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Review of  200 Years of Syntax: A critical survey

Reviewer: Sheila Ann Dooley
Book Title: 200 Years of Syntax: A critical survey
Book Author: Giorgio Graffi
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 13.277

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Graffi, Giorgio (2001) 200 Years of Syntax: A Critical Survey. John
Benjamins Publishing Company, xiv+551pp, hardback ISBN 1-58811-052-4,
$114.00, Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 98.

Sheila Dooley Collberg, University of Arizona.

As the title indicates, this book traces the history of syntactic
research from the 18th and 19th Centuries to the contemporary work of
the Minimalist Program. This is achieved through meticulous examination
of the original works of dozens of syntacticians and through systematic
comparison of their views on central syntactic problems. The result is
a monumental historical narrative that might contain a number of
surprises for modern linguists.

The common thread running through this long and intricate narrative is
the role of psychology in the syntactician's view of language and
grammar. Graffi argues that this role has been a changing but in fact
cyclical one, beginning with what he terms a "psychologistic" syntax in
the 18th and 19th Centuries, followed by a rejection of psychologism
during the age of Structuralism in the early 20th Century, and
concluding with a return to psychologistic syntax in the form of
generative grammar. The book is therefore divided diachronically into
three Parts which deal with these three periods.

Within each Part, however, a different organizational principle is
followed by the text. Roughly, after giving an introductory chapter
presenting the active linguists of each period chronologically, Graffi
structures the remaining narrative around the central research
questions of each time. For example, in Parts I and II, we find
sections titled "The debate on impersonals", "Do subjectless sentences
exist?", "Main clauses and dependent clauses", "The internal structure
of word groups", and "Looking for syntactic units". Graffi gives a
totally impartial and factual account of the views of the leading
syntacticians of each period on these and other central problems. While
he compares and contrasts the differing analyses which were being
produced, and comments upon the possible influences which one
syntactician may have had upon the work of another, he does not spend
time documenting the debates or polemics which took place between
particular researchers or schools. Neither does he sit in judgment over
any analysis. The emphasis is always on the syntactic analysis itself
and the contribution of each individual linguist to the overall
achievements of syntactic research within each historical period.

Part III departs somewhat from this model in that the discussion tends
to revolve more around different schools of syntactic analysis rather
than around particular syntactic problems per se. In the chapter
"Different views of syntax", Graffi examines the role of Montague
Grammar, Generative Semantics, Relational Grammar, LFG, GPSG, and
several functional approaches in the development of the modern
psychologistic syntax. The concluding chapter titled "The Chomskian
Program" is entirely devoted to tracing the essentially reductionist
evolution of transformational generative syntax in the works of Chomsky
and his colleagues. The book ends abruptly with a section on Kayne's
antisymmetric analysis (Kayne 1994). The Minimalist Program itself is
not dealt with in detail, but merely mentioned as the latest
incarnation of the Chomskian Program.

The sheer volume of information contained in this book is impressive.
It is highly educational for modern syntacticians, who may not be aware
of the wealth and the scope of syntactic research which dates back to
the 19th Century and before. Graffi gives a glimpse into the works of
literally dozens of linguists, philosophers, and psychologists. Some
are more familiar names, such as Jespersen, Sapir, Bloomfield,
Saussure, Schleicher, and Grimm. Others might be unknown to some
readers: Steinthal, Gabelentz, Marty, and Behagel. It is clear
throughout the book, however, that Graffi himself is intimately
acquainted with the works of all of these scholars, and can draw
comparisons among them with ease. This is no small achievement, given
that so many of their ideas involve concepts that are defined and
interpreted in only subtly different ways. For example, the concept of
the "sentence" was disputed and defined variously by different
syntacticians. Graffi charts where each syntactician stood on this
issue in chapters 3 and 4 in Part I. Such wavering terminology alone
can make reading early syntactic publications a daunting task for the
uninitiated linguist of 2002. Graffi's book can therefore go a long way
toward making these early syntactic treatises more accessible to modern
researchers who might wish to read them. In fact, the book acknowledges
that the problem of terminology is one which is still with us. Part III
includes a discussion of the differing uses of the terms "topic",
"focus", and "theme" in modern syntactic frameworks.

The organizational principle used in the volume has both advantages and
disadvantages. Structuring the narrative around research issues and
problems entails that Graffi must discuss the work of particular
linguists in an essentially fragmented manner, with comments on
Jespersen or Humboldt appearing scattered throughout many different
sections of the book. It also leads to a certain amount of repetition
in order to draw comparisons among different researchers and their
views. This consequently makes the book a bit more difficult to use as
a reference work, which is probably how many syntacticians will
eventually use it. If one is using the volume as a reference work to
learn more about Tesni�re, for example, the index of names shows that
Tesni�re is referred to at more or less regular intervals throughout
the latter 300 pages of the book (every 5 pages, on the average, over
one stretch of 200 pages ). The same is true for Graffi's treatment of
other syntacticians. In other words, one must read many separate
passages to gain the full picture of each linguist's contributions. If
the book had been organized differently, for example into separate
autonomous sections on each individual syntactician, it would arguably
have made a more functional reference work. However, it would also have
been a mere encyclopedia then, and Graffi's aim is definitely not to
create an encyclopedia. The reference value of the book is secondary to
its value as a critical historical narrative. Thus, although the
fragmentation and repetition can at times become tedious, they are
necessary to keeping the focus of the book upon syntactic research
itself rather than upon individual syntacticians.

The real value of this book lies in its treatment of the larger issues
in the history of syntactic theory and how they relate to our modern
concerns. It allows us to experience syntactic research in a form which
existed long before Chomsky and our other contemporaries. The
experience can at times be comical, perhaps shocking, and at its best
profoundly thought-provoking. For example, when Graffi quotes Humboldt
on unity and diversity in language, we may not know whether to laugh
outright or feel embarrassed by the views of our predecessors: (When I
read this quote aloud to the students in my graduate typology class,
they did laugh outright.)

"Grammatical formation arises from the laws of thinking in language,
and rests on the congruence of sound-forms with the latter. Such a
congruence must in some way be present in every language; the
difference lies only in degree, and the blame for defective development
may attach to an insufficiently plain emergence of these laws in the
soul, or to an inadequate malleability of the sound-system. But
deficiency on the one point always reacts back at once upon the other."
(Humboldt 1988[1836]:140, in Graffi 2001:21)

After a few moments we probably just go on with our reading and feel
grateful that we have progressed beyond such a view of syntax and
language variation. Such passages in the narrative help to persuade us
that we really have made a great deal of progress in syntactic research
in the last 200 years.

On the other hand, we may experience an uncanny familiarity with
passages like the following:

"An infant is not taught the grammatical rule that the subject is to be
placed first, or that the indirect object regularly precedes the direct
object; and yet, without any grammatical instruction, from innumerable
sentences heard and understood he will abstract some notion of their
structure which is definite enough to guide him in framing sentences of
his own." (Jespersen 1924:19 in Graffi 2001:71)

Was this really written by Jespersen in 1924? It could be a passage we
might encounter today in an introductory syntax textbook explicating
the generativist view of language acquisition. Such passages can make
us feel intellectually much closer to our predecessors ? perhaps closer
than some of us might care to admit. Discoveries like these in Parts I
and II compel us to re-examine the progress we think we may have made
in the last 200 years. Graffi implies with his narrative that many of
the central syntactic questions of the past remain with us still today.
He never states this explicitly, but allows the facts to speak for
themselves. That gives us plenty of food for thought. Even the central
thesis of the book ? the cyclic rise and fall of the psychologistic
view in syntax ? gives us much to ponder.

It is a pity that the book does not contain a concluding chapter. As
noted earlier in the synopsis portion of this review, the chapter on
the Chomskian program ends somewhat abruptly with remarks on Richard
Kayne's antisymmetric analysis. Graffi does not offer any concluding
remarks, summarization, or synthesis of the vast amount of material in
the preceding nearly 500 pages. The reader is left without closure, and
with many questions: Where will we go from here? Have we finally really
decided what the definition of a sentence should be? Does Graffi think
that the "cycle" of psychologism will repeat itself again? Does he
perhaps even see signs of a nascent reaction against the modern
psychologistic syntax which could herald a kind of rebirth of the non-
psychologistic syntax which we once called Structuralism? And what
about all that has happened since the work of Kayne? Of course it is
difficult for a historian to capture everything up until the moment of
publication. Nevertheless, Graffi would have done well to include at
least some comments on current directions of research and where they
might lead. But instead, he chooses to leave the question open and
allow each reader speculate on their own.

So, fellow syntacticians, we are left to write the concluding chapter
ourselves. Where do we go from here? What will the next 200 years of
syntax reveal?

Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1836) Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen
Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des
Menschengeschlechts. Berlin: F. Dummler (Reprint 1968) [ English
translation by Peter Heath (1988) On Language. Cambridge University

Jespersen, Otto (1924) The Philosophy of Grammar. George Allen & Unwin.

Kayne, Richard S. (1994) The Antisymmetry of Syntax. MIT Press.

Sheila Dooley Collberg is a Lecturer in the Dept. of Linguistics at the
University of Arizona. She is primarily a syntactician and typologist,
and has been a member of the project Parametric Typology: Variation in
Syntax, based at Lund University. She is fascinated by the
proliferation of syntactic theories in modern linguistics and taught a
graduate course last semester at the University of Arizona on this