What do tokens know about their characters and how do they know it?

Pre-trained language models (PLMs) that use subword tokenization schemes can succeed at a variety of language tasks that require character-level information, despite lacking explicit access to the character composition of tokens. Here, studying a range of models (e.g., GPT- J, BERT, RoBERTa, GloVe), we probe what word pieces encode about character-level information by training classifiers to predict the presence or absence of a particular alphabetical character in a token, based on its embedding (e.g., probing whether the model embedding for "cat" encodes that it contains the character "a"). We find that these models robustly encode character-level information and, in general, larger models perform better at the task. We show that these results generalize to characters from non-Latin alphabets (Arabic, Devanagari, and Cyrillic). Then, through a series of experiments and analyses, we investigate the mechanisms through which PLMs acquire English-language character information during training and argue that this knowledge is acquired through multiple phenomena, including a systematic relationship between particular characters and particular parts of speech, as well as natural variability in the tokenization of related strings.

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