LINGUIST List 7.1692

Sat Nov 30 1996

Disc: Analogy

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. "H Stephen Straight (Binghamton University, SUNY)", "Analogy"

Message 1: "Analogy"

Date: Wed, 27 Nov 1996 12:05:19 EST
From: "H Stephen Straight (Binghamton University, SUNY)" <>
Subject: "Analogy"
I've been hoping someone else would respond explicitly to Peggy
Speas's reply to Esa Itkonen's account of "grammaticalization" as
a two-step process of reanalysis (of, say, a syntactic
construction) followed by extension (of, say, the resulting new
morphological pattern) to new instances. As no one has risen to
the challenge, I guess I'll take a stab at it.

Speas deploys the standard argument against analogy (understood
as reanalysis of an existing pattern and extension of this new
pattern to new instances):

> I'm not familiar enough with the issue of grammaticalization to
> comment on the first part, but the claim that 'Chomsky's fondness
> of analogy is known to be minimal' is not right. What Chomsky
> has always claimed is that to say that language works 'by
> analogy' simply begs the question - which analogy? Of course
> English speakers draw analogies like the following:
> play : plays :: glark : glarks
> But Chomsky's point is that there are lots of reasonable
> analogies that no English speaker ever draws. Like:
> John is easy to please : To please John is easy ::
> John is eager to please : To please John is eager.
> So the question is WHY speakers make some analogies and not
> others. The claim is not that language cannot involve analogical
> reasoning; it's just that you have to investigate WHICH analogies
> are made and which ones aren't in order to get at the root of
> knowledge of grammar.

This line of argument has always struck me as self-defeating, in
at least three ways:

First, the anti-analogists cite alleged impossible analogies, but
in so doing they provide incontrovertible evidence that such
analogies _can_ be drawn. (This is reminiscent of the efforts to
prove to a speaker of language X that something that can be said
in language Y cannot be said in language X by paraphrasing this
alleged impossible Y thing in X, as if paraphrases didn't count!)

Second, the anti-analogists claim that language acquirers never
make the cited analogies, even though the examples they give
typically reveal that such analogies result in output that would
be extremely hard to interpret using the comprehension and other
processing strategies that many other completely non-analogical
cases force upon the acquirer (as in the "To please John is
eager" example). The possibility remains, therefore, that
evidence for such false analogies fails to emerge because it is
immediately suppressed by the acquirers themselves because of its
uninterpretability. (Shades of colorless green ideas rise up to
haunt us.)

Third, the anti-analogists explain the (alleged) non-existence of
such false analogies by appealing to supposed universal
principles of "grammar" known to the language acquirer and yet
somehow separate from the acquirer's developing processes of
language comprehension and production. The anti-analogists thus
deprive themselves of the opportunity to base their account of
language universals on the far more parsimonious claim that the
ongoing interaction of the acquirer's developing comprehension
and production processing -- which we need anyway -- forces
various outcomes as the acquirer endeavors to make sense of input
and to produce intelligible output -- without any need for
innate, overarching principles of language structure.

 Best . . . 'Bye. Steve

 H Stephen Straight, Professor of Anthropology and of Linguistics
 Director, Program in Linguistics
 Director, Languages Across the Curriculum (LxC) 
 Binghamton University (SUNY), Box 6000, Binghamton NY 13902-6000
 607-777-2824, fax: 607-777-2889 (LxC), fax: 607-777-2477 (Anthro)
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