In a recent blogpost, David Adger replied to my earlier post about “abandoning innateness”, trying to explain to me how one can be a mainstream generative grammarian (MGGer) and still say that most of the technical devices of one’s analyses are not innate. (I’m saying “MGGer” here, because practitioners of HPSG have long been explicit that they do not assume that the devices of their framework are innate; cf. Borsley & Müller (2021), in the forthcoming HPSG handbook).
I’m glad that this exchange is taking place, and Adger’s post is clear and helpful. However, it does not really address the main issue that I have with innateness-rejecting MGG, namely that many of its argumentations for particular analyses make good sense only if the elements that are posited can be assumed to be the same across languages AND to exist in advance. But unless an element exists in advance (as an innate component of the language faculty), it cannot be identified in different ways while still existing in different languages (cf. Haspelmath 2018: §7). For example, one cannot claim that (i) all languages have a contrast between adjectives and verbs (cf. Baker 2003), AND (ii) different languages draw the distinction in quite diverse ways, AND (iii) the distinction is not innate (sensibly, Baker does indeed claim that the distinction is innate). This is a simple point of logic: If we are not dealing with natural kinds, then the same elements in different languages must be identified in the same way. When dealing with adjectives, we often do this implicitly: adjectives are defined semantically as ‘property concept words’. But if we reject this semantic criterion (as linguists often do when talking about word classes), then we get different categories in different languages – unless we claim that adjectives are natural kinds (i.e. that they are innate).
So what I have claimed (in the blogpost, and more explicitly in my 2021 paper “General linguistics must be based on universals”) is not that there is a problem with innateness of grammatical knowledge (let alone a problem with abstractness, as Adger seems to think). Clearly, we have special cognitive abilities that allow us to use language and that are not shared with other species, and these features of our innate cognition may well include domain-specific aspects.
The problem is that many MGGers use highly specific formal devices that are identified differently in different languages while claiming to be agnostic about their innateness. This seems to be incoherent. Moreover, a much-touted selling point of the Principles & Parameters (P&P) approach was its restrictiveness: not everything can be described by its mechanisms. If the innate toolbox can do certain things but not others, then the gaps in attested languages can be explained (I called this the restrictivist approach in 2014).
But Adger’s blogpost does not really address these two key points. He makes four larger points, of which the fourth (on placeholders) seems to be somewhat novel – but let me first address points (I–III).
(I) First, he says that the Principles & Parameters approach “enriched our understanding of the syntax of lots of different languages”, but this is too vague – any other approach would have “enriched” it in some way. My question has always been: Have we made discoveries that have turned out to be robust and were confirmed by subsequent research from different perspectives? Did it indeed “uncover some deep theoretical generalizations about human language in general?” (Surely, there are many mid-level generalizations, as listed informally by Peter Svenonius and published formally by Roberta D’Alessandro (in 2019), but these are explicitly not meant to be “deep theoretical generalizations”.) I do think that it inspired interesting work which made good sense on the older view that the principles and parameters are innate (Roberts 1996; Baker 2001), but most of the ambitious claims of the 1980s and 1990s have not held up to further scrutiny (I wrote about this in 2008; even Baker 2008 recognized that his hopes of discovering more and more deeper parameters did not pan out).
(II) Second, Adger justifies Minimalism by saying that “the organization of things in the world is simpler than it looks because that’s been a successful strategy for deepening understanding in the past”, which is not really relevant in the present context (and quite doubtful – many insights have been gained by considering the possibility that the world is a lot more complex, e.g. 100 chemical elements rather than the four classical ones). That simplicity should be valued is completely uncontroversial. Of course, Darwin’s Problem (“How did the Narrow Faculty of Language get so complex, given the apparently brief evolutionary time over which it appeared?”) is relevant, as it should indeed lead us to expect few domain-specific aspects of innate cognition. But this does not favour MGG-style minimalism – any approach that minimizes innate mechanisms will do (including almost all non-Chomskyan approaches). And it is odd to say that it is good when we find that there are no or few observed limits on diversity (as in Legate’s 2021 paper on different kinds of passive-like constructions). In view of Plato’s Problem (Chomsky 1986), we should be happy to find limits on diversity, rather than finding that there are fewer limits than we thought. Such diversity would be expected on a view of language learning that makes the task appear more tractable, not on a classical Chomskyan view. (I’m beginning to wonder: Has Chomsky not only added Darwin’s Problem to his thinking, but has he also stopped viewing acquisition as a central issue?)
(III) Third, Adger says that the Narrow Faculty of Language (NFL, = the domain-specific innate cognitive prerequisites for language) can be reduced in a different way: by “making the primitives of the theory fewer and more abstract, but with wider empirical reach”. He cites Harbour’s work on person forms, and to the extent that this is successful, it is indeed a good example of NFL-internal simplification. This would be analogous to the simplification that chemists achieved with Mendeleyev’s periodic table by reducing the hundreds of types of stuff that were known to (al)chemists to four dozen elements. In other words, it is not different from the Roberts-Baker P&P approach. Baker (2001) elaborates in rich (an entertaining) detail on the suggested similarities between chemical elements and the natural kinds of syntax.
Adger may be right that some of the authors that I cited have this “increased abstractness” view in mind when they deemphasize innateness, which is indeed probably the case for Kayne 2013 (and maybe I should not have included this quotation). I find some of the other quotations (by the younger colleagues) harder to interpret as subscribing to a (more abstract) natural-kinds view (G. Ramchand: “(Perhaps) everything that all languages have in common is highly abstract, cognitive and not specific to language”; D. Ott:“What the truly universal categories are, and at what level of abstraction they can be found, is just an empirical question”).
Moreover, Chomsky’s motivation for Minimalism does not seem to have been the finding that it is actually possible to reduce the mechanisms (as turned out to be the case in chemistry during the period between Lavoisier and Mendeleyev), but primarily the desirability of reduction. Chomsky never claimed, as far as I know, that reducing phrase structure and movement to a single mechanism (Merge) was empirically motivated. And for Harbour’s person-number features, there was never a particularly strong case to begin with that the Harley–Ritter features (or any other feature set) is innate, because person systems make pretty good functional sense and could have evolved independently in different languages, regardless of biocognitive constraints. So I do not see any strong motivation either for the rich innateness of the 1960s-1980s, or for the more recent abstractness-increasing reductions. But more importantly, in the present context: None of this removes the incoherence noted in the fourth paragraph above. When an element is not considered innate, it cannot be identified by different diagnostics in different languages. (Compare the analogy in medicine: When a disease is not due to an established natural-kind cause, such as a pathogen, we cannot diagnose the same disease in patients that have different symptoms; see Haspelmath 2015.) But generative linguists do this all the time, as illustrated by the following quotation from a recent paper:
“While the division of the lexicon into nouns and verbs is likely universal, the diagnostics for lexical classes are language-specific and can be highly obscure or subtle.” (Polinsky & Magyar 2020: 3)
The more controversial mechanisms of MGG analyses all have the same problem. This can be seen nicely in the recent debate about NP vs. DP: While Bruening (2009; 2020) argues in favour of a universal NP (with determiners as dependents rather than heads), Salzmann (2018) and Preminger (2020) argue for a universal DP – but each of these authors base their highly general claims on rather different phenomena in different languages. If NP and DP are thought to be innate categories, then this is a meaningful debate. But if they are merely preliminary notational devices, then the whole discussion is pointless.
Borsley & Müller (2021: §2.3) make a very similar point when they discuss an analysis of case English PPs (e.g. with me) from a Minimalist textbook, illustrated in their Figure 28.1:
The problem here is not the “unnecessary” complexity of derivation, but the assumption of uniformity (despite the surface word order) for which there is no language-particular evidence. That English PPs are Hungarian-like is possible (just as it is possible that nominals are DPs in all languages), but only if all these mechanisms are natural kinds (= are innate). Borsley & Müller say that such analyses would be reasonable if rich innateness were an established fact, but I am much more modest: I merely demand that one recognizes that one needs to hypothesize/posit innateness.
Adger does seem to recognize the need for innate elements, but he downplays the significance of current MGG analyses in his fourth point, where he introduces “placeholders”:
(IV) The abstract analyses and the elements posited in them (such as vP, nP, DP, AgrP) are “placeholders for a better understanding”. Current theories are “uncertain” anyway, and subject to future change. Current analyses are “not the final word”, but “stepping stones which have taken us further than we were, but there’s a long way to go still”. It would not be realistic to assume that “our theoretical posits are the right ones”. MGGers “adopt particular hypotheses as long as they do explanatory work”, but it’s OK if they turn out to have other explanations (completely outside of general syntax, or maybe of the “Third Factor” type). There is no “innateness hypothesis”, and instead we should be open-minded.
All this sounds eminently reasonable to me, but I still do not understand how it justifies MGG-type analyses. What kind of “explanatory work” is done by vP or DP (or X-bar theory, or Case assignment under abstract Agr, or a “binding theory” that covers reflexive pronouns and “traces”) unless it is assumed that it is the final word? It is well known that a lot of the argumentation in MGG is “theory-internal” – this is what some people have described as the “moving parts of the theory”. A concrete example of this is Preminger’s (2020) article in which he argues against Bruening’s (2020) recent defense of the “NP Hypothesis” against the “DP Hypothesis”. Preminger’s data are limited to a particular construction in Hebrew, where a noun (such as ‘shortage’ or “victory’) takes two arguments, as seen in his (3a):
The ordering of these elements is fixed, and this is what needs to be explained. Preminger claims that in order to derive this sentence, one needs to assume some higher functional category (probably DP), and that Bruening’s “NP Hypothesis” is not compatible with these data.
But of course, this is so only if one makes certain additional assumptions, and Preminger considers one alternative assumption in a footnote (n. 7):
“Assuming that the External Argument is not generated in a specifier position would … throw our understanding of the structural correlates of theta-assignment into chaos. We must therefore consider whether the payoff of such a move would justify the price. As best I can see, the answer is a resounding no.”
This kind of argumentation seems quite typical of MGG to me – one relies on proposals of the earlier literature and builds on these, positing as few additional mechanisms as possible. But this approach would make sense only if the earlier “theoretical posits” are thought to be “the right ones” – in other words, if these elements are (innate) natural kinds.
(Note that there is an even simpler way of describing the Hebrew facts, using ternary branching as in HPSG and Simpler Syntax (Culicover & Jackendoff 2005: Ch. 4); but this is not even considered as an option by Preminger, even though it would seem to be the most straightfoward description of the Hebrew facts. Preminger seems to have great confidence in the innateness of binary Merge.)
If there is no rich grammar blueprint (as had been thought in the 1960s), and if our current theories are uncertain and subject to future change, would it then make sense to write a paper about a simple Hebrew construction and use it to argue for a bigger point? Apparently Preminger still holds on to the earlier 20th century view (like Baker 2001; cf. Levin & Preminger 2015, which builds on Baker’s dependent case theory), but in any event, this kind of argumentation has long been extremely widespread in MGG, and inexplicably, this did not change after Chomsky began to suggest that much less is innate than had been thought earlier.
So when it comes to the larger picture, I have no disagreements with Adger – but when we get to the actual practice of analyzing grammatical patterns, MGG work keeps relying on the assumption of a rich grammar blueprint with many elements that must be given in advance (the kinds of things that are taught in textbooks such as Adger 2003). This is all well as long as one adopts the traditional restrictivist UG view (of which Roberts 1996 and Baker 2001 presented a fascinating vision). But if we question the presence of rich innate grammatical knowledge (which is now widely rejected because of Darwin’s Problem), and if we adopt Adger’s stance concerning the great uncertainty that surrounds all our work in theoretical syntax, it seems wiser to treat our grammatical metalanguages as notations, not as substantive theories (or as innate frameworks) – and to dissociate our general theories from the notations.
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