LINGUIST List 13.559

Thu Feb 28 2002

Disc: New: Review of Black, Quiegolani Zapotec Syntax

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  1. Martin Haspelmath, A. Carnie's review of Black, Quiegolani Zapotec Syntax

Message 1: A. Carnie's review of Black, Quiegolani Zapotec Syntax

Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 13:49:32 +0100
From: Martin Haspelmath <haspelmatheva.mpg.de>
Subject: A. Carnie's review of Black, Quiegolani Zapotec Syntax

I feel that I have to defend Cheryl Black (author of "Quiegolani Zapotec
Syntax", SIL International, 2000) against Andrew Carnie's main criticism
(in his review in LINGUIST 13.5471, even though the review is
generally favorable. The reason is that Carnie criticizes the book for a
feature that has nothing to do with its scientific merits: its alleged
lack of "up-to-dateness". This is what he writes:

"I have a great deal of respect for the work presented
in this dissertation; it is thorough, interesting,
readable, informed, and informative, but I do have one
serious criticism of the work, as a recently published
research monograph. As alluded to above, this book is the
published version of Black's dissertation, written in 1994.
The theoretical approach Black adopts was dated even when
the manuscript was first written. Now, with a publication
half a decade later, the theoretical content of the book
seems very out of date."

Now this would be a just accusation if it were beyond dispute that the
theoretical devices of the late 90s (or early 00s) are clearly superior
to the theoretical devices of the late 80s (or early 90s). Thus, a
physics paper written in a classical Newtonian framework would be out of
date because it has been cogently argued that later theories such as
quantum theory are superior to Newton's theory and can account for
everything that this can account for.

But surely not even Chomsky's most ardent supporters would claim that it
has been cogently argued that the Principles & Parameters framework of
the early 1990s must be replaced by a minimalist theory (in fact, often
the term "minimalist program" is used to emphasize the preliminary
nature of these proposals). There are even many respected linguists who
prefer a theoretical approach that is totally different from both of
these. So using normal scientific standards, it is a perfectly
legitimate position to regard the P&P framework of the early 1990s as
the best currently available theoretical framework.

Of course everybody knows that fashion plays a big role in linguistics,
and since linguistics is done by human beings, it could hardly be
otherwise. So the P&P framework of the early 90s is no longer
fashionable today, and everybody knows that if we want to be respected
by our colleagues, get jobs, etc., we had better "keep up" and go along
with the fashion. But that is only to the extent that non-scientific
criteria enter into evaluating what people do. When somebody publishes a
book review (in a conventional journal or on LINGUIST), I expect that
the book will be judged on purely scientific merits.

If Andrew Carnie had pinpointed a particular point in Black's book that
would have profited from a Minimalist perspective, then the criticism
would have been justified. If there is something specific that
Minimalism does better, then an author of a 2000 book can be rightly
accused of ignoring a significant idea that was out there before 2000
and should have been mentioned. But Carnie does not mention any
particular point where Minimalism would be superior. He seems to assume
that it is the scientist's duty to go along with the fashion.

Unlike fresh vegetables, theoretical ideas don't automatically get worse
as they grow older, and some new ideas are not necessarily better than
the older ideas that they are supposed to replace. So please don't
criticize a theoretical work for being "out of date".

Martin Haspelmath

- 
Martin Haspelmath (haspelmatheva.mpg.de)
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Inselstr. 22
D-04103 Leipzig 
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