Saturday, March 5, 2011

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

The linguist Noam Chomsky presented this sentence

            “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

in Syntactic Structures (1957), not particularly to illustrate the separation of a semantic from a syntactic level, but to combat the behaviorist/empiricist/statistical approach to language:   surely no-one had ever seen that particular sentence before (its frequency had been thitherto indistinguishable from zero), but everyone recognizes it as syntactically perfectly well-formed.  (Of course, shortly thereafter, in certain circles  that sentence became one of the most frequent in the English language, albeit not in a Use, but a Mention sense.)  This initial shot-over-the-bows of the frequentists  led into deep waters, coursed from another direction by John Maynard Keynes in his excellent but little-known Treatise on Probability (1921).  But that must be for another day.

Chomsky deliberately made his example-sentence as dorky as possible, so that it wouldn’t work even as a metaphorical expression (thus keeping its frequency plausibly at zero).  It’s not hard to come up with a meaning to which the sentence might correspond (say, with colorless = ‘abstract, jejune’), but no-one aiming for poetic expression of that meaning would choose that sentence, unless he had a tin tongue. (*)


I was reminded of the above, by a currently celebrated corpus of semantically (slightly) aberrant, selection-restriction-ravishing quotations.  It has lately has been making the rounds as an e-mail, offering a list of recent quotations, all of them off-the-wall and over-the-top, and mostly sounding as though they’d been inexpertly translated from some tribal dialect of Arabic;  your job is to guess which ones were spoken by Charlie Sheen, and which by Mu`ammar al-Qaddhafi.   Things like:

“I will deploy my ordnance to the ground.”

“Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body."

“I'm not wearing a golden sombrero."

“It is necessary for me to establish a winner image. Therefore, I have to beat somebody.”

"Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words -- imagine what I would have done with my fire-breathing fists."

The good joke of the thing is that most of them, and all of those above, were in fact uttered, in English, exactly as written, by Mr. Sheen.
(Actually I cheated just a teensy bit.  One of them was said by Richard Nixon.)

Some kibitzers to a YouTube presentation of these  opined that the man was mad.  How much method there may be to it, must be left to others to assess:  but linguistically I’d give him a pass.  The syntax is impeccable;  the delivery was actorly;  and the semantics (“fire-breathing fists”) off just enough that the statements are readily interpretable, just a bit goofy.   My hunch is he selected a persona and has been playing it for all it is worth.  Compare Karl Popper (in “Utopia and Violence”), on some of philosopher Karl Jaspers’ would-be provocative pronouncements (“That is why love is cruel, ruthless; and why it is believed in, by the genuine lover, only if it is so” -- the outburst of a man who has not lately been laid):  “It is not so much plain barbarism  as an hysterical attempt to play the barbarian.”
An alternative hypothesis among the YouTube viewers was that those seven-gram rocks had eaten away a bit of his brain, and the man was now aphasic.   Possibly, but mildly;  less so than, say, Sarah Palin, who does seem to be somewhat Wernicke-challenged.   (Cf. also the senior Bush.)


Would-be poets (like Bob Dylan) often twist words around, or splash them, with an effect rather like finger-painting.  Real poets do something similar, but they do it…just… right.   Thus, take the well-known line from E. E. Cummings:
            "the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy"
Now, that is just about random, and about the least apt observation anyone has ever made about the moon.  But it does sort of stick in the head, nevertheless.

One of Sheen’s lines quite directly suggests an influence from Cummings:

            "Can't is the cancer of happen."

A trademark of Cummings is his use of little function words  as nouns, and in a pregnant sense, that takes some getting used to, but which ultimately does cohere:  “what if a much of a which of a wind”, and so forth.   This is all expertly expounded by Barry Marks in E. E. Cummings (1964).

(*)  That’s a joke, folks.
(Likewise the substitution of a Sheen-like "ravishing" for the linguistic term "violating".)


  1. Personally it seems to me that Mr. Sheen is suffering from drug induced schizophrenia, but maybe that's what makes a good poet?

  2. A *good* poet is one who uses his God-given gift of eloquence to praise the Author of our being.
    A *hip* poet is one who slings words around.
    The idea of madness as essential to Art, is quite pernicious.
    Sheen is not a good poet, he's just doing his Dada thing, and the public watches because (unfamiliar with the wonders of topology) it is bored.

  3. Sheen is certainly not a poet. He is a self-absorbed, self-serving, construct of Hollywood, though his brain damaged rantings do take on a bit of poetic flair. I think the public watches him not through boredom, but for the same macabre reason we have a tendency to visit the site of a terrible accident, or watch cars race around in a circle. We're waiting for the crash. I haven't looked up the definition of pernicious yet, but I'm going to assume it doesn't pertain to me. Perhaps it takes a little "madness" to see things in a new light? On the other hand I have't followed the Charlie sheen debacle, but I did find your blog enlightening. I had no idea he was clever enough to rant like a madman.