I have recently stumbled upon a new metaphor may might help us think more clearly about different approaches in linguistics: the “moving-parts” metaphor that is sometimes used by generative linguistics.
It came up first in a Twitter conversation I had with Peter Jenks, which was originally about how we can tell affixes from non-affixed material, which Jenks said “can’t be answered a priori” (but must be determined by theorizing). I objected that generative linguists don’t keep empirical generalizations and theorizing separately, arguing that
“Ideally, theorizing would be like Ice-Age theory, or Periodic-Table theory: Someone suggests an idea, more data come in, it‘s confirmed, some skeptics object, then there‘s more confirmation, and finally, people move on because the original idea has become common knowledge.”
To which Jenks replied that this is actually how generative syntax works: “There are just so many moving pieces and the theoretical space is large enough that it’s hard for outsiders to keep track of.”
But is it only “outsiders” who have trouble understanding what’s going on? The more I read about MGG syntax (and I read a lot more recently, because the phenomena they discuss are the ones that interest me), the more I see the big differences in the assumptions that people make and the kinds of ideas that they find promising.
The moving-parts metaphor came up again recently on Norbert Hornstein’s blog, where Hornstein voiced some criticism of dependent-case theory (which he says has become mainstream in MGG). Tim Hunter says that he’s confused by a claim of Omer Preminger’s about a Hungarian sentence:
“If the theory of case features has this many moving parts, and makes the relation between the observable morphology and the features so indirect, then how do we know that the relevant Hungarian sentence is identical as far as case is concerned?”
I had a similar reaction to Mark Baker’s book “Case”, where he explains (his version of) dependent-case theory really well. In my review of the book, I noted that Baker’s notion of case is so abstract that he neither rules out case that is spelled out by zero, nor zero adpositions that assign overt case, nor overt adpositions that look like case affixes. So a seeming case affix can be either true dependent case, or case assigned by a zero adposition, or an adposition that has somehow “merged morphologically.” And a seeming lack of case-marking is compatible with case and with absence of case. With so many moving parts of the theory, what predictions are still made?
In the discussion on Hornstein’s blog, it becomes clear that Hornstein, Preminger, and Julie Anne Legate have three very different views of the matter – and some people like Tim Hunter are honest enough to admit that they are confused (so are probably many other readers). Is this sort of theoretical uncertainty necessary, or can we do better, as a field?
Then (in a private message) I asked Omer Preminger whether the many moving parts of his case theory do not make it impossible, in practice, to test the theory. Preminger replied:
“I’d take issue with your suggestion that moving parts preclude predictions. Given an observed (surface) case patterns, the premises of a particular case theory will generate particular entailments about what the underlying syntax of that languages can and cannot look like. We then have other tools at our disposal (I’m sure you’re familiar with them) to investigate whether the underlying syntax does or doesn’t look in that predicted way. I suspect that, at this juncture, you might point out that there are also “moving parts” at these other junctures, and this is true. That is normal, I think, for any scientific endeavor that seeks to explain the causal forces behind a certain observed pattern, and, as such, I don’t think it’s fundamentally different from a functionalist explanation, which will also have its own moving parts.”
A week after the exchange on Hornstein’s blog, Julie Anne Legate came to Leipzig for her Brugmann Lectures (as part of the IGRA programme), and the issue came up again: She argued that languages are actually more different than linguists often think, and she gave an example of how Dinka supposedly shows an Austronesian-like voice system (cf. van Urk 2015: 69; Erlewine et al. 2017), but in fact the differences are substantial: While voice is located on the verb in Western Austronesian, it is located on the auxiliary in Dinka. To which Gereon Müller replied (because he knows that the parts can move): “But they could still be the same underlyingly, and the divergent surface result could come about via movement. One could try to find arguments for such an analysis.” (The “parts” can “move” in two senses, but this is just a pun.)
I found these exchanges very instructive, because I have devoted a lot of energy over the last decade to a very different sort of enterprise: To highlighting the difference between presuppositions of an empirical claim and explanations for it (i.e. the difference between comparative concepts, on which typological comparisons are based, and UG categories that might explain the worldwide distributions), and more recently also to standardizing terminology for comparative concepts that most of us (including generative linguists) use in one way or another.
So is it the case that “any scientific endeavor” must have so many moving parts? I don’t think so – I think that many scientists who work with observed data actually agree on many basic methods, especially those having to do with measurements. Thus, climate scientists mostly agree on how to measure temperatures, air pressures and ocean currents, and astronomers agree on how to classify different kinds of stars, so they can compare their empirical results, even if they don’t agree on what it all means and how the phenomena could be explained.
Some fields of linguistics, such as comparative phonology (e.g. Gordon 2016) and some kinds of comparative lexical semantics, don’t seem to have this problem at all. Phonologists are very often happy to use IPA symbols as comparative concepts for segment types (even though different languages may have different features defining rather similar sounds). And comparative semanticists typically work with etic concepts such as colour chips and etic kinship grids (cf. Kemp et al. 2018 for some interesting recent work on worldwide lexical structures; also Levinson & Meira 2003 for earlier work using an etic grid for comparing spatial relations).
Thus, it seems to me that in general, we can distinguish three kinds of activities in linguistics:
– description of particular languages (ideally complete, conceivably using sopecialized descriptive concepts tailored to the language)
– comparison of a representative set of languages (using a special set of comparative concepts which apply to all languages equally, and which may be quite different from the descriptive categories)
– (functional-adaptive) explanation of the generalizations found through worldwide comparison.
Description is independent of comparison and explanation, and comparison is independent of explanation. A descriptive grammar of a language or a comprehensive dictionary keep their value, regardless of subsequent progress in comparison and explanation. Likewise, proposals for universals can be readily tested, regardless of the explanations that one might propose, and regardless of whether they hold up (for example, Greenberg 1963; 1966 proposed a wide range of generalizations that he made sense of in his 1966 book in terms of a notion of “markedness”; in Haspelmath (2006; 2008), I argued that these explanations were not adequate and proposed an alternative, but this did not affect Greenberg’s comparative discoveries).
In the functional-adaptive approach, there is of course some flexibility (or “movability of parts”) as well – descriptions of languages may turn out to be suboptimal (incomplete, or somewhat misleading) once comparative considerations are brought in, and depending on the explanations that one wants to test, one may want to adjust one’s comparative concepts. So Preminger is not completely wrong when he says that “it’s normal for any scientific endeavor that seeks to explain the causal forces behind a certain observed pattern” to have moving parts.
But there is still a big difference between generative syntax and the functional-adaptive approach: In generative syntax, there is basically no distinction between description and explanation, because both make use of the idea of a rich set of UG building blocks: The correct description (“analysis”) of a language-particular phenomenon presupposes that we have the right set of UG building blocks, and these building blocks also explain limits on cross-linguistic variability.
In an approach where description, comparison and explanation are logically separate activities, there are thus fewer moving parts, and it is more likely that robust results will be achieved.
Baker, Mark C. 2015. Case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka, Theodore Levin & Coppe van Urk. 2017. Ergativity and Austronesian-type voice systems. In Jessica Coon, Diane Massam & Lisa Demena Travis (eds.), The Oxford handbook of ergativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198739371.013.16
Gordon, Matthew Kelly. 2016. Phonological typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of language, 73–113. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. Language universals: With special reference to feature hierarchies. The Hague: Mouton.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Against markedness (and what to replace it with). Journal of Linguistics 42(1). 25–70. doi:10.1017/S0022226705003683.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2008. Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries. Cognitive Linguistics 19(1). 1–33.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663–687.
Kemp, Charles, Yang Xu & Terry Regier. 2018. Semantic typology and efficient communication. Annual Review of Linguistics 4(1). 109–128. doi:10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011817-045406.
Levinson, Stephen C., Sergio Meira & Language and Cognition Group. 2003. “Natural concepts” in the spatial topological domain: Adpositional meanings in crosslinguistic perspective: an exercise in semantic typology. Language 79(3). 485–516.