Generative and nongenerative diversity linguists do not often engage in debates on general issues, but the topic of word-classes (nouns, verbs and adjectives) seems to be an area where some kind of dialogue seems to be not impossible (cf. Baker 2003, Croft 2009, and the 2005 LSA Institute class taught jointly by Baker and Croft, presenting their contrasting approaches to the students). Now the open-peer-commentary journal Theoretical Linguistics has published a very nice target article on word-classes in Chamorro by Sandy Chung (Chung 2012a), with commentaries by various linguists, including three nongenerativists (Bill Croft, Eva van Lier, and myself). In a nutshell, Chung argues that a more detailed study of Chamorro shows that it has a noun-verb and a noun-adjective distinction after all, contrary to Topping’s (1973) analysis, where Chamorro has just two major word-classes, Class I (transitive verbs) and Class II (others). Chung thus sees her in-depth study as supporting the claim that the categories of noun, verb and adjective are universal (Baker 2003). The really nice thing about her article is that it provides a wealth of new data on Chamorro (with many naturally occurring examples), plus a general discussion that is accessible also to non-insiders.
The commentaries by Croft & van Lier (2012) and by myself (Haspelmath 2012) are very similar in the general thrust: We argue that if there is no principled limit on the kinds of constructions that can be used as “diagnostics”, many different groupings of words could be justified, and there is no particular reason to privilege the noun/verb/adjective classification (unless one has decided in advance that one wants to find evidence for it). In my own commentary, I sharpen the critique by noting that Chung’s generative (and thus aprioristic) approach is in danger of leading to consequences quite opposite to what she had intended: In the target article, she calls for “understudied languages to be investigated more intensively and in greater depth”, because “only then will we be able to come to grips with the full potential of universal grammar” (Chung 2012a: 50). But if one assumes a priori categories, then often the kind of am priori categories that dominate the discussion are the ones of English and other overstudied languages. So we fall into the ethnocentric trap: We look for evidence for our familiar categories, find some, ignore all other patterns, and conclude that all languages are like English or Latin. A non-aprioristic approach that assumes no pre-established categories thus has a greater chance of uncovering the full potential of linguistic diversity and unity.
In her reply to the commentaries, Chung (2012b: 141-142) writes:
“I take these remarks…to raise the following objection to the generative enterprise. First, generative grammar is a theory with deductive structure (“aprioristic”). Second, the universals proposed in generative grammar are often supported by evidence from what Haspelmath calls “the major languages”… Because of this, understudied languages cannot have a real impact on theoretical questions.”
She then objects that
“the conclusion does not follow. Theories with deductive structure lead to hypotheses that can be evaluated on the basis of empirical evidence, including evidence from understudied languages.”
Of course Chung is right that the conclusion does not follow in a strict sense. What I meant was that in practice, the influential hypotheses about universal grammar tend to come from the major languages, simply because these are known by most linguists. Someone claiming that all languages are like Chamorro in that they have two major word-classes (Class I and Class II) would not find many adherents, even though the claim is actually quite reasonable (transitive and intransitive words are strikingly different in that only transitive words take an object, and this applies to all languages).
The problem is not the “deductive structure” of generative linguistics. All scientific activity is partly deductive and partly inductive. It may be true that generative linguistics puts more emphasis on deduction that some other approaches, but in the area of word-class universals, this is surely not the case. Baker’s (2003) theory is not more deductive than Croft’s (2000) theory. What does distinguish the two is the crucial role of a priori categories in Baker’s theory and the emphasis on non-aprioristic language-particular analysis in Croft’s. Like all generative linguists, Baker and Chung assume that languages select from a universal, pre-established set of categories or features that is given a priori to its learners. But this is not the same as “deductive structure”. One may assume a priori features and not deduce them from anything else, or a priori features that can be deduced from something more general, or language-particular features that can be deduced, or purely inductive language-particular features.
Unfortunately, generative grammarians have so far not addressed the powerful arguments against universal, a priori features and categories, and Chung’s short reply to the commentaries is no exception to this general silence. So the real debate about the core issues separating generative and nongenerative linguists has still not taken place.
Chung, Sandra. 2012a. Are lexical categories universal? The view from Chamorro. Theoretical Linguistics 38(1-2). 1–56.
Chung, Sandra. 2012b. Reply to the commentaries. Theoretical Linguistics 38(1-2).
Croft, William. 2000. Parts of speech as language universals and as language-particular categories. In Petra M. Vogel & Bernard Comrie (eds.), Approaches to the typology of word classes, 65–102. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Croft, William. 2009. Methods for finding language universals in syntax. In Sergio Scalise, Elisabetta Magni, & Antonietta Bisetto (eds.), Universals of language today, 145–164. Berlin: Springer.
Croft, William & Eva van Lier. 2012. Language universals without universal categories. Theoretical Linguistics 38(1-2).
Haspelmath, Martin. 2012. Escaping ethnocentrism in the study of word-class universals. Theoretical Linguistics 38(1-2).
Topping, Donald. 1973. Chamorro reference grammar. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.