Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A zesty intro to the logic of explanatory adequacy with a nod to JR Vergenaud

David Berlinski and Juan Uriagereka have written a very readable (and amusing) history of abstract case theory (here). It is also very pedagogical for it focuses on how Vergnaud's proposal regarding abstract case enhanced the explanatory power of UG, and it does this by showing how Chomsky-Lasnik filters were a vast improvement over ordered rules with all of their intricacies and how case theory was a big conceptual improvement over filters like *[NP to VP].  It is all very nicely done (and quite funny in a very dry sort of way.

The story ends with the observation that ECM is, well "exceptional" and suggests, coyly, that this raises interesting issues. It does. One of the nicest results of recent minimalist theory, IMO, was Lasnik and Saito's (L&S) regularization of Postal's scope facts wrt ECM subjects in the context of a theory of case that junks government and replaces it with something like the old spec-head configuration. What L&S show is that given such a theory, one that the earliest versions of MP promoted, we would expect a correlation between (abstract) case value and the scope of the case assigned DP.  Postal's data, L&S argued showed exactly that. This was a wonderful paper and one of the first really interesting results of minimalist logic.

As you all know, this result fit ill with the mover to Agree based Probe-Goal conceptions of case licensing (after all, the whole idea of the L&S theory is that the DP had to move to a higher position in order to get case licensed and this movement expanded its scope horizons). Chomsky's more recent ideas concerning labeling might force object movement as well and so reclaim the Postal, though not within the domain of the theory of case.  At any rate, all of this is to indicate that there are further interesting theoretical movements prompted by Vergnaud's original theory even to the present day. And yes, I know that there are some who think that it was entirely on the wrong track but even they should appreciate the Berlinksy-Uriagereka reconstruction.

1 comment:

  1. As Norbert knows, I am one of those who believes that Vergnaud's idea was ultimately mistaken. (Or more accurately: that as a theory of NP distribution, abstract case needs to be supplemented with additional principles, which could do much if not all of the relevant work on their own. And that overt case follows an entirely different set of rules, and is crucially not computed based on abstract case. And so, that the ultimate ratio of postulates to explananda when it comes to abstract case is far below the reasonable threshold.) But I nevertheless teach this proposal when I teach undergrad syntax, precisely because it is such a beautiful piece of reasoning. If the facts were as Chomsky, Lasnik and Vergnaud envisioned – that is, if languages were really like [English minus wager-verbs minus case in coordinations minus case in fragments minus ...] – this would be a magnificent way to derive those facts. Alas, it's not clear that there is even a single language that is really like that.