114: Computational Linguists

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Computational Linguists
Chomskyists, generative linguists, and Ryan North, your days are numbered.
Title text: Chomskyists, generative linguists, and Ryan North, your days are numbered.


Black Hat has become bored with attacking Emo kids, a cultural and, particularly, musical phenomenon characterized by introversion and angst. This has become a common target of mockery for its tendency to claim that 'no one understands me,' when in fact such feelings are common amongst teenagers, which is probably why he now feels that they are too easy a target for him.

Instead, Black Hat has chosen to attack computational linguistics, an interdisciplinary field that combines theoretical linguistics, artificial intelligence, statistics, and other areas of study, to attempt to create a rule-based model of language. This has given rise to a number of competing theories, some of which may appear to contradict each other. He may be associating the two groups, suggesting that computational linguists are constantly bemoaning that their 'field is so ill-defined,' and that this has similarities to the emos' refrain above, or he may just be taking a swipe at them by suggesting that they think themselves above normal scientific methods.

Linguistics itself is still a hotly debated subject, as is seen by the various conflicting theories on the origin of languages like the forms of Proto-Indo-European language.

The title text is a reference to some of the people who contributed to language theory:

  • Noam Chomsky is an influential American psychologist and linguist who, based on cross-cultural studies, proposed a still-disputed theory that the human brain is unique from that of other species in that it includes a fundamental Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that is pre-programmed with basic rules of grammar and syntax: thus, language is innate to humans.
  • Generative linguistics is a term within linguistics that is used in several ways, some of which are contradictory. This may be why it is chosen as a target by Black Hat.
  • Ryan North is the author of the webcomic Dinosaur Comics, and has a degree in computational linguistics.


[Black Hat is standing next to a large badge that says FUCK Computational Linguistics.]
Black Hat: And the dumbest thing about emo kids is that... I... You know, I'm sick of easy targets. Anyone can make fun of emo kids. You know who's had it too easy? Computational Linguists. "Ooh, look at me! My field is so ill-defined, I can subscribe to any of dozens of contradictory models and still be taken seriously!"


Ryan North later teased Randall in the title text of this comic.

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Why Ryan North? 21:49, 8 January 2013 (UTC)

First of all, Ryan North happened to specialize in computational linguistics in his masters degree. He was mentioned because he was a computational linguist. On a side note, Ryan North's father was called Randall (though he was not the Randall whose comics this wiki explains). This may have somehow influenced Ryan's name appearing on this list.--Commarchinin (talk) 12:44, 30 August 2013 (UTC)

It may also be a joke on Ryan's webcomic name: "Dinosaur Comics" 09:52, 20 October 2013 (UTC)

Don't particle physicists have the same issue: string theorists, Bohmians, Many-worldsians, Copenhagen-interpretians, all-possible-pathians, etc.? Djbrasier (talk) 02:55, 1 March 2017 (UTC)

Having multiple theories and models is literally what makes science science in any field, as mentioned above physics is the same. 23:45, 11 October 2022 (UTC)

Even though this comic was made in jest, I actually think old-school computational linguists' days are numbered, with their complicated theoretical models outperformed by softmax(QK^T/sqrt(d_k))V. "Every time I fire a linguist, the performance of the speech recognizer goes up." Perhaps computational linguists are the new easy target? Phlaxyr (talk) 03:36, 12 July 2023 (UTC)

This is interesting in light of GPT though... 02:56, 7 September 2023 (UTC)

Chomsky was wrong about genetic grammar, but he broke the politically correct blockade against analyzing grammar at all. Up to his time, linguists thought it was somehow racist to examine the grammar of a language, because it's the grammar that varies in quality, and they wanted all peoples to be seen as the same. — Kazvorpal (talk) 18:37, 29 January 2024 (UTC)