Saturday, March 21, 2015

A (shortish) whig history of Generative Grammar (part 2)

The first part of this whig history is here.

            1. What kinds of rules and interactions do NL Gs contain?

Work in the first period involved detailed investigations of the kinds of rules that particular Gs have and how they interact.  Many different rules were investigated: movement rules, deletions rules, phrase structure rules and binding rules to name four. And their complex modes of interaction were limned. Consider some details.

Recall that one of the central facts about NLs is that they contain a practically infinite number of hierarchically organized objects.  They also contain dependencies defined over the structures of these objects. In early GG, phrase structure (PS) rules recursively specified the infinite class of well-formed structures in a given G. Lexical insertion (LI) rules specified the class of admissible local dependencies in a given G and transformational (T) rules specified the class of non-local dependencies in a given G.[1] Let’s consider each in turn.

PS rules are recursive and their successive application creates bigger and bigger hierarchically organized structures on top of which LI and T rules operate to generate other dependencies.  (6) provides some candidate phrase PS rules:

(6)       a. Sà NP aux VP
            b. VPà V (NP) (PP)
            c. NPà (det) N (PP) (S)
            d. PPà P NP

These four rules suffice to generate an unbounded number of hierarchical structures.[2] Thus sentences like John kissed Mary has the structure in (7) generated using rules (6a,b,c).

(7) [S [NP N] aux [VP V [NP N ]]]

LI-rules like those in (8) insert terminals into these structures yielding the structured phrase marker (PM) in (9):

(8)       a. Nà John, Mary…
            b. Và kiss,…
            c. auxà past

(9) [S [NP [N John ] [aux past] [VP [V kiss] [NP [N Mary]]]]

PMs like (9) code for local inter-lexical dependencies as well. Note that replacing kiss with arrive yields an unacceptable sentence: *John arrived Mary. The PS rules can generate the relevant structure (i.e. (7)), but the LI rules cannot insert arrive in the V position of (7) because arrive is not lexically marked as transitive. In other words, NP^kiss^NP is a fine local dependency, but NP^arrive^NP is not.

Given structures like (9), T-rules can apply to rearrange them thereby coding for a variety of non-local dependencies.[3] What kind of dependencies? The unit of transformational analysis in early GG was the construction. Some examples include: Passive, WH questions, Polar questions, Raising, Equi-NP Deletion (aka: Control), Super Equi, Topicalization, Clefting, Dative Shift (aka: Double Object Constructions), Particle shift, There constructions (aka: Existential Constructions), Reflexivization, Pronominalization, Extraposition, among others. Though the rules fell into some natural formal classes (noted below), they also contained a great deal of construction specific information, reflecting construction specific morphological peccadillos. Here’s an illustration.

Consider the Passive rule in (10). ‘X’/’Y’ in (10) are variables. The rule says that if you can factor a PM into the parts on the left (viz. the structural description) you can change the structure to the one on the right (the structural change).  Applied to (9), this yields the derived phrase marker (11).

(10) X-NP1-V-NP2-Yà X-NP2- be+en-V-by NP1-Y
(11) [S [NP [N Mary ] [aux past] be+en [VP [V kiss] by [NP [N John]]]]

Note, the rule codes the fact that what was once the object of kiss is now a derived subject. Despite this change in position, Mary is still the kisee. Similarly, John, the former subject of (9) and the kisser is now the object of the preposition by, and still the kisser.  Thus, the passive rule in (10) codes the fact Mary was kissed by John and John kissed Mary have a common thematic structure as both have an underlying derivation which starts from the PM in (9). In effect, it codes for non-local dependencies, e.g. the one between Mary and kiss.

The research focus in this first epoch was on carefully describing the detailed features of a variety of different constructions, rather than on factoring out their common features.[4] Observe that (10) introduces new expressions into the PM (e.g. be+en, by), in addition to rearranging the nominal expressions. T-rules did quite a bit of this, as we shall see below. What’s important to note for current purposes is the division of labor between PS-, LI- and T-rules. The first generates unboundedly many hierarchical structures, the second “chooses” the right ones for the lexical elements involved and the latter rearranges them to produce novel surface forms that retain relations to other non-local (e.g. adjacent) expressions.

T-rules, despite their individual idiosyncrasies, fell into a few identifiable formal families. For example, Control constructions are generated by a T-rule (Equi-NP deletion) that deletes part of the input structure. Sluicing constructions also delete material but, in contrast to Equi-NP deletion, it does not require a PM internal grammatical trigger (aka, antecedent) to do so. Movement rules (like Passive in (11) or Raising) rearrange elements in a PM. And T-rules that generate Reflexive and Bound Pronoun constructions neither move nor delete elements but replace the lower of two identical lexical NPs with morphologically appropriate formatives (as we illustrate below).

In sum, the first epoch provided a budget of actual examples of the kinds of rules that Gs contain (i.e. PS, LI and T) and the kinds of properties these rules had to have to be capable of describing recursion and the kinds of dependencies characteristically found within NLs. In short, early GG developed a compendium of actual G rules in a variety of languages.

Nor was this all. Early GG also investigated how these different rules interacted. Recall, that one of the key features of NLs is that they include effectively unbounded hierarchically organized objects.  This means that the rules talk to one another and apply to one another’s outputs to produce an endless series of complex structures and dependencies. Early GG started exploring how G rules could interact and it was quickly discovered how complex and subtle the interactions could be. For example, in the Standard Theory, rules apply cyclically and in a certain fixed order (e.g. PS rules applying before T rules). Sometimes the order is intrinsic (follows from the nature of the rules involved) and sometimes not. Sometimes the application of a rule creates the structural conditions for the application of another (feeding) sometimes it destroys the structures required (bleeding).  These rules systems can be very complex and these initial investigations gave a first serious taste of what a sophisticated capacity natural language competence was.

It is worth going through an example to see what we have in mind. For illustration, consider some binding data and the rules of Reflexivization and Pronominalization, and their interactions with PS rules and T rules like Raising.

Lees-Klima (LK) (1963) offered the following two rules to account for an interesting array of binding data in English.[5]  The proposal consists of two rules, which must apply when they can and are (extrinsically) ordered so that (12) applies before (13).[6]

            (12) Reflexivization:
X-NP1- Y- NP2 - Z à X- NP1-Y- pronoun+self-Z,                               
(Where NP1=NP2, pronoun has the phi-features of NP2, and NP1/NP2 are in the same
simplex sentence).
(13) Pronominalization:
X-NP1-Y-NP2-Z à X-NP1-Y- pronoun-Z                                                             (Where NP1=NP2 and pronoun has the phi-features of NP2).

As is evident, the two rules have very similar forms. Both apply to identical NPs and morphologically convert one to a reflexive or pronoun. (12), however, only applies to nominals in the same simplex clause, while (13) is not similarly restricted. As (12) obligatorily applies before (13), reflexivization will bleed the environment for the application of pronominalization by changing NP2 to a reflexive (thereby rendering the two NPs no longer “identical”).  A consequence of this ordering is that Reflexives and (bound) pronouns (in English) must be in complementary distribution.[7]

An illustration should make things clear. Consider the derivation of (14a).  It has the underlying form (14b). We can factor (14b) as in (14c) as per the Reflexivization rule (12). This results in converting (14c) to (14d) with the surface output (14e) carrying a reflexive interpretation. Note that Reflexivization codes the fact that John is both washer and washee, or that John non-locally relates to himself.

(14)     a. John1 washed himself/*him
            b. John washed John
            c. X-John-Y-John-Z
            d. X-John-Y-him+self-Z
            e. John washed himself

What blocks John likes him with a similar reflexive reading, i.e. where John is co-referential with him? To get this structure Pronominalization must apply to (14c).  However, it cannot as (12) is ordered before (13) and both rules must apply when they can apply.  But, once (12) applies we get (14d), which no longer has a structural description amenable to (13). Thus, the application of (12) bleeds that of (13) and John likes him with a bound reading cannot be derived, i.e. there is no licit grammatical relation between John and him.

This changes in (15). Reflexivization cannot apply to (15c) as the two Johns are in different clauses. As (12) cannot apply, (13) can (indeed, must) as it is not similarly restricted to apply to clause-mates. In sum, the inability to apply (12) allows the application of (13). Thus does the LK theory derive the complementary distribution of reflexives and bound pronouns.

(15)     a. John believes that Mary washed *himself/him
            b. John believes that Mary washed John
            c. X-John-Y-John
            d. X-John-Y-him
            e. John believes that Mary washed him

There is one other feature of note: the binding rules in (12) and (13) also effectively derive a class of (what are now commonly called) principle C effects given the background assumption that reflexives and pronouns morphologically obscure an underlying copy of the antecedent. Thus, the two rules prevent the derivation of structures like (16) in which the bound reflexive/pronoun c-commands its antecedent.

(16)     a. Himself1 kissed Bill1
            b. He1 thinks that John1 is tall

The derivation, of these principle C effects, is not particularly deep.  The rules derive the effect by stipulating that the higher of two identical NPs is retained while the lower one is morphologically reshaped into a reflexive/pronoun.[8]

The LK theory can also explain the data in (17) in the context of a G with rules like Raising to Object in (18).

(17)     a. *John1 believes him/he-self1 is intelligent
            b. John1 believes that he1 is intelligent

(18) Raising to Object:

            X-V-C-NP-Y à X-V-NP-C-Y
(where C is Ø and non-finite)[9]

If (18) precedes (12) and (13) then it cannot apply to raise the finite subject in (19) to the matrix clause. This prevents (12) from applying to derive (17a) as (12) is restricted to NPs that are clause-mates. But, as failure to apply (12) requires the application of (13), the mini-grammar depicted here leads to the derivation of (17b).

(19) John1 believes C John1 is intelligent

Analogously, (12), (13) and (18) also explain the facts in (20), at least if (18) must apply when it can.[10]

(20)     a.         John1 believes himself1 to be intelligent
            b.         *John1 believes him1 to be intelligent

The LK analysis can be expanded further to handle yet more data when combined with
other rules of G. And this is exactly the point: to investigate the kinds of rules Gs contain by seeing how their interactions derive non-trivial linguistic data sets. This allows us to explore what kinds of rules exist (by proposing some and seeing how they work) and what kinds of interactions rules can have (they can feed and bleed one another, then are ordered, etc.).

The LK analysis illustrates two important features of these early analyses. First, it (in combination with other rules) compactly summarizes a set of binding “effects,” patterns of data concerning the relation of anaphoric expressions to their antecedents in a range of phrasal configurations. It doesn't outline all the data that we now take to be relevant to binding theory (e.g. it does not address the contrast in John1’s mother likes him/*himself1), but many of the data points discussed by LK have become part of the canonical data that any theory of Binding is responsible for.  Thus, the complementary distribution of reflexives and (bound) pronouns in these sentential configurations is now a canonical fact that every subsequent theory of Binding has aimed to explain. So too the locality required between antecedent and anaphor for successful reflexivization and the fact that an anaphor cannot c-command the antecedent that it is related to.[11]

The kinds of the data LK identifies is also noteworthy.  From very early on, GG understood that both positive and negative data are relevant for understanding how FL is structured.  Positive data is another name for the “good” cases (examples like (14e) and (15e)), where an anaphoric dependency is licensed. Negative data are the * cases (examples like (17a) and (20b)) where the relevant dependency is illicit.  Grammars, in short, not only specify what can be done, they also specify what cannot be. GG has discovered that negative data often reveals more about the structure of FL than positive data does.[12]

Second, LK provides a theory of these effects in the two rules (12) and (13).  As we shall see, this theory was not retained in later versions of GG.[13] The LK account relies on machinery (obligatory rule application, bleeding and feeding relations among rules, rule ordering, Raising to Object, etc.) that is replaced in later theory by different kinds of rules with different kinds of properties. The rules themselves are also very complex (e.g. they are extrinsically ordered). Later approaches to binding attempt to isolate the relevant factors and generalize them to other kinds of rules. We return to this anon.

The distinction between “effects” and “theory” is an important one in what follows.  As GG changed over the years, discovered effects have been largely retained but detailed theory intended to explain these effects has often changed.[14] This is similar to what we observe in the mature sciences (think Ideal Gas Laws wrt Thermodynamics and later Statistical Mechanics). What is clearly cumulative in the GG tradition is the conservation of discovered effects. Theory changes, and deepens. Some theoretical approaches are discarded, some refashioned and some resuscitated after having been abandoned. Effects, however, are conserved and a condition of theoretical admissibility is that the effects explained by earlier theory, remain explicable given newer theoretical assumptions.

We should also add, that for large stretches of theoretical time, basic theory has also been conserved. However, the cumulative nature of GG research is most evident in the generation and preservation of the various discovered effects. With this in mind, let’s list some of the many discovered till now.

[1] Earliest GGs did not have PS rules but two kinds of transformations. Remember this is a Whig history, not the real thing.
[2] The ‘(  )’ indicates optional expansion.
[3] In the earliest theories of GG, recursion was also the province of the transformational component, with PS rules playing a far more modest role. However, from Aspects onward, the recursive engine of the grammar was the PS rules. Transformations did not generally created “bigger” objects. Rather they specified licit grammatical dependencies within PS created objects.
[4] This is not quite right, of course. One of the glories of GG is Ross’s discovery if islands, and many different constructions obeyed them.
[5] LSLT was a very elaborate investigation of G(English). The rules for pronouns and reflexives discussed here have antecedents in LSLT. However, the rules discussed as illustrations here were first developed in this form by Lees and Kilma.
[6] The left side of à is the “structural description.” It describes the required factorization of the linguistic object so that the rule can apply. The right side describes how the object is changed by the rule. It is called the “structural change.”
[7] Cross-linguistic work on binding has shown this fact to be robust across NLs and so deriving the complementarity has become an empirical boundary condition on binding theories.
[8] Depending on how “identical” is understood, the LK theory prevents the derivation of sentences like John kissed John where the two Johns are understood as referring to the same individual. How exactly to understand the identity requirement was a vexed issue that was partly responsible for replacing the LK theory. One particularly acute problem was how to derive sentences like Everyone kissed himself. It clearly does not mean anything like ‘everyone kissed everyone.’ What then is its underlying form so that (12) could apply to it. This was never satisfactorily cleared up and led to revised approaches to binding, as we shall see.
[9] This is not how the original raising to object rule was stated, but it’s close enough. Note too, that saying that C is finite means that it selects for a finite T. In English, for example, that is finite and for is non-finite.
[10] We leave the relevant derivations as an exercise.
[11] a c-commands b iff every branching category that dominates a dominates b
[12] The focus on negative data has also been part of the logic of the POS. Data that is absent is hard to track without some specification of what absences to look for (i.e. some specification of where to look).  More important still to the logic of the POS is the impoverished nature of the PLD available to the child. We return to this below.
[13] Though it is making a comeback, c.f. ….
[14] Though like all theory, earlier ideas are recycled with some reinterpretation. See below for illustration.


  1. I am very curious to know if GG is truly cumulative, either with respect to effects or explanations of effects. I ask because I gather from reading history and philosophy of science that cumulativity does not always hold, even in canonical sciences.

    The example I remember reading about has to do with planetary motion. If I'm remembering the details correctly, Descartes explained planetary motion by invoking an ether, i.e., a medium through which planets travel. The ether explained general facts about planetary motion (e.g., why planetary orbits have the shape they do), but it also explained why all the planets go in the same direction around the sun. When Newton's theory of gravity ultimately replaced Descartes' ether, it still explained general facts about planetary motion, but it did not explain why all the planets go in the same direction. Hence, the interesting historical and philosophical (of science) fact that Newton's theory was considered a better theory despite the fact that it failed to explain everything Descartes' theory explained.

    So, to bring it back to GG, are there any phenomena like this in language? It would be interesting (to me, anyway) if, say, something that government-binding theory gave a good explanation of turns out to be unexplained by minimalism, while minimalism was still taken to be an improvement on GB.

    1. There are two more installments of this history where this topic is broached more seriously. I hope that addresses your question in part.

  2. I think there's one issue involving the NA's that's going to subvert any attempt to enlighten the GP's, which is the significance of 'linguistically significant generalizations'. Generative Grammar started with a lot of effort to combine things that might be regarded as disjoint aspects of language structure into coherent packages unified by generalizations, and has never gotten away from this activity, but many of the NA's have never understood it. I.e. Quine's 'methodological reflections' paper, and similar reflections by Suppes (e.g. I think in 'Elimination of quantifiers in the semantics of natural language by use of extended relation algebras' from 1976). Suppes' issue was that he could simplify semantics (he thought) by removing quantifiers from the NP, losing the generalization that, in English, they precede the noun and adjective in all the conventional NP positions, and he professed not to understand why losing that syntactic generalization wasn't a good bargain for his supposedly better semantics (I actually talked about it with him once).

    In principle, I think these queries are addressed by the Peacocke/Davies concept of Marr-style level 1.5 (but thinking of language learning and its concomitants such as change as the 'linguistic knowledge editor', rather than the imaginary surgeries deployed by Davies in his 5% article), but I believe that there are plenty of unpersuadeds wandering around in linguistics itself, let alone neighboring disciplines, and if this cannot be sorted out, they will subvert any attempt to get the GP to like generative grammar. We might think we've explained it adequately to ourselves and each other, but if people don't get it, we actually haven't.

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