Grammar shrammar

The following is a guest post by Victor H. Mair.

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How do we learn languages, after all? By following rules, whether hard-wired or learned? Or by acquiring and absorbing principles and patterns through massive amounts of repetitions?

AI is changing scientists’ understanding of language learning — and raising questions about innate grammar,” a stimulating new article by Morten Christiansen and Pablo Contreras Kallens that first appeared in The Conversation (10/19/2022) and later in Ars Technica and elsewhere, begins thus:

Unlike the carefully scripted dialogue found in most books and movies, the language of everyday interaction tends to be messy and incomplete, full of false starts, interruptions and people talking over each other. From casual conversations between friends, to bickering between siblings, to formal discussions in a boardroom, authentic conversation is chaotic. It seems miraculous that anyone can learn language at all given the haphazard nature of the linguistic experience.

I must say that I am in profound agreement with this scenario. In many university and college departments, which consist entirely of learned professors, you’d think that discussions and deliberations would be governed by regulations and rationality. Such, however, is not the case. Instead, people constantly talk over and past each other, barely listening to what their colleagues are saying. They interrupt one another and engage in aggressive behavior, or erupt in mindless laughter over who knows what. I’m not saying that all the members of these departments are like this nor that all departments are like this, but far too many do converse in this fashion. The individuals who are more sedate and civilized tend to remain silent for hours on end because, as the saying goes, they can’t get a word in edgewise. It’s a wonder that departments can accomplish anything.

For this reason, many language scientists – including Noam Chomsky, a founder of modern linguistics – believe that language learners require a kind of glue to rein in the unruly nature of everyday language. And that glue is grammar: a system of rules for generating grammatical sentences.

Everybody knows these things — or knew them decades ago — but now they are indubitably passé.

Children must have a grammar template wired into their brains to help them overcome the limitations of their language experience – or so the thinking goes.

This template, for example, might contain a “super-rule” that dictates how new pieces are added to existing phrases. Children then only need to learn whether their native language is one, like English, where the verb goes before the object (as in “I eat sushi”), or one like Japanese, where the verb goes after the object (in Japanese, the same sentence is structured as “I sushi eat”).

But new insights into language learning are coming from an unlikely source: artificial intelligence. A new breed of large AI language models can write newspaper articles, poetry and computer code and answer questions truthfully after being exposed to vast amounts of language input. And even more astonishingly, they all do it without the help of grammar.

Now, however, the authors make an astonishing claim. They assert that AI language models produce language that is grammatically correct, but they do so without a grammar!

Even if their choice of words is sometimes strange, nonsensical or contains racist, sexist and other harmful biases, one thing is very clear: the overwhelming majority of the output of these AI language models is grammatically correct. And yet, there are no grammar templates or rules hardwired into them – they rely on linguistic experience alone, messy as it may be.

GPT-3, arguably the most well-known of these models, is a gigantic deep-learning neural network with 175 billion parameters. It was trained to predict the next word in a sentence given what came before across hundreds of billions of words from the internet, books and Wikipedia. When it made a wrong prediction, its parameters were adjusted using an automatic learning algorithm.

Remarkably, GPT-3 can generate believable text reacting to prompts such as “A summary of the last ‘Fast and Furious’ movie is…” or “Write a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson.” Moreover, GPT-3 can respond to SAT level analogies, reading comprehension questions and even solve simple arithmetic problems – all from learning how to predict the next word.

The authors delve more deeply into comparisons of AI models and human brains, not without raising some significant problems:

A possible concern is that these new AI language models are fed a lot of input: GPT-3 was trained on linguistic experience equivalent to 20,000 human years. But a preliminary study that has not yet been peer-reviewed found that GPT-2 [a “little brother” of GPT-3] can still model human next-word predictions and brain activations even when trained on just 100 million words. That’s well within the amount of linguistic input that an average child might hear during the first 10 years of life.

In conclusion, Christiansen and Kallens call for a rethinking of language learning:

“Children should be seen, not heard” goes the old saying, but the latest AI language models suggest that nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, children need to be engaged in the back-and-forth of conversation as much as possible to help them develop their language skills. Linguistic experience – not grammar – is key to becoming a competent language user.

By all means, talk at the table, but respectfully, and not too loudly.

Selected readings

[h.t. Michael Carr]

Who you callin’ “grandma”?!

Late last year a police officer in Taichung (Taizhong), Taiwan, was checking on a fifty-something-year-old woman when he made the mistake of addressing her as “ama” (Taiwanese for “grandmother,” and generally preferred here to Mandarin forms for elderly women).

Addressing a fifty-something Taiwanese woman even as “ayi” (auntie) would be inadvisable, assuming, of course, she’s not your actual aunt. But “ama”?

I pity the fool.

In response to complaints, the police have come up with guidelines for how to address members of the public, and most terms are now discouraged.

Tǒngyī lǜ dìng 4 zhǒng chēnghu, rúguǒ shì niánqīng rén, kàn shì xuéshēng, bù fēn nánnǚ, tǒngyī chēnghu “tóngxué,” rúguǒ shì niánqīng nǚxìng, tǒngyī chēnghu “xiǎojiě,” zīshēn (niánzhǎng) nǚxìng zé shì tǒngyī chēnghu “nǚshì,” zhìyú nánxìng, chúle niánqīng xuéshēng zhī wài, dōu chēnghu “xiānshēng.”

統一律定4種稱呼,如果是年輕人、看似學生,不分男女,統一稱呼「同學」,如果是年輕女性,統一稱呼「小姐」,資深(年長)女性則是統一稱呼「女士」,至於男性,除了年輕學生之外,都稱呼「先生」。

So there are now four categories:

  • young people (regardless of gender) who look like students: tóngxué (a term used to refer to students or one’s classmates)
  • young women: xiǎojiě (miss, Ms.)
  • older women: nǚshì (this one’s tricky; it’s more formal than “ma’am”; more like “madame,” I suppose).
  • men who look older than students: xiānshēng (mister, sir)

As I remarked above, “nǚshì” is a bit tricky, but not just in terms of translation. It’s quite formal and something people usually would write rather than say. Consider, for example, how one might begin a letter to a stranger “Dear [name]”; but if you were standing in front of that person you would not begin a conversation with them with the same words.

So, if in doubt, call a Taiwanese woman “xiǎojiě.” But calling a Chinese woman “xiaojie” is not a good idea these days (if not used in combination with a surname), though it was fine when I lived in China back in the early 1990s.

By the way, if you ever need to see if a font face will handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks well, “nǚshì” is an excellent test word, as “ǚ” is the combination of letter and tone least likely to be supported.

Further reading:

Year of the Tiger puns, part 1

This is a cute ad for a bakery in Banqiao, Taiwan. The text in Chinese characters reads “虎年送吼禮” (Hǔnián sòng hǒu lǐ).

What’s odd about this is the character 吼, which is the character used to write the Mandarin word “hǒu” (howl, roar). So the text in English reads something like “[In the] Year of the Tiger, give roar gifts.”

This only makes proper sense when one knows that here “hǒu” is standing in for the Taiwanese word for “good” (in Mandarin: hǎo/好).

image with two cute cartoon tigers, one of which is baying. The speech bubble for that is the Chinese character 吼

Dungan-English Dictionary published

Eastbridge Books, an imprint of Camphor Press, is pleased to announce the publication of its Dungan-English Dictionary, by Olli Salmi.

Dungan-English Dictionary sample page spread

Dungan is interesting for Chinese studies because it has an alphabetic orthography. It is also important because it shows very little influence from the Chinese literary language. It has preserved original features of the local dialects of about 150 years ago. It also has loans from Persian and Arabic, from Turkic languages, and from Russian.

The Dungans are Muslims who fled China for Russian territory in Central Asia after the failure of the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877). Their language, which UNESCO classifies as “definitely endangered,” is related to northwestern Mandarin Chinese. Dungan has two main dialects: the so-called Gansu dialect, which is similar to the Muslim Chinese communal dialects in the southern part of the province of Xinjiang, and the Shaanxi dialect, which has more in common with the dialects of southern Shaanxi around Xi’an. In the Soviet Union an alphabetic orthography and a literary language was developed for the Gansu dialect.

Although Dungan is now spoken primarily outside of China and employs an alphabet rather than Chinese characters, it is not really a peripheral dialect of Chinese. The Dungan Revolt started near Xi’an, Shaanxi, the cradle of the Chinese civilization and a frequent site of the capital of the country. (This is where the terracotta soldiers were buried.) The speakers that gave rise to Gansu Dungan came from a place west of the Shaanxi speakers, but still a totally Chinese-speaking area.

This dictionary is based on words and examples collected from Dungan-language newspapers and books published before the fall of the Soviet Union. Special attention has been paid to not only vocabulary (9,945 headwords) but also grammatical features; the dictionary may even provide material for the study of syntax. An effort has been made to find characters for Dungan words in dialect dictionaries published in China.

This work is available through Camphor Press and Amazon.

Note: I am part of Camphor Press and so stand to make a small amount of money from sales of this book. But that’s not why I’m recommending it to everyone interested in Dungan.

Zhou Youguang, 1906-2017

Zhou Youguang

Zhou Youguang, who is often called the “father of Hanyu Pinyin,” died earlier today.

He lived to the age of 111. He was “the man God forgot,” he liked to joke. And he did like to laugh. His sense of humor, which he kept despite some of the trials he suffered, no doubt helped him flourish so long.

He was most remarkable, however, not for his longevity but for his monumental contribution to literacy, his dedication to helping others, and his sense of justice.

I’ll add more information later.

RIP.

Aiyo! OED fails to use Pinyin for some new entries

The Oxford English Dictionary has just added some new entries, including several from Sinitic languages.

A lot of these come by way of Singapore and so reflect the Hokkien language. For example, among the new entries is “ang pow,” which is Hokkien’s equivalent of Mandarin’s “hongbao,” which also made the list.

A few of the entries, however, come from Mandarin, for example two common interjections for surprise. Oddly, though, the OED uses “aiyoh” and “aiyah” instead of their proper Pinyin spellings of “aiyo” and “aiya.”

“Ah,” you say, “but maybe the aiyoh and aiyah spellings are more common in English.”

Nope.

Even in Singapore domains (.sg), the Pinyin spellings are more common than those the OED calls for. As the tables below show, in every instance the Pinyin spellings are also more common in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Throughout the world, the Pinyin spellings are more common — the vast majority of the time by a factor of at least two.

Google search results for “aiyo” (Pinyin) and “aiyoh” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiyo aiyoh
.sg 12,200 5,680
.hk 2,570 187
.cn 6,040 984
.tw 4,690 196
all domains 1,250,000 137,000
all domains  + “chinese” 97,700 77,100
all domains  + “mandarin” 51,800 14,100

Google search results for “aiya” (Pinyin) and “aiyah” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiya aiyah
.sg 17,600 8,310
.hk 6,400 2,360
.cn 13,200 1,860
.tw 5,910 1,710
all domains 3,370,000 332,000
all domains  + “chinese” 238,000 63,200
all domains  + “mandarin” 36,500 22,800

Searching Google Books also reveals that the Pinyin forms are more common.

In short, I do not see any good reason for the OED to have adopted ad hoc spellings rather than the Pinyin standard. They must have their reasons, but it looks like they botched this.

Pinyin.info in the Wall Street Journal

Victor Mair’s terrific essay “Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray,” which was written for this site, is featured this week in the Wall Street Journal‘s Notable & Quotable section.

Mair has done more than anyone else to help drive a stake through the heart of this myth. I’m glad the WSJ is helping spread the word.

source: “Notable & Quotable: Lost in Mistranslation“, Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016

Languages, scripts, and signs: a walk around Taipei’s Shixin University

Recently I took some trails through the mountains in Taipei and ended up at Shih Hsin University (Shìxīn Dàxué / 世新大學). Near the school are some interesting signs. Rather than giving individual posts for each of these, I’m keeping the signs together in this one, as this is better testimony to the increasing and often playful diversity of languages and scripts in Taiwan.

Cǎo Chuàn

Here’s a restaurant whose name is given in Pinyin with tone marks! That’s quite a rarity here, though I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this in the future. The name in Chinese characters (草串) can be found, much smaller, on a separate sign below.

cao_chuan

二哥の牛肉麵

Right by Cao Chuan is Èrgē de Niúròumiàn (Second Brother’s Beef Noodle Soup). Note the use of the Japanese の rather than Mandarin’s 的; this is quite common in Taiwan.

erge_de_niuroumian

芭樂ㄟ店

This store has an ㄟ, which serves as a marker of the Taiwanese language. Here, ㄟ is the equivalent of 的 — and of の.

Bālè ei diàn
bala_ei_dian

A’Woo Tea Bar

awoo_tea_bar

I couldn’t find a name in Chinese characters for this place. The name is probably onomatopoeia, as in “Werewolves of London — awoo!”