Friday, January 20, 2017

Tragedy, farce, pathos

Dan Everett (DE) has written once again on his views about Piraha, recursion, and the implications for Universal Grammar (here). I was strongly tempted to avoid posting on it for it adds nothing new of substance to the discussion (and will almost certainly serve to keep the silliness alive), beyond a healthy dose of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. It makes the same mistakes, in almost the same way, and adds a few more irrelevancies to the mix. If history surfaces first as tragedy and the second time as farce (see here) then pseudo debates in their moth eaten n-th iteration are just pathetic. The Piraha “debate” has long since passed its sell-by date. As I’ve said all that I am about to say before, I would urge you not to expend time or energy reading this. But if you are the kind of person who slows down to rubberneck a wreck on the road and can’t help but find the ghoulish fascinating, this post is for you.

The DE piece makes several points.

First, that there is a debate. As you all know this is wrong. There can be no debate if the controversy hinges on an equivocation. And it does, for what the DE piece claims about the G of Piraha, even if completely accurate (which I doubt, but the facts are beyond my expertise) has no bearing on Chomsky’s proposal, viz. that recursion is the only distinctively linguistic feature of FL. This is a logical point, not an empirical one. More exactly, the controversy rests on an equivocation concerning the notion “universal.” The equivocation has been a consistent feature of DE’s discussions and this piece is no different. Let me once again explain the logic.

Chomsky’s proposal rests on a few observations. First, that humans display linguistic creativity. Second, that humans are only accidentally native speakers of their native languages.

The first observation is manifest in the fact that, for example, a native speaker of English, can effortlessly use and understand an unbounded number of linguistic expressions never before encountered. The second is manifest in the observation that a child deposited in any linguistic community will grow up to be a linguistically competent native speaker of that language with linguistic capacities indistinguishable from any of the other native speakers (e.g. wrt his/her linguistic creativity).

These two observations prompt some questions.

First, what underlying mental architecture is required to allow for the linguistic creativity we find in humans?  Answer 1 a mind that has recursive rules able to generate ever more sophisticated expressions from simple building blocks (aka, a G). Question 2: what kind of mental architecture must a such a G competent being have? Answer 2: a mind that can acquire recursive rules (i.e a G) from products of those rules (i.e. generated examples of the G). Why recursive rules? Because linguistic productivity just names the fact that human speakers are competent with respect to an unbounded number of different linguistic expressions.

Second, why assume that the capacity to acquire recursive Gs is a feature of human minds in general rather than simply a feature of those human minds that have actually acquired recursive Gs? Answer: Because any human can acquire any G that generates any language. So the capacity to acquire language in general requires the meta-capacity to acquire recursive rule systems (aka, Gs).  As this meta-capacity seems to be restricted to humans (i.e. so far as we know only humans display the kind of recursive capacity manifested in linguistic creativity) and as this capacity is most clearly manifest in language then Chomsky’s conjecture is that if there is anything linguistically specific about the human capacity to acquire language the linguistic specificity resides in this recursive meta-capacity.[1] Or to put this another way: there may be more to the human capacity to acquire language than the recursive meta-capacity but at least this meta capacity is part of the story.[2] Or, to put this another way, absent the human given (i.e. innate) meta-capacity to acquire (certain specifiable kinds of) recursive Gs, humans would not be able to acquire the kinds of Gs that we know that they in fact do acquire (e.g. Gs like those English, French, Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, Inuit, Chinese … speakers have in fact acquired). Hence, humans must come equipped with this recursive meta-capacity as part of FL.

Ok, some observations: recursion in this story is principally a predicate of FL, the meta-capacity. The meta-capacity is to acquire recursive Gs (with specific properties that GG has been in the business of identifying for the last 50 years or so). The conjecture is that humans have this meta-capacity (aka FL) because they do in fact display linguistic creativity (and, as the DE paper concedes, native speakers of non-Piraha do regularly display linguistic creativity implicating the internalization of recursive language specific Gs) and because the linguistic creativity a native speaker of (e.g.) English displays could have been displayed by any person raised in an English linguistic milieu. In sum, FL is recursive in the sense that it has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs and speakers of any language have such FLs.

Observe that FL must have the capacity to acquire recursive Gs even if not all human Gs are recursive. FL must have this capacity because all agree that many/most (e.g.) non-Piraha Gs are recursive in the sense that Piraha is claimed not to be. So, the following two claims are consistent: (1) some languages have non-recursive Gs but (2) native speakers of those languages have recursive FLs. This DE piece (like all the other DE papers on this topic) fails, once again, to recognize this. A discontinuous quote (4):

 If there were a language that chose not to use recursion, it would at the very least be curious and at most would mean that Chomsky’s entire conception of language/grammar is wrong….

Chomsky made a clear claim –recursion is fundamental to having a language. And my paper did in fact present a counterexample. Recursion cannot be fundamental to language if there are languages without it, even just one language.

First an aside: I tend to agree that it would indeed be curious if we found a language with a non-recursive G given that virtually all of the Gs that have been studied are recursive. Thus finding one that is not would be odd for the same reason that finding a single counter example to any generalization is always curious (and which is why I tend not to believe DE’s claims and tend to find the critique by Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues compelling).[3] But, and this is the main take home message, whether curious or not, it is at right angles to Chomsky’s claim concerning FL for the reasons outlined above. The capacity to acquire recursive Gs is not falsified by the acquisition of a non-recursive one. Thus, logically speaking, the observation that Piraha does not have embedded clauses (i.e. does not the display one of the standard diagnostics of a recursive G) does not imply that Piraha speakers do not have recursive FLs. Thus, DE’s claims are completely irrelevant to Chomsky’s even if correct. That point has been made repeatedly and, sadly, it has still not sunk in. I doubt that for some it ever will.

Ok, let’s now consider some other questions. Here’s one: is this linguistic meta-capacity permanent or evanescent? In other words, one can imagine that FL has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs but that once it has acquired a non-recursive G it can no longer acquire a recursive one. DE’s article suggests that this is so for Piraha speakers (p. 7). Again, I have no idea if this is indeed the case (if true it constitute evidence for a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but this claim even if correct is at right angles to Chomsky’s claim about FL. Species specific dedicated capacities need not remain intact after use. It could be true that FL is only available for first language acquisition and this would mean that second languages are acquired in different ways (maybe by piggy backing on the first G acquired).[4] However so far as I know, neither Chomsky nor GG has ever committed hostages to this issue. Again, I am personally skeptical that having a Piraha G precludes you from the recursive parts of a Portuguese G, but I have nothing but prejudicial hunches to sustain the skepticism. At any rate, it doesn’t bear on Chomsky’s thesis concerning FL. The upshot: DE’s remarks once again are at right angles to Chomsky’s claims so interesting as the possibility it raises might be for interesting issues relating to second language acquisition, it is not relevant to Chomsky’s claims about the recursive nature of FL.

A third question: is the meta-capacity culturally relative? DE’s piece suggests that it is because the actual acquisition of recursive Gs might be subject to cultural influences. The point seems to be that if culture influences whether an acquired G is recursive or not implies that the meta-capacity is recursive or not as well. But this does not follow.  Let me explain.

All agree that the details of an actual G are influenced by all sorts of factors, including culture.[5] This must be so and has been insisted upon since the earliest days of GG. After all, the G one acquires is a function of FL and the PLD used to construct that G. But the PLD is itself a function of what is actually gets and there is no doubt that what utterances are performed is influenced by the culture of the utterers.[6] So, that culture has an effect on the shape of specific Gs is (or should be) uncontroversial. However, none of this implies that the meta-capacity to build recursive Gs is itself culturally dependent, nor does DE’s piece explain how it could be. In fact, it has always been unclear how external factors could affect this meta-capacity. You either have a recursive meta-capacity or you don’t. As Dawkins put it (see here for discussion and references):

… Just as you can’t have half a segment, there are no intermediates between a recursive and a non-recursive subroutine. Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick… (383)

Given this “all or nothing” quality, what would it mean to say that the capacity (i.e. the innately provided “computer language” of FL) was dependent on “culture.”? Of course, if what you mean is that the exercise of the capacity is culture dependent and what you mean by this is that it depends on the nature of the PLD (and other factors) that might themselves be influenced by “culture” then duh! But, if this is what DE’s piece intends, then once again it fails to make contact with Chomsky’s claim concerning the recursive nature of FL. The capacity is what it is though of course the exercise of the capacity to produce a G will be influenced by all sorts of factors, some of which we can call “culture.”[7]

Two more points and we are done.

First, there is a source for the confusion in DE’s papers (and it is the same one I have pointed to before). DE’s discussion treats all universals as if Greenbergian. Here’s a quote from the current piece that shows this (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to uncover the Greenbergian premise):

The real lesson is that if recursion is the narrow faculty of language, but doesn’t actually have to be manifested in a given language, then likely more languages than Piraha…could lack recursion. And by this reasoning we derive the astonishing claim that. Although, recursion would be the characteristic that makes human language possible, it need not actually be found in any given language. (8)

Note the premise: unless every G is recursive then recursion cannot be “that which makes human languages possible.” But this only makes sense if you understand things as Greenberg does. If you understand the claim as being about the capacity to acquire recursive Gs then none of this follows.

Nor are we led to absurdity. Let me froth here. Of course, nobody would think that we had a capacity for constructing recursive Gs unless we had reason to think that some Gs were so. But we have endless evidence that this is the case. So, given that there is at least one such G (indeed endlessly many), humans clearly must have the capacity to construct such Gs. So, though we might have had such a capacity and never exercised it (this is logically possible), we are not really in that part of the counterfactual space. All we need to get the argument going for a recursive meta-capacity is mastery of at least one recursive G and there is no dispute that there exists such a G and that humans have acquired it. Given this, the only coherent reason for thinking a counterexample (like Piraha) could be a problem is if one understood the claim to universality as implying that a universal property of FL (i.e. a feature of FL) must manifest itself in every G. And this is to understand ‘universal’ a la Greenberg and and not as Chomsky does. Thus we are back to original sin in DE’s oeuvre; the insistence on a Greenberg conception of universal.

Second, the piece makes another point. It suggests that DE’s dispute with Chomsky is actually over whether recursion is part of FL or part of cognition more generally. Here’s the quote (10):

…the question is not whether humans can think recursively. The question is whether this ability is linked specifically to language or instead to human cognitive accomplishments more generally…

If I understand this correctly, it is agreed that recursion is an innate part of human mental machinery. What’s at issue is whether there is anything linguistically proprietary about it. Thus, Chomsky could be right to think that human linguistic capacity manifests recursion but that this is not a specifically linguistic fact about us as we manifest recursion in our mental life quite generally.[8]

Maybe. But frankly it is hard to see how DE’s writings bear on these very recondite issues. Here’s what I mean: Human Gs are not merely recursive but exhibit a particular kind of recursion. Work in GG over the last 60 years has been in service of trying to specify what kind of recursive Gs humans entertain. Now, the claim here is that we find the kind of structure we find in human Gs in cognition more generally. This is empirically possible. Show me! Show me that other kinds of cognition have the same structures as those GGers have found occur in Gs.  Nothing in DE’s arguments about Piraha have any obvious bearing on this claim for there is no demonstration that other parts of cognition have anything like the recursive structure we find in human Gs.

But let’s say that we establish such a parallelism. There is still more to do. Here is a second question: is FL recursive because our mental life in general is or is our mental life in general recursive because we have FL.[9] This is the old species specificity question all over again. Chomsky’s claim is that if there is anything species special about human linguistic facility it rests in the kind of recursion we find in language. To rebut this species specificity requires showing that this kind of recursion is not the exclusive preserve of linguistically capable beings. But, once again, nothing in DE’s work addresses this question. No evidence is presented trying to establish the parallel between the kind of recursion we find in human Gs and any animal cognitive structures.

Suffice it to say that the kind of recursion we find in language is not cognitively ubiquitous (so far as we can tell) and that if it occurs in other parts of cognition it does not appear to be rampant in non-human animal cognition. And, for me at least, that is linguistically specific enough. Moreover, and this is the important point as regards DE’s claims, it is quite unclear how anything about Piraha will bear on this question. Whether or not Piraha has a recursive G will tell us nothing about whether other animals have recursive minds like ours.

Conclusion? The same as before. There is no there there. We find arguments based on equivocation and assertions without support. The whole discussion is irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims about the recursive structure of FL and whether that is the sole UGish feature of FL.[10]

That’s it. As you can see, I got carried away. I didn’t mean to write so much. Sorry. Last time? Let’s all hope so.

[1] Here you can whistle some appropriate Minimalist tune if you would like. I personally think that there is something linguistically specific about FL given that we are the only animals that appear to manifest anything like the recursive structures we find in language. But, this is an empirical question. See here for discussion.
[2] Chomsky’s minimalist conjecture is that this is the sole linguistically special capacity required.
[3] Indeed such odd counterexamples place a very strong burden of proof on the individual arguing for it. Sometimes this burden of proof can be met. But singular counterexamples that float in a sea of regularity are indeed curious and worthy of considerable skepticism. However, that’s not my point here. It is a different one: the Piraha facts whatever they turn out to be are irrelevant to the claim the FL has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs. As this is what Chomsky has been proposing. Thus, the facts regarding Piraha whatever they turn out to be are logically irrelevant to Chomsky’s proposal.
[4] This seems to be the way that Sakel conceives of the process (see here). Sakel is the person the DE piece cites as rebutting the idea that Piraha speakers with Portuguese as a second language behave. That speakers build their second G on the scaffolding provided by a first G is quite plausible a priori (though whether it is true is another matter entirely). And if this is so, then features of one’s first G should have significant impact on properties of one’s second G. Sakel, btw, is far less categorical in her views than what DE’s piece suggests. Last point: a nice “experiment” if this interests you is to see what happens if a speaker is acquiring Portuguese and Piraha simultaneously; both as first Gs. What should we expect? I dunno, but my hunch is that both would be acquired swimmingly.
[5] So, for example, dialects of English differ wrt the acceptability of Topicalization. My community used it freely and I find them great. My students at UMD were not that comfortable with this kind of displacement. I am willing to bet that Topicalization’s alias (i.e. Yiddish Movement) betrays a certain cultural influence.
[6] Again, see note 4 and Sakel’s useful discussion of the complexity of Portuguese input to the Piraha second language acquirer.
[7] BTW, so far as I can tell, invoking “culture” is nothing but a rhetorical flourish most of the time. It usually means nothing more than “not biology.” However, how culture affects matters and which bits do what is often (always?) left unsettled. It often seems to me that the word is brandished a bit like garlic against vampires, mainly there to ward off evil biological spirits.
[8] On this view, DE agrees that there is FLB but no FLN, i.e. a UGish part of FL.
[9] In Minimalist terms, is recursion a UGish part of FL or is there no UG at all in FL.
[10] There is also some truly silly stuff in which DE speculates as to why the push back against his views has been so vigorous. Curiously, DE does not countenance the possibility that it is because his arguments though severely wanting have been very widely covered. There is some dumb stuff on Chomsky’s politics, Wolfe junk, and general BS about how to do science. This is garbage and not worth your time, except for psycho-sociological speculation.

Friday, January 13, 2017

No time but...

It's file reading season so my time is limited right now. That and the hangover from the holidays has made me slower. Nonetheless, I thought that I would post this very short piece that I read on computational models in chemistry (thx to Bill Idsardi for sending it my way). The report is interesting to linguists, IMO, for several reasons.

First, it shows how a mature science deals with complexity. It appears to be virtually impossible to do a full theoretically rigorous computation given the complexity of the problem, "but for the simplest atoms." Consequently, chemists have developed approximation techniques (algorithms/functions) to figure out how electrons arrange themselves in "bulk materials." These techniques are an artful combination of theory and empirical parameter estimation and they are important precisely because one cannot compute exact results for these kinds of complex cases. This is so even though the relevant theory is quite well known.

I suspect that if and when linguists understand more and more about the relevant computations involved in language we will face a similar problem. Even were we to know everything about the underlying competence and the relevant mental/brain machinery that uses this knowledge, I would expect the interaction effects among the various (many) interacting components to be very complex. This will lead to apparent empirical failure. But, and this is the important point, this is to be expected even if the theory is completely correct. This is well understood in the real sciences. My impression is that this bit of wisdom is still considered way out there in the mental sciences.

Second, the discussed paper warns against thinking that rich empirics can substitute for our lack of understanding. What the reported paper does is test algorithms by seeing how they perform in the simple cases where exact solutions can be computed. How well do those techniques we apply in sophisticated cases work in the simple ones? The questions: How well "different...algorithms approximated the relatively exact solutions."

The discovery was surprising: After a certain point, more sophisticated algorithms started doing worse at estimating the geometry of electrons (this is what one needs to figure out a material's chemical properties). More interesting still, the problem was most acute for "algorithms based on empirical data." Here's the relevant quote:

Rather than calculating everything based on physical principles, algorithms can replace some of the calculations with values or simple functions based on measurements of real systems (an approach called parameterization). The reliance on this approach, however, seems to do bad things to the electron density values it produces. "Functionals constructed with little or no empiricism," the authors write, "tend to produce more accurate electron densities than highly empirical ones."

It seems that when "we have no idea what the function is" that throwing data at the problem can make things worse. This should not be surprising. Data cannot substitute for theoretical insight. Sadly, this trivial observation is worth mentioning given he spirit of the age.

Here is one possible implication for theoretical work in linguistics: we often believe that one tests a theory best by seeing how it generalizes beyond the simple cases that motivate it. But in testing a theory in a complex case (where we know less) we necessarily must make assumptions based less on theory and more on the empirical details of the case at hand. This is not a bad thing to do. But it carries its own risks, as this case illustrates. The problem with complex cases is that they likely provoke interaction effects. To domesticate these effects we make useful ad hoc assumptions. But doing this makes the fundamental principles more opaque in the particular circumstance. Not always, but often.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Where Norbert gets pounded for his biological ignorance

I recently co-wrote a comment (see here) on a piece by Berlinski and Uriagereka on Vergnaud's theory of case (see here and here), of which I am a fan, much to one of my colleagues continual dismay. The replies were interesting, especially the one by Berlinski. He excoriated the Jacobian position I tried to defend. His rebuttal should warm the hearts of many who took me to task for my thinking that it was legit to study FL/UG without doing much cross G inquiry.  He argues (and he knows more about this than I do) that the Jacob idea that the same fundamental bio mechanisms extend from bacteria to butterflies is little more than myth. The rest of his comment is worth reading too for it rightly points out that the bio-ling perspective is, to date, more perspective and less biology.

Reaction? Well, I really like the reply's vigorous pushback. However, I don't agree. In fact, I think that what he admires about Vergnaud's effort is precisely what makes the study of UG in a single language so productive.  Here's what I mean.

Vergnaud's theory aimed to rationalize facts about the distribution of nominals in a very case weak language (viz. English). It did this elegantly and without much surface morphology to back it up. Interestingly, as readers of FoL have noted, the cross G morpho evidence is actually quite messy and would not obviously support Vergnaud's thesis (though I am still skeptical that it fails here). So, the argument style that Vergnaud used and that Berlinski really admires supports the idea that intensive study of the properties of a single G is a legit way to study the general properties of FL/UG. In fact, it suggests that precisely because this method of study brackets overt surface features it cannot be driven by the distributions of these features which is what much cross G inquiry studies.  Given this logic, intensive study of a single G, especially if it sets aside surface reflexes, should generalize. And GG has, IMO, demonstrated that this logic is largely correct.  So, many of the basic features of UG, though discovered studying a small number of languages have generalized quite well cross linguistically. There have, of course, been modifications and changes. But, overall, I think that the basic story has remained the same. And I suspect that not a few biologists would make the same point about their inquiries. If results from model systems did not largely generalize then they would be of little use. Again, maybe they aren't, but this is not my impression.

Ok, take a look at Berlinski's comments. And if you like this, take a look at his, IMO, most readable book Black Mischief.

Inchoate minimalism

Chomsky often claims that the conceptual underpinnings of the Minimalist Program (MP) are little more than the injunction to do good science. On this view the eponymous 1995 book did not break new ground, or announce a new “program” or suggest foregrounding new questions. In fact, on this view, calling a paper A Minimalist Program for Linguistic Theory was not really a call to novelty but a gentle reminder that we have all been minimalists all along and that we should continue doing exactly what we had been doing so well to that point. This way of putting things is (somewhat) exaggerated. However, versions thereof are currently a standard trope, and though I don’t buy it, I recently found a great quote in Language and Mind (L&M) that sort of supports this vision.[1] Sorta, kinda but not quite.  Here’s the quote (L&M:182):

I would, naturally, assume that there is some more general basis in human mental structure for the fact (if it is a fact) that languages have transformational grammars; one of the primary scientific reasons for studying language is that this study may provide some insight into general properties of mind. Given those specific properties, we may then be able to show that transformational grammars are “natural.” This would constitute real progress, since it would now enable us to raise the problem of innate conditions on acquisition of knowledge and belief in a more general framework….

This quote is pedagogical in several ways. First, it does indicate that at least in Chomsky’s mind, GG from the get-go had what we could now identify as minimalist ambitions. The goal as stated in L&M is not only to describe the underlying capacities that make humans linguistically facile, but to also understand how these capacities reflect the “general properties of mind.” Furthermore, L&M moots the idea that understanding how language competence fits in with our mental architecture more generally might allow us to demonstrate that “transformational grammar is “natural”.” How so? Well in the obviously intended sense that a mind with the cognitive powers we have would have a faculty of language in which the particular Gs we have would embody a transformational component. As L&M rightly points out, being able to show this would “constitute real progress.” Yes it would.

It is worth noting that the contemporary conception of Merge as combining both structure building and movement in the “simplest” recursive rule is an attempt to make good on this somewhat foggy suggestion. If by ‘transformations’ we intend movement, then showing how a simple conception of recursion comes with a built in operation of displacement goes some distance in redeeming the idea that transformational Gs are “natural.”[2]

Note several other points: The L&M quote urges a specific research strategy: if you are interested in general principles of cognition then it is best to start the investigation from the bottom up. So even if one’s interest is in cognition in general (and this is clearly the L&M program) then right direction of investigation is not from, e.g. some a priori conception of learning to language but from a detailed investigation of language to the implications of these details for human mental structure more generally. This, of course, echoes Chomsky’s excellent critiques of Empiricism and its clearly incorrect and/or vacuous conceptions of reinforcement learning. 

However, the point is more general I believe. Even if one is not Empiricistically inclined (as no right thinking person should be) the idea that a body of local doctrine concerning a specific mental capacity is an excellent first step into probing possibly more general capacities seems like excellent method. After all, it worked well in the “real” sciences (e.g. Galileo’s, Copernicus’ and Kepler’s laws were useful stepping stones to Newton’s synthesis) so why not adopt a similar strategy in investigating the mind/brain? One of GGs lasting contributions to intellectual life was to demonstrate how little we reflexively know about the structure of our mental capacities. Being gifted linguistically does not imply that we know anything about how our mind/brain operates. As Chomsky likes to say, being puzzled about the obvious is where thinking really begins and perhaps GG’s greatest contribution has been to make clear how complex our linguistic capacities are and how little we understand about its operating principles.

So is the Minimalist Program just more of the same, with nothing really novel here? Again, I think that the quote above shows that it is not. L&M clearly envisioned a future where it would be useful to ask how linguistic competence fits into cognition more broadly. However, it also recognized that asking such “how” questions was extremely premature. There is a tide in the affairs of inquiry and some questions at some times are not worth asking. To use a Chomsky distinction, some questions raise problems and some point to mysteries. The latter are premature and one aim of research is to move questions from the second obscure mystical column to the first tractable one. This is what happened in syntax around 1995; the more or less rhetorical question Chomsky broached in L&M in the late 60s became a plausible topic for serious research in the mid 1990s! Thus, though there is a sense in which minimalism was old hat, there is a more important sense in which it was entirely new, not as regards general methodological concerns (one always values simplicity, conciseness, naturalness etc) but in being able to ask the question that L&M first posed fancifully in a non-trivial way: how does/might FL fit together with cognition more generally?

So what happened between 1968 and 1995? Well, we learned a lot about the properties of human Gs and had plausible candidate principles of UG (see here for some discussion). In other words, again to use Chomsky’s framing (following the chemist Davy), syntax developed a “body of doctrine” and with this it became possible to use this body of doctrine to probe the more general question. And that’s what the Minimalist Program is about. That’s what’s new. Given some understanding of what’s in FL we can ask how it relates to cognition (and computation) more generally. That’s why asking minimalist questions now is valuable while asking them in 1967 would have been idle.

As you all know, there is a way of framing the minimalist questions in a particularly provocative way, one that fires the imagination in useful ways: How could this kind of FL with these kinds of principles have evolved? On the standard assumption (though not uncontroversial, see here on the “phenotypic gambit”) that complexity and evolvability are adversarial, the injunction to simplify FL by reducing its linguistically proprietary features becomes the prime minimalist project. Of course, all this is potentially fecund to the degree that there is something to simplify (i.e. some substantive proposals concerning what the operative FL/UG principles are) and targets for simplification became worthwhile targets in the early 1990s.[3] Hence the timing of the emergence of MP.

Let me end by ridding off on an old hobbyhorse: Minimalism does not aim to be a successor to earlier GB accounts (and its cousins LFG, HPSG etc). Rather MP’s goal is  to be a theory of possible FL/UGs. It starts from the assumption that the principles of UG articulated from 1955-1990s are roughly correct, albeit not fundamental. They must be derived from more general mental principles/operations (to fulfill the L&M hope). MP is possible because there is reason to think that GB got things roughly right. I actually do think that this is correct. Others might not. But it is only once there is such a body of FL/UG doctrine that MP projects will not be hopelessly premature. As the L&M quote indicates, MP like ambitions have been with us for a long time, but only recently has it been rational to hope that they would not be idle.

[1] Btw, L&M is a great read and those of you who have never dipped in (and I am looking at anyone under 40 here) should go out and read it.
[2] And if we go further and assume that all non-local dependencies are mediated by ((c)overt) movement then all variety of transformations are the product of the same basic “natural” process. Shameless plug: this is what this suggests we do.
[3] Why then? Because by then we had good reasons for thinking that something like GB conception of UG was empirically and theoretically well-grounded. See here (and four following entries) for discussion.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

talking brains

In a recent paper (here), Tecumseh Fitch (TF) and colleagues argue that monkey vocal tracts are structurally adequate for the production of human speech sounds. Why is this important? Because, as the paper puts it:

Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.

This, in other words, puts another nail in the coffin of those that look to provide a continuity thesis style of explanation of human linguistic facility based on a quantitative extension of what appears in our nearest cousins (i.e. If this is right it then Phil Lieberman was wrong). If TF is right, then all that effort expended in trying to teach primates to speak was a waste of time (which it was) and the failure was not one that could be resolved by teaching them sign (which in fact didn’t help) because the problem was neural not vocal. IMO, the futility of this line of inquiry has been pretty obvious for a very long time, but it is always nice to have another nail in a zombie’s coffin.

The results are interesting for one other reason. It suggests that Chomsky’s assumption that externalization is a late add-on to linguistic competence is on the right track. FT provides evidence that vocalization of the kind that humans have is already in place engineering wise in macaques. Their vocal tracts have the wherewithal to produce a range of vowels and consonants similar to those found in natural language. If they don’t use this to produce words and sentences (or movie reviews or poems) it is not because they lack the vocal tract structure to do so. What they lack is something else, something akin to FL. And this is precisely Chomsky’s suggestion. Whatever changed later coupled with an available system of externalization. This coupling of the new biologically unique system with the old biologically speaking more generally available system was bound to be messy given they were not made for each other. Getting the two to fit together required gerrymandering and thus was born (that messy mongrel) morpho-phonology. FT supports this picture in broad outlines.

One more point: if externalization follows the emergence of FL, then communication cannot be the causal root of FL. Clearly, whatever happened to allow FL to emerge came to take advantage of an in-place system capable of exploitation for verbal communication. But it seems that these capacities stayed fallow language wise until the “miracle” that allowed FL to emerge obtained. On the assumption that coupling FL with an externalization mechanism took time, then the selective pressure that kept the “miracle” from being swept away cannot have been communicative enhancement (or at least not verbal communicative enhancement). This means that Chomsky-Jacob suggestion (here) that the emergence of FL allowed for the enhancement of thought and that is what endowed it with evolutionary advantage is also on the right track.

All in all, not a bad set of results for MP types.