Linguistic typology generally divides synthetic languages into groups based on their morphological fusion. However, this measure has long been thought to be best considered a matter of degree. We present an information-theoretic measure, called informational fusion, to quantify the degree of fusion of a given set of morphological features in a surface form, which naturally provides such a graded scale. Informational fusion is able to encapsulate not only concatenative, but also nonconcatenative morphological systems (e.g. Arabic), abstracting away from any notions of morpheme segmentation. We then show, on a sample of twenty-one languages, that our measure recapitulates the usual linguistic classifications for concatenative systems, and provides new measures for nonconcatenative ones. We also evaluate the long-standing hypotheses that more frequent forms are more fusional, and that paradigm size anticorrelates with degree of fusion. We do not find evidence for the idea that languages have characteristic levels of fusion; rather, the degree of fusion varies across part-of-speech within languages.
Abstract We introduce a theoretical framework for understanding and predicting the complexity of sequence classification tasks, using a novel extension of the theory of Boolean function sensitivity. The sensitivity of a function, given a distribution over input sequences, quantifies the number of disjoint subsets of the input sequence that can each be individually changed to change the output. We argue that standard sequence classification methods are biased towards learning low-sensitivity functions, so that tasks requiring high sensitivity are more difficult. To that end, we show analytically that simple lexical classifiers can only express functions of bounded sensitivity, and we show empirically that low-sensitivity functions are easier to learn for LSTMs. We then estimate sensitivity on 15 NLP tasks, finding that sensitivity is higher on challenging tasks collected in GLUE than on simple text classification tasks, and that sensitivity predicts the performance both of simple lexical classifiers and of vanilla BiLSTMs without pretrained contextualized embeddings. Within a task, sensitivity predicts which inputs are hard for such simple models. Our results suggest that the success of massively pretrained contextual representations stems in part because they provide representations from which information can be extracted by low-sensitivity decoders.
Transformers are emerging as the new workhorse of NLP, showing great success across tasks. Unlike LSTMs, transformers process input sequences entirely through self-attention. Previous work has suggested that the computational capabilities of self-attention to process hierarchical structures are limited. In this work, we mathematically investigate the computational power of self-attention to model formal languages. Across both soft and hard attention, we show strong theoretical limitations of the computational abilities of self-attention, finding that it cannot model periodic finite-state languages, nor hierarchical structure, unless the number of layers or heads increases with input length. These limitations seem surprising given the practical success of self-attention and the prominent role assigned to hierarchical structure in linguistics, suggesting that natural language can be approximated well with models that are too weak for the formal languages typically assumed in theoretical linguistics.
Recurrent neural networks empirically generate natural language with high syntactic fidelity. However, their success is not well-understood theoretically. We provide theoretical insight into this success, proving in a finite-precision setting that RNNs can efficiently generate bounded hierarchical languages that reflect the scaffolding of natural language syntax. We introduce Dyck-(k,m), the language of well-nested brackets (of k types) and m-bounded nesting depth, reflecting the bounded memory needs and long-distance dependencies of natural language syntax. The best known results use O(km⁄2) memory (hidden units) to generate these languages. We prove that an RNN with O(m log k) hidden units suffices, an exponential reduction in memory, by an explicit construction. Finally, we show that no algorithm, even with unbounded computation, can suffice with o(m log k) hidden units.
Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) have reached striking performance in many natural language processing tasks. This has renewed interest in whether these generic sequence processing devices are inducing genuine linguistic knowledge. Nearly all current analytical studies, however, initialize the RNNs with a vocabulary of known words, and feed them tokenized input during training. We present a multi-lingual study of the linguistic knowledge encoded in RNNs trained as character-level language models, on input data with word boundaries removed. These networks face a tougher and more cognitively realistic task, having to discover any useful linguistic unit from scratch based on input statistics. The results show that our “near tabula rasa” RNNs are mostly able to solve morphological, syntactic and semantic tasks that intuitively presuppose word-level knowledge, and indeed they learned, to some extent, to track word boundaries. Our study opens the door to speculations about the necessity of an explicit, rigid word lexicon in language learning and usage.