Posts tagged ‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously’

Picture: colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Blandula Strange, really, that the best known sentence Noam Chomsky ever wrote is probably the one which wasn’t supposed to mean anything. In ‘Syntactic structures’ (1957) he pointed out that while neither

  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, or
  • Furiously sleep ideas green colorless

means anything, we can easily see that the first is a valid sentence, while the second is not. Since neither sentence had ever appeared in any text until then, statistical analysis of language won’t help us tell which of them is more likely to occur in normal discourse, he said.

Blandula Strictly, the statistical point appears to be wrong – we can, in fact, assess the relative probability of sentences which have never occurred. Be that as it may, the thing that really caught people’s imagination was the grammatical but meaningless sentence. Was it really meaningless? Some thought they could see a kind of poetic meaning in it. Some people at Stanford had a competition which produced a number of poetic examples, and there is at least one other piece of verse. Resorting to poetry makes thing too easy, though. A more challenging exercise might be to reinterpret the sentence as part of a crossword clue…

Clue: Wow, awful colorless,  green ideas sleep furiously (3,4,8)

Solution: Gee, dire paleness.

(‘Furiously’ indicates an anagram of ‘green ideas sleep’, and the result means (more or less) the same as ‘Wow, awful colorless’.)

Alright,  maybe not the best crossword clue ever. Without going to those lengths, we can easily imagine that the sentence might be part of a political essay…

Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was known that ‘colorless Reds’ – covert Soviet agents – had taken up places as ‘sleepers’ in the Dubitanian government. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these agents were in fact among the government’s most reliable and least politicised employees. Disruption, direct action, and sabotage were far more likely to be the work of the extremist ecological factions who also infiltrated certain government departments. Once securely lodged inside the state, it seems, Communist ideology waits calmly for its chance. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

‘Green’ has so many relatively normal uses that it lends itself to different interpretations. The sentence could be about refurbishment of a golf course, abstract painting, or something new and half-baked. But we’re not limited to ringing the changes on ‘green’. With the right context, we can make other words – ‘idea’ for example – mean something slightly different, too.

The Studge advertising agency was desperate to win the Kumfypillo account. The creative department decided on a ‘rainbow’ workshop. In these sessions, each person was assigned a color and a corresponding role. When the box of equipment was opened, however, the green badge was missing, so Jenkins, the junior member of the team, had to be green without a color: he also got the hardest job, which was to come up with new creative angles, a process which at Studge was called ‘ideaing’. Imagine the scene; in the new chairs by the window blue and red are, respectively, critiquing and relating the concept of repose; at the front of the room yellow catalogues the properties of head-support, while standing awkwardly at the back, poor colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Without wanting to labour the point, one can imagine an interpretation in which none of the words have their usual meanings, and all are used in a different grammatical role from the one you would expect. It’s actually a bit of a challenge to hold that many novel meanings in your mind at once, but…

‘This is the strangest editorial office I’ve ever worked in,’ said John, ‘I can’t understand half of what people say’

‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, son,’ observed Smith, ‘we can teach you all that. Let me run you through some of the slang. Now ‘color’ is pictures, so ‘colorless’ means text, or words, as in ‘Mark my colorless, son’. “Green” is for green light, means “OK”, “can do” as in “I green lunch today”. OK so far? Now at one time the boss had a habit of picking up some piece and saying ‘But what does it mean ? What are the ideas ?’. So if you want to ask what somebody means, you can say ‘what ideas there, then?’ Now “sleep” means, “relax”, “it’s correct”. So if someone asks me if I’m going out today, I can say “hey, sleep”, meaning “certainly”. One more. When we’re in a desperate hurry to finish, we generally just furiously chuck in whatever stuff we’ve got. So “furiously” means “whatever you’ve got”, or “anything”, like, if somebody asks me what I’m drinking and I don’t care, I’ll just say “Oh, furiously.”.

‘Good grief’, exclaimed John, ‘Words can mean really anything.’

‘That’s what I’m saying,’ answered Smith ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’.

Bitbucket Gibberish. Alright, I admire your imagination, or perhaps it would be nearer the mark to say your dull persistence in wringing out permutations. But so what? Inventing a code in which each word stands for a completely different one is a futile pursuit, and tells us nothing about Chomsky.

Blandula I’m not trying to make a point about Chomsky. What I’m actually doing is suggesting that Quine was right with his story about ‘gavagai ’ – the word which seemed to mean ‘rabbit’, but could have meant virtually anything. For any word or set of words, there really are an infinite number of possible interpretations, and it follows that the meaning is always impossible to decode with any certainty.

Bitbucket Then how does anyone ever understand anyone else? Quine’s view is one of those theories that even the author doesn’t believe when it comes to real life.

Blandula Ah, but you see, the thing is, we don’t decode words mechanically, the way a computer would have to do it. We just see what somebody means – it’s a process of recognition, not calculation. Perhaps that has some implications for Chomsky after all.