LINGUIST List 12.1791

Wed Jul 11 2001

Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Bruce Despain, Nonobjects of Syntactic Study
  2. Lotfi, RE: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Wed, 11 Jul 2001 08:56:50 -0600
From: Bruce Despain <>
Subject: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

I want to respond to Dan Everett on his discussion of the "non-objects" of 
syntactic theory. I think that for syntactic study, we may substitute 
mathematics or any field of that subject. His basic thesis would then be 
that in mathematics 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. This is because mathematics is a tool for 
modeling the world. 
Now if we want to study syntax (a field of mathematics) we are a further 
step removed from the world. At this point we are modeling a model. We 
ask such questions as how to make models, what makes a good model, why 
features does a good model have, etc. 

What is an I-language? People model the world in a naive way because they 
are human and don't understand it fully. The language to describe that 
world is an inherited social construct, that is forever being revised and 
updated to accommodate new understandings that need communicating. 
Certain grammatical features that may originally have been meant to model 
the world, such as gender for inanimate objects (or even gender for 
snails!), are now taken as no longer useful, sexist, or at least less than 
ideal, semantically speaking. Yet syntactic theory still studies the way 
such morphological features, whether they exist or not, are modeled in 
language. Natural language is no better than mathematics in this regard. 
Physics studies the world in terms of a mathematical model. There are 
certain logical consequences of that model. So also natural language 
models the world. But until natural language is given a logical model 
(relationship to a logical syntax), it will not be possible to delineate 
its logical consequences or its efficiency as a model.

An I-language can be nothing more than a set of modeling tools available 
for building a syntax capable of canonizing an understanding of the world. 
The canonization (grammaticalization) of understanding is the pragmatic
part that will forever fail as long as there are different cultures and
different languages reflecting them. The syntax is constructed in terms
of rules and their interrelationships as dictated by the I-language
modeling tools. This is the cartesian part that will never reflect the
real world, except to the extent that some branch of mathematics gives us
insight into some part of the ideal world.

I have more solid aurgumention for the mathematical modeling in the first 
few chapters of my grammar at:

Bruce Despain, armchair linguist
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Message 2: RE: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: 11 Jul 2001 20:09:06 EDT
From: Lotfi <>
Subject: RE: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Dan Everett wrote:
>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.

I find it difficult to discuss for/against this unless Dan defines
first what HE means by 'object of study'.

>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*
>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).

Even if one denies the existence of the mind (as eliminativists like
Churchland do), it is still possible to conceive of some generative
grammar/competence in more basic terms than human mind as Chomsky's
approach to the study of *language faculty* has always been a
biolinguistic one. Even if 'mind' is a concept taken by mistake from
falk psychology, I doubt any reasonable person can deny the existence
of some brain in the head where language faculty is located. A
Chomskyan grammar may be a formal, idealised representation of that
biolinguistic faculty.

>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.

Everything now depends upon one's definition of the word 'grammar'.
One can conceive of it as the function of that subcomponent of the
brain that is dedicated to the computation of syntactic objects (like
phrases and sentences). Most probably, that function is an exaptation
so that it can't serve a non-linguistic function anymore (or if it
does, the function is not the major function of that component any
more). Despite that, and like any other exaptation, it does (I mean
'must') have its roots somewhere in history with a very specific
function (like the capacity for motor activities, just to give a
hypothetical answer to the question of the origin of syntax). As this
subcomponent can't function independently of other components (of the
brain), there are chances that its sub-elements are borrowed from/used
for other functions, too. The object of linguistic studies, can be this
internal component of the brain either in abstraction from or in
interaction with those other components. Chomsky has been for the
first (contra psycholinguists who favour the second) NOT because
he fears the reality but simply because he finds the object of
his inquiry too much involved in complicated interactions with other
components of language use to be studied in real terms UNLESS science
has revealed enough of these other components of human existence. This
was particularly true about half a century ago when he proposed his
model of competence. It's less true today as we've learned more
about the world. That's why he now conceives of some of his
theoretical objects as those that sharply restrict 'search and
memory for phi' while he used to dismiss such parsing/memory-
related phenomena as mere matters of performance. Is Chomsky
retreating now from his original position towards the study of
language? If he is, it's merely due to the progress that science
has made: it SOMETIMES (not always yet) allows the object or our
inquiry to be studied in interaction with performance systems.

>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.

Let's try one specific example: 'the my book' is not conceptually
bad, nor pragmatically useless/implausible (c.f. 'that book of mine'.
i.e. some definite book singled out from among all the books that I
owe). Despite that, it's ill-formed. A Chomskyan can explain it in
terms of X-bar theory with only one slot (D) to be occupied either
by 'the' or by 'my', hence the ungrammatical phrase. How can a
pragmatist theory rival this simple explanation of the
ungrammaticality of the phrase in question? Perhaps we can explain
it at a much deeper level of how that x-bar configuration itself came
into existence, or how it proved to be evolutionarily good enough to
survive. But even then, we owe our explanation to the insights
originated in a Chomskyan framework of study. Even if Chomsky's
school of thought has not generated good answers (I think it has) to
our questions, it has definitely generated good questions to ask.
At least in this sense, Chomskyans do have some object to study.
Best regards,
Ahmad R. Lotfi.
Ahmad R. Lotfi, Ph. D
Department of the English Language, Chair
Azad University at Khorasgan
Esfahan, IRAN.

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