Wednesday, October 31, 2018

FL and the envelope of variability

I read a nice little paper that I would like to bring to your attention. The article(by Alison Henry) is ostensibly about Q-float in varieties of Irish English and it elaborates a point made in earlier work by Jim McCloskey (2000). Jim’s paper used the distribution of quantifiers floated off of WH elements to provide evidence for successive cyclicity (the Qs could be stranded in what are effectively phase edges (aka “escape hatches”)). You are all likely more familiar with this work than I am so I won’t review it here. Henry’s interesting paper makes three additional interesting points:

1.     The paper observes that the Q stranding provides evidence for vP as a phase edge as it seems possible to strand material in this position in several dialects.
2.     The parallel between the stranding facts in A’ movement configurations with that of Q float in A-movement configurations suggests that these should be treated uniformly andthis implies that Q-float in A-movement configurations piggy backs on movement as Sportiche originally suggested rather than these Qs being based generated like adverbials in vP edge positions for semantic reasons.
3.     It suggests an interesting way of parsing these Q stranding effects to shed light on what wrt the phenomenon reflects universal features of FL/UG and what is more G specific.

Like I said, this is a nice little paper and a quick and illuminating read. Before ending, let me say a word or two about the points above.

First, if correct, it provides as the paper notes, interesting evidence for the claim that vP is a phase edge. There is also counter evidence for this claim coming from Keine and Bhatt’s work on non-local agreement in Hindi (thx to Omer for bringing this to my attention). However the Henry data seems compelling, at least to me, and clearly points to something like a landing site under CP for A’-movement. At the very least this now sets up a nice research question for some ambitious syntax grad student: how to reconcile the Irish English data with the Hindi data. Good luck.

The paper’s second point also seems to me quite solid. If the stranding data under A-movement is a proper subset of that under A’-movement then it is hard to see what could motivate treating them as generated by entirely different mechanisms. In fact, theoretically, this would seem to me to be a disaster, invoking the worst kind of constructionism. Linguists have a habit of theoretically reifying surface data in their generative procedures. This leads to multiplication of G operations that have similar effects, which requires enriching the structure of FL/UG. This is a habit to be resisted, IMO. In fact, as a working hypothesis, I believe that we should standardly assume that FL can only do things in one way. There are never two roads to Rome! Henry’s paper shows how productive this kind of assumption can be empirically.

Third, and this IMO is the paper’s most interesting feature, it proposes a very reasonable view of one rich source of variation. Henry’s paper notes that we can find Qs stranded in anyphase edge (and base position) when we take the unionof all the dialects. No singledialect appears to allow Qs to surface in every position. Thus, it might seem as if each dialect has a different Q float mechanism. And, of course, in one sense this is correct. Each G must have somedifference or there would be no dialectal differences. However, as Henry’s paper argues, we can see this another way. The data points to the conclusion that FL/UG actually permits stranding in anyposition but specific LADs acquire Gs with further restrictions. In other words, FL/UG provides an envelope of possibilities that particular Gs further restrict. How? Via learning from the input. The paper makes the plausible point that PLD could fix the specific landing spots allowing the dialect specific G to use the FL/UG provided options as templates for where Qs could appear. This seems to me like a very reasonable idea and allows us to use the full range of variation as a window into the properties of FL/UG.

Two points: First, I have no idea how robust the Q float data are in the PLD and whether there is enough there to fix the various dialects.[1]However, Henry’s speculation can be tested. We are talking about data that should be easy to spot in a CHILDES data base for Irish English (if there is one).  One nice feature of this data: it will all fall into the domain of 0+learning (discussed here) and so be the right rain size to be acquirable via PLD. 

Second, the idea that Henry’s paper illustrates with Q float is one that others (e.g. Idsardi and Lidz and yours truly) have suggested for other syntactic phenomena.[2]We know that I-Merge generates copies in many places and which copy is pronounced should have an impact on surface order given standard linearization procedures. We can put these things together in Henryish fashion and note that what FL/UG provides via Merge is an envelope of possibilities that PLD then winnows out to provide some basic word order templates. On this view, FL/UG provides representations for the class of possible dependencies and PLD provides evidence for selecting among these possibilities wrt linearization. If this is correct, then specificlinearizations in specific Gs are not going to reflect much on the structure of FL/UG though the full range of typological options attested might well do so. At any rate, Henry provides a nice case study of the logic that Idsardi and Lidz were proposing more generally.

Enough said. Like I said, Henry’s paper is interesting and very well written and reasonably compact. Wish I had written it. 

[1]In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the range of variation might be more idiolectal than dialectal, but I really do not know enough to ground this suspicion.
[2]Eric Raimy and Lidz have suggested something like this for phonological phenomena as well. They argue that phonological structures are graphs, not strings, and so linearization is as much an issue in phonology as it is in syntax. If you haven’t read this stuff, you should take a look. It’s quite cool.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sexual harassment in academia

Here is a link to a piece that discusses harassment in academia. The study discussed makes for pretty horrific reading. Here is a sample:

The Penn State survey indicates that 43.4% of undergraduates, 58.9% of graduate students, and 72.8% of medical students have experienced gender harassment, while 5.1% of undergraduates, 6.0% of graduate students, and 5.7% of medical students report having experienced unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. These are staggering results, both in terms of the absolute number of students who were affected and the negative effects that these  experiences had on their ability to fulfill their educational potential. The University of Texas study shows a similar pattern, but also permits us to see meaningful differences across fields of study. Engineering and medicine provide significantly more harmful environments for female students than non-STEM and science disciplines.

We have a group here at UMD looking at harassment within linguistics. I look forward to having them report on their findings here at FoL. I will certainly link to anything they do when it is done.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Omer on linguistic atoms

This is my first curation since agreeing to curate. I am soooo excited! The link is to a piece that Omer has on syntactic atoms. I won't be giving much away if I say that he thinks that it is not entirely clear what these are, though whatever it is, it is not what most people take them to be.  I won't say what his argument is, because you should read it.  But I will say that the main point he makes has been, in part, made by others.

Chomsky has long argued that whatever "words" are they do not have the referential properties that semanticists take them to have. And in this they contrast with animal calls, which, Chomsky points out, fit the referential/denotational paradigm quite tightly. See (here) for some discussion and references.

Similarly, more recently, Paul Pietroski has argued that syntactic atoms do not denote concepts or extensions but something more abstract; something akin to instructions for fetching concepts. As he points out the key desideratum for lexical meanings is that they compose (here Paul follows Fodor who made a very good career pointing out that most of the things that philosophers proposed as vehicles for meaning failed to compose even a little bit). If this is so, then the idea that linguistic atoms are concepts cannot be correct and the question of how our syntactic atoms emerged to mediate our way to concepts becomes an interesting question. Combine this with Chomsky's observations and one has a real research question to hand.

Omer presents another take on this general view; the idea that our standard conceptions of syntactic atoms are scientifically problematic. In fact, given that we have learned something about syntax and the basic operations it might involve over the last 60 years, just what to make of the atoms (of which we have, IMO, learned little) might be even more urgent.

Here is the link to Omer's piece.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Birds, all birds, and nothing but birds

I know, just when you thought it was ok to go back into the water. He’s back!! But rest assured this is a short one and I could not resist. It appears (see here) that biology has forsaken everything that our cognoscenti have taught us about evolution. We all know that it cannot be discontinuous. We all knowthat the continuity thesis is virtually conceptually necessary. We all knowthis because for years we have been told that the idea that linguistic facility in humans is based on something biologically distinctive that only humans have is as close to biologically incoherent as can be imagined. Anybody suggesting that that what we find in human languagemightbe biologically distinctive and unique is a biological illiterate. Impossible. Period. Creationism!

Well guess again. It seems that the bird voicebox, the syrinx, is biologically sui generis in the animal kingdom and “scientists have concluded that this voice box evolved only once, and that it represents a rare example of a true evolutionary novelty” (1). 

But surely they don’t mean ‘novelty’ when they say ‘novelty.’ Yup, that is exactly what they mean:

“It’s something that comes out of nothing,” says Denis Dubuole, a geneticist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland who was not involved with the work. “There is nothing that looks like a syrinx in any related animal groups in vertebrates. This is very bizarre.”

Now, as the little report indicates, true novelties are “hard to come by.” But, as the syrinx indicates, they are not conceptually impossible. It is biologically coherent to propose that these exist and that they can emerge. And that their distinctive properties are exactly what people like Chomsky have been suggesting is true of the recursive parts of FL (4).

They are innovations—new traits or new structures—that arise without any clear connections to existing traits or structures. 

Imagine that, no clear connections to other traits on other species or ancestors. Hmm. Are these guys really biologists? Probably not, or at least, not for long for very soon their credentials are sure to be revoked by the orthodox guardians of EvoLang. Save me! Save me! The discontinuitists are coming!

The report makes one more interesting observation: these kinds of qualitatively new innovations serve as interesting gateways for yet more innovation. Here, the development of the syrinx could have enabled songs to become more complex and biologists speculate that this might in turn have led to further speciation. In the language case, it is conceivable that the capacity for recursion in languageled to a capacity for recursion more generally in other cognitive domains. Think of arithmetic as a new song one can sing when hierarchical recursion has snuck in.  

Is all of this correct? Who knows? Today the claim is that the syrinx is a biological novelty. Tomorrow we might find out that it is less novel than currently advertised (recall for Minimalists, FL is unique but not thatunique. Just a teensy weensy bit unique). What is important is not whether it is unique, but the fact that biology and evolution and genetics have nothing against unique sui generic one of a kind features. They are rare, but not unheard of and not beyond the intellectual pale. That means that entertaining the possibility that something, say hierarchical recursion, is a unique cognitive capacity is not living out on the intellectual edge in evolutionary La-La land. It is a hypothesis and one that cannot be dismissed by assuming that this is not the way biology works or could work. It can so work and seems even to have done so on occasion. That means critics of the claim that language is a species specific capacity have to engage with the actual claims. Hand waving is simply dishonest (and you know who you are). 

Moreover, we know how to show that uniqueness claims are incorrect: just (ha!) show how to derive the properties of the assumed unique organ/capacity from more generic traits and show how the trait/organ under consideration could have continuously evolved from these using very itty bitty steps. Apparently, this was done for fingers and toes from fish fins. If you think that hierarchical recursion is “just more of the same” then find me the fins and show me the steps. If not, well, let’s just say, that the continuists have some work ahead of them (Lucy, you have some explaining to do) if they want to be taken seriously and that there is nothing biologically untoward or incoherent or wrong in assuming that sometimes, rarely but sometimes, novelties arise “without any clear connections to existing traits and structures.” And what better place to look for a discontinuity than in in language?

Let me end by adding two useful principles for future thinking on topics related to language and the mind:

1.     Chomsky is never (stupidly) wrong

2.     If you think that Chomsky is (stupidly) wrong go back to 1