Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Understanding Your Robot's Grammar

It's a popular lament among people of a certain age — an age that I have attained myself — that students don't learn grammar anymore, or that schools don't teach grammar. The point that this observation misses is that the thing neglected or abandoned is not the teaching of grammar; it's the coherent teaching of standard language models, and a conceptual framework that is used to describe them. The students to whom grammar was "taught" in fact already knew grammar. If they hadn't, they would not have understood the medium through which the teaching of it was being transmitted to them — namely, language — because speakers acquire the grammar of their first language, a least a working version of it, as part and parcel of the language itself. In old-school grammar pedagogy, teachers were simply imparting the classificatory system through which good and bad — or if you like, correct and incorrect — constructions and usages could be distinguished and explained.

Every student of languages will have noticed at some point the endlessly varied ways through which human languages implement grammar. A sentence as superficially simple as "He is tall" — consisting of pronoun + copula + adjective — makes perfect intuitive sense to English speakers, but if your first language is Arabic you can get this idea across grammatically with only pronoun + adjective, and if your first language is Cayuga, you have to prefix a masculine pronoun particle to a verb stem that means "be tall" to convey this idea.  Endless variety notwithstanding, all natural languages have coherent grammar that serves as a template for constructing expressions. It's the matrix and glue with which we piece together items from our lexicons to encode our communications.

Now that we're in the brave new world of the 21st century, there may be a challenger to the monopoly that human languages enjoy in complex and fully functional grammars, and the challenge may come from robots.  There is no need for alarm — robot grammar will probably not develop very quickly — but if the hunch of robotic researchers is confirmed, it's possible that in due course, as communities of interacting robots settle on a shared language that they develop themselves, a natural grammar will emerge from the robots' linguistic interactions.

How exactly would that work? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video might be worth many thousands, so first, have a look at either or both of these talks from Luc Steels, a Belgian researcher in whose lab robots are developing ways to communicate with each other:

Robots equipped with the many shared features that Steels' robots have — namely, emulations of senses (vision and hearing), emulations of body parts, and the ability to produce something like speech — have settled on lexical items (words) through a process of consensus-building, in which initially, various terms may compete to be designated as the name for something, but eventually one name wins out. Of course we can't time-travel back to our paleomentality, but if we could, we can imagine that the natural process by which humans settled on the names for things in any of their thousands of languages may well have been similar: a speech community, by continuously interacting with each other, must eventually arrive at consensus about what constitutes successful communication, and this will be a shared set of lexical items (words), and grammar (the rules by which words are combined). The natural emergence of language in this way arises from the shared features that fully functional humans enjoy: subtle vocalization ability, cognition, sensory apparatus, and perhaps most important, physical embodiment, which gives us all a common starting point for the way in which we relate to our environments. There is in fact some vestigial evidence of the basis of the body-environment relationship in natural languages, which I touched on a couple of years ago in a Language Lounge piece about wayfinding, where I said:

Languages vary widely in the ways they encode spatial relationships but a pattern common to all languages is that many "spatial grams" — that is, lexical and grammatical items that people use to talk about where something is or how you get to it — tend to evolve, over millennia, from names for parts of the body. This is why we have in English an adverb and preposition like ahead, and a preposition beside (the oldest meaning of side being the parts of the body that are on the left and the right).

This suggests that the secret sauce in the possibility of coherent grammar emerging through an organic process is the ability to form complex metaphors based on the common experience of being physically in the world. The relationship of our bodies to the things we perceive as located in time and space eventually gives rise to more abstract, symbolically expressed ideas — ideas such as containment, source and destination, before and after, change, trajectory — that are essential for the development of notions that most languages express with a combination of lexis and grammar. This is the view of Ronald Langacker, a seminal thinker in cognitive grammar, who says:

The mental world we construct is grounded in our experience as creatures with bodies who engage in motor and sensory interactions (embodiment).  In constructing it, we transcend direct experience through abstraction, conceptual integration, and subjectification: the application of mental operations immanent in certain conceptions to situations for which their occurrence is extrinsic. . . . Many grammatical notions are subjective counterparts of basic aspects of everyday experience. Grammar reflects the means of disengagement through which we transcend immediate experience and construct our mental world. (from his book Cognitive Grammar, 2008).

So if robots do eventually develop their own language and grammar, what would they be like, and would we be able to understand them? It is easy to imagine a dystopic sci-fi scenario, in which robots developed a language incomprehensible to humans and used it deviously to extinguish us from their presence. Reassuringly, it should be remembered that robots are given their capabilities by humans, a few of whom have a deep understanding of the complex programming that gives robots the ability to do what they do. This is a comforting thought in the same way that creation myths are comforting. Perhaps more comforting though is the fact that even the most sophisticated robots have sensory, motor, and "cognitive" capacities that are only a pale imitation of the ones that humans enjoy. Consequently, their ability to develop independently any linguistic capability that would be beyond the comprehension of humans seems unlikely. For now. In the very distant future, perhaps we will be able to attend classes in which robots teach us their grammar.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.