LINGUIST List 12.1854

Thu Jul 19 2001

Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. ashishmehta, Disc: Non-objects of syntactic study
  2. Lotfi, Dis.: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: Disc: Non-objects of syntactic study

Date: Wed, 18 Jul 2001 20:52:17 +0530
From: ashishmehta <>
Subject: Disc: Non-objects of syntactic study

Well, to begin with, as a beginner I must thank the linguistlist for
the exciting debate going on. I guess (1) at the end of it, it should
be properly edited in one paper for later references, and (2) some of
the " bigger shots" should be invited to contribute if they have
missed out- we'd like to hear from them. I wish to add a couple points
of my own:

Language is something that's there- no doubts about its existence. In
fact, some would say it is the only thing that exists while we debate
its possible existence. However, since it is all-pervasice, a study of
language can be approached in a number of ways, and hence the
hyphentaed branches of linguistics (socio-, neuro-, anthropo-), and
"i-language" is a valid approach by all means. It can be compared to
mathematical systmes, with a proviso that this one has to be verifiable
in reality. If "i-language" is just an imaginary construct of some
individual, then we are dealing with a masochist who unnecessarily has
come up with a weird object of study with all those functional
projections and all. He could have imagined a simpler one that could
have been explained in his lifetime. Meaning, all the proposals so far
have been checked against actual lanaguges, with actual data.
Frankly, this correspondent is a novice in the matters of Philosophy
of Science, but some of the remarks entertained so far convinced me to
contribute to the debate. For example, Larry Trask has pointed out
about what he sees as inconsistencies. I stronly think that the
"beliefs", contra Trask, haven't changed at all, and basic premises
are stil the same as those in 1957. What has changed many times over
are mechanisms, and well, it would be have been grave if they'd
remianed the same. Will anybody belive in UG fifty years from now?
Well, it is nearly fifty years since this enterprise began, and the
idea of UG, as Chomsky with unnecessary modesty points out all too
often, has been around for many centuries. Minimalism is still P-&-P,
with less baggage. Transformational grammar to P&P (or, G-B) was
drastic in mechanism department, yet the "beliefs" had not changed a
least bit.
In fact, the point of debate among generativists ("believers") is
exactly the opposite. That we are coming back to some ideas/mechanisms
originally proposed in LSLT of 1955 or something like that. The debate
is, have we come a full circle? I think that's worth another round of
discussion here, though, we certainly have come round with a better
Robert Ratcliffe complains about the supposed innateness of proposed
principles. Even in the languages where they are verified on surface,
the principles themselves are argues to be operative only at a deeper
level. Which brings me to a remark to the effect that "I first put
together an NP, then a VP...". I guess nobody has to do that labour,
and the flowchart of syntax is precisely that- an atemporal flowchart
of autonomous processes. When I read, I don't have to tell my eyes to
do certain things followed by similar instructions to my brain.
I hold my "faith" in the object of sytanctic study on the basis of
some real/actual/"scientific" evidences that I keep hearing of, say,
the conclusions from experiments in psycholinguistics (on parsing,
using eye-trekkers to see how we construct trees or revise them in
case of Garden Path sentences and so on), or findings from
evolutionary biology (like oft-quoted remarks of Gould) and
likewise. I hope somethign comes up in this discussion from that
	 Ashish Mehta
	 Research Scholar
	 Jawaharlala Nehru University
	 New Delhi, India.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Dis.: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: 17 Jul 2001 09:37:16 EDT
From: Lotfi <>
Subject: Dis.: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Dear linguists,

I'm NOT a bit surprised to hear the controversy over the
existence of Universal Grammar localised somewhere in the mind/
brain. But I AM surprised when some imply that the existence
of universal grammar localised somewhere in the mind/brain is
controversial, too.

Universal Grammar is just one specific brand of the zero state
of that genetically determined language faculty we human beings
share which (among other places like the human society, culture,
etc) must also occupy some place somewhere in the brain so that
a number of similarities among different human languages are due
to that common mental/neurological structure.

Even if Chomskyan linguistics proves to be false, what is
rejected is Universal Grammar (as specified in generativist
literature) rather than universal grammar as some genetically
determined, brain-based neurological faculty we are born with
(I ignore universal grammar as something cultural, which is
quite plausible but irrelevant to my discussion here).
Now is there any controversy over such things, which I summarise
once more below:

-that there are some language universals,
-that some of these universals are due to some neurological
 component(s) in the human brain,
-that such neurological component(s) is/are a part of the human
 language faculty,
-that such universals can be empirically studied?

Chomskyan linguistics has aimed at this biological construct as its
object of inquiry. Whether it has had any success in that seems to
be beside the point here. To claim that Chomskyan linguistics has
no object of inquiry is to claim that no linguist is allowed to
study a brain event via linguistic evidence.It's just a 're-discovery'
of Quine's 'naturalised epistemology' which is nothing but some sort
of epistemological dualism according to which for linguists "the
behaviorist approach is mandatory." Accordingly, it is beyond the
linguist's allowance to study the brain/mind. 'There is no need to
that service of yours', they might say: Just carry out your own
"field" studies, and the world will be a better place to live in.
Now one final question I dare ask out of sheer curiosity: who has
bestowed the right to decide what is needed and what is not (in
the field of linguistic research) on 'pragmatist philosophers'?
Newton was pretty lucky that when he was lying under his famous
tree (asking why apples fall), there was no pragmatist philosopher
around. Else he would not dare discover the law of gravity on
the grounds that it was not needed: he would be recommended
to "study what is useful, being concerned with usefulness more
than the worn-out Popperian notion of falsifiability" and leave
the study of gravity to the future rocket scientists who would
find the question relevant: 'Truth' is not something pragmatism
commits itself to. Beiong concerned with the law of gravity in the
17th century is a form of 'truth-commitment' and, so, inherently

Or perhaps pragmatists tell me it WAS useful after all even then for
this or that reason. Yes, ... just go on and enjoy yourself: it's so
safe to wait a few hundred years to see if a scientific endeavor wins
or loses and then say it won because it was needed. But when you are
doing some research as revolutionary as Newton's (and I dare say
Chomsky's) you've got very little chance to say how useful it proves
to be. All you've got to commit yourself to is the truth!
Ahmad R. Lotfi.
Ahmad R. Lotfi, Ph. D
Department of the English Language, Chair
Azad University at Khorasgan
Esfahan, IRAN.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue