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LINGUIST List 19.2839

Thu Sep 18 2008

Disc: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'

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        1.    Giuseppe G. A. Celano, Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'

Message 1: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'
Date: 17-Sep-2008
From: Giuseppe G. A. Celano <giuseppegacelanogmail.com>
Subject: Review of 'Chomsky's Minimalism'
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Read Review: http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-1890.html

My reply to Grohmann’s review of Seuren’s Chomsky’s Minimalism in which I
support Seuren’s stance that the standard minimalist T-model of grammar is
unacceptable because syntax is absurdly or perversely conceived of as being
before semantics has provoked objections: I believe they stem from a
misunderstanding of the concepts of "before/after" and "semantics".

The question whether or not syntax precedes (linguistic) semantics can only
arise within the flawed framework of Mainstream Generative Grammar (MGG).
As is known, one of the foundational tenets of MGG is that syntax can be
separated by semantics: it is only such autonomy of syntax that NECESSARILY
leads to wonder whether syntax interfaces with semantics before, after or
during (as in multiple spell-out models) the (syntactic) computation.

However, it is empirical evidence that syntax cannot be distinguished by
semantics: syntax is (part of) semantics. Syntax neither precedes nor
follows semantics, because it is inherently semantics. When I wrote that
semantics is before syntax, I intentionally accommodated the widespread
erroneous generative view of the separability of grammar components to show
that, even if one accepts such error, setting semantics after syntax is
just error within error. For in a realistic reading the T-model is absurd,
in that semantics is what motivates syntax. Roughly speaking, one must know
what to say when speaking, and such "knowing what to say" is no doubt
semantics, so that postponing the semantic component to the end of the
derivation is pure nonsense. In an instrumentalist view (to reply to
Fidelholtz), the model is perverse, since there is no reason why one should
figure out a model that gratuitously refuses a (much more) realistic
description (and Seuren’s mediational model is indeed more realistic than
the T-model, although I do not agree with it in many points). In this
respect, then, it must be highlighted that Chomsky’s position is even
confused: his model seems to be described as realistic but the famous note
3 (Chomsky 1995: 380) puzzles the reader. What is really Chomsky’s
position? There is no answer but just recognizing that his account suffers
from uncertainty, obscurity, contradiction and nonsense of the sort "The
concepts 'well-formed' and 'grammatical' remain without characterization or
known empirical justification; they played virtually no role in early work
on generative grammar except in informal exposition, or since" (Chomsky
1995: 213).

I think Burton-Robert has well understood the terms of the question: the
fact is, however, that his "semantics-of-syntax" simply cannot exist,
because – I repeat firmly – syntax cannot be distinguished by semantics
(Prof. Menn says that in Bock-Levelt’s "Language production, grammatical
encoding" some aspects of syntax "are primed without respect to meaning"; I
failed in detecting them). Burton-Robert also claims, following Hinzen,
that semantics is impossible in the absence of a suitable syntax. This
seems empirically untenable, since we can see something, think that we want
it and do NOT say anything either within our head (no "language-less
nirvana" but our neurons!) or outside it through speech organs: thought
without language seems to be well possible. The existence of such
meaningful thoughts preceding linguistic encoding (both within our head and
outside it) induces me to think that pre-linguistic semantics (i.e.
meaningful thoughts) exists, and that linguistic semantics can be likely
interpreted as the final stage of a continuum from "pure" thought to
language. However, since many data still lack, I generally embrace an
"external" view of language, focusing only on actual linguistic
expressions: and these, as I have said, just prove that syntax is
semantics, i.e. is meaningful (in this sense, therefore, neither of
components is before or after the other).

Maxwell interestingly points out that phonological rules can be thought of
as bidirectional. What Maxwell does not consider, however, is that
Chomsky’s model cannot be bidirectional because it is a T-model: syntax
bifurcates after spell-out, the semantic and phonological components being
conceived of as separate. As one can see, there is no possibility of
"reversing" this model.

There would of course be much more to say on these topics: notwithstanding,
I believe that even these few remarks make sufficiently clear that the
standard minimalist T-model of grammar, however one approaches it, turns
out to be severely confused and illogical.

Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories

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