How many nouns are in that garlic? Philosophy meets computational linguistics

Feb 08, 2013 by Michael Davies-Venn
Jeffry Pelletier. Credit: University of Alberta

Forty years ago, Jeffry Pelletier, now a University of Alberta philosophy and linguistics researcher, challenged a fundamental tenet of English grammar in his doctoral dissertation. In trying to show that natural languages—such as the one you're reading—do not directly reflect reality, Pelletier declared that the difference between mass and count nouns was arbitrary and, as such, not very useful in talking about our world.

At the time he made the claim, there was so little literature on the subject that he covered all of it in his dissertation. The anthology he later edited on the subject remained the only such work in the field for many years, he says. But now, what was once an esoteric subject is becoming more common.

"It's an obscure technical topic; during the '70s some people wrote about it and then stopped. But the topic kept bubbling up here and there. And suddenly, about five years ago, there were all of these people in Europe interested in this topic. So somehow it got interesting once again after all these years," says Pelletier.

An indication of that shift is the €250,000 award Pelletier received from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. A German scholar, Tibor Kiss, nominated Pelletier for the Anneliese Maier award, which recognizes lifetime contributions to research in a field and funds research projects that advance the internationalization of disciplines in Germany.

Pelletier's grammatical claim is part of a much larger issue he has been preoccupied with for decades—making language more logical.

"For 40 years, I've been interested in a question on natural languages—the view that natural languages are a bit imprecise, unclear and fuzzy, and that somehow you could sharpen them by representing them in a system of logic," he says.

"So I picked on a few areas of natural languages to show how to represent them in formal logic. I said in the theses that the mass-count distinction is totally arbitrary. I claimed that every noun could be used as either mass or count. And the moral I drew from this was that existing differences might be important but they don't say anything about the world."

He says some people agree that many words and phrases can be considered both mass and count nouns. To complicate things further, he says certain nouns that describe the same kind of reality are treated differently. "Take a word such as onion, which is a count term—one onion, five onions and so on. But garlic is a mass term. In reality, there's hardly any difference in the world between the two, yet you can count onions but can't count garlic."

Although some scholars have said Pelletier's ideas apply only to the English language, he points out that seeming differences between languages help substantiate his claim. He explains that in German the word bridge is feminine but in Spanish it's masculine. "But no one thinks of bridges like that, and so I said mass and count nouns distinctions were like that distinction—they don't mean anything about reality," he says.

Thanks to the award, Pelletier will team up with Kiss to compare usage of count and mass nouns between German and English. Kiss and his team at Ruhr University Bochum have spent five years tracking how German-language newspapers use the terms. And they will bring that expertise to the U of A, to train students who will work with Pelletier on the five-year interdisciplinary project.

"Kiss was interested in how common it is for mass nouns to be used as count nouns, for all of the nouns in German. We will investigate how count and mass nouns work in English and do comparisons with German," he says. "This is something that could be useful for translating languages, and perhaps a way to predict more accurately when one is going to use count and another mass for the same ."

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TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (7) Feb 08, 2013
Computational linguistics = word calculations = poopsoup

"In trying to show that natural languages—such as the one you're reading—do not directly reflect reality"

-Hey noumenon - have I not been saying this very thing? Did not ehrman say this when he rejected your entire lexicon? But as this is a philo who is doing the study, the result will be only more words. And what good can that possibly be?

I mean it LOOKS like he is standing in a laboratory but on closer examination it is in fact a kitchen.
Tausch
1 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2013
The... a definite article.
Independent from gender, mass and count.
No German knows the genders to all nouns.
So?
Since there is no one-of-a-kind (uniqueness) of anything stemming from human thought arising from existence, 'the' - a definite article - is made to count:
'Die' is made to bear this extra meaning.

Independent of gender and mass. And independent of anything greater in count than one.
Our contribution to a world in where English fell short long ago and where German existed long before English.

Track all you want. You will be none the wiser.
Simply learn all 5000 to 6000 parts of what you believe to be a single language called the human language.

Guten Appetit! Digest that.
Once you know all parts of the human language the word 'translation' loses any meaning to justify the usage in 'linguistics' - computational or otherwise.
Tausch
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2013
Perhaps you will retort.
There is only one of you. lol
Tausch
1 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2013
Let's predict what Noumenon will write...
"All measure is arbitrary"
Are we close?
lol
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2013
Independent of gender and mass. And independent of anything greater in count than one.
Our contribution to a world in where English fell short long ago and where German existed long before English.
But it seems as if you are admitting that Deutsche ist obsolete (kaput). Look at a translation list in any appliance manual. German is always the longest (most inefficient). Too many dots and slashes and capitals. English is always the shortest.

Who cares what gender a word is? Whats the point? The brits conquered the world speaking english. The US won ww2 speaking American. The soviets couldn't complain because nobody could UNDERSTAND them.

Maybe this is why english-speakers were permitted to win, because the language was most compatible with the approaching digital age. Ever think of that?
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2013
For 40 years, I've been interested in a question on natural languages—the view that natural languages are a bit imprecise, unclear and fuzzy, and that somehow you could sharpen them by representing them in a system of logic

Good fodder for philosophical musings, but of little practical use. Have people ever tried to control the syntax of languages before? How successful were those efforts?

Successful languages are the ones that are allowed to be dynamic. "Logical design" has to compete with a lot of other influencing factors.

Tausch
1 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2013
There exists more than spoken and written languages. You had no 'language' in any convention or broader sense at birth. The first 'languages' already provided - at birth - were your five senses.

(Actually before birth 'language' was provided as well, beyond, of course, any conventional understanding or meaning of the word language.)

So - for example - representations used by mathematicians can represent what at birth the senses represent(ed) for you.

You draw such comparisons, abstractions, analogies to explain what any language in any form represents for humans.

That's labeled the big picture. Then you can focus further to understand and learn effortlessly what the visual, acoustical cues - as examples - can mean as a language in the conventional sense grows or arises when humans see and hear.

For humans, the visual and acoustical representations behind what is conventionally label language does little service to what all humans need to understand - namely - what is language.
Tausch
1 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2013
Typo correctional additions in brackets.

Fourth paragraph:

"You draw such comparisons, abstractions, [and] analogies to explain..."

Second to last paragraph:
"...can mean as a language in the conventional sense [as this language] grows or arises [from what and] when humans see and hear."
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Feb 10, 2013
Good fodder for philosophical musings, but of little practical use. Have people ever tried to control the syntax of languages before? How successful were those efforts?
Esperanto?
http://en.wikiped...speakers
nkalanaga
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2013
Onion and Garlic? The difference isn't in "mass" and "count", it's in the way the subjects are considered. "An onion" is an object, regardless of size or shape, considered as a discrete subject, and therefore countable. "Garlic", on the other hand, is a ground, pressed, or otherwise processed substance, sold and used by mass or volume. "Onion" can be used the same way, while one seldom hears of "a garlic", but rather "a garlic clove". "Onion", in the form of chopped, dried, powdered, or otherwise processed material, is a mass noun, just like "garlic", while "a clove", of whatever, is countable.
szore88
1 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2013
People like this are useless but interesting.
88HUX88
not rated yet Feb 11, 2013
Natural languages, he wrote about English, people here have quoted German, have a look at the measure words in Chinese if you want some fun. http://en.wikiped...assifier

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