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Review of  Towards an Elegant Syntax


Reviewer: Ahmad R. Lotfi
Book Title: Towards an Elegant Syntax
Book Author: Michal Brody
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Book Announcement: 16.1456

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Date: Tue, 03 May 2005 14:48:30 +0000
From: Ahmad Reza Lotfi <ahmadreza_lotfi@hotmail.com>
Subject: Towards an Elegant Syntax

AUTHOR: Michael Brody
TITLE: Towards an Elegant Syntax
SERIES: Routledge Leading Linguists
PUBLISHER: Routledge (London)
YEAR: 2003

Ahmad R. Lotfi, Azad University (Iran)

INTRODUCTION

Towards an Elegant Syntax, henceforth TES, is a collection of 13 articles
written by Professor Michael Brody between 1980 and 2001 on issues of
interest to the modern syntactician such as elegance, perfection, and
minimalism. The book is divided in 4 parts, each of them a reflection of
Brody's contributions to some stage in the development of what he
terms "elegant syntax". A note on the difference between "elegance"
and "perfection", which is published there for the first time, opens the
book.

SYNOPSIS

Although Brody followed the minimalist terminology in his earlier
publications and used "perfection" to refer to his approach to syntax--it
was only towards the end of the 90s that he adopted the term "elegant
grammar," now he sees these two as distinct ones: perfection is a notion
intended to capture some quality of language itself rather than that of a
theory of language. Furthermore, it is an "engineering" term presupposing
a task and an evaluation measure. Even the best theory of perfection in
language does not need to be elegant itself. Only optimal will do.
Theoretical elegance, on the other hand, aims at simplicity in a theory
where such concepts as "derivations, economy, merge, move, phrase,
projection, [and] c-command ... appear to be either redundant or reducible
to much simpler notions (TES, 3)." For Brody, elegance rather than
perfection must be the primary objective of linguistic inquiry: perfect
syntax (at the best of times) is a re-invention of the "elegant" wheel.
That move cannot be an imperfection, and the idea that LF is the basic
syntactic level of representation are only two cases that show
how "perfect" syntax finally adopts what "elegant" syntax has already
discovered.

Part I ("Principles and Parameters") focuses on referential dependency,
chains, and empty categories. He argues that contextual definitions for
empty categories are consequences of independently motivated principles of
grammar. standard GB theory is wrong in attributing the complementary
distribution of trace and PRO to the conspiracy of two unrelated modules
of grammar. Instead, one can explain both in terms of one single theory,
namely Case-checking theory.

Part II ("Beyond Principles and Parameters") sets off with a review of
Chomsky's "Knowledge of Language." He criticises his system for the
multiple statement of Theta Criterion both at D-structure and at the level
(s) where chains are formed. He concludes that chains should not be
defined at S-structure but at LF as the basic level of representation. In
his Note on the Organization of the Grammar, Brody compares three models
of grammar, namely (1) the Ferris Wheel theory with S-structure as the
axis around which LF, D-structure, and PF are organised, (2) the Window
theory where SS functions as an arbitrary point for syntax-internal
mapping between DS and SS, and SS and LF. the mapping between SS and PF,
however, is different in its characteristics as syntax is hereby connected
to phonology, and (3) Lexico-Logical Form theory whre SS is a mere non-
interface level on the LF-PF mapping. In the final article in this
section, Brody argues against the theta criterion on chains holding at LF.
He attributes the unique theta-position of chains to the Projection
Principle instead. PRO, then, is to be taken as an argument.

Part III ("Towards an Elegant Syntax") takes significant steps towards the
modification of generative syntax in terms of theoretical elegance. He
proposes a minimal theory of phrase structure where such notions as
external/internal XPs, empty heads, and abstract lexical elements replace
adjunctions and intermediate phrases. Pied-piping of elements in the
process of chain formation is now viewed as a consequence of LF
requirements (contra Chomsky's account of PF pied-piping). The picture
given is more elegant now as no PF requirements force syntactic
complications anymore. He also affords a number of simplifications in
standard minimalist theories, namely (1) a single syntactic interface
level (Lexico-Logical Form, (2) dispensing with dubious distinctions and
duplications, (3) eliminating economy conditions, and (4) attributing
conditions specific to the Chain/Move relation (such as Uniformity, c-
command, Last Resort, MLC, and Procrastinate) to the syntax-external
systems with the relation itself as part of syntax proper. Finally, he
compares purely derivational, purely representational and mixed theories
of syntax. PDTs are just impossible, and mixed theories redundant; hence a
PRT.

Articles in Part IV ("Aspects of Mirror Theory") come closer to what Brody
considers to be elegant syntax. He elaborates on two core hypotheses of
mirror theory, namely Mirror ("X is the complement of Y only if Y-X form a
morphological unit--a word" TES, p. 205) and Telescope ("[A] head X in a
syntactic tree should be taken to ambiguously represent both th zero-level
head(s) and its (their) associated phrasal node(s)" TES, p. 205). This
reduces structural relations to specifier ---> head: morphological
specifier-head order is then mirrored as the head-complement order in
syntax. Excorporation is not permitted, however. As a result, X must roll
up into Y. The resulting X-Y unit, by its turn, rolls up into Z, and so
on. As morphological words involve domination, problems with c-command
relation do not arise. Also the sharing of features between specifier and
head makes it possible to dispense with c-command. Antisymmetry is also
taken care of as LCA requirements are not violated.

CRITICAL EVALUATION

There are priceless lessons for any serious student of syntax to learn
from Brody's TES. Although I had already read most of these articles
separately, it was only when I read them together and in this order that I
noticed how theories are conceived, nurtured, and given a final touch of
glory by masterminds. This work is a marvellous course in theory
construction: the reader witnesses how Brody's conception of elegant
syntax has been shaped and sharpened through the different stages of
theoretical/technical development.

However, theoretical elegance will be a mere illusion unless the subject
under study is (near-)perfect itself. Physics affords an elegant theory
within the limits of the symmetry/perfection with which matter is
characterised. In the biological world, such perfection is rather rare
unless it is a reflection of the physical (rather than biological)
substance of the live matter. Once in the realm of psyche, it becomes even
more difficult to come across perfection. For Chomsky, however, the core
of language is characterised with a symmetry that makes it an isolated
phenomenon in the biological world. It is with regard to this isolated
nature of our computational system for human language that his minimalist
programme for a theory of syntax makes sense. And what Brody sees as
theoretical elegance would vanish in the thin air if it were not for this
property of the object of our syntactic theories: perfect syntax. Anyhow,
syntax as a natural phenomena (inevitably subject to evolutionary
tinkering through ages) cannot be more than near-perfect at its best. What
makes elegant/perfect syntax an exciting field of study is our endeavour
to close and closer to a perfect model without jeopardising the empirical
soundness of our findings. With elegance imposed on a theory while the
object of study itself in not that perfect, the scientist may simply lose
his sanity.

In his search for elegance, there are also times that Brody sacrifices
elegance itself in order to dispense with some awkwardness. When proposing
a theory of phrase structure with no intermediate projections and
adjunctions (119-126), he resorts to analyses involving new theoretical
artefacts such as external/internal XPs, empty heads, and abstract lexical
elements. The final product happens to be too ugly to be elegant.
Likewise, he dispenses with all syntactic interface levels but one--Lexico-
logical Form (LLF)--at the price of including D-structure inside LF, on
the one hand, and the enrichment of the lexicon, on the other. This is
elegance at the price of elegance!




 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER


Dr. Ahmad R. Lotfi, Assistant Professor of linguistics at the English
Department of Azad University at Khorasgan (Esfahan) where he teaches
linguistics to graduate students of TESOL. His research interests include
minimalist syntax, second language acquisition studies in generative
grammar, and Persian linguistics.


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