Report Number: CS-TR-71-247
Institution: Stanford University, Department of Computer Science
Title: One small head -- some remarks on the use of 'model' in linguistics
Author: Wilks, Yorick A.
Date: December 1971
Abstract: I argue that the present situation in formal linguistics, where much new work is presented as being a "model of the brain", or of "human language behavior", is an undesirable one. My reason for this judgement is not the conservative (Braithwaitian) one that the entities in question are not really models but theories. It is rather that they are called models because they cannot be theories of the brain at the present stage of brain research, and hence that the use of "model" in this context is not so much aspirational as resigned about our total ignorance of how the brain stores and processes linguistic information. The reason such explanatory entities cannot be theories is that this ignorance precludes any "semantic ascent" up the theory; i.e., interpreting the items of the theory in terms of observables. And the brain items, whatever they may be, are not, as Chomsky has sometimes claimed, in the same position as the "occult entities" of Physics like Gravitation; for the brain items are not theoretically unreachable, merely unreached. I then examine two possible alternate views of what linguistic theories should be proffered as theories of: theories of sets of sentences, and theories of a particular class of algorithms. I argue for a form of the latter view, and that its acceptance would also have the effect of making Computational Linguistics a central part of Linguistics, rather than the poor relation it is now. I examine a distinction among "linguistic models" proposed recently by Mey, who was also arguing for the self-sufficiency of Computational Linguistics, though as a "theory of performance". I argue that his distinction is a bad one, partly for the reasons developed above and partly because he attempts to tie it to Chomsky's inscrutable competence-performance distinction. I conclude that the independence and self-sufficiency of Computational Linguistics are better supported by the arguments of this paper.