Since the mid-20th century, structural linguists have often made use of two types of abstract devices that were not part of the earlier arsenal (which did of course include rules and paradigms): zero elements (or empty positions), and transformations (or derivations, or operations).
Zeroes have become popular since Jakobson’s famous (1939) paper “Signe zéro” (though he did not invent them), and transformations have become popular through Chomsky’s (1957) book “Syntactic structures” (though the concept and the term were used earlier by Zellig Harris). Of course, various kinds of derivational relationships that can be thought of as transformations were used in earlier grammars, in particular the derivation of nouns from verbs.
What zeroes and transformations share is that they have encountered resistance: Many linguists reject one or both of these devices, or treat them with great suspicion. Transformations, in particular, have become markers of communities of linguists – since the 1970s, many linguists have characterized their work as “non-transformational”, “non-derivational” or “constraint-based”. The resistance against zeroes is perhaps not quite as strong, but to some extent it is the same kinds of linguists that resist both transformations and zeroes.
A striking example of a negative attitude towards zeroes is Aronoff’s (1976: 71) outright condemnation of the idea of “zero-derivation” in English (as in butterN / butterV):
“… the concept of a formless phonological substance like this is abhorrent, even ridiculous, when we realize that for every word-formation rule which has no associated phonological operation (and there are several in English (cf. Marchand 1969: 359-389), we must posit a separate such entity, with a resulting proliferation of zeros, one for every rule: Ø1, Ø2, Ø3, …”
But what is the problem with “proliferation”, either of zeroes or of transformations? We have surely seen the latter as well – movement transformations all over the place. Many people find analyses with many movements “excessive”, but by what criteria?
I would like to suggest the following here: Zeroes and transformations are often useful to express language-particular generalizations. They are good for p-linguistic analyses. But whether they should have any status in general linguistics is a different matter.
Take a simple example of determiners in English, where there are reasons to say that there is a zero element: If we say that the singular and plural forms of the core determiners are the/the, this/these, that/those, a/Ø, then this is straightforward and gets the facts right with a minimum of complications. It is true that we could say more, e.g. that the definite article the is actually number-neutral (rather than showing homonymous singular and plural forms), or that there is no determiner when a plural noun is indefinite. These additional statements may be more satisfactory in some sense, but they complicate the story. So from the perspective of simplifying language-particular descriptions, there are good reasons here to adopt the zero analysis – and there are many similar cases elsewhere. It’s the same with transformations: If we say, for example, that the finite verb moves to the second position in German clauses that lack a complementizer, this allows a simplification of the syntactic statements.
But what does this mean for general linguistics – for our understanding of Human Language in general? Are there any obvious consequences that go beyond the simplicity of language-particular description?
Many linguists seem to assume that this is the case, because they do not distinguish properly between p-analyses and questions of g-linguistics. For example, Cavirani & van Oostendorp (2017: §1.1) first note that zero/empty elements allow more elegant language-particular theories/descriptions:
“What are possible arguments in favor of empty positions in the first place? Such arguments typically come from the construction of a theory, which can be set up more elegantly if we assume that a certain position is there even if it receives no phonetic interpretation. Typically the “theory-internal” nature of such positions is also the main point of criticism for the detractors of abstract positions, because their inaudibility makes them less “real” to their minds; such scholars would prefer a more complicated description of the data if it does not take recourse to such emptiness.” (Cavirani & van Oostendorp 2017: §1.1)
But later in this passage they move on to mention “detractors of abstract positions”, who criticize the “theory-internal” nature of zeroes. Note here how they have shifted imperceptibly from a language-particular theory (or analysis) to a general theory: After all, a critique of “theory-internal” considerations makes sense only if the theory is a general one. P-theories necessarily include (theory-)internal abstractions, and nobody denies them. Everyone sets up categories, and these are just as abstract (and “inaudible”) as zeroes. So these detractors are probably detractors of a general theory that involves certain general claims about zeroes. This is not any different from critizing a theory for making other kinds of general claims (e.g. that all syllables have CV structure underlyingly, or that all movement operations are to the left, or that all languages have nouns, verbs and adjectives).
In fact, there is one theory within mainstream generative grammar that is widely rejected even by generativists, namely “Cartography”, which posits extremely widespread zeroes. Cavirani & van Oostendorp (2017: §1.1) cite Cinque (1999), who basically claims that the entire array of many dozens of functional projections is present in every sentence in every language, just not always pronounced:
“[the possibility for] the entire array of functional projections to be present in every sentence […] is the least costly assumption, once we recognize that each head comes with a marked and a default value. This conclusion, if correct, opens up a new view of clausal structure – one that is further removed from what we see, but no less interesting, for that” (Cinque 1999: 127)
So this “extreme” view is controversial even within generative grammar – but why? As Cinque notes, this claim is “interesting”, and he even thinks that it is “less costly” than other assumptions.
I think that we can understand, and resolve, these controversies if we distinguish clearly between p-abstractness and g-abstractness. The former is universally accepted, but for the latter, we do not have more than speculative proposals. Everyone posits abstract notions (categories, constructions, features, relations) to describe language-particular systems, and everyone recognizes that the choices are often determined by elegance and other subjective factors. So there is no real debate about p-abstractness. It is generally necessary, and the details are a matter of taste. (P-analyses with zero can always be rephrased if one wishes.)
G-abstractness is an entirely different matter. Are zeroes constrained in a particular way (e.g. by an Empty Category Principle?) Are transformations/operations constrained in a particular way, e.g. by having particular levels in level-ordered phonology and morphology? These are the sorts of questions that have kept general linguists busy for decades. There are many proposed answers to these questions, but there is no convergence among these answers, as far as I can tell. Linguists tend to work with the kinds of answers that they grew up with, and even though the debate on some of them is now perhaps less heated than in the past, this is not because we know more about the general picture than we knew forty years ago.
So it is unclear to me to what extent it is useful to debate the general properties of zeroes or transformations. I learn much more from studies that test claims about language universals, and these need to be stated in terms of comparative concepts, not in terms of universal building blocks. And while “zero” is often useful for description/analysis, it is not something that can be identified across languages. In comparative grammar, we do not need “zero”, and for this reason, I have recently argued that the key term grammatical marker should be used only for elements that are pronounced (i.e. morphs). Likewise, transformations are not something that can be identified across languages, and they play no important role in works such as the World atlas of language structures.
There used to be a time when it was widely thought that languages differed less in their “deep structures” than in their “surface structures”, and that by analyzing them in terms of transformations, we would be able to somehow identify the common core of languages. Chomsky (1965: 118) put it like this:
“Since the study of deep structure has not been the concern [of Greenbergian typology], it has not attempted to show a corresponding diversity of underlying structures, and, in fact, the evidence that has been accumulated in modern study of language does not appear to suggest anything of this sort… Insofar as attention is restricted to surface structures, the most that can be expected is the discovery of statistical tendencies, such as those presented by Greenberg (1963).”
Maybe there are still some linguists who think that we need to study languages “in depth” before we can make valid generalizations, but almost all large-scale studies of the world’s grammars have used the comparative-concept approach (striving for measurement uniformity), not the universal-building-block approach. So for such comparative grammatical studies of Human Language, zeroes and transformations can be mostly left aside. They are obviously valuable for p-analyses, but their role in g-linguistics is still unclear.
Aronoff, Mark. 1976. Word formation in generative grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam A. 1957. Syntactic structures. ’s-Gravenhage: Mouton.
Chomsky, Noam A. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cinque, Guglielmo. 1999. Adverbs and functional heads: A cross-linguistic approach. New York: 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.
Jakobson, Roman. 1939. Signe zéro. In Mélanges linguistiques offerts à Charles Bally, 143–152. Genève: Georg & Cie.
Marchand, Hans. 1969. The categories and types of present-day English word-formation: A synchronic-diachronic approach. Munich: C.H. Beck.