Tag Archives: Merge

My problem with Merge


When linguists talk about language they use the idea of a function called Merge. Chomsky has the theory that without Merge there is no Language. The idea is that two things are merged together and make one composite thing. And it can be done iteratively to make longer and longer strings. Is this the magic key to language?

The ancient Greeks had ‘elements’ and everything was a combination of elements. The elements were water, fire, earth and air. That is a pretty good guess: matter in its three states and energy. This system was used to understand the world. It was not until it became clear that matter was atomic and atoms came in certain varieties that our current idea of elements replaced the Greek one. It was not that the Greek elements were illogical or that they could not be used to describe the world. The problem was that there was now a much better way to describe the world. The new way was less intuitive, less simple, less beautiful but it explained more, predicted better and fit well with other new knowledge about the world.

This illustrates my problem with conventional syntax and especially Merge. Syntax is not a disembodied logic system because we know it is accomplished in the brain by cells and networks of cells in the brain. It is a biological thing. So a description of how language is formatted has to fit with our knowledge of how the brain works. It is not our theories of language that dictate how the brain works; it is the way the brain works that dictates how we understand language. Unfortunately, we have only just begun to understand the brain.

Some of the things that we think the brain does fit well with language. The brain uses the idea of causal links, events are understood in terms of cause and effect and even in terms of actor – action – outcome. So it is not surprising that a great many utterances have a form that expresses this sort of relationship: subject – verb or subject – verb – object. We are not surprised that the brain would use the same type of relationship to express an event as it does to create that event from sensory input and store it. Causal events are natural to the brain.

So is association, categorization and attribution natural. We see a blue flower but these are separate in the brain until they are bound together. Objects are identified and their color is identified and then they are combined. So not only nouns and verbs are natural to the brain’s way of working but so are attributes – adjectives and adverbs for example. Copula forms are another example: they link an entity with another or with an attribute. And so it goes, most things I can think of about language are natural seeming to the brain (time, place, proper names, interjections etc.).

Even Merge in a funny way is normal to the brain in the character of clumping. The working memory is small and holds 4 to 7 items, we think. But by clumping items together and treating them as one item the memory is able to deal with more items. Clumping is natural to the brain.

This picture is like Changizi’s harnessing theory. The things we have created, were created by harnessing pre-existing abilities of the brain. The abilities needed no new mutation to be harnessed to a new function, mutations to make a better fit would come after they were used for the new function – otherwise there would be no selective pressure modifying the ability to the new function.

So what is my problem with conventional syntax and especially with Merge? It is not a problem with most of the entities – parts of speech, cases, tenses, word order and the like. It is a problem with the rigidity of thought. Parsing diagrams make me grind my teeth. There is an implication that these trees are the way the brain works. I have yet to encounter any good evidence that those diagrams reflect processes in the brain. The idea that a language is a collection of possible sentences bothers me – why does language have to be confined to sentences. I have read verbatum court records – actual complete and correctly formed sentences appear to be much less common than you would think. It is obvious that utterances are not always (probably not mostly) planned ahead. The mistakes people make often imply that they changed horse in mid-sentence. Most of what we know about our use of language implies that the process is not at all like the diagrams or the approaches of grammarians.

The word ‘Merge’, unlike say ‘modify’, is capitalized. This is apparently because some feel it is the essence of language, the one thing that makes human language unique and the one mutation required for our languages. But if merge is just an ordinary word and pretty much like clumping, which I think it is, than poof goes the magic. My dog can clump and merge things into new wholes – she can organize a group of things into a ritual and recognize that ritual event with a single word or short phrase or indicate it with a small action.

What is unique about humans is not Merge but the extent and sophistication of our communication. We do not need language to think in the way we do, language is built on the way we think. We need language in order to communicate better.