George Lakoff – The Linguist

I first heard of, and heard George Lakoff at advanced seminar presentation he gave to the University of Pennsylvania Linguistics Department. He presented on his research for his dissertation, later published as Irregularity in Syntax.

He set the context as a theory of syntax following Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Chomsky’s book spawned whole subfields of syntactic and semantic theory.

The general idea of Chomsky’s book was that a language consists of formal/mechanized rules that would generate structures. Think pictorially of a tree with branches directed down. The ends of the branches are labeled with noun, verb, etc. These trees provide the structure for attaching words. Words are annotated in the dictionary to indicate where they could be grammatically attached to the syntactic trees. ‘car’ would be labeled +N to indicate that it could be attached to the end of a branch labeled noun, for example.

Syntactic Tree

The words in the dictionary are also annotated to account for additional restrictions that if ignored can produce bizarre sounding, but grammatical sentences like “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” One could annotate ‘idea’ as +Abstract and ‘green’ as requiring that it is followed by a concrete noun (___+N, -Abstract), thereby ruling out such bizarre sentences. [These syntactic and semantic features spawned an entire subfield of combinatorial rules operating on features, which eventually eclipsed the theory in Aspects. Irregularity in Syntax was an early contribution to the eclipse.]

In addition, according to Aspects basic tree structures were transformed to produce the sentences to account for the common semantic part of sentence pairs like
1. The boy removed the vase.
2. It was the boy who removed the vase.

The above is the context in which George Lakoff wrote Irregularity in Syntax. His book focuses on accounting for exceptions to the rules of syntax.

Lakoff provides the following example of transformations.
1. a. The metal is hard. b. The knife is sharp.
2. a. The metal hardened. b. *The knife sharpened.
3. a. John hardened the metal. b. John sharpened the knife.
The asterisk is a convention that indicates that the sentence is bizarre.

Lakoff uses the examples above to argue that there are underlying features like Being in a State, Changing State, and Causation, captured by transformations of a sentence. He also is interested in developing a notation that can avoid exceptions like The knife sharpened. [That The knife sharpened easily is not bizarre makes some trouble for Lakoff. But we are not here to bury Lakoff, but to praise him and understand his journey from linguistic theory to popular exegesis on the hidden content of our language.]

Apropos the readings for this month, consider this transformationally related pair of sentences.
1. Drink the tea!
2. Don’t drink the tea!
A now compare with the following.
1. Think of an elephant!
2. Don’t think of an elephant!
There is something special about the verb ‘think.’ We can’t follow a command not to think of something. Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant is all about paying attention to the hidden things in our language. The hidden things are frequently the most powerful persuaders, precisely because they are hidden.

The aspect of political dialogue that is most important to me is debate based on scientific principles. [Lakoff contrasts Enlightenment philosophies with the experiential (and community based) philosophies/values. I would classify his approach as pragmatic philosophy. In philosophy he differs from Chomsky, who describes himself as belonging to the rationalist/enlightenment tradition.] By the way of illustration I offer the following from my personal experience doorbelling for a Democratic political candidate.

Richard: I am doorbelling for DB. Do you have a minute for me to tell you about her?
Woman at the door: Is she a Democrat?
Richard: Yes.
Woman: I would never vote for a Democrat. They murder babies.
Richard: (pause, deciding whether to engage on this topic; I had read Don’t Think of an Elephant by that time.) Actually, Democrats are pro-life. They work hard to help children thrive with programs like Head Start, prenatal care, food stamps…
Woman: (interrupting) Read my lips. I am a one issue voter. Abortion is murder!
Richard: (attempts to argue further to no avail.)

Lakoff explains why my attempt at persuasion was doomed from the start. He argues that Democrats and Conservatives have different frames and these frames involve emotions. [He gets the idea of frame from the AI (artificial intelligence) guru Marvin Minsky. Minsky gives a nice example of a frame. If a person briefly visits a room in a house and then is asked about what the room was like, he/she will likely add features to the room based on his/her room frame. For example, he/she will add a window, where there is none.]

At the level of tactics I agree with Lakoff that we need to pay attention to frames and how we choose our words. But I believe that a key difference between me and the woman in the dialogue above is that I am willing to debate an issue like abortion and she is not. And, more importantly political and moral issues must be debated at family gatherings and in public forums, if there is any hope for a liberal democracy. I take solace in my supposition that the reason that the woman refused to debate is that she knew she could not defend her beliefs and so experienced discomfort as a result of feeling the natural desire to defend them. In political debate we need to find ways to exploit this need to defend one’s beliefs.

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