A Response to some comments by Omer Preminger on my comments on Chomsky’s UCLA Lectures

On his blog, Omer Preminger posted some comments on my comments on Chomsky’s UCLA Lectures, in which he argues that “committing oneself to the brand of minimalism that Chomsky has been preaching lately means committing oneself to a relatively strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” His argument goes as follows.

Language variation exists. To take Preminger’s example, “in Kaqchikel, the subject of a transitive clause cannot be targeted for wh-interrogation, relativization, or focalization. In English, it can.” 21st century Chomskyan minimalism, and specifically the SMT, says that this variation comes from (a) variation between the lexicon and (b) the interaction of the lexical items with either the Sensory-Motor system or the Conceptual-Intentional system. Since speakers of a language can process and pronounce some ungrammatical expressions—some Kaqchikel speakers can pronounce an equivalent of (1) but judge it as unacceptable—some instances of variation are due to the interaction of the Conceptual-Intentional system with the lexicon.

(1) It was the dog who saw the child.

It follows from this that either (a) the Conceptual-Intentional systems of English-speakers and Kaqchikel-speakers differ from each other or (b) English-speakers can construct Conceptual-Intentional objects that Kaqchikel-speakers cannot (and vice-versa, I assume). Option a, Preminger asserts, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, while option b is tantamount to (a non-trivial version of) it. So, the SMT leads unavoidably to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

I don’t think Preminger’s argument is sound, and even if it were, its conclusion isn’t as dire as he makes it out to be. Let’s take these one at a time in reverse order.

The version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that Preminger has deduced from the SMT is something like the following—the Conceptual-Intentional (CI) content of a language is the set of all (distinct) CI objects constructed by that language and different languages have different CI content. This hypothesis, it seems, turns on how we distinguish between CI objects—far from a trivial question. Obviously contradictory, contrary, and logically independent sentences are CI-distinct from each other, as are non-mutually entailing sentences and co-extensive but non-co-intentisive expresions, but what about true paraphrases? Assuming there is some way in Kaqchikel of expressing the proposition expressed by (1), then we can avoid Sapir-Whorf by saying that paraphrases express identical CI-objects. This avoidance, however, is only temporary. Take (2) and (3), for instance.

(2) Bill sold secrets to Karla.
(3) Karla bought secrets from Karla.

If (2) and (3) map to the same CI object, what does that object “look” like? Is (2) the “base form” and (3) is converted to it or vice versa? Do some varieties of English choose (2) and others (3), and wouldn’t that make these varieties distinct languages?

If (2) and (3) are distinct, however, it frees us—and more importantly, the language learner—from having to choose a base form, but it leads us immediately to the question of what it means to be a paraphrase, or a synonym. I find this a more interesting theoretical question, than any of those raised above, but I’m willing to listen if someone thinks otherwise.

So, we end up with some version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis no matter which way we go. I realize this is a troubling result for many generative linguists as linguistic relativity, along with behaviourism and connectionism, is one of the deadly sins of linguistics. For me, though, Sapir-Whorf suffers from the same flaw that virtually all broad hypotheses of the social sciences suffer from—it’s so vague that it can be twisted and contorted to meet any data. In the famous words of Wolfgang Pauli, it’s not even wrong. If we were dealing with atoms and quarks, we could just ignore such a theory, but since Sapir-Whorf deals with people, we need two be a bit more careful. One need not think very hard to see how Sapir-Whorf or any other vague social hypothesis can be used to excuse, or even encourage, all varieties of discrimination and violence.

The version of Sapir-Whorf that Preminger identifies—the one that I discuss above–seems rather trivial to me, though.

There’s also a few problems with Preminger’s argument that jumped out at me, of which I’ll highlight two. First, in his discussion of the Sensory-Motor (SM) system, he seems to assume that any expression that is pronouncable by a speaker is a-ok with that speaker’s SM system—He seems to assume this because he asserts that any argument to the contrary is specious. Since the offending Kaqchikel string is a-ok with the SM system it must run afoul of either the narrow syntax (unlikely according to SMT) or the CI system. This line of reasoning, though, is flawed, as we can see by applying it’s logic to a non-deviant sentence, like the English version of (1). Following Preminger’s reasoning, the SM system tells us how to pronounce (1) and the CI system uses the structure of (1) generated by Merge for internal thought. This, however, leaves out the step of mapping the linear pronunciation of (1) to its hierarchical structure. Either (a) then Narrow Syntax does this mapping, (b) the SM system does this mapping, or (c) some third system does this mapping. Option a, of course, violates SMT, while option b contradicts Preminger’s premise, this leaves option c. Proposing a system in between pronunciation and syntax would allow us to save both SMT and Preminger’s notion of the SM system, but it would also invalidate Preminger’s over all argument.

The second issue is the assumption that non-SM ungrammaticality means non-generation. This is a common way of thinking of formal grammars, but very early on in the generative enterprise, researchers (including Chomsky) recognized that it was far to rigid—that there was a spectrum from prefect grammaticality to word salad that couldn’t be captured by the generated/not-generated dichotomy. Even without considering degrees of grammaticality, though, we can find examples of ungrammatical sentences that can be generated. Consider (4) as compared to (5).

(4) *What did who see?
(5) Who saw what?

Now, (4) is ungrammatical because wh-movement prefers to target the highest wh-expression, which suggests that in order to judge (4) as ungrammatical, a speaker needs to generate it. So, the Kaqchikel version of (1) might be generated by the grammar, but such generation would be deviant somehow.

Throughout his argument, though, Preminger says that he is only “tak[ing] Chomsky at his word”—I’ll leave that to the reader to judge. Regardless, though, if Chomsky had made such an assumptions in an argument, it would be a flawed argument, but it wouldn’t refute the SMT.

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Omer Preminger
3 months ago

A couple of thing. First:

Proposing a system in between pronunciation and syntax would allow us to save both SMT and Preminger’s notion of the SM system, but it would also invalidate Preminger’s over all argument.

This is incorrect. Proposing a system between pronunciation and syntax would be in blatant violation of the SMT, since such an object would be by definition a language-specific entity, and the SMT holds that the only language-specific cognitive mechanism is Merge.
Second, the rejection of non-generation is both conceptually flawed and empirically untenable.
Conceptually: https://omer.lingsite.org/blogpost-on-so-called-degrees-of-grammaticality/
Empirically: https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003447
I don’t expect you to be swayed by either of these last two pieces, but I personally have not seen any good counterarguments to either.

Omer Preminger
3 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

I’ve written a more detailed response here: https://omer.lingsite.org/blogpost-chomsky-and-whorf-walk-into-a-bar/#comment-342 (just because I find the ability to preview and edit comments over there more convenient, not for any other reason)