Wednesday, July 24, 2013

LSA Summer Camp

The LSA summer institute just finished last week. Here are some impressions.

In many ways it was a wonderful experience and it brought back to me my life as a graduate student.  My apartment was “functional” (i.e. spare and tending towards the slovenly). As in my first grad student apartments, I had a mattress on the floor and an AC unit that I slept under. The main difference this time around was that that the AC unit I had at U Mich was considerably smaller than the earlier industrial strength machine that was able to turn my various abodes into a meat locker (I’m Canadian/Quebecois and ¯“mon pays ce n’est pas un pays c’est l’hiver…”¯ !). In fact, this time around the AC was more like ten flies flapping vigorously. It was ok if I slept directly under the fan (hence the floor mattress).  The downside, something that I do not remember from my experience 40 years ago, was that this time around, getting up out of bed was more demanding now than it was then.

I was at the LSA to teach intro to minimalist syntax.  It was a fun course to teach. There were between 80-90 people that attended regularly, about half taking the course for some kind of credit. To my delight, there was real enthusiasm for minimalist topics and the discussion in class was always lively.  The master narrative for the course was that the Minimalist Program (MP) aims to answer a “newish” question: what features of FL are peculiarly linguistic? The first lecture and a half consisted of a Whig history of Generative Grammar, which tried to locate the MP project historically. The main idea was that if one’s interest lies in distinguishing the cognitively general from the linguistically parochial within FL there have to be candidate theories of FL to investigate. GB (for the first time) provides an articulated version of such a theory, with the sub-modules, (i.e. Binding theory, control theory, movement, subjacency, the ECP, X’ theory etc.) providing candidate “laws of grammar.” The goal of MP is to repackage these “laws” in such a way as to factor out those features that are peculiar to FL from those that are part of general cognition/computation.  I then suggested that this project could be advanced by unifying the various principles in the different modules in terms of Merge, in effect eliminating the modular structure of FL. In this frame of mind, I showed how various proposals within MP could be seen as doing just this: Phrase Structure and Movement as instances of Merge (E and I respectively), case theory as an instance of I-merge, control, and anaphoric binding as instances of I-merge (A-chain variety) etc.  It was fun. The last lectures were by far the most speculative (it involved seeing if we could model pronominal binding as an instance of A-to-A’-to-A movement (don’t ask)) but there was a lot of interesting ongoing discussion as we examined various approaches for possible unification.  We went over a lot of the standard technology and I think we had a pretty good time going over the material. 

I also went on a personal crusade against AGREE.  I did this partly to be provocative (after all most current approaches to non-local dependencies rely on AGREE in a probe-goal configuration to mediate I-merge) and partly because I believe that AGREE introduces a lot of redundancy into the theory, not a good thing, so it allowed us to have a lively discussion of some of the more recondite evaluative considerations that MP elevates.[1]  At any rate, here the discussion was particularly lively (thanks Vicki) and fun. I would love to say that the class was a big hit, but this is an evaluation better left to the attendees than to me. Suffice it to say, I had a good time and the attrition rate seemed to be pretty low.

One of the perks of teaching at the institute is that one can sit in on one’s colleagues’ classes. I attended the class given by Sam Epstein, Hisa Kitihara and Dan Seely (EKS).  It was attended by about 60 people (like I said, minimalism did well at this LSA summer camp).  The material they covered required more background than the intro course I taught and EKS walked us through some of their recent research. It was very interesting. The aim was to develop of an account of why transfer applies when it does. The key idea was that cyclic transfer is forced in computations that result in in multi-peaked structures that themselves result from strict adherence to derivations that respect (an analogue of) Merge-Over-Move and feature lowering of the kind that Chomsky has recently proposed.  The technical details are non-trivial so those interested should hunt down some of their recent papers.[2]

A second important benefit of EKS’s course was the careful way that they went through some of Chomsky’s more demanding technical suggestions, sympathetically yet critically.  We had a great time discussing various conceptions of Merge and how/if labeling should be incorporated into core syntax. As many of you know, Chomsky has lately made noises that labeling should be dispensed with on simplicity grounds. Hisa (with kibbitzing from Sam and Dan) walked us though some of his arguments (especially those outlined in “Problems of Projection”). I was not convinced, but I was enlightened. 

Happily, in the third week, Chomsky himself came and discussed these issues in EKS’s class.  The idea he proposed therein was that phrases require labels at least when transferred to the CI interface. Indeed, Chomsky proposed a labeling algorithm that incorporated Spec-Head agreement as a core component (yes, it’s back folks!!).  It resolves labeling ambiguities.  To be slightly less opaque: in {X, YP} configurations the label is the most prominent (least embedded) lexical item (LI) (viz. X). In {XP, YP} configurations there are two least embedded LIs (viz. descriptively, the head of X and the head of Y). In these cases, agreement enters to resolve the ambiguity by identifying the two heads (i.e. thereby making them the same). Where agreement is possible, labeling is as well. Where it is not, one of the phrases must move to allow labeling to occur in transfer to CI.  Chomsky suggested that this requirement for unambiguous labeling (viz. the demand that labels be deterministically computed) underlies successive cyclic movement. 

To be honest, I am not sure that I yet fully understand the details enough to evaluate it (to be more honest, I think I get enough of it to be very skeptical). However, I can say that the class was a lot of fun and very thought provoking. As an added bonus, it brought me and Vicki Carstens together on a common squibbish project (currently under construction). For me it felt like being back in one of Chomsky’s Thursday lectures. It was great.

Chomsky gave two other less technical talks that were also very well attended. All in all, a great two days.

There were other highlights. I got to talk to Rick Lewis a lot. We “discussed” matters of great moment over excellent local beer and some very good single malt scotch. It was as part of one of these outings that I got him to allow me to post his two papers here. One particularly enlightening discussion involved the interpretation of the competence/performance distinction. He proposed that it be interpreted as analogous to the distinction between capacities and exercisings of capacities.  A performance is the exercise of a capacity. Capacities are never exhausted by their exercisings.  As he noted, on this version of the distinction one can have competence theories of grammars, of parsers, and of producers. On this view, it’s not that grammars are part of the theory of competence and parsers part of the theory of performance. Rather, the distinction marks the important point that the aim of cognitive theory is to understand capacities, not particular exercisings thereof. I’m not sure if this is exactly what Chomsky had in mind when he introduced the distinction, but I do think that it marks an important distinction that should be highlighted (one further discussed here).

Let me end with one last impression, maybe an inaccurate one, but one that I nonetheless left with.  Despite the evident interest in minimalist/biolinguistic themes at the institute, it struck me that this conception of linguistics is very much in the minority within the discipline at large. There really is a linguistics/languistics divide that is quite deep, with a very large part of the field focused on the proper description of language data in all of its vast complexity as the central object of study. Though, there is no a priori reason why this endeavor should clash with the biolinguistic one, in practice it does. 

The two pursuits are animated by very different aesthetics, and increasingly by different analytical techniques.  They endorse different conceptions of the role of idealization, and different attitudes towards variation and complexity. For biolinguists, the aim is to eliminate the variation, in effect to see through it and isolate the individual interacting sub-systems that combine to produce the surface complexity. The trick on this view is to find a way of ignoring a lot of the complex surface data and hone in on the simple underlying mechanisms. This contrasts with a second conception, one that embraces the complexity and thinks that it needs to be understood as a whole. On this second view, abstracting from the complex variety manifested in the surface forms is to abstract away from the key features of language.  On this second view, language IS variation, whereas from the biolinguistic perspective a good deal of variation is noise.

This, of course, is a vast over-simplification. But I sense that it reflects two different approaches to the study of language, approaches that won’t (and can’t) fit comfortably together. If so, linguistics will (has) split into two disciplines, one closer to philology (albeit with fancy new statistical techniques to bolster the descriptive enterprise) and one closer to Chomsky’s original biolinguistic conception whose central object of inquiry is FL.

Last point: One thing I also discovered is how much work running one of these Insitutes can be. The organizers at U Michigan did an outstanding job. I would like to thank Andries Coetze, Robin Queen, Jennifer Nguyen and all their student helpers for all their efforts.  I can be very cranky (and I was on some days) and when I was, instead of hitting me upside the head, they calmly and graciously settled me down, solved my “very pressing” problem and sent me on my merry way. Thanks for your efforts, forbearance and constant good cheer.

[1] I make this argument in chapter 6 here.
[2] See the three papers in 2010, 2011, and 2012 by EKS noted here

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