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LINGUIST List 19.2782

Fri Sep 12 2008

Disc: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'

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        1.    Noel Burton-Roberts, Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'

Message 1: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'
Date: 11-Sep-2008
From: Noel Burton-Roberts <n.burton-robertsncl.ac.uk>
Subject: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'
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Two recent postings to this list, have discussed the question whether
syntax 'comes after' semantics, or semantics 'comes after syntax. I believe
both answers, and the question itself, are suspect.

Wolfram Hinzen (19.2754, Disc: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism') writes
'There is, as far as I know, no evidence, in fact, that semantics of the
human kind is possible in the absence of a suitable syntax or generative
system that supports such a semantics. If so, semantics, not only cannot,
but must come after syntax, and it is a genuine insight of the generative
tradition that what kinds of semantic interpretations we get,
systematically depends on which syntactic structures a mind can and does

I agree (a) that semantics is impossible 'in the absence of a suitable
syntax or generative system that supports such a semantics'. But Wolfram’s
conclusion (b) that semantics must therefore 'come after' syntax does not
follow. The correct conclusion to be drawn from (a) is that there can be no
question of the 'ordering' syntax and semantics because - in the sense of
'syntax' assumed in (a) - syntax just IS the syntax-of-semantics (semantic

The question of which 'comes first' could only arise in respect of some
kind of syntax other than the syntax-of-semantics. What is referred to as
'syntax' in generative grammar is generally not thought of as the
syntax-of-semantics. Rather, semantics is thought of as the
semantics-of-syntax. Is it this second variety of syntax that Wofram is
suggesting 'comes before' semantics? Given the derivational character of
generative grammar, this might seem reasonable. The derivational idea here
is: first generate your syntactic structure and then assign it a semantic
interpretation (consistent with the view of semantics as the
semantics-of-syntax). But, to repeat, this is a variety of syntax distinct
from that assumed in (a).

However, even in respect of this second variety of syntax, the question of
ordering is suspect. It can only be right to say that a syntactic structure
(of the second variety) is 'assigned' a semantics if it indeed *has* a
semantics. The question of 'when', in our theoretical model, we assign it
*its* semantics is irrelevant. It doesn’t thereby and at that point
*acquire* semantic properties. The derivational metaphor is misleading in
this respect. The theoretical ordering assumed in (derivationally)
modelling the facts does not correspond to any ordering of the facts being

My own view is that a proliferation of kinds of syntax should be avoided at
all costs, on grounds of parsimony. Perhaps we should say that all putative kinds
of syntax that actually have a semantics should be collapsed into just one
kind syntax: syntax-of-semantics.

Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories

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