Unnatural Language Processing: Neural Networks and the Linguistics of Speech

  1. 1. William Kretzschmar

    University of Georgia

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The foundations of the linguistics of speech (i.e., language
in use, what people actually say and write to and for each
other), as distinguished from ?the linguistics of linguistic
structure? that characterizes many modern academic ideas
about language, are 1) the continuum of linguistic behavior, 2)
extensive (really massive) variation in all features at all times, 3)
importance of regional/social proximity to “shared” linguistic
production, and 4) differential frequency as a key factor in
linguistic production both in regional/social groups and in
collocations in text corpora (all points easily and regularly
established with empirical study using surveys and corpora,
as shown in Kretzschmar Forthcoming a). Taken together, the
basic elements of speech correspond to what has been called a
?complex system? in sciences ranging from physics to ecology
to economics. Order emerges from such systems by means of
self-organization, but the order that arises from speech is not
the same as what linguists study under the rubric of linguistic
structure. This paper will explore the relationship between the
results of computational analysis of language data with neural
network algorithms, traditionally accepted dialect areas and
groupings, and order as it emerges from speech interactions.
In both texts and regional/social groups, the frequency
distribution of features (language variants per se or in proximal
combinations such as collocations, colligations) occurs as the
same curve: a ?power law? or asymptotic hyperbolic curve
(in my publications, aka the ?A-curve?). Speakers perceive
what is “normal” or “different” for regional/social groups and
for text types according to the A-curve: the most frequent
variants are perceived as “normal,” less frequent variants are
perceived as “different,” and since particular variants are more
or less frequent among different groups of people or types of
discourse, the variants come to mark identity of the groups
or types by means of these perceptions. Particular variants
also become more or less frequent in historical terms, which
accounts for what we call “linguistic change,” although of course
any such “changes” are dependent on the populations or text
types observed over time (Kretzschmar and Tamasi 2003). In
both synchronic and diachronic study the notion of “scale”
(how big are the groups we observe, from local to regional/
social to national) is necessary to manage our observations
of frequency distributions. Finally, our perceptions of the
whole range of “normal” variants (at any level of scale) create
“observational artifacts.” That is, the notion of the existence
of any language or dialect is actually an “observational artifact”
that comes from our perceptions of the available variants (plus
other information and attitudes), at one point in time and for
a particular group of speakers, as mediated by the A-curve. The notion “Standard,” as distinct from “normal,” represents
institutional agreement about which variants to prefer, some
less frequent than the “normal” variants for many groups of
speakers, and this creates the appearance of parallel systems
for “normal” and “Standard.”
The best contemporary model that accommodates such
processing is connectionism, parallel processing according to
what anthropologists call “schemas” (i.e., George Mandler’s
notion of schemas as a processing mechanism, D’Andrade 1995:
122-126, 144-145). Schemas are not composed of a particular
set of characteristics to be recognized (an object), but instead
of an array of slots for characteristics out of which a pattern is
generated, and so schemas must include a process for deciding
what to construct. One description of such a process is the
serial symbolic processing model (D’Andrade 1995: 136-
138), in which a set of logical rules is applied in sequence to
information available from the outside world in order to select
a pattern. A refi nement of this model is the parallel distributed
processing network, also called the connectionist network, or
neural net (D’Andrade 1995: 138-141), which allows parallel
operation by a larger set of logical rules. The logical rules
are Boolean operators, whose operations can be observed,
for example, in simulations that Kauffman (1996) has built
based on networks of lightbulbs. Given a very large network
of neurons that either fi re or not, depending upon external
stimuli of different kinds, binary Boolean logic is appropriate
to model “decisions” in the brain which arise from the on/off
fi ring patterns. Kauffman’s simulations were created to model
chemical and biological reactions which are similarly binary,
either happening or not happening given their state (or pattern)
of activation, as the system cycles through its possibilities.
The comparison yields similar results: as D’Andrade reports
(1995: 139-140), serial processing can be “’brittle’--if the input
is altered very slightly or the task is changed somewhat, the
whole program is likely to crash” (or as Kauffman might say,
likely to enter a chaotic state cycle), while parallel processing
appears to be much more fl exible given mixed or incomplete
input or a disturbance to the system (or as Kauffman might
say, it can achieve homeostatic order).
Computational modeling of neural networks appears, then, to be
an excellent match for analysis of language data. Unfortunately,
results to date have often been disappointing when applied
to geographic language variation (Nerbonne and Heeringa
2001, Kretzschmar 2006). Neural network analysis cannot be
shown reliably to replicate traditional dialect patterns. Instead,
self-organizational patterns yielded by neural net algorithms
appear to respond only in a general way to assumed dialect
areas, and often appear to be derived not from the data but
from conditions of its acquisition such as “fi eld worker” effects
(Kretzschmar Forthcoming b). However, this paper will show,
using results from experiments with an implementation of
a Self-Organizing Map (SOM) algorithm (Thill, Kretzschmar,
Casas, and Yao Forthcoming), that application of the model from
the linguistics of speech to computer neural network analysis
of geographical language data can explain such anomalies. It
is not the implementation of neural nets that is the problem,
but instead lack of control over the scale of analysis, and of
the non-linear distribution of the variants included in the
analysis, that tends to cause the problems we observe. In the
end, we still cannot validate traditional dialect areas from the
data (because these areas were also derived without suffi cient
control over the dynamics of the speech model), but we can
begin to understand more clearly how the results of neural
network analysis do reveal important information about the
distribution of the data submitted to them.
D’Andrade, Roy. 1995. The Development of Cognitive
Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kauffman, Stuart. 1996. At Home in the Universe: The Search
for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Kretzschmar, William A., Jr. 2006. Art and Science in
Computational Dialectology. Literary and Linguistic Computing
21: 399-410.
Kretzschmar, William A., Jr. Forthcoming a. The Linguistics of
Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kretzschmar, William A., Jr. Forthcoming b. The Beholder?s
Eye: Using Self-Organizing Maps to Understand American
Dialects. In Anne Curzan and Michael Adams, eds., Contours of
English (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).
Kretzschmar, William A., Jr., and Susan Tamasi. 2003.
Distributional Foundations for a Theory of Language Change.
World Englishes 22: 377-401.
Nerbonne, John, and Wilbert Heeringa. 2001. Computational
Comparison and Classifi cation of Dialects. Dialectologia et
Geolinguistica 9: 69-83.
Thill, J., W. Kretzschmar, Jr, I. Casas, and X. Yao. Forthcoming.
Detecting Geographic Associations in English Dialect
Features in North America with Self-Organising Maps. In Self-
Organising Maps: Applications in GI Science, edited by P. Agarwal
and A. Skupin (London: Wiley).

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website: http://www.ekl.oulu.fi/dh2008/

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None