Monday, December 29, 2014

If God is in the details then Evans fills a badly needed gap in the literature

If God is in the details, Vyvyan Evans’ writings on generative linguistics are profane. What follows is a little illustrative example and how bad the arguments are.

As mentioned before (see here, here, and here), Evans, like many before him, seems to have difficulty understanding the concept of a universal as used by generative grammarians of the Chomsky stripe. Evidence? Consider this discussion of the wh-island constraint (76-7 in his book; in a chapter entitled “Are There Linguistic Universals?”). Evans illustrates the constraint using the following contrasting English examples:

(1)  a. Where did the supermodel say that the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her
b. * Where did the supermodel say whether the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her

Evans argues that typological considerations prove that the contrast above cannot be attributed to a universal “rule” because it fails to hold in “other Indo-European languages such as Italian and Russian.”

Let me start with what may seem a persnickety comment: The wh-island constraint is not often thought of as a “rule” but as a condition on rules. This may sound like an innocuous distinction, but it actually isn’t. It reflects what I think is the basic underlying confusion permeating Evans’ discussions: the inability to distinguish Greenberg Universals (which aim to describe surface patterns) and Chomsky Universals (which aim to describe the generative properties of Gs and FL).  The former are intended to be surface true, the latter cannot be. While there is a direct relationship between a surface pattern and a rule in the case of Greenberg Universals, no such direct relation exists in the second.  Thus, as a matter of logic, it takes more than a review of contrasting surface patterns to debunk a Chomsky universal. It requires a discussion of the rules that generate said surface forms (i.e. a discussion of the generative procedures (i.e. Gs)). As we shall see, Evans’ discussion is entirely oblivious to this, and this makes his critique entirely worthless, as will become clear as we proceed.

So, let’s return to Evans’ discussion. What’s the “invalid” universal rule that Evans aims to debunk? It’s the following: A wh-word cannot intervene between the two clauses in a question. What’s the problem according to Evans? In some languages [Italian and Russian-NH], “a wh-word can intervene between the two clauses in a question” (77). So, according to Evans the universal rule says “no intervening wh-words between clauses in questions” and Italian and Russian allow such intervening wh-words. Thus, the universal rule is invalid.  In other words, by examining the surface forms in three different languages Evans concludes that a proposed universal, motivated by English data, is not universal after all.

Evans’ argument here is very instructive.  For it fails in almost every way imaginable, as I will show. But before deconstructing it, let me start by saying that there is nothing wrong at looking at more than one language to investigate linguistic universals.[1] Generativists do this all the time. As David Pesetsky notes here  even big bad Chomsky thinks that this is a very good thing to do (Evans seems loath to concede this point despite his evident misquotation (please take a look at the Facebook discussion linked to above. This is really egregiously bad behavior on Evans’ part)). So, the idea that cross linguistic investigations are relevant to establishing universal properties of Gs and FL is as close to a truism as there is today among practicing generativists.  However, if you do this, you need to do this right, and, sad to say, Evans’s discussion is seriously defective. Let’s count the ways.

First, as already noted, Evans’ criticism understands the universal to be one about surface forms (viz. can a wh-word intervene between “two clauses in a question”). Sadly, as it stands, this is an incorrect description of the relevant phenomenon. How do I know? Because sentences like (2) are fine in English even though “a wh-word intervenes between two clauses in a question”:

(2)  Who did the supermodel ask whether the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her

The correct description of the phenomenon Evans is interested in requires fixing where the wh comes from and this requires more than mere surface description. In particular, it requires determining the underlying source of the wh-word (i.e. roughly its DS-position). The generalization that covers (1) and (2) is that it the wh that is sentence initial cannot hail from the embedded clause. Note that in (1b) the sentence is only unacceptable if where is querying the getting-off. The sentence is fine if we are questioning where the saying occurred.  So the structure that is ungrammatical is (3a) (corresponding to (1a)) with the indicated trace annotating the relevant illicit dependency while (3b) and (3c) are fully grammatical.[2] This is why the matrix reading of (1b) where where modifies the saying is fully acceptable. I leave as an exercise for you (and Evans) to explain why (2) is also fine and fully acceptable (hint: note where the trace of where sits in (3c)).

(3)  a. Where1 did the supermodel say that the window cleaner had to get off the train t1 to meet her
b. Where1 did the supermodel say t1 that the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her
c. Who1 did the supermodel ask t1 whether the window cleaner had to get off the train to meet her

So, first conclusion, Evans’ discussion does not really describe the data correctly and furthermore to do the English data descriptive justice requires looking at more than the surface (string) features of the sentence. We need, at least, sound-meaning pairs to get the data described correctly and this requires some conception of underlying form, something that is not string visible. This is what good typological work currently does and Evans’ discussion does not.

Second problem: Evans’ discussion gets the facts wrong even allowing for the first adjustment. The contrast he claims to hold between English on the one hand and Italian/Russian on the other does not hold in questions.  Sentences analogous to (1) with structure (3a) are unacceptable in Italian/Russian too. Question formation in both languages appears to yield unacceptability when extracting one question ­wh over another question wh.[3] What Evans probably meant to report is that the wh-island condition fails to appear in the Italian analogues of (4):

(4)  The book that John asked whether to review

This was first noted by Rizzi in his justly celebrated paper on island effect variations. Rizzi noted that wrt relativization (not question formation) it appears to be possible to extract the relative operator out of the embedded question with acceptable results.  As Grimshaw noted not long afterwards, examples like (4) also seem pretty acceptable in English, so Rizzi’s noted contrast between the two languages might be inaccurate (I for example find (4) quite acceptable).  At any rate, this is the kind of counterexample to the wh-island constraint that Generativists started studying in the mid 1980s. Research led to a proposal that largely saved the universal principle. We return to this in a moment, but first another problem with Evans’ set up of the discussion.

Note that in the example in (4) the head of the relative clause controls an argument position inside the relative (the object of review). In the examples in (1), where is an adjunct. There are well known differences between arguments and adjuncts as they relate to islands, viz. adjuncts are far more susceptible to the wh-island condition than arguments are. Thus, (5) is considerably less acceptable than (4) (again with the head modifying the place of the interview (viz. roughly, a relativized version of “John asked whether to interview MD in NYC):

(5)  ?*The city that/where John asked whether to interview Moby Dick

So, Evans’ illustrative examples are triply unfortunate: they mis-describe the typological contrast (questions are uniform across the three cited languages wrt unacceptability), they mis-describe the generalization (the underlying source of the wh is critical), and they focus on the wrong cases as the contrast of interest emerges largely with argument extraction, adjuncts being more recalcitrant and quite uniform in their behavior cross-linguistically.

This noted, let’s put these details aside and simply assume that Evans’ discussion does not go off the rails from the get go (though it does and this should tell you something about whether Evans’ criticism is serious (which, of course it isn’t) given that even the simple description of the generalization it “debunks” is so inaccurate), though It should make you wonder how trustworthy the critic is if he can’t get the basic descriptive facts right.

Ok, where are we? We have a purported difference between English on the one hand versus Italian (and Russian) on the other concerning extraction out of embedded questions in relative clauses. Does this debunk the universal as Evans’ discussion claims? Not really. The whole discussion, as I noted, was initiated by Rizzi in the context of grounding Ross-like Island generalizations more deeply in a more general theory of locality.[4] Here’s a slightly ahistorical reconstruction.

Rizzi noted the contrast between English and French regarding extraction out of wh-islands. He offered an explanation for this that preserved an important linguistic universal (the subjacency condition) by allowing the category of bounding nodes to differ across Gs (CP and DP for Italian, TP and DP for English).  Given this parametric variation, both English and Italian (and Russian) Gs obeyed the same universal subjacency condition (i.e. movement across more than a single bounding node is illicit in all Gs). In other words, the relevant generalization due to Rizzi is that there exists a universal structural condition on movement that is not in any way undermined by the observed differences between Italian and English that Rizzi reported. As you can see, this universal is very abstract (it relates to G processes and structures, not output forms) and cannot be contested by citing surface differences the way that Evans’ discussion does.[5]

In short, even when corrected for the evident mis-descriptions, Evans’ discussion is simply irrelevant to what generative grammarians have understood universals to be. Thus, Evans’ discussion is just another example of the confusion rampant in his writing between structural universals of the Chomsky variety (that have to do with properties of Gs and FL) and surface typological universals of the Greenberg variety (that mainly describes the string properties of surface forms). And this is a very big deal. It indicates that Evans’ discussions (aside from indicating a lack of fluency with the relevant literature) is simply beside the point logically. His criticisms miss the mark because they are not targeted at the right concept of universal.

Let me put this another way: Evans writes as if differing typological patterns are in and of themselves problems for the generative conception of universals. But this is to misunderstand what a grammatical universal is. It is not the description of patterns in the data, but principles of grammatical organization (descriptions of generative procedures). In other words, though Greenberg universals can be relevant to evaluating Chomsky universals, it takes a lot of grammatical work to relate them. Evans’ argument does not do any of this work. Why? Because it fails to recognize the difference between the two kinds of universals and hence fails to understand what is logically required to show that a Chomsky (grammatical) is incorrect. This makes Evans’ critique similar to Emily Litela’s confusion about “soviet jewelry” (here), though Emily’s misunderstanding is far more amusing (and, deliberate, unlike Evans’ critique).
So, here’s the bottom line of our little illustration: Evans’ specific “criticism” of the work on wh-island effects in generative grammar is deeply misguided. How deep? Well, the discussion wins the junk argument trifecta: it is inadequate descriptively, theoretically and logically. In other words, this is intellectual garbage, pure and simple. His discussion here is not serious and the charitable should simply ignore it.  I would have done so myself (indeed, I really want to ignore it) had it remained justly obscure. But it did not. Rather, Evans’ critique has come to fill a badly needed hole in the literature.[6] If only that hole were still unfilled. Make sure you mention this to anyone that suggests otherwise.[7]

[1] I should add, perhaps playing into Evans’ hands, that I personally do think that one can argue for universals based on investigations of a single G (note, G, not language). This is what POS arguments do all the time. Of course, no single argument need be dispositive and it is always worth finding other kinds of evidence for a proposed universal. But logically speaking, investigating one G in depth can serve to ground a universal, not unlike studying just one organisms in depth, say the fruit fly or e-coli or pea plants, can serve to ground biochemical or genetic generalizations that hold across many phyla.
[2] Structures are ‘grammatical’ or not, sentences are ‘acceptable’ or not. Linguists explain unacceptability in part via the grammaticality of the structures they supervene on. But the two notions are distinct and must be kept conceptually separate.
[3] Of course, whether these derivations are ungrammatical in Italian/Russian Gs is a further question.
[4] I say “Ross-like” as Ross himself did not think that the wh-island condition was a true island. It was added by Chomsky later on based on the mechanics of the theory of subjacency.
[5] There are other accounts for exceptions to wh-island effects involving the number of “escape” hatches in a given G. Reinhart initiated this line of analysis and it is still much with us (under the name of ‘phase edges’). At any rate, this line of inquiry also preserved the subjacency condition by parameterizing the number of “escape” hatches in CP a given G allows.
[6] I comment I heard attributed to a review by Quine. Great line!
[7] Last point: the wh-island condition has been widely discussed in the generative literature. Exactly how to formulate it is still subject to lots of discussion.  The above is not intended to defend nor debunk it. My sole intention has been to show that whatever the right answer turns out to be, Evans’ kinds of considerations are conceptually incapable of furthering the discussion.


  1. Creative as always Norbert is filling a gaping hole in the award category: the junk argument trifecta. Does it come with a plaque depicting the 3 wise men of Generativism?

    Speaking of holes that need to be filled: could you be so kind and let your audience know where you hid those references you were asked to supply to back up your claim that "Chomsky is especially careful to quote his sources when he goes after them. He footnotes heavily and quotes extensively". C'mon now: that critics of Chomsky misunderstand him is old news. But that you would actually back up a claim like the above with cold hard evidence - now that would be news to hold the presses for...

  2. Yes i totally agreed with you that Norbert is filling a gaping hole in the award category. I am new on your blog but when i find this one i am really surprised how a person can write so incredible posts. Thank you so much for sharing all the posts with us.
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  3. To dredge up an old post about a subject you hoped never to write about again, I had cause to look into this and a bit of digging has given me a nice example of another level of incompetence.

    I wanted to be sure how he dealt with his examples, so I looked at his book and found, of course, that he gives no examples except the improperly examined ones in English. His statement that Italian and Russian provide counter-evidence is given with no explication. Perhaps that's because he just doesn't know how to deploy it? Well yes, but there's more.

    He cites a source for his claim and it’s bizarre. He points to the discussion in Van Valin and LaPolla (1997), which makes no mention of Italian or Russian. They actually look at Lakhota. More interestingly, they look at Lakhota in order to show that even in-situ wh-formations obey a universal subjacency condition (they reformulate it to include some semantics but their goal is to ensure a universal structural constraint). Evans therefore cites a source he didn't care to read properly, doesn't understand, and which actually contradicts him.

    But there’s more! Why would Evans be so sloppy? By chance, I happened to read the car-crash Evans & Levinson (2009) paper against universals (this one is a different Evans, and remember that Vyvyan's book is from 2014). E&L attempt to demolish subjacency with familiar examples from English ("*Where did John say whether we had to get off the bus?"), also failing to note the structural ambiguity, and also citing Italian and Russian as counter-evidence without examples. And – coincidence? – they also mistakenly cite Van Valin and LaPolla in their favour. E&L must have cited a source that they didn't understand and Evans subsequently copied their error without checking it.

    But there’s more! In reference to their argument about subjacency and Italian/Russian, E&L cite *two* sources, of which Van Valin and LaPolla is just one. The other is Newmeyer (2004) which actually *does* look at examples from Italian and Russian. So not only is Evans incompetent at wielding an argument and too lazy to check that the source he has copying from has got its arguments right, he was even careless enough to copy the wrong citation.

    But there’s more! One last piece of fun is in reading Newmeyer (2004), which I assume I did with more care than E&L. Newmeyer notes the typological differences between Italian, Russian and English, and, with reference to Rizzi (1982), does so in order to argue that subjacency is an innate component of UG. Newmeyer's only beef is that he doesn’t like P&P and sees no reason for an innate specification of the range of possible bounding parameters, but he still supports the view that there is a universal structural condition. E&L therefore score two own-goals.

    Maybe follow-ups of sloppy citations are a bit pedantic but I think they’re important. It was noted in the responses to E&L that their tactic – shared by Evans – is to dazzle with exotica that they refuse to examine in sophisticated detail, and their plentiful citations act as a buffer so that the audience trusts the evidence exists elsewhere. Well it turns out that the citations don't even lead to more bogus arguments, they lead to sources that contradict the people citing them. This is a kind of laziness that should be beneath an academic. They not only don’t understand what they're talking about, they show no willingness to understand and are happy to go on building a house of cards out of their shared ignorance.

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