Linguistics, IT and two trees

At university, I studied English with a strong emphasis on linguistics. This week a colleague at work, after reading my recent blog posts about language, let me know that she had studied linguistics too. So why are we both now in Information Technology (IT)? Also, John R made a thought-provoking comment. So now I’m following up on those two comments. And at the end, I’ll tell you how my trees are doing.

First of all, exactly why is this sentence funny or at least quirky: “Drive carefully when wet”?

Secondly, John R’s comment got me to thinking about how, with my fascination for linguistics, I ended up in IT. What makes a technical writer tick, and is the tick-mechanism anything like the widget that powers a systems engineer? Do John R (a self-professed ‘computationist’) and I (a linguaphile) actually share a habit of putting brackets around things and even indulging in the odd XOR?

Linguists have spent a lot of time trying to describe the knowledge common to speakers of a particular language. Without a shared knowledge, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Some linguists think that there’s even an innate structural understanding shared by all humans, irrespective of which language they speak. So our brains come pre-wired with the “deep structural” rules of language, and we just have to plug in the specific language we need.

It seems fairly obvious that a language has a structure, and that all speakers of the language are able to manipulate the structure to produce unique, never-before spoken sentences with amazing ease. But describing the structure and its ability to generate new sentences has proved quite tricky.

Still, there’s hope. Take our sentence “Drive carefully when wet”. You might represent it like this:

sentence structure

Read the diagram starting from the top: A sentence (S) may consist of a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase (VP). A noun phrase may consist of a pronoun (Pro). A verb phrase may consist of a verb (V) plus an adverb (Adv) plus another sentence. And so on.

Linguists have also created a way to describe phrase-structure rules, complete with brackets and symbols to keep computationists 😉 happy. For example:

  • S –> NP VP (A sentence may consist of a noun phrase and a verb phrase)
  • NP –> Pro (A noun phrase may consist of a pronoun)
  • And so on.

And then you can add other logistical provisions, like:

  • “You” deletion: In an imperative sentence (i.e. a command), omit the “you”.
  • Pronoun matching: The second pronoun, also missing in our sentence, is assumed to be the same as the first pronoun.

……So…… that’s why it’s funny. Get it? 🙂

The design of computer languages, and other artificial languages, owes much to the work of linguists. Chomsky, in particular, is an easy mark. He’s the man everyone loves to shoot down. But his work on the theory of a universal grammar, transformational-generative grammars, the Chomsky hierarchy and the Chomsky normal form set the basis for much of what we do today.

So that may be why my colleague and I, linguists both, found our way into IT.

I think there are probably two sorts (or more 🙂 ) of people. Those like me, who seem to organise things into groups automatically (yeah, those brackets). The groupings are fluid and flexible, but the fact remains that we like them to be there. And then there are the people who float much more freely in their ecosystems: go with the flow, synchronicity rocks, hey man what’s the odd misplaced pronoun between friends?

Sometimes it amazes me how many different world views there are out there, just walking down the street next to me. And that we actually do manage to communicate with each other!

Moving on to my two trees:

Two months ago, I planted two trees. I promised a progress report every now and then. The trees are about the same age as this blog. And they’re doing great.

Here’s the paperbark, now 50cm high. (Was 40cm on 1 September.)


Here’s the old man banksia, now 32cm. (Was 17cm on 1 September.)

old man banksia

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 27 October 2007, in environment, humour, language, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It is not so hard to understand “Drive carefully when wet” so long as you can wreck a nice beach.

  2. I used to have my students diagram the structural ambiguity in this old joke:

    Hotel guest: “Call me a taxi!”
    Bellboy: “Okay, you’re a taxi!”

    It’s tricky, because it involves what is called a “small clause”.

    One thing that becomes obvious when one studies modern-day linguistics is how much its development evolves away from scribbling diagrams on paper to tracking the capabilities of computer applications. The type of syntactic tree you drew is now rendered only with binary branching. (I used to joke in syntax class that when computers become capable of more complex reasoning, syntactic diagrams will resemble hair balls instead of binary trees. Nobody ever laughed.)

    The most current approach to linguistic theory, called Optimality Theory, largely replaces generative linguistics, and the thing that’s striking about it is how it developed only partially from a change in the theoretical construct, but just as much due to the emergence of the table functions in word processing programs.

  3. Hallo James

    LOL, syntactic diagrams becoming hair balls instead of binary trees — I love it and I did laugh!

    I also love the idea of the table functionality in word processors affecting the way we think about language. After all, the way our brains work determines the way we can think about linguistics. So now it’s almost as if the word processors are becoming extensions of our brains and further constraining our linguistic musings.

    Thanks for the awesome comment!

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