In the late 20th century, the general view of generative syntax was that it made claims about the innate universal grammar, and that by investigating the principles and parameters of grammar, it did three things simultaneously: (i) explain the possibility of language acquisition despite the poverty of the stimulus, (ii) explain limits on cross-linguistic diversity, and (iii) provide a framework for the elegant description of particular languages (e.g. Baker 2003).
The confidence in the existence of a rich UG and parameters seems to have waned in the 21st century (e.g. Boeckx & Leivada (2013) rejecting parameters, and this blogpost on Chomsky’s skeptical stance concerning a rich UG). So what is left for generative syntax?
I have been struggling to understand this, looking for cues in what generative linguists say. There seems to be a lot of disagreement where the larger generative enterprise is headed (understandably), but what is surprising to me is that I keep encountering the idea that generative syntax can simply be used as a descriptive tool (basically, only for (iii) above).
Thus, in their reply to my critical questions on their textbook (“Syntax”, in this blogpost), Koeneman & Zeijlstra say the following:
“although we build up the theory using technicalities that are adopted from current minimalism, we do not adhere to or to try to persuade students about most of its philosophical or biological underpinnings, such as innateness claims” (https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1082)
So they act as if it made sense to use the high-tech mechanisms simply to describe English syntax (the only language they deal with in their book). I wonder if they really believe this, but it seems a very strange idea to me. English syntax can be described in much simpler terms, as for example in Huddleston & Pullum’s (2002) grammar of English. One can say many things about minimalist syntax, but it is certainly not a tool for the “elegant” description of a particular language (regardless of wider concerns).
“the term „UG“ only appears once in our paper (in a citation) and we use the categories CP/TP/VP/EPP etc in our chapter as purely descriptive devices to describe the sentence’s structure and position – and I think this is uncontroversial in Generative Grammar.” (https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1340#comments)
It may be uncontroversial in generative grammar to use highly specialized terms such as CP/TP/EPP in the notation, but I thought that it was also uncontroversial that these concepts are part of the generative analysis in terms of UG categories, and not necessary for a generally accessible description of the phenomena. Many generative papers (at least during the principles-and-parameters period) included a “data/facts” section, which laid out the phenomena in straightforward terms, followed by an “analysis” section, which re-described the same phenomena in much more complex terms, using the high-tech notation in terms of entities like vP and EPP (plus movements, feature checking, and so on). All of this makes good sense if one believes that we are born with such categories and devices, and that children actually learn such systems.
But why should they be used for simple description? It seems to me that there is an embarrassing misunderstanding here: Teaching generative syntax has become a routine phenomenon in many corners of linguistics, and more and more people who are simply interested in languages (not in limits on worldwide diversity, and not in innateness explanations for acquisition or universals) got the impression that the notation was somehow established knowledge of the discipline of linguistics, maybe like the notation of chemical formulas has become an established part of chemistry. But of course, the proposals of current mainstream generative grammar are just one out of a very large number of possibilities (cf. McCawley’s (1982) book title “Thirty million theories of grammar”, which has lost nothing of its relevance). They happen to be popular, and to the extent that they are making general claims about Human Language with empirical import, they are scientific theories. But I do not see how one can justify the use of generative grammar technology without the innateness claim.
“Let me take this opportunity to reveal my current thinking on case. I have now convinced myself of a framework whereby merge is innate, but any (other) language-specific innate properties are highly suspect and require significant evidence. (This is due to Noam’s writings on evolution finally sinking in, and due to my accumulating knowledge about the extent of language variation.) Case, both the distribution of noun phrases and the case morphology, is not universal, varies considerably across languages, and so must be learned. (See Charles Yang’s 2016 book on how.)” (Legate 2018, on Norbert Hornstein’s blog)
Legate (a very influential generative linguist due to her position as chief editor of NLLT) continues to use the minimalist notation (e.g. in her 2015 book on Acehnese, and also in recent presentations at Leipzig University), but apparently for purely descriptive purposes (though she is not explicit about this).
Another example of an apparent misunderstanding comes from a recent dissertation on the Brazilian language Tuparí by Adam Singerman (2018). Singerman is aware of different views about the best way of describing a language (either in its own terms, or through the use of UG categories), and he tries to somehow reconcile them. In most chapters of his work, he makes no reference to generative notation and uses concepts that will be understood for many decades in the future, but in Chapter 5, he uses opaque terms like “AgrS”, “T heads” and “vP” as well as movements. He justifies his choice of minimalist technology as follows:
“These phenomena are ones which current syntactic theory can help to describe and explain; indeed, they demand an analytic framework that assumes more structural nuance than LaPolla & Poa’s (2006) or Haspelmath’s (2010) do. While I of course will not claim that the framework chosen here is the only one capable of handling the Tuparí facts, I am convinced that an approach that denies the possibility of crosslinguistic universals in syntactic structure will not be able to make satisfactory sense of this language’s grammar” (Singerman 2018: 13-14).
This is based on the misunderstanding that my “framework-free grammatical theory” somehow limits the amount of “structural nuance” that describers can posit. On the contrary, the view of description that I defend in that paper is that anything goes – if a new abstract notion is needed to describe a language-internal generalization, it can (and should) be posited. Description is not the same as explanation, and restrictivness (UG) should play no role for the describer. The last sentence of this passage is also strange: I do not “deny the possibility of cross-linguistic universals” (in fact, there are only a handful of other linguists who have written about grammatical universals as extensively as I have), and I would be the last to deny that inspiration from cross-linguistic studies and from other languages can help the describer. So what is the basis of this misunderstanding? Does Singerman think that inspiration from typology must imply the use of minimalist technology? Or that the rejection of the use of innate categories in language description (= the view that each language should be described in its own terms) means a rejection of universality? I am puzzled.
These seem to be difficult times for linguists interested in grammar. The younger ones are often taught that they should use minimalist notations, but those that think about the big picture (such as Noam Chomsky, Julie Anne Legate, Norbert Hornstein, Frederick Newmeyer) tell them that there is (apparently) no rich UG. The situation is very confusing indeed.
(P.S. After my last blogpost about a Chomsky and UG, a generative linguist commented on Facebook: “Sometimes it seems linguistics is divided into generative and anti-generative linguistics – where the former investigates language, and the latter investigates the ways to attack the former.” But maybe generative linguists have simply become too sanguine about the apparent success of their framework. As Julie Anne Legate put it in her statement for the 2015 Athens conference: “while the field has many excellent practitioners in the younger generations, few students seem to have internalized the foundational goals of the field” – and I would add that the foundational goals are quite unclear by now, at least to me.).
Baker, Mark C. 2003. Linguistic differences and language design. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(8). 349–353. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00157-8.
Boeckx, Cedric & Evelina Leivada. 2013. Entangled parametric hierarchies: Problems for an overspecified Universal Grammar. PLOS ONE 8(9). e72357. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072357.
Cognola, Federica & Jan Casalicchio (eds.). 2018. Null subjects in generative grammar: A synchronic and diachronic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Framework-free grammatical theory. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, 341–365. Oxforf: Oxford University Press.
Huddleston, Rodney & Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds.). 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Koeneman, Olaf & Hedde Zeijlstra. 2017. Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
LaPolla, Randy J. & Dory Poa. 2006. On describing word order. In Felix K. Ameka, Alan Dench & Nicholas Evans (eds.), Catching language: The standing challenge of grammar writing, 269–295. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Legate, Julie Anne. 2015. Voice and v: Lessons from Acehnese. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9780262028141.001.0001
McCawley, James D. 1982. Thirty million theories of grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2004. Against a parameter-setting approach to typological variation. Linguistic Variation Yearbook 4(1). 181–234. doi:10.1075/livy.4.06new.
Singerman, Adam Roth. 2018. The morphosyntax of Tuparí, a Tupían language of the Brazilian Amazon. Chicago: University of Chicago PhD dissertation. doi: 10.6082/ns2a-cv36
Yang, Charles. 2016. The price of linguistic productivity: How children learn to break the rules of language. Cambrudge, MA: MIT Press.