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Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics (1966)

Chapter: Appendix 19. Machine Translation and Linguistics

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix 19. Machine Translation and Linguistics." National Research Council. 1966. Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9547.
Page 121
Suggested Citation:"Appendix 19. Machine Translation and Linguistics." National Research Council. 1966. Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9547.
Page 122
Suggested Citation:"Appendix 19. Machine Translation and Linguistics." National Research Council. 1966. Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9547.
Page 123

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Appendix 19 Machine Translation and Linguistics The advent of computational linguistics promises to work a revolu- tion in the study of natural languages. Hockett is fond of the appel- lation '"computer revolution" or "third human revolution" for the events that are engulfing us tsee C. F. Hockett and R. Ascher, "The Human Revolution.'t Current Anthro~ol. 5. 135 (1964)~. There was speech, making the aggregate of codwelling animals a conglomerate tribe. There was the tool, the lever with which mankind moved the world. And now there is the computer, the first powerful manipulator of symbols outside the human head. Whether the computer is as great an invention as the first artefact, or only the first intellectual tool, its potential for linguistics is already profound. It can change the level of analysis of natural languages, as the microscope changed biology. It facilitates mathe- matization as it has aided physics. And it has linked theory, empirical studies, and, perhaps, practical application. Mel'chuk says that computational linguistics is not a field of linguistics, a subspecialty for those who like computation; it is a technique in- escapable for any linguist who honors his discipline. In 0. S. Akhmanova, I. A. Mel'chuk, R. M. Frumkina, and E. V. Paducheva, Exact Methods in Linguistic Research, University of California Press, Berkeley (1963), p. 46 we read, "MT is simultaneously both a workshop, where the methods of precise linguistic research are perfected independently of the concrete sphere of application of these methods, and an experimental field, where the results are verified by experience." Much of the recent change in linguistics has come from clari- fication gained through formalizing disciplines, and these changes are surely connected with the developments underlying computer studies, as well as with trends in the growth of contemporary logic and philosophy. Though it seems clear that the computer was not at the center of most of this in a direct causal fashion, it has surely played a significant role, both of interplay and as a tool for validation. 121

Surely the most dramatic recent changes have been caused by Chomsky tsee, for example, Proc. 9th Internatl. Cong. of Lin- guistics, Cambridge, Mass., 1962, Mouton and Company, The Hague Netherlands (1964)~ and similar thinkers, and they have explicitly had little to do directly with computers (see page 922 of the above- mentioned Proceedings). The fundamental changes that they have brought to linguistics inhere rather in an altered view taken by linguistics of the nature of science, of a scientific theory, and of the relation of empiricism to science. But these changes have been brought about and spurred on not by scholars who live and work In vacua, but with a good deal of cross-fertilization from areas in close touch with computational activities, and even with machine translation. Moreover, the depth of syntactic analysis has changed. A decade ago, most linguists believed that syntax had to do with word order, inflection, function words (e.g., prepositions and conjunctions), and intonation or punctuation. They also believed that most sentences uttered by native speakers in ordinary con- texts were. syntactically, even if not semantically, unambiguous. The important difference in their belief of that time was that they thought syntax related only to the surface structure, the visible or audible configurations of the output, and they denied by and large that process-type statements relating to rules that worked on underlying abstract expressions were properly a part of grammar. There can tee no doubt that experiments in computer parsing of ordinary sentences, using reasonable grammars as hitherto con- ceived and programs that expose all ambiguities, have greatly helped many linguists to abandon their earlier inadequate syn- tactic views. A recent and accessible account of these ambiguities is that of R. A. Langevin and M. F. Owens t'tComputer Analysis of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," Science 146, 1186 (1964~. They use the Kuno-Oettinger parser. While it is true that a very new view of syntax has grown up, the interesting result has been that within the last 3 years or so, interest among generative grammarians has been perhaps as lively on questions of phonology as it has come to be on syntax. ~ fact, this is a natural consequence if one views a grammar as a total set of ordered rules, with components (e.g., phrase- structure and transformational) simply differentiated by type of rule, rather than a set of levels differentiated by the phenomena to which they severally apply, and from which one can then make a choice for the application of one's analytic efforts based on taste. Mathematical linguistics would have had no significance in 1686, if Newton had invented it. The slide rule was the perfect mathe- matical machine for mechanics and many other branches of 122

physics; with pencil and paper and a slide rule, general theories could be solved abstractly for special cases, and specific examples worked out for observed or proposed parameters. Of course, other branches of physics could not progress far without massive digital calculations: the study of nuclear reactions, for example, or of crystal structure. All of linguistics falls in the latter cate- gory. When a mathematical structure is promulgated as a lin- guistic model, its specific correspondence with any one natural language can be tested, in a serious way, only by the examination of many strings that it generates as sentences "several trans- formationalists have tried this technique, but the only publications known to use are by V. H. Yngve and his students; e.g., his Ran- dom Generation of English Sentences," in 1961 International Con- ference on Machine Translation of Languages and Applied Language . . . Analysis, H.M. Stationery Office, London (1962), pp. 65-82]' or, conversely, by the study of the structures that it assigns to naturally occurring sentences. This plan has been tried many times. The situ- ation is reviewed by D. G. Bobrow, in his paper "Syntactic Analysis of English by Computer—A Survey," in AFIPS Conference Pro- ceedings, Spartan Books, Baltimore, Md. (1963), Vol. 24. Only a high-speed automatic computer (i.e., symbol manipulator) can serve adequately in empirical tests of such theories. Even today there are linguistic theoreticians who take no in- terest in empirical studies or in computation. There are also empirical linguists who are not excited by the theoretical advances of the decade—or by computers. But more linguists than ever before are attempting to bring subtler theories into confrontation with richer bodies of data, and virtually all of them, in every country, are eager for computational support. If ever a machine-aided simulation of total linguistic analysis- synthesis (or voice-to-ear-to-voice translation) becomes possible, it will not be because of adherence to the type of linguistic theory widely current around 1950. There can be no doubt that the disappointingly slender com- puter results realized on the basis of such theory must have been important in shaking at least some inquisitive linguists out of their contentment. If machine translation had various negative results, this was one that was potent in a singularly fruitful way. 123

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