Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A game I play

Every now and then I play this game: how would Chomsky respond?  I do this for a variety of reasons. First, I respect his smarts and I think it is interesting to consider how things would look from his point of view. Second, I ache found that trying to understand his position, even when it appears foreign to my way of thinking has been useful for me in clarifying my own ideas. And third, because given Chomsky's prominence in the field and his influence on how the world views the efforts of GG, it is useful to know how he would defend a certain point of view even if he himself doesn't (or hasn't) defended it in this way.  regarding the third point: it's been my experience that when one suggests that "GG assumes "X or "GG has property Y" people take this to mean that Chomsky said that "GG assumes X" or "GG has property Y."  I am not always delighted with this way of parsing things, but given the way the world is and given that Chomsky is wickedly smart and very often correct the game is worth the effort.

In an earlier post (here), I tried to explain why I did not find any of the current attacks on the POS argument in the literature compelling. part of this consisted in explaining why I thought that the standardly cited reanalyses had :"focused on the wrong data to solve the wrong problem" and that as a result there is no reason to think that more work along these lines would ever shed any useful light on POS problems. I suggested that this was how one should really understand the discussion over Polar Questions: the anti-POS "rebuttals" misconstrue the point at issue, get the data wrong and supply answers for the wrong questions. In short, useless.

Why do I mention all of this again? Because there is an excellent recentish paper (here) by Berwick, Chomsky and Piatelli-Palmarini (BCP) that makes the points that I tried to make quickly, extensively. It is chapter 2 of the book (which is ludicrously expensive and you should take out from your library) and it suggests that my interpretation of the problem was largely on the right track. For example, I suggested that the original discussion was intended as a technically simple illustration of a much more general point aimed at a neophyte audience. BCP confirms this interpretation stating that "the examples were selected for expository reasons, deliberately simplified so that they could be presented as illustrations without the need to present more than site trivial linguistic theory" (20). They further note that the argument that Polar questions are formed using a structure dependent operation is the minimum one could say. It is not itself a detailed analysis but a general conclusion concerning the class of plausible analyses.  I also correctly surmised that the relevant data goes far beyond the simple cases generally discussed and that any adequate theory would have to extend to these more complex cases as well.  To make a long story short: I nailed it!!!

However, for those who want to read a pretty short very good discussion of the POS issue once again, a discussion where Chomsky's current views are very much in evidence, I could not do better than suggest this short readable paper "Poverty of the stimulus stands: why recent challenges fail."

One last point: there is a nice discussion here too of the interplay between PP and DP. As BCP notes, the aim of MPish accounts is to try to derive the effects of UG laden accounts that answer the POS with accounts that exploit less domain specific innate machinery. As they also note, the game is worth playing just in case you take the POS problem seriously and address the relevant data and generalizations. Changing the topic (as Perfors et al does) or ignoring the data (as Clark does and Christiansen does) means that whatever results ensue are irrelevant to the POS question at hand.  I would not have thought that this is worth repeating but for the fact that it appears to be a contentious claim. It isn't. That's why, as BCP indicates, the extant replies are worthless.

Addendum May 28/2014:

In the comments, Noah Motion has provided the following link to a very cheap version of the BCP paper. Thanks Noah.


  1. Given that I read the blog pretty regularly, I can usually figure out what the abbreviations/acronyms mean, but they frequently appear without definition in a given post. For example, in this post, we have GG, POS, PP, DP, MP, and UG without definition. Some are obvious (assuming certain background knowledge), but not all are.

    1. Generative Grammar
      Poverty of Stimulus
      Plato's Problem
      Darwin's Problem
      Minimalist Program
      Universal Grammar


  2. Also, this appears to be a freely available pdf of the BCP chapter in question. It's got a different title, and maybe there are some differences in the text, but at least it doesn't cost $100+.