Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Parsing and questions

The usual declarative sentences are considered simple by formal semantics. In fact they are not, but anyway they're the simplest what there is. They even deceive people to believe that the first-order logic is adequate for expressing their meaning. John loves Mary is loves(john, mary). Simple. It gets more interesting with quantifiers, especially when there is more than one (can you spot an ambiguity in Every man loves some woman?), but that's not my point. Remember, this was the first Kharms' sentence:
Удивительный случай случился со   мной: я вдруг    забыл, что  идет раньше - 7 или 8
Amazing case happened with me I suddenly forgot what goes earlier 7 or 8
An amazing thing happened to me today, I suddenly forgot what comes first - 7 or 8

And the part of it remaining uncommented is the very last one, starting with what. It looks suspiciously like a question. I can imagine saying to myself What comes first 7 or 8? Damn, I forgot that! Yes, that's definitely a question. So, we have to step outside the comfortable world of declarative sentences and enter the darkness of what the advanced topics of formal semantics are about: interrogatives. Man, they even have a semester seminar on questions, only questions and nothing but questions!

But a quick look at their analyses is sufficient for me to realize that I don't like them. I don't want to implement that for the first 10 years (well, maybe less: they provide some code in Haskell), and then spend the rest of my life analyzing the resulting sets-of-sets-of-possible-worlds kinds of structures just to understand that it only means What comes first?. I don't seek an absolute truth, for me the simpler the structure, the closer it is to the surface, the better. Of course, if it still is acceptable as a true interlingua.

That said, I don't have much choice on how to represent the question from above. It's a clause containing a verb and a subject, and all these three entities are unusual in their own ways.

The unusual thing about verb is that it consists of two words - come first. Actually, it's a more generic verb come X, where X can be of any scalar value: first, next, previous, last, 42th, etc.

The subject is also unusual since it's what, a typical wh-word which many questions start with. It also comes with variants at the end of the clause - 7 or 8. I consider this a special construction, characteristic of questions. Those 7 and 8 are just listed in the semantics as the variants slots of the what frame.

Finally, the clause is unusual since it has to mark in some way its questionness. It would also be nice if it could specify which part of the clause is asked about (here it's the subject what). These two things are solved by one means: the situation corresponding to this clause has a questioned attribute pointing to what. Simple.

Finally, there should be a way of linking the question clause to the verb it depends on: forgot. It would be also nice to distinguish between the different things one can forget: real things (I forgot my cell phone), facts (I forgot that 2x2=4), some values (I forgot the area of Africa) and, finally, the answers to the questions (I forgot what comes first). At least two of these variants employ clauses: facts and questions. Luckily, a fact's clause definitely won't have questioned attribute, while in our case it will definitely be there. So indeed, we can just say that forgot's theme is the whole situation corresponding to the question and seems to be sufficient for the current purposes.

So, now I'm finally ready to present the semantics built for the complete sentence. Well, almost ready. There remains that or in 7 or 8. That's a conjunct, and, as conjuncts are my favorite and very interesting phenomena, I'll discuss them later in great detail. So, the interlingual representation for the first Sonnet sentence is this:


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