LINGUIST List 12.1785

Tue Jul 10 2001

Disc: New: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Dan Everett, On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001 12:19:15 -0500
From: Dan Everett <>
Subject: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

I hope that what follows below in this posting will provoke discussion on
objects of study in linguistics. I am posting to both
LINGUIST List and FUNKNET, so I apologize for multiple receptions of the
letter. This is a very condensed form of a thesis I am currently developing 
in book form, so feedback would be personally useful, in addition to what 
I believe the benefits of such a discussion would be for linguists more 

The basic thesis is that in a Chomskyan/Cartesian linguistics there is in
principle no object of study. Alternatively, there is in-principle no
way at getting at that object, however clear it may sound conceptually.

Here goes: Chomsky claims that the object of study in syntax is I-language
or, to use an older term, speaker competence. What is this supposed to be? 
It is an internal *grammar* (not language - whether of the 'I-' or 'E-' 
variety - of any type widely accepted in Linguistics). Such a grammar is 
necessarily a Cartesian construct based on assumptions about the mind, e.g.
that there is a mind and that it is inside the head (instead of, for
example, between members of a society). What could count as evidence for
this Cartesian construct/grammar? All and only phenomena which have no 
nongrammatical explanation. What sorts of phenomena will have this property? 
Just those linguistic-like phenomena with no explanation in terms of history, 
function, sociolinguistics, phonetics, semantics, culture, sex, baldness, 
etc. (this list is ultimately 'everything but grammar'). How do we recognize 
which phenomena are grammar-only in this sense? We do not. We have not. 
We will not. We cannot.

And the problem of recognition here is not merely hard. It is in-principle
impossible. This is because to know that this or that fact is 'pure grammar',
uncontaminated by nongrammatical factors, would require knowledge of 
everything about that fact, i.e. just everything.

Therefore, there is not, nor could there be, an object of study for an
Cartesian-Chomskyan research program. There are only aspects of study 
(hence the appropriateness of the title of a certain syntax book from 1965). 
What could syntacticians study, then, if not a Cartesian or mental grammar?
That answer is easy: whatever we find useful to study. Ergo, the guiding
principles for linguistic theory are more likely to be found in Pragmatism 
(James, Peirce, Dewey, CI Lewis, Rorty, Quine, Putnam, Wittgenstein), not in 
Cartesianism, especially as developed in Chomskyan linguistics.

 -- Dan Everett
 Department of Linguistics
 University of Manchester
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