For many years I have followed EB Bolles’ blog Babel’s Dawn (here) while he discussed the origin of human language. He has convinced me of many things about the history and nature of language. And they fit with how I thought of language. Now he has written a chapter in a book, “Attention and Meaning: The Attentional Basis of Meaning”. In his chapter, “Attentional-Based Syntax” (here), Bolles re-writes the mechanics of parsing phrases and sentences. He uses new entities, not nouns and verbs etc., and very different rules.
The reason I like this approach so much is the same reasons that I cannot accept Chomsky’s view of language. I see language from a biological point of view, a product of genetic and cultural evolution, and continuous with the communication of other animals. It is a type of biological communication. I imagine (rightly or wrongly) that Chomsky finds biology and especially animals distasteful and that he also has no feel for the way evolution works. I on the other hand, find a study of language that seems to only deal with complete written sentences on a white board, not of much interest. Instead of a form of biological communication, Chomsky gives us a form of logical thought.
Bolles summarizes his chapter like this. “The commonsense understanding of meaning as reference has dominated grammatical thought for thousands of years, producing many paradoxes while leaving many mysteries about language’s nature. The paradoxes wane if we assume that meaning comes by directing attention from one phenomenon to another. This transfer of meaning from objective reality to subjective experience breaks with the objective grammatical accounts produced by many philosophers, lexicographers, and teachers through the ages. The bulk of this paper introduces a formal system for parsing sentences according to an attention- based syntax. The effort proves surprisingly fruitful and is capable of parsing many sentences without reference to predicates, nouns or verbs. It might seem a futile endeavor, producing an alternative to a system used by every educated person in the world, but the approach explains many observations left unexplained by classical syntax. It also suggests a promising approach to teaching language usage. ”
The key change of concept is that words do not have meanings, nor do they carry meaning from a speaker to a listener – instead, they pilot attention within the brain. Or in other words they work by forcing items into working memory and therefore attention (or attention and therefore working memory). This makes very good sense. Take a simple word like ‘tree’: speaker says ‘tree’, listener hears ‘tree’ and memory automatically brings to the surface memories associated with ‘tree’. The word ‘tree’ is held in working memory and as long as it is there, the brain has recall or near recall of tree-ish concepts/ images/ ideas. The meaning of tree is found within the listener’s brain. No one thing, word or single element of memory has meaning; the meaning is formed when multiple things form a connection. It is the connections that gives meaning. I like this because I have thought for years that single words are without meaning. But words form a network of connections in any culture and a word’s connections in the network is what defines the word. Because we share cultural networks including a language, we can communicate. I also like this starting point because it explains why language is associated with consciousness (an oddity because very little else to do with thinking is so closely tied to consciousness). Consciousness is associated with working memory and attention, and the content of consciousness seems to be (or come from) the focus of attention in working memory.
Bolles uses a particular vocabulary in his parsing method: phenomenon is any conscious experience, sensation is a minimal awareness like a hue or tone, percept is a group of sensations like a loud noise, bound perception is a group of percepts that form a unified experience. We could also say phenomenon is another word for subjective consciousness. Then we have the process of perception. Perception starts with primary sensory input, memory and predictions. It proceeds to bind elements together to form a moment of perception, then serial momentary perceptions are bound into events. It matters little what words are used, the process is fairly well accepted. But what is more, it is not confined to how language is processed – it is how everything that passes through working memory and into the content of consciousness is processed. No magic here! No mutation required! Language uses what the brain more-or-less does naturally.
This also makes the evolution of language easier to visualize. The basic mechanism existed in the way that attention, working memory and consciousness works. It was harnessed by a communication function and that function drove the evolution of language: both biological evolution and a great deal of cultural evolution. This evolution could be slow and steady over a long period of time and does not have to be the result of a recent (only 50-150 thousand years ago) all powerful single mutation.
So - the new method of parsing is essentially to formulate the rules that English uses to bind focuses of attention together to make a meaningful event (or bound perception). Each language would have its own syntax rules. The old syntax rules and the new ones are similar because they are both describing English. But… it is not arbitrary rules any more but understandable rules in the context of working memory and attention. Gone is the feeling of memorizing rules to parse sentences on a white board. Instead is an understanding of English as it is used.
I have to stick in a little rant here about peeves. If someone can understand without effort or mistake what someone else has said then what is the problem? Why are arbitrary rules important if breaking them does not interfere at all with communication? With the new parsing method, it is easy to see what is good communication and what isn’t; it is clear what will hinder communication. The method can be used to improve perfectly good English into even better English. Another advantage is that the method can be used for narratives longer than a sentence.
I hope that this approach to syntax will be taken up by others.