I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity, and that therefore generative-style research is superior to non-generative language description and survey-based typological work.
There are many aspects of their rich and provocative paper that are worth discussing (and I have discussed some in my published reply, Haspelmath 2014; see also Dryer 2014 and De Reuse 2014 for further replies), so here I’d like to limit myself to one aspect, the significance of labels for communities of linguists (“C-linguists” vs. “D-linguists”, “formal linguists”) and iconic figures like Boas, Greenberg and Chomsky that different linguists identify with or react negatively to.
I have myself long struggled to reconcile the particularistic Boasian approach (with its emphasis on doing justice to each individual language, rather than pressing them into a preconceived traditional mould) with the universalist Greenbergian approach (with its amazing discoveries of cross-linguistic regularities), but I now believe that the two are not incompatible, though not as relevant to each other as has often been thought: In Haspelmath (2010), I argue that the two approaches require two different sets of notions, Boasian descriptive categories (language-specific) and Greenbergian comparative concepts (cross-linguistically applicable).
But how can one bring Boas together with Chomsky? DG&M say in §8 of their paper that they “draw equal inspiration from Boas and Chomsky” (p. e217), which may appear puzzling at first. The answer turns out to be that they adopt only a few selected aspects of the generative programme, which other linguists would not regard as particularly crucial for pigeonholing their work into the “generative” or even “formal” category.
Surprisingly, DG&M adopt Levinson & Evans’s (2010) distinction between “C-linguists” (C for Chomsky) and “D-linguists” (D for diversity), but they interpret the “C” in a very loose sense. In their footnote 1 (p. e182), they distinguish a narrow and a broad interpretation of “C-linguistics” and say:
“The narrow version is explicitly equated in Levinson & Evans (2010) with the minimalist program by Chomsky (1995 and subsequent work), and therefore excludes most generative fieldworkers. The broad version, by contrast, encompasses a range of theoretical frameworks, which differ (sometimes substantially) in their architecture, but share a commitment to certain methodological principles and practices. These include a theory-driven approach to fieldwork, in which predictions are generated by an explicit formal model and then tested against data from a target language; a commitment to the use of grammatical intuitions, particularly in order to elicit negative data; and a view of the grammar as a set of representations in the minds of individual speakers. It is the latter interpretation of C-linguistics that we defend here.” (emphasis mine)
But the three characteristics of their broad view of “C-linguistics” are not specific to linguistics in the Chomskyan tradition (i.e. generative linguistics, in more common parlance). All good fieldworkers who are interested in grammar use a “theory-driven approach”, which crucially involves the creation of explicit models and the testing of hypotheses (this is emphasized by De Reuse (2014) in his published reply). All good fieldworkers rely to some extent on elicitation, negative evidence and thus on intuitions about well-formedness, and most contemporary linguists have no problem with saying that grammars are (also) mental entities (though this plays little role in their day-to-day work). Thus, interpreted in a broad sense, almost all contemporary grammarians would end up as “C-linguists”. (It is true, though, that many grammar-writers these days emphasize the role of corpora of natural speech, not only because corpora are more readily available, but also because it is often felt that elicitation needs to be complemented by evidence from corpora – a point that DG&M do not deny).
So why is it so important for DG&M to defend “C-linguistics” and “the generative program”? It seems that this has a sociological explanation: They see themselves as members of the social group of “formal linguists”, and in this group, the Chomskyan approach has an enormous prestige, even if it is not really practiced. So when reading Evans & Levinson’s polemical paper, they felt that they were included in the group of “C-linguists”, even though in actual practice they are much more Boasian – thus, their paper is about diversity, not about universals, and they make no attempt to solve the problems that their discoveries create for generative universalists. (This is particularly striking in the case of the Principle C violations, where an account in terms of UG has long seemed plausible to many.)
In theoretical semantics as well as in theoretical syntax, the work of MIT linguists (such as Irene Heim, cf. Heim & Kratzer 1998) has become very influential, and this approach is often called “formal semantics” (somewhat oddly, because there is no relation to linguistic form, as far as I can see). DG&M clearly see their work as belonging to this tradition, and in fact they use the term “formal” three times as often as the term “generative”. They talk about “formal linguists”, “formal theories”, “formal investigation”, and even “formal elicitation” and “formal fieldwork”. I find this way of talking very opaque, and I can only take it to mean that they associate with the formal-semantics and thus generative group. But this is a social fact, with no clear intellectual relevance.
In addition to being critical about Evans & Levinson’s attack on UG approaches, DG&M are also critical of large-scale cross-linguistic work such as WALS. But this is not a specifically Chomskyan (or “formal”) sort of criticism: Large-scale comparativists are often suspected of treating individual languages superficially and of making errors. Oddly, DG&M seem to overlook that grammar-mining comparativists necessarily rely on descriptive grammars written by hypothesis-testing fieldworkers like themselves. But nobody has suggested that large-scale surveys somehow employ a different or better method that can make do without hypothesis-testing and elicitation.
A different question that DG&M do not ask is why linguists who identify with the “formal” or “generative” group rarely write descriptive grammars that could be mined by large-scale comparativists. It seems to me that this is because of the (categorial universalist) assumption that all grammars are ultimately made of the same categories. Evidently we have not found those categories yet, so writing a full grammar would be premature, and we have to be content with writing papers that make proposals about specific phenomena. Boasians are not constrained by this assumption: They can make their own language-specific categories and thus can write full grammars. Thus, in practice it is much more difficult to combine the Boasian and the Chomskyan approach than the Boasian and the Greenbergian approach.
Davis, Henry, Carrie Gillon & Lisa Matthewson. 2014. How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest. Language 90(4). e180-e226. [preprint]
De Reuse, Willem. 2014. How field linguists have been investigating linguistic diversity: Commentary on Davis, Gillon, and Matthewson. Language 90(4). e227–e231.
Dryer, Matthew S. 2014. Competing methods for uncovering linguistic diversity: The case of definite and indefinite articles (Commentary on Davis, Gillon, and Matthewson). Language 90(4). e232–e249.
Evans, Nicholas & Stephen Levinson. 2009. The Myth of Language Universals: Language diversity and its Importance for Cognitive Science. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(5). 429–448.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663-687.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2014. Descriptive hypothesis testing is distinct from comparative hypothesis testing: Commentary on Davis, Gillon, and Matthewson. Language 90(4). e250–e257.
Heim, Irene & Angelika Kratzer. 1998. Semantics in generative grammar. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Levinson, Stephen C. & Nicholas Evans. 2010. Time for a Sea-Change in Linguistics: Response to Comments on `The Myth of Language Universals’. Lingua 120(12). 2733–2758.