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Language Log

Friday, Jan. 27, 2006 - 7:16 p.m.

The reading group of syntax, my thoughts:

1. No one knows what the hell they are doing. Or that is my impression.

2. Some of them were strangely resistant to the ideas laid out in the book-- their arguments took the form of, "They're making this criticism, but Chomsky 19whatever said the same thing!", or "they're criticizing this analysis, but nobody really thinks that would work, anyway!", and my favorite, the inexplicable, "but they're really criticizing several different things here, they're getting it mixed up."

Now perhaps I'm being uncharitable, but I think their protesting that such-and-such was long ago acknowledged as a flaw and nobody would really pursue that analysis now is a way of excusing themselves from having to rehaul the theory. "Well, but Chomsky said the same thing," means, "well, but we don't disagree! And so if we don't disagree, then we don't have to take your recommendations to heart-- we can keep doing what we're doing". Also I think few really read the article carefully-- the whole idea behind critiquing certain analyses, even if no one would seriously defend them now, is to point out that what the authors call mainstream generative grammar is built on a faulty argumentation structure, precisely because levels of analysis are proposed that later no one really believes-- yet no one ever removes the structures from the framework. In other words, a certain piece of machinery is introduced to account for one phenomenon, it turns out later that it isn't really defensible in the case of that particular phenomenon, but we keep the machinery anyway since everyone has already adopted it-- never mind that the analysis that motivated it in the first place has been questioned.

But they don't seem to be aware of this.

My feeling is that many of them (the ones that protest too much-- there are of course others who have been in the field a long time who are all for it)have spent their careers mastering and contributing to this framework-- the framework is not easy to understand, but they have it down pat and consider it to be the center of all things. Now it is being suggested that they throw it away and work on something else. It is not a popular suggestion.

The "they're criticising several different points" argument was especially odd, and you will nto be surprised to hear that it is the prof who I teach with who said it. He said their reach is too lofty. Well, when you're talking about fundamentally rehauling a grammatical theory, I would imagine that you'd want several reasons to do so, ranging from the empirical to the more "lofty". Bizarre.

Yeah, but I was struck again by what a slippery target syntactic theory is. For any hypothesis or predication or position of any sort, they have plausible deniability. Everyone has a slightly different take on how the whole thing is supposed to work, and so it's impossible to criticize because they can all just back away from almost any position that is criticized.

I've been struggling with this in terms of what predictions UG makes for acquisition of tense. I'm almost certain now that I don't care-- let's say Chomsky (circa now) is right, and UG, in the form of recursion, is there to be found in some string of protein...so what? Does that really tell me much about how kids learn tense and aspect? Is the job of the acquisition researcher done? The answer is so negative, it's laughable-- and yet this is what people expend their energy on. Not for me, thanks.

I guess I'm ready for that reading group with the psychologists now. ;)

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