Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not So Colorless; Not So Green

When Chomsky decided to illustrate the separation of syntax from semantics he created a sentence that he believed could not have a sensible meaning.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Many introductory syntax courses continue to offer on this famous illustration. Many semantics courses are just as sure to point out that the semantics are in fact quite easy to expand. We look at a metaphorical use of 'colorless' meaning boring or insipid; we take 'green' to mean young or undeveloped; we think of 'ideas' as the exchange of plans and policies, and the attitudes towards them from various member of some committee; we use 'sleep' as a form of silence or dormancy--perhaps the time when the committee votes to table the issue; and we use furiously to indicate the seething emotions and the planning and plotting that the contentious factions in this tense conference room where people are making stupid suggestions and wasting time.

...for instance.

But it makes his point. I like another form of separation from semantics. The paradox. There is a necessary schism between text and meaning in the following:

1. Don't do what this sentence is telling you to do.

2. Disagree with this sentence, okay.

3. This sentence is not meant for you.

The extension of "this" can be a sentence before or after the one that contains the word. If we read a haiku in class and I ask "So does this do a good job with the seventeen syllable limit?" I'm more likely asking about the poem and not the sentence while I'm speaking it. Or if I say "hey listen to this one-liner" I should probably say a second line. But if 'this' refers the sentence in which it's used we have an imposed semantic disconnect.

At least one crucial word in sentence 1 has no semantic extension: "what." I might even claim that "telling" has lost all rights to its claim because it functions in a sentence that has rendered the verb incapable. The sentence tells me something that cannot be--therefore it is not telling me anything. Since telling and not-telling cannot be the same thing there can be no semantic quality to the word. But now I'm realizing that I've paid too much attention to Beowulf this term and I've forgotten how to talk about semantics.

Some semantic textbooks are fond of the phrase "in all possible worlds." Is this like the mathematical employment of imaginary to label the square root of a negative number? We say it's imaginary because it can't exist--but by saying that it has a quality, imaginary, we've created an entity that can be defined, and therefore exists.

The last word of this sentence is not here.


  1. Is the word missing from your last sentence yet?

  2. Oh, that's clever, Daniel. Good one.

  3. The last word could be "now."

    The last word of this sentence is not here now.



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