I was recently invited to give a talk for the IGRA doctoral programme during a retreat workshop in beautiful Hohenstein-Ernstthal. I am grateful to the organizers (Gereon Müller and Jochen Trommer) for the talk invitation, and to the participants for a very good discussion after the talk. Here is the gist of what I said.
I apologize for the somewhat negative talk title (and content), but as in some of my earlier work (Haspelmath 2006), I also say “what to replace it with” – namely normal science instead of traditional grammar. Traditions are indispensable in human life, and science is part of human life, but in science we always have to question our traditions. The various traditions of grammatical research are often presented as in this figure:
So in a sense, all of this is “traditional grammar”, but for a scientific approach, just working in a particular tradition cannot be sufficient. Many people work in a particular framework, and this can be seen in publications like the recent Handbook of Morphological Theory (which lists over a dozen frameworks), and also earlier in the 2010 Handbook of Linguistic Analysis (to which I contributed a paper on framework-free theorizing, which basically made the same points).
In grammatical research circles, the following is a typical narrative: Different “approaches” have different strengths, but one has to choose one of them – each framework gives us a set of assumptions and technical terms, and it also provides comfort and support (as well as a community of friendly reviewers). So one needs a framework to do theoretical grammar research, and one has to make a choice among the existing ones.
But this is not normal science. Normal science does not consist in continuing a tradition, but in finding true facts and true explanations.
Why would one need a tradition to insert oneself into (let alone a community with an intellectual leader) to engage in theoretical research on grammar? It seems to me that there are two prerequisites for normal science in structural linguistics (= the study of language structures, as opposed to phonetics, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics): Normal-science linguistics is (A) based on pedigree-independent thinking, and (B) pursues clearly stated goals.
Why is the latter an issue? Because linguists have a range of diverse goals, which are often not distinguished very well. First of all, we need to distinguish between p-linguistics (particular linguistics, the study of individual languages or language families) and g-linguistics (general linguistics, the study of Human Language). Linguists often seem to think that studying a particular language is evidently relevant to g-linguistics, but this is not true. P-languages have many truly idiosyncratic properties (in lexicon and grammar) which are due to historical accidents.
So, what are our goals? Within p-linguistics, there are at least three different goals:
- description of the conventions of particular languages (dictionaries, grammars)
- description of how particular languages are mentally represented (e.g. mental grammars)
- historical reconstruction of earlier languages and language genealogies (this is the research focus of my primary research unit, the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at MPI-SHH Jena)
Likewise, within g-linguistics (the general study of Human Language), we can puruse different goals:
- general study of the mechanics and acoustics of pronunciation (phonetics), of language processing (psycholinguistics), of language in the brain (neurolinguistics)
- general study of shared structural properties of the world’s languages (comparative linguistics)
- characterization of the innate grammatical knowledge (“UG”)
Which of these goals are we pursuing? Many linguists don’t say clearly what they are after. In particular, they often say that they are interested in “theoretical” research, but all of the above is theoretical in the sense that it does not have applied goals. (Most of it is also “descriptive” in that it involves description – of p-languages, of speaker behaviour, of the world’s languages, or of UG.)
I often find it difficult to understand what goals my colleagues are pursuing. The sad truth is that general linguists often talk past each other, unless they belong to pedigree-based communities – and even within such communities, there is no clear sense of progress. Many papers written 30 or 40 years ago are not clearly outdated, except to the extent that they addressed very narrow concerns. But none of the larger issues that were discussed half a century ago have been resolved.
This lack of progress was brought home to me recently when I was reading Lieber’s (2009) morphology textbook. In the section where she talks about different models of morphology (lexical vs. realizational, etc.), she concludes:
“We will end this section by simply saying that the jury is still out on whether item-and-arrangement, item-and-process or realizational models of morphology constitute better models of how morphology is organized in the human mind” (2009: 183)
And in the section where she discusses incorporation in the context of lexicalism vs. anti-lexicalism, she ends up on a similar note:
“… There is a great deal that might be said about the pros and cons of this analysis, although we cannot do so here. I should point out, though, that while some linguists find the evidence for this analysis convincing, others are less convinced and prefer to work within theoretical models that treat noun incorporation as the result of morphological rules, and allow less interaction between morphology and syntax. As with many other theoretical issues in morphology, the jury is still out on the best way to treat the relationship between morphology and syntax.” (Lieber 2009: 186)
Since it is a subjective matter whether we find something convincing or unconvincing, it is not surprising that we cannot resolve our controversies. Another example for the lack of progress in resolving contentious issues could be witnessed at a workshop on NP vs. DP at the recent DGfS conference in Bremen in March 2019. The organizers described the workshop topic as follows:
“Does the DP-projection dominate the NP or does the latter dominate the determiner system? As of yet this simple question has not received a conclusive answer. While nominal phrases figure prominently in the theory of syntax, the DP vs. NP debate remains unresolved, despite the decades-long success of the DP-hypothesis across theoretical frameworks.”
I attended very good talks by Martin Salzmann, who defended the DP view (despite being unconvinced by most of the earlier arguments in its favour) and by Benjamin Bruening, who reasserted his 2009 claim that the NP analysis does not fare worse and should be preferred. Both talks were very persuasive, but how can we determine who was right? Is there more to g-linguistic science than argumentation and persuasion? Frank van Eynde’s talk provided some history. As an HPSG practitioner, he saw many things differently from MGG, and he pointed out that “Jackendoff (1977) was our last common ancestor”. The following can be taken as a partial genealogy:
But this does not help if we agree that pedigree-dependent thinking will not lead us forward – it merely makes us aware how much of linguists’s practice is based on traditions. So let us get back to the other issue, the lack of clear goals.
What exactly are the goals of the debates around morphological models, lexicalism and DP vs. NP?
– Are they perhaps primarily p-linguistic goals? After all, many of the papers contain arguments deriving from particular descriptions of particular languages – so they seem to be relevant to p-linguistics, and not to g-linguistics. For example, in the NP vs. DP debate, Bruening (2009) discusses English and Passamaquoddy, and Salzmann (2019) discusses English and Serbo-Croatian. If one had g-linguistic goals, shouldn’t one provide evidence that clearly bears on Human Language in general, rather than only on a few individual languages?
– Or are they g-linguistic goals? In the Chomskyan tradition, it has often been taken for granted that the goal of theoretical linguistics is to describe innate grammatical knowledge (“UG”), so I am assuming that the debates around morphological models, lexicalism and NP vs. DP are debates of this kind. But there is something missing – an awareness of the methods by which one can study innate grammatical knowledge. As far as I can see, this can be studied only in one of three ways.
Three methods for studying innate grammatical knowledge
(i) By arguments from the poverty of the stimulus – because structures that cannot be learned from the input must be innate. However, stimulus poverty arguments (which are often discussed in the philosophical literature on the Chomskyan approach) play no role in the NP/DP debate or the lexicalism debate, and in practice, they are basically irrelevant to what the everyday working linguist does.
(ii) By comparative research that finds universals which have no plausible functional explanation (e.g. “No grammatical rule involves counting of elements”). The facts from particular languages cannot by themselves make a contribution to g-linguistics, because they could be historically idiosyncratic. However, there is no comparative research programme in recent generative syntax, and broadly comparative work such as Dryer’s (2014) and Becker’s (2018) on articles is typically not even cited by authors such as Bruening and Salzmann when they discuss DP/NP. Broadly comparative work is often associated with functional explanation, rather than with innate grammatical knowledge, perhaps because many universals that were found in this way have an obvious functional explanation.
(iii) By hypothesizing innate natural-kind categories (and architectures) of grammar on the basis of particular languages, and hoping that we will hit upon the right categories – because these categories seem to work for other languages as well (e.g. DP seems to work for Russian as well, Pereltsvaig 2007). Indeed, languages are often similar, so a category hypothesized for one language often also works for another language. But how do we know that we have found the right categories? As we saw earlier, this is often unclear, and one’s persuasions tend to align with one’s pedigree.
So is there an alternative to pedigree-dependent g-linguistics? Can linguists practice normal science instead of some sort of “traditional” grammar? I believe that the answer is yes, and I will give a small example (based on my 2008 paper on reflexive pronouns).
Normal science in general comparative linguistics
In many fields of science, comparative research is based on objective measurements, not on categories that are hoped to be universal natural kinds. In linguistics, we can work with objectively defined comparative concepts (Haspelmath 2010). I have elaborated on the distinction between comparative concepts of g-linguistics and descriptive categories of p-linguistics elsewhere, and here I will merely give one example.
In the study of reflexive constructions, we can work with the following (category-like) comparative concepts:
reflexive construction: ‘a grammatical construction that can only be used when two participants of a clause are coreferential and that contains a special form that signals this coreference’
reflexive nominal (or “reflexive pronoun”): ‘a special nominal form that expresses one of the coreferential participants in a reflexive construction’
reflexivizer: ‘a special form that indicates that a construction is a reflexive construction’
length of a form: its number of consonant or vowel segments (where diphthongs and long vowels count as two segments
Once we have comparative concepts such as these, we can compare languages and come up with objectively comparable claims, e.g. (cf. Haspelmath 2008, based on much earlier research):
(1) In all languages, the reflexivizer for extroverted verbs (e.g. ‘see’, ‘kill’, ‘hate’) is at least as long as the reflexivizer for introverted verbs (e.g. ‘wash’, ‘dress’).
(2) In all languages, the 3rd person reflexive pronoun is at least as long as the 3rd person nonreflexive pronoun.
(3) In all languages that have reflexive pronouns beyond the minimal clause domain, the clausemate reflexive pronoun is at least as long as the long-distance reflexive pronoun.
These claims can be easily and objectively tested for the world’s languages, without requiring “in-depth” analysis of particular languages, because the comparative concepts are defined in the same way in each language.This allows the use of the survey method, as elsewhere in social science: Using a questionnaire, we can collect systematic data from the world’s languages.
Argumentation, persuasion and personal opinions are not relevant in this procedure – as is expected in normal science. Of course, such more subjective aspects are part of the overall enterprise. In particular, there is no objective way of choosing the phenomena to be compared, and of choosing the comparative concepts. But once these concepts are in place, the comparative survey itself can be carried out objectively, and claims about universals can be tested as elsewhere in science.
What explains the universals of reflexive constructions?
Explanation is the difficult part – there is no objective method for distinguishing true explanations from false explanations, again as elsewhere in science. My own take is that the systematic length differences are probably due to a highly general principle of efficient coding: More predictable information requires less coding effort, and thus shorter forms. (I have come to call this the efficiency theory of asymmetric coding, as briefly summarized in this earlier post.)
But alternative explanations are certainly possible, including explanations in terms of innate grammatical knowledge (“UG”). However, innate grammatical knowledge has typically been invoked not in order to explain universal tendencies in the world’s languages, but to explain parochial facts of particular languages, e.g.
“Principle A: An anaphor is bound in its governing category” (Chomsky 1981)
This is a generalization about the English forms himself/herself and each other. There is no general definition of “anaphor”, so the term is not a comparative concept that can be applied to other languages. Thus, there is no way to test systematically whether this principle is general across languages and thus a candidate for innate knowledge. All we can do is hope that some category hypothesized for some language will eventually turn out to be correct for all languages.
The normal-science research programme that I sketched above is very demanding, but as an intermediate goal, linguists as a discipline could work on consistent terminology – a kind of “IPA of morphosyntax”. If each term of general linguistics had a clear definition (e.g. the terms sentence and clause), this would make consistent comparison of languages much easier.
And here there may actually be some convergence with linguists who otherwise pursue a different methodological programme. A few years ago, David Pesetsky complained about bad terminology in linguistics (opaque terms like specifier, pseudopassive, EPP), and he ended up with a concrete suggestion:
“I think at some point in the histories of fields like chemistry and physics, commissions were set up to regularize nomenclature and make it sensible. How about us? This sounds like such a boring activity, but on the other hand, for how many years are we going to be telling people that there’s no pseudo in pseudopassive and that specifiers don’t specify anything…”
Thus, having a nomenclature committee might be a very concrete way for g-linguists to make some real progress for the discipline, and to help grammarians to practice normal science.