Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Alec Marantz on the goals and methods of Generative Grammar

I always like reading papers aimed at non-specialists by leading lights of a specialty. This includes areas that I have some competence in. I find that I learn a tremendous amount from such non-technical papers for they self consciously aim to identify the big ideas that make an inquiry worth pursuing in the first place and the general methods that allow it to advance. This is why I always counsel students to not skip Chomsky's "popular" books (e.g. Language and Mind, Reflections on Language, Knowledge of Language, etc.).

Another nice (short) addition to this very useful literature is a paper by Alec Marantz (here): What do linguists do? Aside from giving a nice overview of how linguists work, it also includes a quick and memorable comment on Everett's (mis)understanding of his critique of GG. What Alec observes is that even if one takes Everett's claims entirely at face value empirically (which, one really shouldn't) his conclusion that Piraha is different in kind wrt the generative procedures it deploys from a language like English. Here is Alec:
His [Everett's, NH] analysis of Pirahã actually involves claiming Pirahã is just like every other language, except that it has a version of a mechanism that other languages use that, in Pirahã, limits the level of embedding of words within phrases.
I will let Alec explain the details, but what is important is that what he points out is that Everett confuses two very different issues that it is important to keep apart: what are the generative procedures that a given G deploys and what are the products of that procedure. Generative grammarians of the Chomsky stripe care a lot about the first question (what are the rule types that Gs can have). What Alec observes (and that Everett actually concedes in his specific proposal) is that languages that use the very same generative mechanisms can have very different products resulting. Who would have thunk it!

At any rate, take a look at Alec's excellent short piece. And while you are at it, you might want to read a short paper by another Syntax Master, Richie Kayne (here). He addresses  terrific question beloved by both neophytes and professionals: how many languages are there. I am pretty sure that his reply will both delight and provoke you. Enjoy.


  1. This strikes me as the central logical point hereabouts. If you want to refute the general recursion hypothesis, you should find a language that indicates greater generative capacity than hypothesised for UG, not weaker. Find a language whose rules relate to prime factors or something daft like that.

  2. Fair enough, but I think that some generativists have tended to cloud the waters by trying to claim that Everett is factually wrong (in spite of the fact that he knows the language a lot better than his critics do, and has enough of a grasp of generative grammar to get himself published in NLLT), rather than showing more of an active interest in the question of cultural inhibitions on linguistic complexity, and the extent to which they can affect syntax. This theme appears in a classic paper by Stanley Newman(194. Linguistic aspects of Yokuts style. Anthropological Record, 5 (1), 4-15. (Reprinted in Hymes 1964)), who says that adult Yokuts could use fancy syntax, but mostly don't, due to a belief that it is childish, but the Piraha would appear to take it considerably further than the Yokuts did. The most decisive evidence that Everett would be wrong would be reports of children giggling things like "Xipoogii's canoe's motor's power cord's handle is broken", but nobody has reported anything like this, even Everett's ex-wife (anecdotally, at least, English speaking kids do seem to go through a phase when they do stuff like this).

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