When colorless green ideas sleep furiously

I was born and raised in a city where people spoken two languages: Nanchang dialect and Mandarin, which was relatively normal in China since each place had its local dialect apart from Mandarin Chinese. However, if taking a 40-minute bus from the city center of Nanchang to a neighbor town Nanchang county, I wouldn’t understand what people spoke there because they had a different dialect, an unknown tongue to me. This was also normal in China, especially southern China. Certainly, I would be able to communicate with people all across China since there exists the universal language for Chinese people – Mandarin. Language makes us apart, and in turn it brings us together.

Map of Chinese languages and dialects













Chomsky would say that the universal grammar is the language faculty in human brain instead of on their mouth. One point that Chomsky attempted to make in his “revolution” was that the purpose of language is NOT essentially communication, but “the syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind, and they have no significant connection with communication”. (Searle, p I) As for me, this happens when I see the written characters of the word “ice cream” in Chinese OR listen to the pronunciation of “ice cream” in English, both expression gives me the visual image and taste sensation of an ice cream. Even if I don’t know any language to express the meaning of ice cream, I’d have recognition of it once I’ve formed its spiritual idea in my mind. What’s tricky in this is that, in reverse, when I see the word “ice cream”, I may run at the mouth since the language gives me the natural perception of a certain concept and recalls my sense. 

I found Chomsky’s conclusion of transformational components pretty interesting: “the syntactic component consists of rules that generate deep structures combined with rules mapping these into associated surface structures”. (Chomsky, pg 124) This structure appears notably in Chinese language, and usually people are doing the opposite works – since there is a deep structure lies behind the surface structure, people would interpret both the surface structure and phonetic representation to figure out its semantic meaning, including the literal meaning and deeper meaning. For example, a world-renowned linguist, Yuanren Zhao, who also named the Father of Chinese language and linguistics, once composed a 92-character poem to illustrate how Chinese language could tell a story with only one phonetic symbol. When written in Chinese characters, this poem below tells the history of a person named Shi living in a stone room loves going to the market and eating ten lions. (The words “history, stone, room, love, go, market, eat, ten, lion” can all be pronounced as Shi in Chinese.) Although a ridiculous false tale, it did represent the semantic meaning and fit in the grammar with a transformation of the deep structure within the author’s mind.

Yuanren Zhao, 1916


<< Shī Shì shí shī shǐ >>
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì,shì shī,shì shí 10 shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
10 shí,shì 10 shī shì shì.
Shì shí,shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì 10 shī,shì shì shì,shī shì 10 shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì 10 shī shī,shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī,Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì,Shì shí shì shí shì 10 shī.
Shí shí,shǐ shì shì 10 shī,shí 10 shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.


The creativeness of language can never be limited even though the terms syntax, phonology and semantics have been constraining our thoughts and natural abilities, no matter rational or perceptual. In Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957), he composed a famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as an example to demonstrate the distinction between syntax and semantics: the sentence was grammatically correct but semantically meaningless. However, the sentence can be given an interpretation through polysemy, and Yuanren Zhao was the first one who attempted to provide the sentence meaning through context. (Zhao, 1997) This definitely reminds me of the nonsensical poem Jabberwocky in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll, pg 64-65), which inspires us to explore the wonderland of linguistics as infinite understanding always creates infinite meanings and expression.

Jabberwocky in Alice in Wonderland 











John Searle, “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

Noam Chomsky, “Form and meaning in natural languages.” Excerpt from Language and Mind, 3rd. Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Chao, Yuen Ren“Making Sense Out of Nonsense”. The Sesquipedalian, vol. VII, no. 32 (June 12, 1997).

Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass pp 64–65 Createspace ltd. 2010

Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, The Hague/Paris: Mouton. 1957