What would Noam Chomsky think about the linguistic development of Baby Yoda?

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/12/04/what-would-noam-chomsky-think.html

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Pssst. In linguistics circles, though the field had been measured in pre- and post-Chomsky eras, within the past five years or so, his UG theory has proven to be unsustainable. Linguistics is now undergoing a paradigm shift away from the Chomskyan model.


Baby Yoda is from Star Wars, so we shouldn’t be talking about Universal Grammar, but Disney Grammar.

There’s only one place in Orlando for Chomsky, and it includes Harry Potter World.

I think the more important question is: will Baby Yoda sound like Baby Grover?


Also not authentic, but extremely well done – McSweeny’s old bit on Chomsky/Zinn on The Lord of The Rings.


I need a t-shirt (hell, a whole line or merrrrch) that sez:

“No thoughts on memes”

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When we were in grade school, my sister and I visited a friend who was working with Koko at Stanford. We all knew some American Sign Language, because we had been taking a course
in order to support a deaf student in our class.

Koko had a baby doll she was holding. My sister asked Koko (who was behind a wire fence) to give her the doll, in sign language, and Koko climbed up and pushed the doll over the fence.

So there’s no question in my mind that Koko understood sign language. I don’t know remember if we could understand any of the signs she was using with Penny Patterson though. This was a long time ago ( 1970’s)


It appears that most folks in the know on this are of the opinion that she mastered a number of modified American Sign Language signs, but did not learn sign language. That’s a pretty meaningful distinction, apparently.

It definitely seems that a good deal of what the public considered “sign language” from Koko was prompting from her trainer and a lot of fuzziness in interpretation.

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Funny, I always assumed Yoda’s syntax was nothing to do with English (Galactic Standard, whatever) being his second language, but instead just a reinforcement of how tremendously old he was. If learned English 900 years ago you did, speak like a modern you would not.


“Off my lawn you get!”
“Okay Yoda.”


Dogs are commonly trained to sit, lay down, roll over in response to specific hand signals. And the way that is done is pretty simple. The dog is given an identifiable stimulus, in this case a clear hand signal, and conditioned to exhibit a particular action or behavior in response. It doesn’t represent language use. Or require the dog to think or understand “that means sit, so I will sit”.

All that’s required for coco to hand over the doll in that situation is for the animal to associate the sign for “doll” with that specific doll. And had the situation been slightly different, like the doll being else where or a different doll. Coco may have responded differently. Not reacted or cradled the doll as she was often shown doing.

And that’s sort of the issue. All of the situations where Coco indisputably learned a sign, either to display it or respond to it, were really simple situations like that. Where they don’t neccisarily indicate language use.

Where as the more complex, conversational stuff, couldn’t be replicated by anyone outside the project or not trained by the project to “talk” with Coco. A random sign language user couldn’t understand what Coco was signing, or sign in a way Coco would reliably respond to beyond the above. A lot of Coco’s signs were non-standard or variable. Her handlers would interpret the same signs as having different meanings contextually, or varied signs as having the same meaning. And assign meaning to signs with no relation to sign language under the assumption that Coco was creating her own signs. When other people looked at it Coco’s signs showed no use of grammar, distinctions between word classes (noun, verb) or other base features of language. And basically the gorilla wasn’t inteligable without her handlers around to interpret.

It was a lot like facilitated communication. And honestly looks like a really complicated version of the magic chicken who answers questions.

There were also serious questions about Coco’s welfare. Just google Coco the Gorilla Nipples.


HR: we have some…questions for you

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I think if you’ve conditioned an endangered species to be really into “tuning the radio” HR must have taken a sick day.

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As an aside, the film by/about Peter Wintonick (who made the film “Manufacturing Consent” about Chomsk, with Mark Achbar) finally came out last month, premiering at a film festival in Amsterdam.

This is footage Peter took over the years as he travelled to film fesivals and making other films, planning to make a more personal film. But he died in 2013, basically six years before the premiere. wondering , his daughter raised money and assembled the footage. So it’s sort of a shared project (not unlike when Emily Pohl-Weary finished the autobiography of her grandmother Judith Merril) .

I’ve not seen it, so don’t know how it’s turned out. It’s now called “Wintopia” though I thought the original title was going to be “Be Here Now”. I’ve not heard about other screenings, not even locally.

Mira of course was in the Chomsky film, maybe fifteen minutes in, reading a Chomsky quote. I remember the day in 1988 when Peter and Mark drove off to Washington DC to film Chomsky for the first time, Mira wondering why Mark was taking roller skates (or were they rollerblades that early?).

Earlier today I was reading an intro to Old English text. As it turns out, one of the major differences is that word order is more fluid. The example was that

seo cwen lufode þone cyning
seo cwen þone cyning lufode
þone cyning seo cwen lufode

all mean “the queen loved the king”. So, yes.


I’m just glad we elided that extra syllable from “king.” That seems awkward.


English and Swedish both collapsed their case systems over time, so that word order and prepositional phrases do most of that work, now.


(Compare to ‘König’)


Yoda speaks reverse polish english.