I have been pessimistic of late concerning the fate of linguistics. It’s not that I think it is in intellectual trouble (I actually cannot think of a more exciting period of linguistic research), but I do think that the kind of linguistics I signed up for as a youth is currently lightly prized, if at all. I have made no secret of this view. I even have a diagnosis. I believe that the Minimalist Program (MP) has forced to the surface a tension that was inchoate in the field since its inception 60 or so years ago. Sociologically, within the profession, this tension is becoming resolved in ways that disfavor my conception of the enterprise. You have no doubt guessed what the tension resides in: the languist-linguist divide. Languists and linguists are interested in different problems and objects of study. Languists mainly care about the subtle ways that languages differ. Linguists mainly care about the invariances and what these tell us about the overarching capacities that underlie linguistic facility. Languists are typologists. Linguists are cognitivists.
Before the MP era, it was pretty easy to ignore the different impulses that guide typological vs cognitive work (see here for more discussion). But MP has made this harder, and the field has split. And not evenly. The typologists have largely won, at least if one gauges this by the kind of work produced and valued. The profession loves languages with all of their intricacies and nuances. The faculty of language, not so much. As I’ve said many times before, and will repeat again here, theoretical work aimed at understanding FL is not highly valued (in fact, it is barely tolerated) and the pressures to cover the data far outweigh demands to explain it. This is what lies behind my pessimistic view about the future of (my kind of) linguistics. Until recently. So what happened?
I attended a conference at UMD sponsored by BBI (Brain and behavior initiative) (here). The workshop brought together people studying vocalization in animals and linguists and cog-neuro types interested in language. The goal was to see if there was anything these two groups could say to one another. The upshot is that there were potential points of contact, mainly revolving around sound in natural language, but that as far as syntax was concerned, there is little reason to think that animal models would be that helpful, at least at this point in time. Given this, why did I leave hopeful? Mainly because of a great talk by David Poeppel that allowed me to glimpse what I take to be the future of my brand of linguistics. I want to describe to you what I saw.
Cog-neuro is really really hard. Much harder than what I do. And it is not only hard because it demands mastery of distinct techniques and platforms (i.e. expensive toys) but also because (and this is what David’s talk demonstrated) to do it well presupposes a very solid acquaintance with results on some branch of cognition. So to study sound in humans requires knowing a lot about acoustics, brain science, computation, and phonology. This, recall, is a precondition for fruitful inquiry, not the endpoint. So you need to have a solid foundation in some branch of cognition and then you need to add to this a whole bunch of other computational, statistical, technical and experimental skills. One of the great things about being a syntactician is that you can do excellent work and still be largely technically uneducated and experimentally inept. I suspect that this is because FL is such a robust cognitive system that shoddy methods suffice to get you to its core general properties, which is the (relatively) abstract level that linguists have investigated. Descending into wetware nitty gritty demands loosening the idealizations that the more abstract kind of inquiry relies on and this makes things conceptually (as well as practically) more grubby and difficult. So, it is very hard to do cog-neuro well. And if this is so, then the aim of cognitive work (like that done in linguistics) is to lighten cog-neuro’s investigative load. One way of doing this is to reduce the number of core operations/computations that one must impute to the brain. Let me explain.
What we want out of a cog-neuro of language is a solution to what Embick and Poeppel call the mapping problem: how brains execute different kinds of computations (see here). The key concept here is “the circuit,” some combination of brain structures that embody different computational operations. So part of the mapping problem is to behaviorally identify the kinds of operations that the brain uses to chunk information in various cognitive domains and to figure out which brain circuits execute them and how (see here for a discussion of the logic of this riffing on a paper by Dehaene and friends). And this is where my kind of linguistics plays a critical role. If successful, Minimalism will deliver a biologically plausible description of all the kinds of operations that go into making a FL. In fact, if successful it will deliver a very small number of operations very few of which are language specific (one? Please make it one!) that suffice to compute the kinds of structures we find in human Gs. In this context, the aim of the Minimalist Program (MP) is to factor out the operations that constitute FL and to segregate the cognitively and computationally generic ones form the more bespoke linguistic ones. The resulting descriptive inventory provides a target for the cog-neuro types to shot at.
Let me say this another way. MP provides the kind of parts list Embick and Poeppel have asked for (here) and identifies the kinds of computational structures that Dehaene and company focus on (here). Putting this another way, MP descriptions are at the right grain for cog-neuro redemption. It provides primitives of the right “size” in contrast to earlier (e.g. GBish) accounts and primitives that in concert can yield Gs with GBish properties (i.e. ones that have the characteristics of human Gs).
So that’s the future of my brand of linguistics, to be folded into the basic wisdom of the cog-neuro of language. And what makes me hopeful is that I think that this is an attainable goal. In fact, I think that we are close to delivering a broadly adequate outline of the kinds of operations that go into making a human FL (or something with the broad properties of our FL) and separating out the linguistically special from the cognitively/computationally generic. Once MP delivers this, it will mark the end of the line of investigation that Chomsky initiated in the mid 1950s into human linguistic competence (i.e. into the structure of human knowledge of language). There will, of course, be other things to do and other important questions to address (e.g. how do FLs produce Gs in real time? How do Gs operate in real time? How do Gs and FLs interact with other cognitive systems?) but the fundamental “competence” problems that Chomsky identified over 60 years ago will have pretty good first order answers.
I suspect that many reading this will find my views delusional, and I sympathize. However, here are some reasons why I think this.
First, I believe that the last 20 years of work has largely vindicated the GB description of FL. I mean this in two ways: (i) the kinds of dependencies, operations, conditions and primitives that GB has identified have proven to be robust in that we find them again and again across human Gs. (ii) these dependencies, operations, conditions and primitives have also proven to be more or less exhaustive in that we have not found many additional novel dependencies, operations, conditions and primitives despite scouring the world’s Gs (i.e. over the last 25 years we have identified relatively few new potential universals). What (i) and (ii) assert is that GB identified more or less all the relevant G dependencies and (roughly) accurately described them. If this is correct (and I can hear the howls as I type) then MP investigations that take these to be legit explananda (in the sense of providing solid probes into the fundamental structure of FL) is solid and that explaining these features of FL will suffice to explain why human FLs have the features they do. In other words, deriving GB in a more principled way will be a solid step in explaining why FL is built as it is and not otherwise.
Second, perhaps idiosyncratically, I think that the project of unifying the modules and reducing them to a more principled core of operations and principles has been quite successful (see three part discussion ending here). As I’ve argued before, the principle criticisms I have encountered wrt MP rest on a misapprehension of what its aims are. If you think of MP as a competitor to GB (or LFG or GPSG or Construction Grammar or…) then you’ve misunderstood the point of the program. It does not compete with GB. It cannot for it presupposes it. The aim is to explain GB (or its many cousins) by deriving its properties in a more principled and perspicuous way. This would be folly if the basic accuracy of GB was not presupposed. Furthermore, MP so understood has made real progress IMO, as I’ve argued elsewhere. So GB is a reasonable explanandum given MP aims and Minimalist theories have gone some way in providing non-trivial explananses.
Third, the MP conception has already animated interesting work in the cog-neuro of language. Dehaene, Friederici, Poeppel, Moro and others have clearly found the MP way of putting matters tractable and fecund. This means that they have found the basic concepts engageable, and this is what a successful MP should do. Furthermore, this is no small thing. This suggests that MP “results” are of the right grain (or “granularity” in Poeppel parlance). MP has found the right level of abstraction to be useful for cog-neuro investigation and the proof of this is that people in this world are paying attention in ways that they did not do before. The right parts list will provoke investigation of the right neural correlates, or at least spur such an investigation.
Say I am right. What comes next? Well, I think that there is still some theoretical work to do in unifying the modules and then investigating how syntactic structures relate to semantic and phonological ones (people like Paul Pietroski, Bill Idsardi, Jeff Heinz, and Thomas Graf are doing very interesting work along these lines). But I think that this further work relies on taking MP to have provided a pretty good account of the fundamental features of human syntax.
This leaves as the next big cognitive project figuring out how Gs and FL interact with other cognitive functions (though be warned, interaction effects are very tough to investigate!). And here I think that typological work will prove valuable. How so?
We know that Gs differ, and appear to differ a lot. The obvious question revolves around variation: how does FL build Gs that have these apparently different features (are they really different or only apparently so? And how are the real differences acquired and used?). Studying the factors behind language use will require having detailed models of Gs that differ (I am assuming the standard view that performance accounts presuppose adequate competence models). This is what typological work delivers: solid detailed descriptions of different Gs and how they differ. And this is what theories of G use require as investigative fodder.
Moreover, the kinds of questions will look and feel somewhat familiar: is there anything linguistically specific about how language is used or does language use exploit all the same mechanisms as any other kind of use once one abstracts from the distinctive properties of the cognitive objects manipulated? So for example, do we parse utterances differently than we do scenes? Are there linguistic parsers fitted with their own special properties or is parsing something we do pretty much in the same way in every domain once we abstract away from the details of what is being parsed? Does learning a G require different linguistically bespoke learning procedures/mechanisms?  There is nothing that requires performance systems to be domain general. So are they? Because this kind of inquiry will require detailed knowledge of particular Gs it will allow for the useful blurring of the languistics/linguistics divide and allow for a re-emergence of some peaceful co-existence between those mainly interested in the detailed study of languages and their differences and those interested in the cognitive import of Gs.
Let me end this ramble: I see a day (not that far off) when the basic questions that launched GG will have been (more or less) answered. The aim will be achieved when MP distills syntax down to something simple enough for the cog-neuro types to find in wet ware circuits, something that can be concisely written onto a tee shirt. This work will not engage much with the kinds of standard typological work favored by working linguists. It addresses different kinds of questions.
Does this mean that typological work is cognitively idle? No, it means that the kinds of questions it is perfect for addressing are not yet being robustly asked, or at least not in the right way. There are some acquisitionists (e.g. Yang, Lidz) that worry about the mechanisms that LADs use to acquire different Gs, but there is clearly much more to be done. There are some that worry about how different Gs differentially affect parsing or production. But, IMO, a lot of this work is at the very early stages and it has not yet exploited the rich G descriptions that typologists have to offer. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that it is very hard to do and that typologists do not construct their investigations with the aim of providing Gs that fit these kinds of investigations. But this is a topic for another post for another time. For now, kick back and consider the possibility that we might really be close to having answered one of the core questions in GG: what does linguistic knowledge consist in?
 Jeff Lidz once put this as the following question: is there a linguistic parser or does the brain just parse? On the latter view, parsing is an activity that the brain does using knowledge it has about the objects being parsed. On the latter view, linguistic parsing is a specific activity supported by brain structure special to linguistic parsing. There is actually not much evidence that I am aware of that parsing is dedicated. In this sense there may be aprsing without parsers, unless by parser you mean the whole mind/brain.
 Lisa Pearl’s thesis took this question on by asking whether the LAD is built to ignore data from embedded clauses or if it just “happens” to ignore it because it is not statistically robust. The first view treats language acquisition as cognitively special (as it comes equipped with blinders of a special sort), the latter as like everything else (rarer things are causally less efficacious than more common things). Lisa’s thesis asked the question but could not provide a definitive answer though it provided a recipe for a definitive answer.