Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

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annis
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Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by annis » Mon Nov 27, 2006 3:57 am

In my little old-fashioned Latin textbook (not — Episcope, miserere mihi — D'Ooge) I have encountered this apparition:

tela sunt sagittae.

Given the status of the final position in a Latin clause, I want to translate this "arrows are missiles." But, might my textbook authors be out of their sherry-addled minds and honestly expecting me to offer "missiles are arrows" as a translation? Perhaps "the weapons are arrows?"
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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by cantator » Mon Nov 27, 2006 12:20 pm

annis wrote:Given the status of the final position in a Latin clause, I want to translate this "arrows are missiles." But, might my textbook authors be out of their sherry-addled minds and honestly expecting me to offer "missiles are arrows" as a translation? Perhaps "the weapons are arrows?"
Are you assuming the reader knows only the particular definition of "missile as in ICBM" ?

Pharr is content with "weapon" as the primary definition for telum in his edition of the Aeneid. Secondary defs include "wound, blow".
Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by annis » Mon Nov 27, 2006 1:40 pm

cantator wrote:Are you assuming the reader knows only the particular definition of "missile as in ICBM" ?
Not at all. It's a question of taxonomy. Arrows are a species, weapons/missiles a class. It's like saying "animals are cats." If I had a context there would probably be no confusion, "the weapons (falling on us) are arrows; the animals (alarming the guard-goose) are cats." But there's no context in isolated textbook exercise sentences.
Pharr is content with "weapon" as the primary definition for telum in his edition of the Aeneid. Secondary defs include "wound, blow".
That's good to know.
William S. Annis — http://www.aoidoi.org/http://www.scholiastae.org/
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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by cantator » Mon Nov 27, 2006 2:30 pm

annis wrote:Arrows are a species, weapons/missiles a class. It's like saying "animals are cats." If I had a context there would probably be no confusion, "the weapons (falling on us) are arrows; the animals (alarming the guard-goose) are cats." But there's no context in isolated textbook exercise sentences.
Ah, my bad, I didn't realize the phrase was a textbook exercise.

Gotta love that ambiguity...

Btw, what's wrong with "Arrows are weapons" ?
Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by annis » Mon Nov 27, 2006 10:25 pm

cantator wrote:Btw, what's wrong with "Arrows are weapons" ?
Well, that's my question. Given the word order, is "arrows are weapons" a good translation?
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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by cantator » Tue Nov 28, 2006 11:09 am

annis wrote:
cantator wrote:Btw, what's wrong with "Arrows are weapons" ?
Well, that's my question. Given the word order, is "arrows are weapons" a good translation?
Without further context, yes, I think it's a good translation, it's probably how I'd read it.
Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by Democritus » Wed Nov 29, 2006 5:36 am

cantator wrote:Without further context, yes, I think it's a good translation, it's probably how I'd read it.
When I learned Latin, we didn't focus on word order in much detail, except to point out how flexible it can be. Are there any sources which talk about Latin word order in detail, and why different word orders are used?

If annis' line of reasoning is correct, then I wonder if this really is good Latin. I understand that it's hard to judge this without context, but that's the point: Does this word order carry the right sense, even without context ? Or is it genuinely impossible to say?

Sometimes I wonder if the word order really is as "free" as my teachers taught me.

If someone had asked me to translate "arrows are weapons" into Latin, I would have written "sagittae tela sunt." I have no clue if that's correct, though, or how it compares to this sentence.

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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by cantator » Wed Nov 29, 2006 12:39 pm

Democritus wrote:I understand that it's hard to judge this without context, but that's the point: Does this word order carry the right sense, even without context ? Or is it genuinely impossible to say?

Sometimes I wonder if the word order really is as "free" as my teachers taught me.
Just read some of Horace's odes, that'll clarify everything. ;)

Yes, the word order is ultimately free as can be, and Latin authors do make use of it for various reasons. This example could be literally translated the same way regardless of the word order. That is, after all, one of the great attractions of inflected languages such as Latin and Greek. Order is often used in poetry to create striking effects, such as emphasis by position and association by proximity. In Horace's odes that freedom of order helps create a mosaic-like texture of the words, often creating rhymes and assonance possible only because of the free ordering, yet their relationships are strictly defined by the inflection.
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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by annis » Wed Nov 29, 2006 1:34 pm

cantator wrote:Yes, the word order is ultimately free as can be,
That seems very misleading to me. There are still researchers looking closely at the question (and writing massive books — Devine and Stephens). The same Dutch classicists applying some modern linguistic analysis to Greek are doing the same for Latin.
William S. Annis — http://www.aoidoi.org/http://www.scholiastae.org/
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Re: Context Free Grammars, or, Why I hate Textbookese.

Post by cantator » Wed Nov 29, 2006 2:20 pm

annis wrote:
cantator wrote:Yes, the word order is ultimately free as can be,
That seems very misleading to me. There are still researchers looking closely at the question (and writing massive books — Devine and Stephens). The same Dutch classicists applying some modern linguistic analysis to Greek are doing the same for Latin.
Nevertheless, I constantly discover incredibly flexible word-order in Vergil and Horace, in fact in most of the Roman poets. Consider the following:

Namque me silva lupus in Sabina
Dum meam canto Lalagen et ultra
Terminum vagor expeditis,
Fugit inermem.

Which re-ordered yields:

Namque dum canto meam Lalagen
et vagor expeditis in silva Sabina ultra terminum
lupus fugit me inermem.

Note the separations and correspondences. Horace has arranged the clauses to accommodate rhyme and assonance, effects directly dependent on the flexibility of order. Such effects abound in Horace, less so in other poets (Propertius achieves some remarkable effects with word order). I'm sure that some statistical analysis will prove a point, but I doubt it will add to anyone's appreciation for the poetry.

Note that 'in silva Sabina' is ambiguous by position, affecting both lupus and vagor. Note also that it means the same whether arranged as 'in Sabina silva' or 'Sabina in silva" or even "silva in Sabina'.

Ultimately I prefer the poets to the grammarians. It's true they're greater liars but they are by far the better story-tellers, and I'll almost always opt for a book of stories instead of a book of rules. ;)

Btw, prose is an entirely different matter, so if you're primarily working with attention to prose, then please ignore my remarks.
Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

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Post by Rindu » Wed Nov 29, 2006 9:05 pm

Devine and Stephens is going to be way to technical for anyone who doesn't have a firm grasp of Transformational Grammar (Chomsky).

Harm Pinkster, in "Latin Syntax and Semantics" discusses (among many other things) word order from a Functionalist perspective, which is much more accessible to the intelligent layman. This is a book you'll only find in a university library though.

It's not safe, I don't think, to develop a theory of word order based on poetry alone. Part of the artistry of poetry is to break the "rules" and say things in novel ways. Latin word order is not completely "free". Structuring the clause in a non-standard was indicates emphasis.

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Post by cantator » Wed Nov 29, 2006 11:41 pm

Rindu wrote:It's not safe, I don't think, to develop a theory of word order based on poetry alone. Part of the artistry of poetry is to break the "rules" and say things in novel ways. Latin word order is not completely "free". Structuring the clause in a non-standard way indicates emphasis.
Just to be clear, I'm not developing any theory at all. I just read a lot of Latin poetry, and word order is quite free there.
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Post by Beatus Pistor » Thu Nov 30, 2006 12:05 pm

This shows the problem with traditional grammar books, both reference and text books. Linguistics have advanced during the 20th century and classicists still use books and lexicons which were written sometime during the 19th century around the American civil war/the Franco-Prussian war. I don't say they aren't useful, quia nullus est liber tam malus ut non aliqua parte prosit, but they should be replaced.
Such criticism has already been stressed and newer books keep coming, e.g.:

A. M. Devine, Laurence D. Stephens, Latin Word Order: Structured Meaning and Information, OUP 2006.
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Post by annis » Thu Nov 30, 2006 3:06 pm

Rindu wrote:Devine and Stephens is going to be way to technical for anyone who doesn't have a firm grasp of Transformational Grammar (Chomsky).
TG's a crock in my opinion, so I don't expect I'll be reading that book any time soon. It was a convenient example.
Harm Pinkster, in "Latin Syntax and Semantics" discusses (among many other things) word order from a Functionalist perspective, which is much more accessible to the intelligent layman. This is a book you'll only find in a university library though.
Or online... ta-dah! — Latijnse Syntaxis en Semantiek. It's an English translation, even though the title page isn't.
William S. Annis — http://www.aoidoi.org/http://www.scholiastae.org/
τίς πατέρ' αἰνήσει εἰ μὴ κακοδαίμονες υἱοί;

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