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Statistical Universals of Language
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Statistical Universals of Language

The book provides excellent food for thought. It makes the reader think of untrodden paths. It questions a big binary, the binary of language being completely different from natural and social sciences

Post by on Tuesday, January 25, 2022

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The author of the book is a computational linguist. She is Kumiko Tanaka-Ishii, an associate professor in the Department of Creative Informatics at the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, Japan. The author is a seasoned writer. She knows well how to bring the subtleties of language to the computational front. In 2010, she was honoured with the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities. The same year, she received the prestigious Okawa Publications Prize for her book, Semiotics of Programming.


The book being reviewed is subtitled “Mathematical chance vs Human choice” and that has a lot to say about the book. The book is divided into twenty-two chapters. Several chapters have been clubbed together giving rise to five different parts of the book. The chapters and the parts are intelligently curated and well-thought-out to give the subject matter a free-flowing and coherent structure. 


The book is an attempt at showing that language is not entirely different from computation. This is done by making evident the properties that the writer finds both universal and statistical. The universality of these properties is owing to their ubiquity. These properties being both universal and statistical makes the author title the book as statistical universals of language.


The book addresses the question of how statistical universals influence language and of why language shows and demonstrates such universal properties. Elucidating upon Harris’s Hypothesis, the author details how linguistic boundaries of words can be gauged and detected by a number that is unrelated to meaning. Acknowledging that the question of “what meaning is” is one of the most difficult ones in human history, the author explains how statistical universals could contribute to the meanings of words.


The book has a lot of exciting discussions on offer. Though the book is not expected to attract a wide readership, owing to the peculiarity of the topic, the book has a lot to learn from. The insights and the analyses are given in the book every here and there


Language models including the N-Gram models, grammatical models and neural models bring to light the several possibilities that arise when one attempts to bridge the gap between languages and commutations. 


Understanding the kind of system that is inherent and relevant to a language is not straightforward. It is somewhat counterintuitive but true that a deeper contemplation of the meaning of language will come by its use. The tricky part of the story is the fact whatever method of analysis we adopt; we are cornered to use the language itself to analyze it. To come out of such a dilemma, we must do something out of the box and think laterally. One instance of such lateral thinking is to externalize. In the words of the author, “One way to break this strong link between the method and its target is to externalize the target, and for this, we can observe aspects of the target that are beyond human control.”


Externalization of the language can, in the current times, be achieved in two ways, at least. The first of these is neuroscience, which is credited for being able to analyze the cerebral signals that result from stimuli. Since the neural signals of the brain seem to have a lot to tell us about the language and are not directly controlled by the speaker, they can safely be regarded or declared as being external to the system of language. The author way, as per the author, is the quest and search for statistical universals. This is because they are present in all languages and are not a result of our conscious efforts and endeavours.


The book is unique in the sense that language is presented being akin to several natural and social systems. The language that poses itself unique in comparison with other systems is not that different from these other systems. The book provides excellent food for thought. It makes the reader think of untrodden paths. It questions a big binary, the binary of language being completely different from natural and social sciences.


The book has been published in the “Mathematics in Mind” genre by Springer that needs no introduction when it comes to top-notch and high-class mathematics content. In all, the book is worth every single second that a reader would be spending on reading it, but it calls forth patience, perseverance and stoicism on the part of the reader.


The book deserves a more detailed review, but given the paucity of space that is usually available in dailies and the divergence of interests that the readers in them possess, the review has been kept brief and efforts have been made to make it accessible to as many readers as possible.


(The Author is Assistant professor Mathematics, Government Degree College Sopore, Jammu and Kashmir. Email: firdousmala@gmail.com)

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