Colorless green ideas and the others

Martin Konvička (Freie Universität Berlin)*

1 Colorless green ideas

In the opening pages of his Syntactic Structures (1957: 15)[1], Noam Chomsky demonstrates the independence of grammar (or syntax) from semantics by referring to the meaningless, yet grammatically well-formed – and by now famous – utterance in (1). He contrasts it with a very similar one (2) which is, however, due to its different word order neither meaningful nor well-formed.

(1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

(2) *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Apart from being widely debated in linguistic and philosophical texts, the sentence in (1) has become a cultural phenomenon and even an inspiration for literature and music.[2] Although arguably the best-known example of its kind, Chomsky’s colorless green ideas is not the first instance of such an example, as I will show in this blog post.

2 French vertebral silence

Lucien Tesnière (1893–1954), for instance, known for his work on dependency grammar, made the same point in his posthumously published Elements of structural syntax (2015 [1959]: 34–45). He took the grammatically well-formed and meaningful sentence in (3) and replaced all lexical words with the next word of the same part of speech listed in the dictionary. This process eventually led to the sentence in (4) – grammatically still well-formed, but meaningless.

(3) Le signal vert indique la voie libre. ‘The green signal indicates right of way.’

(4) Le silence vertébral indispose la voile licite. ‘The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail’

3 German pirots and drinking procrastination

The German philosopher and member of the Vienna Circle, Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970), in his book Logische Syntax der Sprache (1934: 2), demonstrated that we do not need to know the (exact) meaning of a word to know its function. When we read a sentence such as (5), we know that Piroten ‘pirots’ is a noun in the plural number although we do not know what it refers to. Similarly, we will identify the expression karulieren ‘karulize’ as a verb in the third person plural present indicative and we will know that the word elatisch ‘elatically’ is an adverb.

(5) Piroten karulieren elatisch. ‘Pirots karulize elatically’

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), in a similar vein, writes in his publication An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940: 166) “that no ordinary language contains syntactical rules forbidding the construction of nonsensical sentences” such as (6).

(6) Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.

Like Chomsky seventeen years later, Russell shows through this example that we can apply our knowledge of the syntactic rules of a language to generate perfectly well-formed, albeit meaningless sentences.

4 Distimming the doshes

Leaving literature on philosophy of language and syntax behind us, let us turn to the study of meaning. Charles Kay Ogden (1889–1947) and Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893–1979) are the authors of one of the foundational studies concerned with modern semantics – The Meaning of Meaning (1923). To prove that speakers can infer the meaning of expressions by the way they are used, Ogden and Richards (1923: 46) offer the sentence in (7). Although we do not know what a gostak or a dosh is and although we cannot say what distimming means, we know that the gostak is the agent and that it affects the doshes by means of distimming.

(7) The gostak distims the doshes.

Ogden and Richards themselves were, however, not the authors of this nonsense sentence. They borrowed it from the American author and headmaster Andrew Ingraham (1841–1905) who made a similar point in his Swain School Lectures (1903: 154).

Just like Chomsky’s colorless green ideas, Ogden’s and Richard’s (or in fact Ingraham’s) gostak has received wide attention in popular culture as well. To name just one example, their sentence had inspired Miles J. Breuer (1889–1945) to write the now classic science-fiction story The Gostak and the Doshes (1930).

5 Russian glocky kuzdra

We have so far seen the existence of nonsense sentences illustrating the independence of grammar and semantics in American, English, and French traditions. Russian (or Soviet) linguistics, represented by the lexicographer and phonetician Lev Shcherba (1880–1944), also arrived at the same conclusion. Shcherba used the Russian sentence (8) as his evidence.[3]

(8) Глокая куздра штеко будланула бокра и курдячит бокрёнка (translit.: glokaya kuzdra shteko budlanula bokra i kurdyachit bokryonka) ‘The glocky kuzdra shteckly budled the bocker and is kurdyaking the bockerling’

In English, a language with a rigid word order, the position of the individual words in the sentences by Ogden and Richards (7) or Chomsky (1) is enough to identify the subject, the object, and the transitive verb. In a synthetic language such as Russian, Shcherba shows that the suffixes attached to the nonce words provide the grammatical clues.

To an even larger degree than Tesnière’s example in (2) for French, Shcherba’s sentence illustrates the crucial role functional expressions play in the interpretation of such nonsense utterances. The Russian adjectival feminine suffix {-ая} (-aya), attached to the first word of (6), for instance, shows agreement in gender with the second word which is a noun based on the feminine suffix {-а} (-a). The suffix {-анула} (-anula) in the expression будланула (budlanula) identifies this nonce word as the past tense form of a verb and its ending {-а} (-a) shows once again agreement in gender with the preceding noun phrase.

6 Hypothetical shoes and categorical capes

All the examples discussed so far come from the 20th century, which might lead us to the conclusion that this was the time when the relationship between form and meaning became a hotly discussed topic. This is, however, certainly not the case! If we turn our attention to the 13th and 14th centuries, we will see that the speculative grammarians, known also as the Modistae, were also discussing this phenomenon. For anyone interested in the fascinating details of modistic grammar, Michael Covington’s Syntactic theory in the High Middle Ages (1984) is warmly recommended. For the purposes of this overview, we will simply consider the examples used in the modistic literature.

Thomas of Erfurt (around 1300), one of the speculative grammarians, compared the ordinary combination of a noun and an adjective in (9) with the unusual pair in (10). His conclusion was that “’black cape’ is grammatical and semantically well-formed, and ‘categorical cape’ is semantically deviant; but both are grammatical”[4] (Covington 1984: 34).

(9) cappa nigra ‘black cape’

(10) cappa categorica ‘categorical cape’

Not all speculative grammarians agreed. Petrus Helias (c. 1100–1166), for example, argued that the semantic incongruity of sentences such as (11) means that such an utterance is ill-formed as a whole. Others, such as Magister Jordanus (c. 1230/1250) or Thomas of Erfurt, as mentioned above, insisted that these sentences are without any doubt ill-formed semantically, but they still present formally well-formed utterances.

(11) Socrates habet hypotheticos sotulares cum categoricis corigiis ‘Socrates has hypothetical shoes with categorical shoelaces’

7 Slithy toves did gyre

Before we conclude, let us briefly consider the world of fiction. The fact that nonsense words can be combined into perfectly well-formed sentences and even that they can be rhymed, was employed, perhaps most famously, by Lewis Carroll in Jabberwocky, a poem from his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the first stanza of which is given below.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

A first glance it might seem that poems have nothing to do with the study of language, but the opposite is true. Sentences containing nonsense lexical expressions, but standard grammatical expressions such as articles or affixes are known as Jabberwocky sentences[5] and their processing, among other things, can be studied in neurolinguistic experiments.

Hahne and Jescheniak (2001) and Silva-Pereyra et al. (2007), to name just some, have measured the brain reaction, the so-called event-related potential, of speakers presented with normal sentences and with Jabberwocky sentences. Interestingly, the brain reactions differed. Whereas a well-formed sentence with normal content words led to a specific reaction, the same well-formed sentence containing nonsense words, a Jabberwocky sentence, failed to elicit it.

8 Conclusion

Chomsky’s colorless green ideas sleep furiously is arguably the best-known example sentence in all linguistics, designed to demonstrate that the formal well-formedness of a sentence alone is not a sufficient guarantee of its meaningfulness. The tradition of such nonsense sentences goes back much further than the 1950s as the (certainly not exhaustive) overview below illustrates.

  1. Socrates habet hypotheticos sotulares cum categoricis corigiis.
  2. The gostak distims the doshes.
  3. Piroten karulieren elatisch.
  4. Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.
  5. Глокая куздра штеко будланула бокра и курдячит бокрёнка.
  6. Le silence vertébral indispose la voile licite.
  7. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Investigations on the relationship between meaning and form were undertaken in English, French, German, Russian, as well as in Latin – and probably in many other languages as well. These investigations were led not only by modern linguists, but also by the early theorists of grammar, the speculative grammarians. Moreover, unlike the vast majority of linguistic ideas, Jabberwocky sentences and the concept independence of grammar and meaning have, perhaps surprisingly, had an impact on our popular culture (and vice versa).

List of references

Breuer, Miles J. 1930. TheGostak and the Doshes. Amazing Stories, 4 (12). 1142-1149, 1185.

Carnap, Rudolf. 1934. Logische Syntax der Sprache. Wien: Julius Springer.

Carroll, Lewis. 1861. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. London: Macmillan.

Covington, Michael A. 1984. Syntactic theory in the High Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1956. Three models for the description of language. IRE Transactions on Information Theory 2(3). 113–124.

Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Chomsky, Noam. 1975. The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. New York, NY: Springer.

Hahne, Anja & Jörg D. Jescheniak. 2001. What’s left if the Jabberwock gets the semantics? An ERP investigation into semantic and syntactic processes during auditory sentence comprehension. Cognitive Brain Research 11(2). 199–212.

Ingraham, Andrew. 1903. Swain school lectures. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Ogden, Charles K. & Ivor Armstrong Richards. 1923. The meaning of meaning. New York, NY: Harcourt.

Russell, Bertrand. 1940. An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Scholz, Barbara C. & Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2007. Tracking the origins of transformational generative grammar. Journal of Linguistics 43(3). 701–723.

Silva-Pereyra, Juan, Barbara T. Conboy, Lindsay Klarman & Patricia K. Kuhl. 2007. Grammatical Processing without Semantics? An Event-related Brain Potential Study of Preschoolers using Jabberwocky Sentences. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19(6). 1050–1065.

Tesnière, Lucien. 2015 (1959). Elements of structural syntax. (Trans.) Timothy John Osborne & Sylvain Kahane. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Uspensky, Lev. 1954. Slovo o slovakh [=Word about words]. Leningrad: Publishing house of the CK VLKSM “Young Guard”.

*    Many thanks to James McElvenny and Chloé Laplantine for their helpful comments on the earlier versions of the paper. All remaining errors and shortcomings are of course entirely my own.

[1]   Although the example became popular with the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957, Chomsky had already used it in an earlier article (1956: 116) as well as in his 1955 thesis (published in 1975).

[2]   To name just two examples, the name of the Ghent-based band Colorless green ideas, active between 2004 and 2009, as well as the 2021 album Colorless green ideas sleep furiously of the London-based musician penvmbra are inspired by the sentence.

[3]   As reported in the popular book about language and linguistics by Lev Uspensky (1954: 313–318).

[4]   Latin orginal: “Unde haec est congrua et propria, ‘cappa nigra’; et haec est impropria, ‘cappa categorica’; tamen utraque istarum est congrua” Covington (1984: 34).

[5]   Well-formed sentences containing “normal” words such Chomsky’s (1a), Tesnière’s (2b) and Russel’s (4) are strictly speaking not Jabberwocky sentences, although they are meaningless as a whole.

How to cite this post

Konvička, Martin. 2022. Colorless green ideas and the others. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, History, Linguistics, Philosophy, Semantics, Syntax
5 comments on “Colorless green ideas and the others
  1. […] Konvička, Martin. 2022. Colorless green ideas and the others. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. […]

  2. […] is a blog post on History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences, about predecessors to the famous sentence “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”, […]

  3. laomaa63 says:

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post. John Ellis (1993) argues that the “Colourless green ideas…” is *not* in fact grammatical because the English noun phrase has only one slot for “colour term” and this example has two, so it’s like saying “*red yellow flag” as opposed to the coordinated “red and yellow flag” or modifying “reddish yellow flag”. What I find interesting about I think all of the examples you cite is that they effectively conflate, in Firth’s terms,collocational relations with “meaningful” and colligational relations with “grammatical” -whereas arguably *both* types of relation contribute to the meaning of a clause/sentence/text. In Chapter 2 of my Meaningful Arrangement (Equinox 2008) I did an analysis of Jabberwocky in terms of its collocational and colligational relations, and found that the two support each other in a very complementary way, so that where the collocational relations are unclear because of use of nonsense words, the colligational relations “take up the slack” in supplying the meanings necessary for interpretation, and Carroll “balances” the differing contribution of the two kinds of relations very deftly

    • Martin Konvička says:

      Thank you for the comment! I wasn’t aware of John Ellis work – thanks for the reference. And thanks for pointing me to the discussion in your book. The fact that collocational and colligational relations (I really like the terminological pair, by the way!) in Jabberwocky sentences complement each other seems to be the reason why we can interpret them.

  4. […] Colourless green ideas before Chomsky. […]

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