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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Alec Marantz on the goals and methods of Generative Grammar

I always like reading papers aimed at non-specialists by leading lights of a specialty. This includes areas that I have some competence in. I find that I learn a tremendous amount from such non-technical papers for they self consciously aim to identify the big ideas that make an inquiry worth pursuing in the first place and the general methods that allow it to advance. This is why I always counsel students to not skip Chomsky's "popular" books (e.g. Language and Mind, Reflections on Language, Knowledge of Language, etc.).

Another nice (short) addition to this very useful literature is a paper by Alec Marantz (here): What do linguists do? Aside from giving a nice overview of how linguists work, it also includes a quick and memorable comment on Everett's (mis)understanding of his critique of GG. What Alec observes is that even if one takes Everett's claims entirely at face value empirically (which, one really shouldn't) his conclusion that Piraha is different in kind wrt the generative procedures it deploys from a language like English. Here is Alec:
His [Everett's, NH] analysis of Pirahã actually involves claiming Pirahã is just like every other language, except that it has a version of a mechanism that other languages use that, in Pirahã, limits the level of embedding of words within phrases.
I will let Alec explain the details, but what is important is that what he points out is that Everett confuses two very different issues that it is important to keep apart: what are the generative procedures that a given G deploys and what are the products of that procedure. Generative grammarians of the Chomsky stripe care a lot about the first question (what are the rule types that Gs can have). What Alec observes (and that Everett actually concedes in his specific proposal) is that languages that use the very same generative mechanisms can have very different products resulting. Who would have thunk it!

At any rate, take a look at Alec's excellent short piece. And while you are at it, you might want to read a short paper by another Syntax Master, Richie Kayne (here). He addresses  terrific question beloved by both neophytes and professionals: how many languages are there. I am pretty sure that his reply will both delight and provoke you. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Dan Milway discusses Katz's semantic theory

Dan Milway has an interesting project: reading Jerrold Katz's semantic investigations and discussing them for/with/near us. Here are two urls that discusses the preface and chapter 1 of Katz's 1972 Semantic Theory. Other posts are promised. I like these archeological digs into earlier thoughts on still murky matters. I suspect you will too.

Omer on the autonomy of syntax; though you will be surprised what the autonomy is from!

Here is a post from Omer that bears on the autonomy issue. There are various conceptions of autonomy. The weakest is simply the claim that syntactic relations cannot be reduced to any others. The standard conception is that it might reduce to semantic generalizations or probabilistic generalizations over stings (hence the utility of 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously'). There are, however, stronger versions that relate to how different kinds of information intersect in derivations. And this is what Omer discusses: do the facts dictate that we allow phonological/semantic information intersperse with syntactic information to get the empirical trains to run on time. Omer takes on a recent suggestion that this is required and, imo, shreds the conclusion. At any rate, enjoy!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

More on non-academic jobs

Last week Norbert linked to a Nature article on non-academic careers. This week, Nature has another piece which offers very simple advice: talk to the people at the career center at your university. I did exactly this when I was finishing my PhD at MIT, and ended up interviewing for several non-academic research and development positions in industry.

I should also say that my advisor, Morris Halle, told me that I should try being a professor first because in his opinion it was easier to go from an academic career to a non-academic one. I'm not sure that's really true, but I took his advice, and I'm still working as a professor so far.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Two articles in Inference this week

Juan reviews Language in Our Brain: The Origins of a Uniquely Human Capacity
by Angela Friederici.

Bob and Noam respond to critics.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

When academic jobs are hard to get

When I first graduated with a PhD an academic job was not assured. Indeed, at the time (the mid 1970s into the the mid 1980s) MIT was sending out acceptance letters warning that academic jobs were not thick on the ground and though they could assure four wonderful years of intellectual ferment and excitement, whether these would be rewarded with an academic job at the end was quite unclear. This was their version of buyer beware.

If anything, my impression is that things have gotten worse. Even those that land decent jobs often do so after several years as Post Docs (not a bad gig actually, I had several) and even then people that have all the qualifications for academic appointment (i.e. had better CVs than me and my friends had when we entered the job market and landed positions) may not find anything at all. This is often when  freshly minted PhDs start looking for non academic jobs in, e.g. industry.

Departments do not prepare students for this option. Truth be told, it is not clear that we are qualified to prepare students for this. Well, let me back up: some are. People doing work on computational linguistics often have industry connections and occasionally some people in the more expansive parts of the language sciences have connections to the helping professions in HESP. Students from UMD have gone on to get non academic jobs in both these areas, sometimes requiring further education.  However, thee routes exist. that said, they are not common and faculty are generally not that well placed to advise on how to navigate this terrain.

What then to do to widen your options. Here is a paper from Nature that addresses the issues. Most of the advice is common sense; network, get things done, develop the soft skills that working on a PhD allows you to refine, get some tech savvy. All this makes sense. The one that I would like to emphasize is learn to explain what you are doing in a simple unencumbered way to others.  This is really a remarkable skill, and good even if you stay in academia. However, in the outside world being able to explain complex things simply is a highly prized virtue.

At any rate, take a look. The world would be a better place if all graduates got the jobs they wanted. Sadly this is not that world. Here are some tips from someone who navigated the rough terrain.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Omer on phases and minimality

I am not on Facebook. This means that I often miss some fun stuff, like Omer's posts on topics syntactic. Happily, he understands my problem and sends me links to his cogitations. For others sho may suffer from a similar Facebook phobia I link to his post here.

The topic is one that I have found intriguing for quite a while: do we really need two locality conditions. Two? Yes, Phases (aka, Bounding domains) and Minimality. Now, on their face these look quite different. The former places an absolute bound on computations, the latter bounds the reach of one expression when in the presence of another identical one. These two kinds of domain restrictions, thus, seem very different. However, looks can be deceiving. Not all phases count to delimit domains, at least if one buys into strong vs weak ones. If one does buy this then as strong v phases are transitive vs and transitive vs will implicate at least two nominals it looks like phases and minimality will both apply redundantly in these cases. Similarly it is possible to evade minimality and phase impenetrability using similar "tricks" (e.g. becoming specifiers of the same projection. At any rate, once one presses, it appears that the two systems generate significant redundancy which suggests that one of them might be dispensable.  This is where Omer's post comes in. He shows that Minimality can apply in some cases where there is no obvious tenable phase based account (viz. phase internally). Well, whether this is right or not, the topic is a nice juicy one and well worth thinking about. Omer's post is a great place to begin.