LINGUIST List 12.1846

Tue Jul 17 2001

Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Mohammad Forouzani, Disc: Nonobjects of syntactic study
  2. Gale, George, RE: 12.1823, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study
  3. Larry Trask, Re: 12.1796, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: Disc: Nonobjects of syntactic study

Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2001 16:09:29 -0700
From: Mohammad Forouzani <>
Subject: Disc: Nonobjects of syntactic study

Dear Everett

 A significant point in Chomskyan theory to be considered, is that
the theory never claims to be tested by concrete evidence about
language. It is rather against a single source of data for testing a
theory -observations of psychological reality- while many other
sources can be found. In this regard Cook says that: 'when UG theory
is attacked for relying on intuitions and isolated sentences rather
than concrete examples of language use or psycholinguistic
experiments, its answer is to go on the offensive by saying that in
principle a scientific theory should not predetermine what facts it
deals with ;E-language approaches are deficient in the range of
evidence they account for compared to I -language theories.'
Therefore, we can say that Chomsky's theory is in search of the
evidence which is based on 'psychological reality' and not just the
direct observation of this psychological reality. 'The question is
not whether this issue is psychologically real, but if it is true.
Why? because language knowledge is part of the speaker's mind and
Chomsky refers to it as 'that branch of human psychology known as
linguistics.' With knowledge considered as principles and parameters
it is really difficult to believe that when speakers, for example,
produce a sentence they actually go through the production of NP and
VP, then in the production of VP, they eventually consider the
interaction of the head parameter, the head requirement, and the
lexical entries of verbs. In other words, as Chomsky puts it : 'An
innatist hypothesis is a refutable hypothesis', but rejection or
acceptance of the hypothesis is not just based on tangible and
observable evidence or phenomena. Rather it could fundamentally be
tested by logic and argument. This of course does not mean that
everything in this theory gives a feeling of deja vu. No, it means
that Chomsky's innate language faculty or his hypotheses are 'not
unverifiable assertions but are mostly checkable statements' (Cook

 To put it in a nutshell, the attacks to this hypothesis or the
accolades given to it are moot points if they are just based on
predetermined, observable, tangible evidence or facts. If this theory
is going to be debunked or acclaimed at all, the nuts and bolts of it
should be judged in a way that the judgement lives up to its premises
or its aphorisms.

 conclusion: Comsky's general ideas are based on specific claims 
about language and cannot be studied, tested or even understood without 
pondering on or reflecting upon it especially through some speculations. 
 Therefore, the approach is rather speculative (based on reasoning,
not observable facts), though the practical usage of it in many areas
cannot be discounted. At the end this incomplete discussion is
bedecked by a quotation, from Chomsky himself:
 It is always necessary to evaluate the import of
experimental data on theoretical constructions, and in particular, to
determine how such data bear on hypotheses that in nontrivial cases
involves various idealization and abstractions.

 Mohammad Forouzani
 Member of Azad University

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: RE: 12.1823, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2001 07:53:54 -0500
From: Gale, George <>
Subject: RE: 12.1823, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

	From Dan Everett--

> just imagine a cosmology that got all the facts
> about 'wobbly revolutions' of stars without, say, needing to posit
> black
> holes.

Yes, it certainly would of necessity require imagination, since the
history of cosmology [my day job] shows us few if any instances of this
sort of Basvoneffian empiricism. The reason why not is simple enough:
most cosmologists, indeed, most physicists, fact, most physical
and biological scientists are 'causalists', that is, they believe that
effects have causes. In the end, Bas simply has to shake his head at the
silliness of the rest of us, asking for causes of effects.

> Then a theory which posited them would be less attractive

Only if you're standing with Bas on this.

> - why
> accept something which can in-principle never be directly observed as
> an
> explanation? 

	Two reasons: 1. "in-principle" is a sliding distinction, and
usually it slips slides away; and b. "explanation" basically means
"causal account", for which, see above. It's amazing how many
in-principle hidden causes come to be unhidden. In fact, physical
scientists depend on that happening. Witness the neutrino.

> In the case of astronomy, one accepts such things because it is
> useful to do so. Likewise in quantum theory. But Linguistics ought not
> to be
> confused with physics.

This is probably a good recommendation. In fact, I'm going to accept it
and stop talking at exactly this point, since although I know a bit,
maybe, about physics and explanations, I don't know nuthin' about UG.

	George Gale
	U. Missouri-Kansas City
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Re: 12.1796, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2001 16:34:44 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Re: 12.1796, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

I'd like to chip in to this discussion with a blunt question. I find
myself on Dan Everett's side, but Dan should not be held responsible
for anything I say.

Astrophysicists have found it desirable to hypothesize the existence
of black holes. The reality of these things is not, it seems,
demonstrated beyond all possible doubt, but there exist any number of
books telling me exactly what properties black holes must have if they
exist, and how we can recognize them if we bump into them. And these
books also summarize the evidence that we have so far assembled in
support of the reality of black holes -- which is not insignificant,
and which in fact is enough to persuade almost all astrophysicists
that black holes are real.

What about Universal Grammar? Chomskyan linguists have found it
desirable to hypothesize the existence of UG. But its reality is
clearly not yet demonstrated.

Now: where can I find the properties of UG? And what evidence exists
for its reality? What pieces of UG are now so firmly established that
their reality cannot any longer be seriously doubted by open-minded
linguists? In other words, which bits of UG have now passed beyond
the stage of being a mere article of faith, and can be persuasively
demonstrated to be present in languages all over the planet: in
Africa, in the Amazon, in New Guinea, everywhere? And what assurances
do we have that this evidence is robust enough to survive the next big
revision in Chomsky's thinking, robust enough that linguists fifty
years from now will still be obliged to recognize its validity?

I ask this question for a good reason. It was only a few years ago
that the Chomskyans were asking me to believe that there were dozens
of dedicated transformations, such as Passive and Subject-to-Object
Raising, and to believe that there were important differences among
cyclic rules, pre-cyclic rules, last-cyclic rules, and post-cyclic
rules. Apparently all of these beliefs are now on the scrap-heap.
And these beliefs, moeover, had superseded a quite different set of
beliefs which were in vogue only a few years earlier. So why should I
be persuaded that this year's beliefs are for all time?

I can't find answers to any of these questions in the many Chomskyan
books on my bookshelf. Are there any answers? Or is UG still no more
than an article of faith after all?

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue