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Simpler Syntax by Peter W. Culicover

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We need Simpler Syntax, but we can do without a Grammar of the Gaps

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Newcastle University Libraries. Open University Library. University of Oxford Libraries. Queen Margaret University Library. Queen Mary University of London Library. University of Reading Library. University of St Andrews Library. Senate House Library, University of London. In contrast, the SS approach claims that there is ''no syntactic structure beyond that present at the surface'' and that the ''syntax-semantics interface The second, Structural Uniformity, also posits ''a ''hidden'' or ''underlying'' level of syntax'', claiming that an ''apparently defective or misordered [surface] structure is regular in underlying structure and becomes distorted in the course of derivation'' p.

From an SS point of view, MGG accounts of syntax that assume Interface Uniformity and Structural Uniformity end up ''increasing rather than decreasing the overall complexity of the grammar'' p. SS also shares with MGG the identification of the ''most important goal'' of linguistic theory as the characterization of the first principles of the generative tradition -- i. However they take issue with Chomsky's identification of ''real progress in linguistics'' as ''the discovery that certain features of given languages can be reduced to universal properties of language, and explained in terms of these deeper aspects of linguistic form'' Chomsky 35 , claiming that ''a theory of language stands a better chance of being learnable if its syntax can be shown to have less abstract machinery such as extra nodes, hidden elements and covert movements'' pp.

They also identify another kind of ''real progress'' in the ''discovery of how certain features of given languages, for which there is no UG input, can nevertheless be learned by the child from the input'', the most obvious of these being the ''voluminous facts of vocabulary'' p. In terms of the distinction between technological and conceptual aspects of theory introduced above, the first feature relates to the ''technology'' of representing syntactic structure. MGG does this in terms of derivations whereby ''linguistic structures are constructed by applying a sequence of rules, each applying to the output of the previous step''; there is in this view an ''inherent directionality in the logic of sentence construction'' p.

In contrast, SS works in terms of constraints whereby ''each constraint determines or licenses a small piece of linguistic structure or relation between two small pieces'', with the structure being ''acceptable'' overall ''if it conforms to all applicable constraints'': such an approach requires ''no logical ordering among constraints'' and therefore ''readily lends itself to interpretations in terms of performance'' p.

The derivational versus constraint- based distinction between MGG and SS relates to a further contrast between the ''hidden levels'' posited by MGG, and noted in the discussion of Interface Uniformity and Structural Uniformity above, as opposed to the ''monostratal'' model of SS, the latter providing a more realistic model for acquisition.

SS in contrast has a ''parallel architecture'' which consists of ''parallel generative components, stated in constraint based form'' of phonology, syntax and semantics, ''each of which creates its own type of combinatorial complexity''.

Simpler Syntax

The structures generated by these separate components are mapped onto each other by means of ''interface components'', and the ''lexicon'' cuts across all three, with ''lexical items Above all this is an overarching ''Conceptual Structure'' which is ''not part of language per se'' but is rather the ''mental structure which language encodes into communicable form'', encoding such concepts as ''the categories in terms of which the world is understood, and the relations among various individuals and categories'' p.

If ''independently motivated distinctions in Conceptual Structure are sufficient to account for a linguistic structure A particularly useful feature of these chapters -- which I will not attempt even to summarise here -- are the regular summary diagrams, which show how particular theoretical assumptions led on to, or provided the basis for, later developments for example, Fig 20 on p. Chapter 4 then lays out in detail the ''Flat Structure'' model of SS. To briefly summarize it here, syntactic structure in SS is taken to be a ''linearized hierarchical tree structure whose nodes consist of syntactic features'' p.

In contrast to common practice in MGG and other theories, the ''terminal nodes'' in each tree are not ''full lexical items'' but rather ''the purely syntactic features of lexical items'', with the ''phonological and semantic features of words'' appearing only in the ''phonological and semantic structure respectively'' pp. This is in line with the ''combinatorial autonomy'' of these three main levels in SS whereby each generates its own combinatorial structures - cf pp.

These terminal nodes are ''chosen from the set of Xo or lexical categories Along with MGG's ''hidden levels'' of syntax, SS also ''give[s] up entirely the notion of movement in syntax'' with ''what MGG has treated as syntactic movement from position X to position Y [being] replaced by a principle in the interface'' which specifies that ''a constituent bearing such-and-such a semantic role may appear either in position X or position Y depending on various conditions'' p.

Furthermore, in SS the ''phrase structure rules'' are divided into ''principles of constituency and principles of linear order'' thus giving the model the flexibility to account for ''some autonomous syntactic principles that determine order'' as well as ''other facts about order that depend on semantics'' pp. It should prove thought-provoking not just for scholars working within generative linguistics, for whom it will provide many novel and insightful solutions to some very old questions within that paradigm, but also for linguists from outside the generative tradition, who will find in it one of the very few historically and applicationally contextualised accounts of the preoccupations of generative linguistics.

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It is this second readership, to which I personally belong, that I would like to address here, with some thoughts on the claims made by the Simpler Syntax SS model and its place in the wider linguistic s universe. Their main critique of the ''simplicity'' requirements for Universal Grammar UG within both Generative Semantics and the Minimalist Program -- in terms of minimizing the distinct components of grammar and the distinct principles of grammar, respectively -- is that such a requirement only leads to complexity elsewhere in the grammar.

As they remark earlier in their argument, this goal of ''accounting for language acquisition gives empirical teeth to the desire to minimize the cross-linguistically variable principles of grammar'' p. This empirical focus, though itself open to criticism see below , gives the arguments for the SS model a seriousness and a ''reality'' that more theoretically- focused accounts often lack.

How the SS model itself measures up against the empirical facts, which are of course as ''facts'' - as opposed to raw data - constructs of the particular theoretical model adopted, is a harder question to answer.

Syntax: Intro to Linguistics [Video 5]

The first is the familiar quotation from T. Eliot's Four Quartets about the goal of exploration being '' However, the second, simply sourced to ''Morris Halle'', and presumably representing a favourite saying of his recalled from the authors' student days at MIT, makes the rather larger claim: ''I'm not here to tell you the news, I'm here to tell you the truth''. How for example is one to make sense of a claim like the following that the ''first principles of generative grammar Now this is certainly not in the same league as the extreme but not exactly rare claim by some generative linguists, for example Bickerton, in a recent argument addressed to musicologists, that ''''[w]e have found out more about human language in the last thirty years than we did in the preceding three millennia'' , but it exhibits a similar flavour of self- fulfilling prophecy.

Bickerton goes on to claim that ''[w]e can now be sure that all human languages share a number of nonobvious characteristics, and that these characteristics derive directly from human biology'' ibid. Similarly, since cognitive science as currently constituted has been profoundly influenced by generative linguistics, it would be surprising if it DIDN'T provide confirming evidence for that paradigm.

The sort of mind-set revealed by examples like this is one in which there seems to be little awareness of the crucial distinction between the phenomenon itself and the theoretical characterisation of that phenomenon, even though we have no access to the former except through the latter. As I said above, ''facts'' are created by ''theories'', and so in characterising any phenomenon we need to be aware of the crucial ontological gap between the two.

It is, I think, worrying for the SS ''enterprise'' that these kinds of claims bear directly on the main empirical ''guide'' for the form syntactic theorising takes, that of the relationship of UG to language acquisition. Such a conceptualization of language acquisition leaves itself open to critique on two main grounds. However, as Hockett pointed out very early on , there are in fact two distinct kinds of knowing involved in the different cases.

The first, for which Hockett used the Chinese verb hui 'to know, to be able to', is the ''know how to'' of the philosophers -- referring to the kinds of skills or habits that are learned without conscious analysis.


The second kind, for which Hockett used the Chinese verb zhidao 'to know', is the ''know that'' kind of knowledge, factual, explicit, analytical. Secondly, on purely empirical grounds, treating the question of ''how the child becomes grammatically competent so rapidly and effortlessly'' p. It may well be true that at the time of the foundation of the generative paradigm the relevant empirical studies had simply not been done, but this is no longer the case. To mention only one tradition within linguistics, the body of work that stems from Halliday's study Learning how to mean, including Painter Into the Mother Tongue, both dealing with protolanguage and the transition into the adult language, and continuing with an extended study of the speech of older children directed by Hasan e.

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  7. Hasan , shows very clearly that an enormous amount of language learning can be explained in terms of the interaction of the child with its caregiver. At one point in his lively and strongly expressed view of modern linguistics, Sampson remarks on the fact that the students at MIT used to dub the course they took on non-generative linguistic theories ''the bad guys''. They comment as follows p. He is asserting not only architectural syntactocentrism, which is a legitimate theoretical position, but also a more dogmatic, perhaps even imperialistic, syntactocentrism.