotonicity + subregularity, but one thing at a time.


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Features and the power of representations

🕑 13 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 June 06, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 features, constraints, representations, generative capacity, subregular, strictly local, transductions

As you might have gleaned from my previous post, I’m not too fond of features, but I haven’t really given you a reason for that. It is actually straight-forward: features lower complexity. By itself, that is actually a useful property. Trees lower the complexity of syntax, and nobody (or barely anybody) uses that as an argument that we should use strings. Distributing the workload between representations and operations/constraints over these representations is considered a good thing. Rightfully so, because factorization is generally a good idea.

But there is a crucial difference between trees and features. We actually have models of how trees are constructed from strings — you might have heard of them, they’re called parsers. And we have some ways of measuring the complexity of this process, e.g. asymptotic worst-case complexity. We lack a comparable theory for features. We’re using an enriched representation without paying attention to the computational cost of carrying out this enrichment. That’s no good, we’re just cheating ourselves in this case. Fortunately, listening to people talk about features for 48h at the workshop gave me an epiphany, and I’m here to share it with you.


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A song of middles and suffixes

🕑 3 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 May 21, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 phonology, subregular, strictly local, fun allowed

Am I the only one who’s worn out by the total lack of fun and playfulness in all public matters? Everything is serious business, everything is one word away from a shit storm, everybody has to be proper and professional all the time, no fun allowed. It’s the decade of buzzkills, killjoys, and sourpusses. Linguistics is very much in line with this unfortunate trend. Gone are the days of Norbert Hornstein dressing up as Nim Chimpsky. It is unthinkable to publish a paper under the pseudonym Quang Phuc Dong (that’s at least a micro-aggression, if not worse). Even a tongue-in-cheek post on Faculty of Language is immediately under suspicion of being dismissive. Should have added that /s tag to spell it out.

Compared to other fields, linguistics has never been all that playful, perhaps because we’re already afraid of not being taken seriously by other fields. But we’ve had one proud torch bearer in this respect: Geoff Pullum. His Topic… comment column should be mandatory grad school reading. Formal Linguistics Meets the Boojum is a classic for the ages (and did, of course, get a very proper and professional response). My personal favorite is his poetic take on the Halting problem. So I figured instead of complaining I’d lead by example and inject some fun of my own. To be honest, I’m probably better at complaining, but here we go…


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