Martin Haspelmath (MP) and I inhabit different parts of the (small) linguistics universe. Consequently, we tend to value very different kinds of work and look to answer very different kinds of questions. As a result, when our views converge, I find it interesting to pay attention. In what follows I note a point or two of convergence. Here is the relevant text that I will be discussing (Henceforth MHT (for MHtext)).
MHT’s central claim is that “Chomsky no longer argues for a rich UG of the sort that would be relevant for the ordinary grammarian and, e.g. for syntax textbooks” (1). It extends a similar view to me: “even if he is not as radical about a lean UG as Chomsky 21stcentury writings (where nothing apart from recursion is UG), Hornstein’s view is equally incompatible with current practice in generative grammar” (MHT emphasis, (2)).
Given that neither Chomsky nor I seems to be inspiring current grammatical practice (btw, thx for the company MH), MHT notes that “generative grammarians currently seem to lack an ideological superstructure.” MHT seems to suggest that this is a problem (who wants to be superstructure-less after all?), though it is unclear for whom, other than Chomsky and me (what’s a superstructure anyhow?). MHT adds that Chomsky “does not seem to be relevant to linguistics anymore” (2).
MHT ends with a few remarks about Chomsky on alien (as in extra-terrestial) language, noting a difference between him and Jessica Coon on this topic. Jessica says the following (2):
When people talk about universal grammar it’s just the genetic endowment that allows humans to acquire language. There are grammatical properties we could imagine that we just don’t ever find in any human language, so we know what’s specific to humans and our endowment for language. In fact, it would be very surprising if they did. But while having a better understanding of human language wouldn’t necessarily help, hopefully it’d give us tools to know how we might at least approach the problem.
This is a pretty vintage late 1980s bioling view of FL. Chomsky demurs, thinking that perhaps “the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all” (3). Why? Because Chomsky proposes that many features of FL might be grounded in generic computational properties rather than idiosyncratic biological ones. In his words:
We can, in short, try to sharpen the question of what constitutes a principled explanation for properties of language, and turn to one of the most fundamental questions of the biology of language: to what extent does language approximate an to conditions that it must satisfy to be usable at all, given ?”
MHT finds this opaque (as do I actually) though the intent is clear: To the degree that the properties of FL and the Gs it gives rise to are grounded in general computational properties, properties that a system would need to have “to be usable at all” then to that degree there is no reason to think that these properties would be restricted to human language (i.e. there is no reason to think that they would be biologically idiosyncratic).
MHT’s closing remark about this is to reiterate his main point: “Chomsky’s thinking since at least 2002 is not really compatible with the practice of mainstream generative grammar” (3-4).
I agree with this, especially MHT's remark about current linguistic practice. Much of what interests Chomsky (and me) is not currently high up on the GG research agenda. Indeed, I have argued (herethat much of current GG research has bracketed the central questions that originally animated GG research and that this change in interests is what largely lies behind the disappointment many express with the Minimalist Program (MP).
More specifically, I think that though MP has been wildly successful in its own terms and that it is the natural research direction building on prior results in GG, its central concerns have been of little mainstream interest. If this assessment is correct, it raises a question: why the mainstream disappointment with MP and why has current GG practice diverged so significantly from Chomsky’s? I believe that the main reason is that MP has sharpened the two contradictory impulses that have been part of the GG research program from its earliest days. Since the beginning there has been a tension between those mainly interested in the philological details of languages and those interested in the mental/cognitive/neuro implications of linguistic competence.
We can get a decent bead on the tension by inspecting two standard answers to a simple question: what does linguistics study? The obvious answer is language. The less obvious answer is the capacity for language (aka, linguistic competence). Both are fine interests (actually, I am not sure that I believe this, but I want to be concessive (sorry Jerry)). And for quite a while it did not much matter to everyday research in GG which interest guided inquiry as the standard methods for investigating the core properties of the capacity for language proceeded via a filigree philological analysis of the structures of language. So, for example, one investigated the properties of the construal modules by studying the distribution of reflexives and pronouns in various languages. Or by studying the locality restrictions on questions formation (again in particular languages) one could surmise properties of the mentalist format of FL rules and operations. Thus, the way that one studied the specific cognitive capacity a speaker of a particular language L had was by studying the details of the language L and the way that one studied more general (universal) properties characteristic of FL and UG was by comparing and contrasting constructions and their properties across various Ls. In other words, the basic methods were philological even if the aims were cognitive and mentalisic.And because of this, it was perfectly easy for the work pursued by the philologically inclined to be useful to those pursuing the cognitive questions and vice versa. Linguistic theory provided powerful philological tools for the description of languages and this was a powerful selling point.
This peaceful commensalism ends with MP. Or, to put it more bluntly, MP sharpens the differences between these two pursuits because MP inquiry only makes sense in a mentalistic/cognitive/neuro setting. Let me explain.
Here is very short history of GG. It starts with two facts: (1) native speakers are linguistically productive and (2) any human can learn any language. (1) implies that natural languages are open ended and thus can only be finitely characterized via recursive rule systems (aka grammars (Gs)). Languages differ in the rules their Gs embody. Given this, the first item on the GG research agenda was to specify the kinds of rules that Gs have and the kinds of dependencies Gs care about. Given an inventory of such rules sets up the next stage of inquiry.
The second stage begins with fact (2). Translated into Gish terms it says that any Language Acquisition Device (aka, child) can acquire any G. We called this meta-capacity to acquire Gs “FL” and we called the fine structure of FL “UG.” The fact that any child can acquire any G despite the relative paucity and poverty of the linguistic input data implies that FL has some internal structure. We study this structure by studying the kinds of rules that Gs can and cannot have. Note that this second project makes little sense until we have candidate G rules. Once we have some, we can ask why the rules we find have the properties they do (e.g. structure dependence, locality, c-command). Not surprisingly then, the investigation of FL/UG and the investigation of language particular Gs naturally went hand in hand and the philological methods beloved of typologists and comparative grammarians led the way. And boy did they lead! GB was the culmination of this line of inquiry. GB provided the first outlines of what a plausible FL/UG might look like, one that had grounding in facts about actual Gs.
Now, this line of research was, IMO, very successful. By the mid 90s, GG had discovered somewhere in the vicinity of 25-35 non-trivial universals (i.e. design features of FL) that were “roughly” correct (see here for a (partial) list). These “laws of grammar” constitute, IMO, a great intellectual achievement. Moreover, they set the stage for MP in much the way that the earlier discovery of rules of Gs set the stage for GB style theories of FL/UG. Here’s what I mean.
Recall that studying the fine structure of FL/UG makes little sense unless we have candidate Gs and a detailed specification of some of their rules. Similarly, if one’s interest is in understanding why our FL has the properties it has, we need some candidate FL properties (UG principles) for study. This is what the laws of grammar provide; candidate principles of FL/UG. Given these we can now ask why we have these kinds of rules/principles and not other conceivable ones. And this is the question that MP sets for itself: why this FL/UG? MP, in short, takes as its explanadum the structure of FL.
Note, if this is indeed the object of study, then MP only makes sense from a cognitive perspective. You won’t ask why FL has the properties it has if you are not interested in FL’s properties in the first place. So, whereas the minimalist program so construed makes sense in a GG setting of the Chomsky variety where a mental organ like FL and its products are the targets of inquiry, it is less clear that the project makes much sense if ones interests are largely philological (in fact, it is pretty clear to me that it doesn’t). If this is correct and if it is correct that most linguists have mainly philological interests then it should be no surprise that most linguists are disappointed with MP inquiry. It does not deliver what they can use for it is no longer focused on questions analogous to the ones that were prominent before and which had useful spillover effects. The MP focus is on issues decidedly more abstract and removed from immediate linguistic data than heretofore.
There is a second reason that MP will disappoint the philologically inclined. It promotes a different sort of inquiry. Recall that the goal is explaining the properties of FL/UG (i.e. the laws of grammar are the explanada). But this explanatory project requires presupposing that the laws are more or less correct. In other words, MP takes GB as (more or less) right. MP's added value comes in explaining it, not challenging it.
In this regard, MP is to GB what Subjacency Theory is to Ross’s islands. The former takes Ross’s islands as more or less descriptively accurate and tries to derive them on the basis of more natural assumptions. It would be dumb to aim at such a derivation if one took Ross’s description to be basically wrong headed. So too here. Aiming to derive the laws of grammar requires believing that these are basically on the right track. However, this means that so far as MP is concerned, the GBish conception of UG, though not fundamental, is largely empirically accurate. And this means that MP is not an empirical competitor to GB. Rather, it is a theoretical competitor in the way that Subjacency Theory is to Ross’s description of islands. Importantly, empirically speaking, MP does not aim to overthrow (or even substantially revise the content of) earlier theory.
Now this is a problem for many working linguists. First, many don’t have the same sanguine view that I do of GB and the laws it embodies. In fact, I think that many (most?) linguists doubt that we know very much about UG or FL or that the laws of grammar are even remotely correct. If this is right, then the whole MP enterprise will seem premature and wrong headed to them. Second, even if one takes these as decent approximations to the truth, MP will encourage a kind of work that will be very different from earlier inquiry. Let me explain.
The MP project so conceived will involve two subparts. The first one is to derive the GB principles. If successful, this will mean that we end up empirically where we started. If successful, MP will recover the content of GB. Of course, if you think GB is roughly right, then this is a good place to end up. But the progress will be theoretical not empirical. It will demonstrate that it is reasonable to think that FL is simpler than GB presents it as being. However, the linguistic data covered will, at least initially, be very much the same. Again, this is a good thing from a theoretical point of view. But if one’s interests are philological and empirical, then this will not seem particularly impressive as it will largely recapitulate GB's empirical findings, albeit in a novel way.
The second MP project will be to differentiate the structure of FL and to delineate those parts that are cognitively general from those that are linguistically proprietary. As you all know, the MP conceit is that linguistic competence relies on only a small cognitive difference between us and our apish cousins. MP expects FL’s fundamental operations and principles to be cognitively and computationally generic rather than linguistically specific. When Chomsky denies UG, what he denies is that there is a lot of linguistic specificity to FL (again: he does not deny that the GB identified principles of UG are indeed characteristic features of FL). Of course, hoping that this is so and showing that it might be/is are two very different things. The MP research agenda is to make good on this. Chomsky’s specific idea is that Merge and some reasonable computational principles are all that one needs. I am less sanguine that this is all that one needs, but I believe that a case can be made that this gets one pretty far. At any rate, note that most of this work is theoretical and it is not clear that it makes immediate contact with novel linguistic data (except, of course, in the sense that it derives GB principles/laws that are themselves empirically motivated (though recall that these are presupposed rather than investigated)). And this makes for a different kind of inquiry than the one that linguists typically pursue. It worries about finding natural more basic principles and showing how these can be deployed to derive the basic features of FL. So a lot more theoretical deduction and a lot less (at least initially) empirical exploration.
Note, incidentally, that in this context, Chomsky’s speculations about Martians and his disagreement with Coons is a fanciful and playful way of making an interesting point. If FL’s basic properties derive from the fact that it is a well designed computational system (its main properties follow from generic features of computations), then we should expect other well designed computational systems to have similar properties. That is what Chomsky is speculating might be the case.
So, why is Chomsky (and MP work more generally) out of the mainstream? Because mainstream linguistics is (and has always been IMO) largely uninterested in the mentalist conception of language that has always motivated Chomsky’s view of language. For a long time, the difference in motivations between Chomsky and the rest of the field was of little moment. With MP that has changed. The MP project only makes sense in a mentalist setting and invites decidedly philologically projects without direct implications for further philological inquiry. This means that the two types of linguistics are parting company. That’s why many have despaired about MP. It fails to have the crossover appeal that prior syntactic theory had. MHT's survey of the lay of the linguistic land accurately reflects this IMO.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, intellectually speaking. After all, there are different projects and there is no reason why we all need to be working on the same things, though I would really love it if the field left some room for the kind of theoretical speculation that MP invites.
However, the divergence might be sociologically costly. Linguistics has gained most of its extra mural prestige from being part of the cog-neuro sciences. Interestingly, MP has generated interest in that wider world (and here I am thinking cog-neuro and biology). Linguistics as philology is not tethered to these wider concerns. As a result, linguistics in general will, I believe, become less at the center of general intellectual life than it was in earlier years when it was at the center of work in the nascent cognitive and cog-neuro sciences. But I could be wrong. At any rate, MHT is right to observe that Chomsky’s influence has waned within linguistics proper. I would go further. The idea that linguistics is and ought to be part of the cog-neuro sciences is, I believe, a minority position within the discipline right now. The patron saint of modern linguistics is not Chomsky, but Greenberg. This is why Chomsky has become a more marginal figure (and why MH sounds so delighted). I suspect that down the road there will be a reshuffling of the professional boundaries of the discipline, with some study of language of the Chomsky variety moving in with cog-neuro and some returning to the language departments. The days of the idea of a larger common linguistic enterprise, I believe, are probably over.
I find that this is sometimes hard to open. Here is the url to paste in:
I should add that I have a syntax textbook that puts paid to the idea that Chomsky’s basic current ideas cannot be explicated in one. That said, I assume that what MHT intends is that Chomsky’s views are not standard text book linguistics anymore. I agree with this, as you will see below.
This was and is still the main method of linguistic investigation. FoLers know that I have long argued that PoS style investigations are different in kind from the comparative methods that are the standard and that when applicable they allow for a more direct view of the structure of FL. But as I have made this point before, I will avoid making it here. For current purposes, it suffices to observe that whatever the merits of PoS styles of investigation, these methods are less prevalent than the comparative method is.
MHT thinks that Chomsky largely agrees with anti UG critics in “rejecting universal grammar” (1). This is a bit facile. What Chomsky rejects is that the kinds of principles we have identified as characteristic of UG are linguistically specific. By this he intends that they follow from more general principles. What he does not do, at least this is not what Ido, is reject that the principles of UG as targets of explanation. The problem with Evans and Levinson and Ibbotson and Tomasello is that their work fails to grapple with what GG has found in 60 years of research. There are a ton of non-trivial Gish facts (laws) that have been discovered. The aim is to explain these facts/laws and ignoring them or not knowing anything about them is not the same as explaining them. Chomsky “believes” that language has properties that previous work on UG ahs characterized. What he is questioning is whether theseproperties are fundamental or derived. The critics of UG that MHT cites have never addressed this question so they and Chomsky are engaged in entirely different projects.
Last point: MHT notes that neophytes will be confused about all of this. However, a big part of the confusion comes from people telling them that Chomsky and Evans/Levinson and Ibbotson/Tomasello are engaged in anything like the same project.
Let me repeat for the record, that one can do MP and presuppose some conception of FL other than GB. IMO, most of the different “frameworks” make more or less the same claims. I will stick to GB because this is what I know best andMP indeed has targeted GB conceptions most directly.
Or, more accurately, it aims to preserve most of it, just as General Relativity aimed to preserve most of Newtonian mechanics.