How do we get good at using language?

Or: What the hell is a figure of speech anyway?

At a certain level I have the same level of English competence as Katie Crutchfield, Josh Gondelman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This may seem boastful to a delusional degree of me, but we’re all native speakers of a North American variety of English of a similar age, and this is the level of competence that linguists tend to care about. Indeed, according to our best theories of language, the four of us are practically indistinguishable.

Of course, outside of providing grammaticality judgements, I wouldn’t place myself anywhere near those three, each of whom could easily be counted among the most skilled users of English living. But what does it mean for people to have varied levels of skill in their language use? And is this even something that linguistic theory should be concerned about?

Linguists, of course, have settled on 5 broad levels of description of a given language

  1. Phonetics
  2. Phonology
  3. Morphology
  4. Syntax
  5. Semantics

It seems quite reasonable to say we can break down language skill along these lines. So, skilled speakers can achieve a desire effect by manipulating their phonetics, say by raising their voices, hitting certain sounds in a particular way, or the like. Likewise, phonological theory can provide decent analyses of rhyme, alliteration, rhythm etc. Skilled users of a language also know when to use (morphologically) simple vs complex words, and which word best conveys the meaning they intend. Maybe a phonetician, phonologist, morphologist, or semanticist, will disagree, but these seem like fairly straightforward to formalize, because they all involve choosing from among a finite set of possibilities—a language only has so many lexical entries to choose from. What does skill mean in the infinite realm of syntax? What does it mean to choose the correct figure of speech? Or even more basically, how does one express any figure of speech in the terms of syntactic theory?

It’s not immediately obvious that there is any way to answer these questions in a generative theory for the simple reason that figures of speech are global properties of expressions, while grammatical theory deals in local interactions between parts of expressions. Take an example from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

(1) Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

There are three syntactic processes employed by Lincoln here that I can point out:

(2) Right Node Raising
Fondly do we hope that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away, and fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. -> (1)

(3) Subject-Aux Inversion
Fondly we hope … -> (1)

(4) Adverb fronting
We hope fondly… -> (1)

Each of these represents a choice—conscious or otherwise—that Lincoln made in writing his speech and, while most generative theories allow for choices to be made, they are not at the same levels.

Minimalist theories, for instance, allow for choices at each stage of sentence construction—you can either move constituent, add a constituent, or stop the derivation. Each of (3) and (4) could conceivably be represented as a single choice, but it seems highly unlikely that (2) could. In fact, there is nothing approaching a consensus as to how right node raising is achievable, but it is almost certainly a complex phenomenon. It’s not as if we have a singular operation RNR(X) which changes a mundane sentence into something like (1), yet Lincoln and other writers and orators seem to have it as a tool in their rhetorical toolboxes.

Rhetorical skill of this kind suggest the possibility of a meta-grammatical knowledge, which all speakers of a language have to some extent, and which highly skilled users have in abundance. But what could this meta-grammatical knowledge consist of? Well, if the theoretical representation of a sentence is a derivation, then the theoretical representation of a figure of speech would be a class of derivations. This suggests an ability to abstract over derivations in some way and therefore, it suggests that we are able to acquire not just lexical items, but also abstractions of derivations.

This may seem to contradict the basic idea of Minimalism by suggesting two grammatical systems and indeed, it might be a good career move on my part to declare that the fact of figures of speech disproves the SMT, but I don’t see any contradiction inherent here. In fact, what I’m suggesting here and have argued for elsewhere is something that is a fairly basic observation from computer science and mathematical logic—that the distinction between operations and operands is not that distinct. I am merely suggesting that part of a mature linguistic knowledge is higher-order grammatical functions—functions that operate on other functions and/or yield other functions—and that, since any recursive system is probably able to represent higher-order functions, we should absolutely expect our grammars to allow for them.

Assuming this sort of abstraction is available and responsible for figures of speech, our task as theorists then is to figure out what form the abstraction takes, and how it is acquired, so I can stop comparing myself to Katie Crutchfield, Josh Gondelman, and AOC.

De re/De dicto ambiguities and the class struggle

If you follow the news in Ontario, you likely heard that our education workers are demanding an 11.7% wage raise in the current round of bargaining with the provincial government. If, however, you are more actively engaged with this particular story—i.e., you read past the headline, or you read the union’s summary of bargaining proposals—you may have discovered that, actually, the education workers are demanding a flat annual $3.25/hr increase across the board. On the surface, these seem to be two wildly different assertions that can’t both be true. One side must be lying! Strictly speaking, though, neither side is lying, but one side is definitely misinforming.

Consider a version of the headline (1) that supports the government’s line.

(1) Union wants 11.7% raise for Ontario education workers in bargaining proposal.

This sentence is ambiguous. More specifically is shows a de re/de dicto ambiguity. The classic example of such an ambiguity is in (2).

(2) Alex wants to marry a millionaire.

There is one way of interpreting this in which Alex wants to get married and one of his criteria for a spouse is that they be a millionaire. This is the de dicto (lit. “of what is said”) interpretation of (2). The other way of interpreting it is that Alex is deeply in love with a particular person and wants to marry them. It just so happens that Alex’s prospective spouse is a millionaire—a fact which Alex may or may not know. This is the de re (lit. “of the thing”) interpretation of (2). Notice how (2) can describe wildly different realities—for instance, Alex can despise millionaires as a class, but unknowingly want to marry a millionaire.

Turning back to our headline in (1), what are the different readings? The de dicto interpretation is one in which the union representatives sit down at the bargaining table and say something like “We demand an 11.7% raise”. The de re interpretation is one in which the union representatives demanded, say, a flat raise that happens to come out to an 11.7% raise for those workers with the lowest wages when you do the math. The de re interpretation is compatible with the assertions made by the union, so it’s probably the accurate interpretation.

So, (1) is, strictly speaking, not false under one interpretation. It is misinformation, though, because it deliberately introduces a substantive ambiguity in a way that, the alternative headline in (3) does not.

(3) Union wants $3.25/hr raise for Ontario education workers in bargaining proposal

Of course (3) has the de re/de dicto ambiguity—all expressions of desire do—but both interpretations would accurately describe the actual situation. Someone reading the headline (3) would be properly informed regardless of how they interpreted it, while (1) leads some readers to believe a falsehood.

What’s more, I think it’s reasonable to call the headline in (1) deliberate misinformation.

The simplest way to report the union’s bargaining positions would be to simply report it—copy and paste from their official summary. To report the percentage increase as they did, someone had to do the arithmetic to convert absolute terms to relative terms—a simple step, but an extra step nonetheless. Furthermore, to report a single percentage increase, they had to look only at one segment of education workers—the lowest-paid segment. Had they done the calculation on all education workers, they would have come up with a range of percentages, because $3.25 is 11.7% of $27.78, but 8.78% of 37.78, and so on. So, misinforming the public by publishing (1) instead of (3) involved at least two deliberate choices.

It’s worth asking why misinform in this way. A $3.25/hr raise is still substantial and the government could still argue that it’s too high, so why misinform? One reason is that puts workers in the position of explaining that it’s not a bald-faced lie, but it’s misleading, making us seem like pedants. but I think there’s another reason for the government to push the 11.7% figure, it plays into and furthers an anti-union trope that we’re all familiar with.

Bosses always paint organized labour as lazy, greedy, and corrupt—”Union leaders only care about themselves only we bosses care about workers and children.” They especially like to claim that unionized workers, since they enjoy higher wages and better working conditions, don’t care about poor working folks.[1]Indeed there are case in which some union bosses have pursued gains for themselves at the expense of other workers—e.g., construction Unions endorsing the intensely anti-worker Ontario PC Party … Continue reading The $3.25/hr raise demand, however, reveals these tropes as lies.

For various reasons, different jobs, even within a single union, have unequal wages. These inequalities can be used as a wedge to keep workers fighting amongst themselves rather than together against their bosses. Proportional wage increases maintain and entrench those inequalities—if everyone gets a 5% bump, the gap between the top and bottom stays effectively the same. Absolute wage increases, however, shrink those inequalities. Taking the example from above a $37.78/hr worker makes 1.33x the $27.78/hr worker, but after a $3.25/hr raise for both the gap narrow slightly to 1.29x, and continues to do so. So, contrary to the common trope, union actions show solidarity rather than greed.[2]Similar remarks can be made about job actions, which are often taken as proof that workers are inherently lazy. On the contrary, strikes are physically and emotionally grueling and rarely taken on … Continue reading

So what’s the takeaway here? It’s frankly unreasonable to expect ordinary readers to do a formal semantic analysis of their news, though journalists could stand to be a bit less credulous of claims like (1). My takeaway is that this is just more evidence of my personal maxim that people in positions of power lie and mislead whenever it suits them as long as no one questions them. Also, maybe J-schools should have required Linguistics training.

References

References
1 Indeed there are case in which some union bosses have pursued gains for themselves at the expense of other workers—e.g., construction Unions endorsing the intensely anti-worker Ontario PC Party because they love building pointless highways and sprawling suburbs
2 Similar remarks can be made about job actions, which are often taken as proof that workers are inherently lazy. On the contrary, strikes are physically and emotionally grueling and rarely taken on lightly

Some good news on the publication front

Today I woke up to an email from the editor of Biolinguistics informing me that my manuscript “A parallel derivation theory of adjuncts” had been accepted for publication. I was quite relieved, especially since I had been expecting some news about my submission for a couple of days—the ability to monitor the progress of submissions on a journal’s website is a decidedly mixed blessing—and there was a definite possibility in my mind that it could have been rejected.

It was also a relief because it’s been a long road with this paper. I first wrote about the kernel of its central idea—that syntactic adjuncts were entirely separate objects from their “hosts”—in my thesis, and I presented it a couple of times within the University of Toronto Linguistics Department a few times. I first realized that it had some legs when it was accepted as a talk at the 2020 LSA Meeting in New Orleans, and I started working on it in earnest in the spring and summer of 2020, submitting the first manuscript version to a different journal in August 2020.

If you follow me on Twitter, you saw my reactions to the peer-review process in real time, but it’s worth summarizing. Versions of this manuscript underwent peer-review at multiple journals and in every case there were one or two constructive reviews—some positive reviews, and some negative reviews that nevertheless pointed out serious but fixable issues—but invariably there was one reviewer who was clearly hostile to the manuscript—there was often sarcasm and vague comments.

I’m sure the manuscript improved over the various submissions, but I believe that the main reason that the paper will finally be published is because the editor of Biolinguistics, Kleanthes Grohmann, recognized and agreed with me that one of the reviewers was being unreasonable, so I definitely owe him my gratitude.

There’s more edits to go, but you can look forward to seeing my paper in Biolinguistics in the near future.

Why are some ideas so sticky? A hypothesis

Anyone who has tried to articulate a new idea or criticize old ones may have noticed that some ideas are washed away relatively easily, while others seem to actively resist even the strongest challenges—some ideas are stickier than others. In some cases, there’s an obvious reason for this stickiness—in some cases there’s even a good reason for it. Some ideas are sticky because they’ve never really been interrogated. Some are sticky because there are powerful parts of society that depend on them. Some are sticky because they’re true, or close to true. But I’ve started to think there’s another reason an idea can be sticky—the amount of mental effort people put into understanding the idea as students.

Take, for instance, X-bar theory. I don’t think there’s some powerful cabal propping it up, it’s not old enough to just be taken for granted, and Chomsky’s Problems of Projection papers showed that it was not really tenable. Yet X-bar persists. Not just in how syntacticians draw trees, or how they informally talk about them, but I remember commentary on my definition of minimal search here involved puzzlement about why I didn’t simply formalize the idea that specifiers were invisible to search followed by more puzzlement when I explained that the notion of specifier was unformulable.

In my experience, the stickiness of X-bar theory—and syntactic projection/labels more broadly—doesn’t manifest itself in an attempt to rebut arguments against it, but in attempts to save it—to reconstitute it in a theory that doesn’t include it.[1]My reading of Zeijstra’s chapter in this volume is as one such attempt This is very strange behaviour—X-bar is a theoretical construct, it’s valid insofar as it is coherent and empirically useful. Why are syntacticians fighting for it? I wondered about this for a while and then I remembered my experience learning X-bar and teaching it—it’s a real challenge. It’s probably the first challenging theoretical construct that syntax students are exposed to. It tends to be presented as a fait accompli, so students just have to learn how it functions. As a result, those students who do manage to figure it out are proud of it and defend it like someone protecting their cherished possessions.[2]I think I may be describing “effort justification,” but I’m basing this just on the Wikipedia article

Of course, it’s a bit dangerous to speculate about the psychological motivations of others, but I’m certain I’ve had this reaction in the past when someone’s challenged an idea that I at one point struggled to learn. And I’ve heard students complain about the fact that every successive level of learning syntax starts with “everything you learned last year is wrong”—or at least that’s the sense they get. So, I have a feeling there’s at least a kernel of truth to my hypothesis. Now, how do I go about testing it?


Addendum

As I was writing this, I remembered something I frequently think when I’m preparing tests and exams that I’ve thus far only formulated as a somewhat snarky question:

How much of our current linguistic theory depends on how well it lends itself to constructing problem sets and exam questions?

References

References
1 My reading of Zeijstra’s chapter in this volume is as one such attempt
2 I think I may be describing “effort justification,” but I’m basing this just on the Wikipedia article

Some idle thoughts on the arguments for semantic externalism/internalism

This semester I’m teaching an intro semantics course for the first time and I decided to use Saeed’s Semantics as a textbook. Its seems like a good textbook; it gives a good survey of all the modern approaches to semantics—internalist, externalist, even so-called cognitive semantics—though the externalist bias is clear if you know what to look for. For instance, the text is quick to bring up the famous externalist thought experiments—Putnam’s robotic cats, Quine’s gavagai, etc—to undercut the internalist approaches, but doesn’t really seem to present the internalist critiques and counterarguments. So, I’ve been striving to correct that in my lectures.

While I was preparing my most recent lecture, something struck me. More precisely, I was suddenly able to put words to something that’s bothered me for a while about the whole debate: The externalist case is strongest for natural kinds, but the internalist case is strongest for human concepts. Putnam talks about cats and water, Kripke talks about tigers and gold, while Katz talks about bachelors and sometimes artifacts. This is not to say that the arguments on either side are unanswerable—Chomsky, I think has provided pretty good arguments that even, for natural kinds, our internal concepts are quite complicated, and there are many thorny issues for internalist approaches too—but they do have slightly different empirical bases, which no doubt inform their approach—if your theory can handle artifact concepts really well, you might be tempted to treat everything that way.

I don’t quite know what to make of this observation yet, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot about it.


There’s also a potential, but maybe half-baked, political implication to this observation. Natural kinds, are more or less constant in that, while they can be tamed and used by humans, we can’t really change them that much, and thinking that you can, say, turn lead into gold would mark you as a bit of a crackpot. Artifacts and social relations, on the other hand, are literally created by free human action. If you view the world with natural kinds at the center, you may be led to the view that the world has its own immutable laws that we can maybe harness, maybe adapt to, but never change.

If, on the other hand, your theory centers artifacts and social relations, then you might be led to the conclusion, as expressed by the late David Graeber, that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”

But, of course, I’m just speculating here.

Unmoored theory

I’ve written before about the dichotomy of descriptive vs theoretical sciences, but I’ve recently noticed another apparent dichotomy within theoretical sciences—expansionary vs focusing sciences. Expansionary sciences are those whose domain tends to expand—(neo)classical economics seems to claim all human interaction in its domain; formal semantics now covers pragmatics, hand gestures, and monkey communication—while focusing sciences tend to rather constant domain or even a shrinking one—chemistry today is about pretty much the same things as it was in the 17th century; generative syntactic theory is still about the language faculty. Assuming this is true,[1]It’s pretty much a tautology that a science’s domain will either grow, stay constant, or shrink over time the question is, whether it reflects some underlying difference between these sciences. I’d like to argue that the distinction follows from how firm its foundations are, and in particular what I’ll call its empirical conjecture.

Every scientific theory, I think, basically takes the form of a conjoined sentence “There are these things/phenomena in the world and they act like this.” The second conjunct is the formal system that give a theory its deductive power. The first conjunct is the empirical conjecture, and it turns the deductions of the formal system into predictions. While every science that progresses does so by positing new sorts of invisible entities, categories, etc., they all start with more or less familiar entities, categories, etc.—planets, metals, persons, etc. This link to the familiar, is the empirical foundation of a science. Sciences with a firm foundation are those whose empirical conjecture can be uncontroversially explained to a lay person or even an expert critic operating in good faith.

Contemporaries of, say, Robert Boyle might have thought the notion of corpuscles insanity, but they wouldn’t disagree that matter exists, exists in different forms, and that some of those forms interact in regular ways. Even the fiercest critic of UG, provided they are acting in good faith, would acknowledge that humans have a capacity for language and that that capacity probably has to do with our brains.

The same, I think, cannot be said about (neo)classical economics or formal semantics.[2]Now obviously, there’s a big difference between the two fields—neoclassical economics is extremely useful to the rich and powerful since it let’s them justify just about any … Continue reading Classical economics starts with the conjecture that there are these members of the species homo economicus—the perfectly rational, self-interested, utility maximizing agent—and derives theorems from there. This is obviously a bad characterization of humans. It is simultaneously too dim of a view of humans—we behave altruistically and non-individualistically all the time—and one that gives us far too much credit—we are far from perfectly rational. Formal semantics, on the other hand, starts with the conjecture that meaning is reference—that words have meaning only insofar as they refer to things in the world. While not as obviously false as the homo economicus conjecture, the referentialist conjecture is still false—most words, upon close inspection, do not refer[3]I could point you to my own writing on this, the works of Jerrold Katz, and arguments from Noam Chomsky on referentialsm, or I could point out that one of the godfathers of referentialism, Ludwig … Continue reading, and there is a whole universe of meaning that has little to do with reference.

Most economists and semanticists would no doubt object to what the previous paragraph says about their discipline, and the objections would take one of two forms. Either they would defend homo economicus/referentialism, or they would downplay the importance of the conjecture in question—“Homo economicus is just a useful teaching tool for undergrads. No one takes it seriously anymore!”[4]Though, as the late David Graeber pointed out, economists never object when homo economicus is discussed in a positive light. “Semanticists don’t mean reference literally, we use model theory!”—and it’s this sort of response that I think can explain the expansionary behaviour of these disciplines. Suppose we take these objections to be honest expressions of what people in the field believe—that economics isn’t about homo economicus and formal semantics isn’t about reference. Well then, what are they about? The rise of behavioural economics suggests that economists are still looking for a replacement model of human agency, and model theory is basically just reference delayed.

The theories, then, seem to be about nothing at all—or at least nothing that exists in the real world—and as a result, they can be about anything at all—they are unmoored.

Furthermore, there’s an incentive to expand your domain when possible. A theory of nothing obviously can’t be justified by giving any sort of deep explanation of any one aspect of nature, so it has to be justified by appearing to offer explanations to a breadth of topics. Neoclassical economics can’t seem to predict when a bubble will burst, or what will cause inflation, but it can give what looks like insight into family structures. Formal semantics can’t explain why “That pixel is red and green.” is contradictory, but it provides a formal language to translate pragmatics into.

There’s a link here to my past post about falsification, because just as a theory about nothing can be a theory about anything, a theory about nothing cannot be false. So, watch out—if your empirical domain seems to be expanding, you might not be doing science any more.

References

References
1 It’s pretty much a tautology that a science’s domain will either grow, stay constant, or shrink over time
2 Now obviously, there’s a big difference between the two fields—neoclassical economics is extremely useful to the rich and powerful since it let’s them justify just about any horrendous crimes they would want to commit in the name of expanding their wealth and power, while formal semantics is a subdiscipline of a minor oddball discipline on the boundaries of humanities, social science, and cognitive science. But I’m a linguist, and I think mostly linguists read this.
3 I could point you to my own writing on this, the works of Jerrold Katz, and arguments from Noam Chomsky on referentialsm, or I could point out that one of the godfathers of referentialism, Ludwig Wittgenstein, seems to have repudiated it in his later work.
4 Though, as the late David Graeber pointed out, economists never object when homo economicus is discussed in a positive light.

But it’s obvious, isn’t it?

As a linguist or, more specifically, as a theoretical syntactician, I hold and often express some minority opinions.[1]Outside of syntactic theory too Often these opinions are met with bafflement and an assertion like “We’ve known for years that that’s not the case” because of this phenomenon, or that piece of data—“Control is derived by movement? But what about de se interpretation??” “Merge is free? But what about c-selection??” “Long-distance Agree isn’t real? But what about English existential clauses??”[2]I have a hypothesis that the vehemence with which someone will defend a theory or analysis is correlated with how much they struggled to understand it in school. Basically, we’re more likely to … Continue reading These sorts of objections are often tossed out as if the data speaks for itself when really, the thing that makes scientific inquiry so tough is that the data rarely speaks for itself, and when it does, it doesn’t do so clearly.

Take, for instance, the case of English existential clauses like (1) and (2) and how they are used as absolute proof of the existence of Long-Distance Agree.

(1) There ?seems/seem to be several fish in the tank.
(2) There seems/*seem to be a fish in the tank.

In both sentences, the grammatical subject is the expletive there, but the verb agrees with a DP[3]I still think I buy the DP hypothesis, but I’m also intrigued by Chomsky’s recent rejection of it and amused by the reaction to this rejection. that appears to be structurally “lower” in the clause. Therefore, there must be some non-movement way of getting features from a lower object onto a higher object—Long-Distance Agree. This is often presented as the obvious conclusion, the only conclusion, or the simplest conclusion. “Obvious” is in the eye of the beholder and doesn’t usually mean “correct”; Norbert Hornstein, in his A Theory of Syntax proposes three alternative analyses to Long-Distance Agree; only “simplest” has legs, although that’s debatable.

Occam’s razor says “entities should not be multiplied without necessity,” and any analysis of (1) and (2) without Long-Distance Agree will have to say that in both cases, the agreeing DP is covertly in subject position. These covert subjects are argued to constitute an unnecessary multiplication of entities, but one could just as easily argue that Long-Distance Agree is an unnecessary entity. What’s more, covert movement and silent elements both have independent arguments in their favour.

Of course, the covert subject analysis of (1) and (2) is not without its flaws. Chief among them, in my opinion, is that it would seem to wrongly predict that (1) and (2) mean the same thing as (3) and (4), respectively.

(3) Three fish seem to be in the tank.
(4) A fish seems to be in the tank.

These sentences differ from (1) and (2) in that they—(3) and (4)—presuppose the existence of three fish or a single fish, while (1) and (2) merely assert it. This contrast is clearest in (5)-(8) which are examples that Chomsky has been using for several decades.

(5) There’s a fly in my soup.
(6) There’s a flaw in my argument.
(7) A fly is in my soup.
(8) *?A flaw is in my argument.

Likewise, Long-Distance Agree has its own problems, some of which I discuss in my latest paper. Indeed, it is vanishingly rare in any field of inquiry—or life itself—to find an unproblematic solution to a problem.

My goal here isn’t to argue that Long-Distance Agree is wrong,[4]Though, I do think it is. but to point out that it’s not a foregone conclusion. In fact, I think that if we listed the hypotheses/theories/notions that most syntacticians took to be (nearly) unquestionable and honestly assessed the arguments in their favours, I doubt that many would turn out to be as robust as they seem. This doesn’t mean that we need to reject every idea that less than 100% solid, just that we should hold on to them a little more loosely. As a rule, we should all carry with us the idea that we could very well be wrong about almost everything. The world’s more interesting that way.

References

References
1 Outside of syntactic theory too
2 I have a hypothesis that the vehemence with which someone will defend a theory or analysis is correlated with how much they struggled to understand it in school. Basically, we’re more likely to die on a hill if we had to fight to summit that hill. This has some interesting implications that I might get into in a later post.
3 I still think I buy the DP hypothesis, but I’m also intrigued by Chomsky’s recent rejection of it and amused by the reaction to this rejection.
4 Though, I do think it is.

New LingBuzz Paper

(or “How I’ve been spending my unemployment*”)

Yesterday I finished and posted a paper to LingBuzz. It’s titled “Agree as derivational operation: Its definition and discontents” and its abstract is given below. If it sounds interesting, have a look and let me know what you think.

Using the framework laid out by Collins and Stabler (2016), I formalize Agree as a syntactic operation. I begin by constructing a formal definition a version of long-distance Agree in which a higher object values a feature on a lower object, and modify that definition to reflect various several versions of Agree that have been proposed in the “minimalist” literature. I then discuss the theoretical implications of these formal definitions, arguing that Agree (i) muddies our understanding of the evolution of language, (ii) requires a new conception of the lexicon, (iii) objectively and significantly increases the complexity of syntactic derivations, and (iv) unjustifiably violates NTC in all its non-vacuous forms. I conclude that Agree, as it is commonly understood, should not be considered a narrowly syntactic operation.

*Thanks to the Canada Recovery Benefit, I was able to feed myself and make rent while I wrote this.

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.

A note on an equivocation in the UCLA Lectures

In his recent UCLA Lectures, Chomsky makes the following two suggestive remarks which seem to be contradictory:

. . . [I]magine the simplest case where you have a lexicon of one element and we have the operation internal Merge. [. . . ] You have one element: let’s just give it the name zero (0). We internally merge zero with itself. That gives us the set {0, 0}, which is just the set zero. Okay, we’ve now constructed a new element, the set zero, which we call one.

p24

We want to say that [X], the workspace which is a set containing X is distinct from X.
[X] ≠ X
We don’t want to identify a singleton set with its member. If we did, the workspace itself would be accessible to MERGE. However, in the case of the elements produced by MERGE, we want to say the opposite.
{X} = X
We want to identify singleton sets with their members.

p37

So in the case of arithmetic, a singleton set ({0}, one) is distinct from its member (0), but the two are identical in the case of language. This is either a contradiction—in which case we need to eliminate one of the statements—or its an equivocation—in which case we need to find and understand the source of the error. The former option would be expedient, but the latter is more interesting. So, I’ll go with the latter.

The source of the equivocation, in my estimation, is the notion of identity—Chomsky’s remarks become consistent when we take him to be using different measures of identity and, in order to understand these distinctions, we need to dust off a rarely used dichotomy—form vs substance.

This dichotomy is perhaps best known to syntacticians due to Chomsky’s distinction between “formal universals” and “substantive universals” in Aspects, where formal universals were constraints on the types of grammatical rules in the grammar and substantive universal were constraints on the types of grammatical objects in the grammar. Now, depending on what aspect of grammar or cognition we are concerned with, the terms “form” and “substance” will pick out different notions and relations, but since we’re dealing with syntax here we can say that “form” picks out purely structural notions and relations, such as are derived by merge, while substance picks out everything else.

By extension, then, two expressions are formally identical if they are derived by the same sequences of applications of merge. This is a rather expansive notion. Suppose we derived a structure from an arbitrary array A of symbols, any structure whose derivation can be expressed by swapping the symbols in A for distinct symbols will be formally identical to the original structure. So, “The sincerity frightened the boy.” and “*The boy frightened the sincerity” would be formally identical, but, obviously, substantively distinct.

Substantive identity, though is more complex. If substance picks out everything except form, then it would pick out everything to do with the pronunciation and meaning of an expression. So, from the pronunciation side, a structurally ambiguous expression is a set of (partially) substantively identical but formally distinct sentences, as are paraphrases on the meaning side.

Turning back to the topic at hand, the distinction between a singleton set and its member is purely formal, and therein lies the resolution of the apparent contradiction. Arithmetic is purely formal, so it traffics in formal identity/distinctness. Note that Chomsky doesn’t suggest that zero is a particular object—it could be any object. Linguistic expressions, on the other hand, have form and substance. So a singleton set {LI} and its member LI are formally distinct but, since they would mean and be pronounced the same, are substantively identical.

It follows from this, I believe, that the narrow faculty of language, if it is also responsible for our faculty of arithmetic, must be purely formal—constructing expressions with no regard for their content. So, the application of merge cannot be contingent on the contents of its input, nor could an operation like Agree, which is sensitive to substance of an expression, be part of that same faculty. These conclusions, incidentally, can also be drawn from the Strong Minimalist Thesis