Date: Sun, 26 Feb 2006 15:18:20 +0800 (CST) From: Edward McDonald Subject: Simpler Syntax
AUTHORS: Culicover, Peter W.; Jackendoff, Ray TITLE: Simpler Syntax SERIES: Oxford Linguistics PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2005
Edward McDonald, School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland
This book attempts a thorough historically-informed re-evaluation of the syntactic theorising of the past half century within the generative tradition. Culicover and Jackendoff (hereafter C & J), whose links go back to their student days at MIT in the 1960s, have collaborated on a number of previous joint projects, and the current study represents a reworking of some of their previous collaborations (dealt with in Parts III and IV of this book) set within an original approach to syntactic theorising and description which they have dubbed ''Simpler Syntax'' (Parts I and II). The present review will focus on the metatheoretical aspect of C & J's account, examining how they justify their approach in contrast to other generative theories as set out in Parts I and II and the final summary Chapter 15 of Part IV.
The origins of the Simpler Syntax approach lie back in the days of the Generative Semantics-Interpretive Semantics ''wars'' -- on which the two authors, ''as befit [their] position as Chomsky's students, naturally [took] the Interpretive side'' (p. xiv) - when it seemed to them that ''the Interpretive position was leading generative grammar toward a leaner syntax with less complex derivations, and that a great deal of the work of predicting grammatical distribution would be pushed into the lexicon, into semantics, and into what were then called ''projection rules''...i.e. the rules that mediate between syntax and meaning'' (p. xiv). They see the Simpler Syntax approach as a ''contemporary version of Interpretive Semantics'' (p. xiv) which follows an interpretation of Occam's Razor, that ''important criterion for theoretical success'' (p. 4), that is in contrast with other previous and current approaches. The authors identify the following possibilities In the area of syntactic theories for conforming to Occam's Razor -- ''Do not multiply (theoretical) entities beyond necessity'' (p. 4, relevant theories and theorists added in parentheses): a. Minimize the distinct components of grammar (Postal: Generative Semantics) b. Minimize the class of possible grammars (Chomsky: Interpretive Semantics) c. Minimize the distinct principles of grammar (Chomsky: Principles and Parameters Theory, The Minimalist Program) d. Minimize the amount of structure generated by the grammar (Simpler Syntax)
The authors claim that ''the most explanatory syntactic theory is one that imputes the minimum structure necessary to mediate between phonology and meaning'' (p. 5) and that such a theory provides ''a vision of the language faculty that better facilitates the integration of linguistic theory with concerns of processing, acquisition, and biological evolution'' (p. xiv). The basic thrust of their approach can be summed up as follows (p. 5): ''... given some phenomenon that has provided putative evidence for elaborate syntactic structure, there nevertheless exist numerous examples which demonstrably involve semantic or pragmatic factors... [and thus] given a suitable account of the syntax-semantics interface, all cases of the phenomenon in question are [to be] accounted for in terms of the relevant properties of semantics/pragmatics''.
C & J frame their call for a major realignment of the field very persuasively from both empirical and historical points of view, arguing on the one hand that such a model provides a more economical account of the facts and thus a more feasible object for learner acquisition, and on the other that what they are doing amounts to a ''recorrection'' of certain unhelpful and complexifying directions generative grammar has taken since the mid 1960s. They identify as the ''overall questions addressed by this book'' the following, which could in fact be taken as programmatic for ANY syntactic theory: ''What is the role of syntax in the grammar vis-à-vis semantics, and what are the consequences for syntactic structure?'' (p. xiv). They position Simpler Syntax (hereafter abbreviated SS) as one of a group of what they call ''alternative generative theories'' which have all developed out of and identify themselves as in opposition to ''mainstream generative grammar'' (MGG) (p. 3). The view within SS of the ''syntactic component'' is ''thoroughly within the generative tradition'' but at the same time ''markedly at odds'' with ''views of syntax'' that have developed within MGG (p. 3).
C & J still subscribe to most of the ''first principles of generative grammar'', which they claim ''have stood the test of time and have received further confirmation through the flood of research in cognitive science in the past forty years'' (p. 9). These principles include a fundamental orientation towards a ''mentalistic account of language''; the positing of a distinction in the brain between a ''finite basis'', the lexicon, and a ''productive system'', the grammar; a further distinction between ''the user's knowledge of his or her language'', competence, and the ''processing strategies by which this knowledge is put to use'', performance; and a focus on ''how speakers acquire their grammar and lexicon'', acquisition (p. 10). While the SS model retains the mentalistic and acquisitional focus of its generative forebears, it replaces the categorial distinction between a ''regular'' grammar and an ''exceptional'' lexicon (stemming ultimately from Bloomfield) with a conception of the two as forming a continuum, alongside a greater emphasis on the peripheral aspects of grammar in terms of the analogous distinction between the ''periphery'' and the ''core'' of the grammar (p. 25). It also puts more focus on the cognitive aspects of language by requiring that a ''theory of competence should be embedded in a theory of performance -- including a theory of the neural realization of linguistic memory and processing'' (p. 10).
As the name ''Simpler Syntax'' would suggest, a recurring theme in the book is the notion of ''simplicity'' and how that has been interpreted differently in different theories. In carrying out this comparison, mostly between MGG and SS, but also on occasion between SS and other ''alternative generative theories'' such as Lexical Functional Grammar, Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Construction Grammar, Autolexical Syntax, and Role and Reference Grammar, C & J distinguish two major ''aspects'' of theorising which they name the ''technological'' and the ''conceptual''. The technological aspect of a theory refers to the ''formal devices...a theory adopt[s] for its description of language'' (p. 4); while the conceptual, ''deeper and more difficult to characterize precisely'', refers to the ''theory's vision of what language is ''like'' '' (pp. 3-4). C & J characterize the kind of simplification put forward in SS as a ''Toolkit Hypothesis'' whereby the ''characterization of syntactic structure requires a multitude of principles, of varying degrees of regularity'', contrasting this with the '''Galilean vision' of an extremely simple Grand Unified Theory'' put forward in MGG's Minimalist Program (pp. 4-5).
In putting forward the SS model, C & J reject two of the basic methodological principles of MGG: Interface Uniformity, and Structural Uniformity. The first, Interface Uniformity, is basically an extension of the Katz-Postal Hypothesis (Katz & Postal 1964 -- see discussion on p. 48), and requires the ''syntax-semantic interface'' to be ''maximally simple'', in that ''meaning maps transparently into syntactic structure'' and ''maximally uniform'', so that ''the same meaning always maps onto the same syntactic structure'' (p. 6) In order to account for the regular mismatches between syntactic structure and meaning, MGG is then required to ''introduce a ''hidden'' or ''underlying'' level of syntax'', known at different times in the history of MGG as ''deep structure'' or ''logical form'', that ''maps directly onto semantics and is related derivationally to surface form'' (p. 7). In contrast, the SS approach claims that there is ''no syntactic structure beyond that present at the surface'' and that the ''syntax-semantics interface...supplies the [necessary] details of interpretation'' in line with the ''semantic/pragmatic structure'' of utterances (p. 7). The second, Structural Uniformity, also posits ''a ''hidden'' or ''underlying'' level of syntax'', claiming that an ''apparently defective or misordered [surface] structure is regular in underlying structure and becomes distorted in the course of derivation'' (p. 7). In contrast, an SS approach again rejects the necessity for an underlying level of syntax, ''licensing'' syntactically ''ill-formed utterances'' in relation to ''semantic/pragmatic factors rather than syntactic ones'' (p. 8). From an SS point of view, MGG accounts of syntax that assume Interface Uniformity and Structural Uniformity end up ''increasing rather than decreasing the overall complexity of the grammar'' (p. 9).
SS also shares with MGG the identification of the ''most important goal'' of linguistic theory as the characterization of the first principles of the generative tradition -- i.e. mentalism, the relation of competence to performance, acquisition, and innateness -- under the rubric of ''Universal Grammar'' (UG) or the ''language capacity'', defined from an acquisitional point of view as ''guidelines along which to pursue generalization -- a pre-narrowing of the class of possible analyses of the [child learner's] input'' (p. 11). However they take issue with Chomsky's identification of ''real progress in linguistics'' as ''the discovery that certain features of given languages can be reduced to universal properties of language, and explained in terms of these deeper aspects of linguistic form'' (Chomsky 1965: 35), claiming that ''a theory of language stands a better chance of being learnable if its syntax can be shown to have less abstract machinery such as extra nodes, hidden elements and covert movements'' (pp. 11-12). They also identify another kind of ''real progress'' in the ''discovery of how certain features of given languages, for which there is no UG input, can nevertheless be learned by the child from the input'', the most obvious of these being the ''voluminous facts of vocabulary'' (p. 12). Such an approach obviously also has implications for explaining the evolution of language: C & J do not deal much with issues of ''processing, acquisition and evolution'' in the current study, referring the reader to their previous work on the Foundations of Language (Jackendoff 2002) and Dynamical Grammar (Culicover & Novak 2003).
C & J then go on to characterise the ''architecture of the grammar'' in SS, in another words, ''an articulation of the grammar into rule types'' and a delimitation of ''the significant levels of linguistic representation'' (p. 14) and contrast the SS model with MGG under four headings: constraints rather than derivations; no ''hidden'' levels of syntax; multiple sources of combinatoriality; and the representation of meaning formally as a level of Conceptual Structure. In terms of the distinction between technological and conceptual aspects of theory introduced above, the first feature relates to the ''technology'' of representing syntactic structure. MGG does this in terms of derivations whereby ''linguistic structures are constructed by applying a sequence of rules, each applying to the output of the previous step''; there is in this view an ''inherent directionality in the logic of sentence construction'' (p. 15). In contrast, SS works in terms of constraints whereby ''each constraint determines or licenses a small piece of linguistic structure or relation between two small pieces'', with the structure being ''acceptable'' overall ''if it conforms to all applicable constraints'': such an approach requires ''no logical ordering among constraints'' and therefore ''readily lends itself to interpretations in terms of performance'' (p. 15). The derivational versus constraint- based distinction between MGG and SS relates to a further contrast between the ''hidden levels'' posited by MGG, and noted in the discussion of Interface Uniformity and Structural Uniformity above, as opposed to the ''monostratal'' model of SS, the latter providing a more realistic model for acquisition.
In terms of the overall architecture of the grammar, C & J characterize MGG as ''syntactocentric'', in other words, ''the combinatorial properties of phonology and semantics are characterized entirely in terms of the way they are derived from syntactic structure'' (p. 17). SS in contrast has a ''parallel architecture'' which consists of ''parallel generative components, stated in constraint based form'' of phonology, syntax and semantics, ''each of which creates its own type of combinatorial complexity''. The structures generated by these separate components are mapped onto each other by means of ''interface components'', and the ''lexicon'' cuts across all three, with ''lexical items...inserted simultaneously into the three structures'' or in an alternative conception ''licensing a connection between fragments of the three structures'' (pp. 18-19). Above all this is an overarching ''Conceptual Structure'' which is ''not part of language per se'' but is rather the ''mental structure which language encodes into communicable form'', encoding such concepts as ''the categories in terms of which the world is understood, and the relations among various individuals and categories'' (p. 20). If ''independently motivated distinctions in Conceptual Structure are sufficient to account for a linguistic structure...there is no reason to duplicate them in syntactic structure'' (p. 21): the SS model thus requires a ''theory of syntax with the minimum structure necessary to map between phonology and meaning'' (p. 22).
Having in Chapter 1 set out the basic tenets of the SS theory in contrast to the MGG tradition, C & J then go on in Chapter 2 and 3 to carry out an admirably clear and -- as far as I can judge at least -- even-handed historical reappraisal of the ''principles and history of mainstream syntax''. This account serves as a useful adjunct to the more detailed studies of the Generative/Interpretive Semantics debates given in Harris 1993 or Huck & Goldsmith 1995, and also as a generally sympathetic although highly critical take on more recent developments like the Minimalist Program, treated more harshly in works like Seuren 2004. A particularly useful feature of these chapters -- which I will not attempt even to summarise here -- are the regular summary diagrams, which show how particular theoretical assumptions led on to, or provided the basis for, later developments (for example, Fig 20 on p. 61 or Fig. 49 on p. 72).
Chapter 4 then lays out in detail the ''Flat Structure'' model of SS. To briefly summarize it here, syntactic structure in SS is taken to be a ''linearized hierarchical tree structure whose nodes consist of syntactic features'' (p. 108). In contrast to common practice in MGG and other theories, the ''terminal nodes'' in each tree are not ''full lexical items'' but rather ''the purely syntactic features of lexical items'', with the ''phonological and semantic features of words'' appearing only in the ''phonological and semantic structure respectively'' (pp. 108- 109). (This is in line with the ''combinatorial autonomy'' of these three main levels in SS whereby each generates its own combinatorial structures - cf pp. 17-18.) These terminal nodes are ''chosen from the set of Xo (or lexical) categories...plus various affixal categories that consist of complexes of grammatical features'' (p. 110). ''Major'' lexical categories are ''characteristically dominated by a phrasal category XP'', the Xo category being the ''head of the XP'', while ''minor'' lexical categories ''do not (generally) have associated phrasal nodes'' (p. 110). Along with MGG's ''hidden levels'' of syntax, SS also ''give[s] up entirely the notion of movement in syntax'' with ''what MGG has treated as syntactic movement from position X to position Y [being] replaced by a principle in the interface'' which specifies that ''a constituent bearing such-and-such a semantic role may appear either in position X or position Y depending on various conditions'' (p. 111). Furthermore, in SS the ''phrase structure rules'' are divided into ''principles of constituency and principles of linear order'' thus giving the model the flexibility to account for ''some autonomous syntactic principles that determine order'' as well as ''other facts about order that depend on semantics'' (pp. 143-144).
Simpler Syntax is a very rich book, both in its basic content -- over 500 pages worth -- and in its generous provision of food for thought. It should prove thought-provoking not just for scholars working within generative linguistics, for whom it will provide many novel and insightful solutions to some very old questions within that paradigm, but also for linguists from outside the generative tradition, who will find in it one of the very few historically and applicationally contextualised accounts of the preoccupations of generative linguistics. It is this second readership, to which I personally belong, that I would like to address here, with some thoughts on the claims made by the Simpler Syntax (SS) model and its place in the wider linguistic(s) universe.
C & J put an understanding of historical developments in generative grammar right at the core of the SS ''enterprise''. In contrast to the partiality and polemics of Newmeyer's Linguistic Theory in America (1980), which treated the rise of what C & J call ''Mainstream Generative Grammar'' (MGG), and particularly the first main break in that tradition with the ''Generative Semantics Wars'' of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in terms of a confrontation between ''truth'' and ''error'', in an account replete with a seemingly unconscious reliance on religious and military metaphor, SS joins a number of historiographically more grounded and ideologically more balanced studies that have come out since then, particularly on that key moment of rupture represented by Generative Semantics (Harris 1993, Huck and Goldsmith 1996).
C & J also hark back to that seminal moment, putting SS forward as a ''contemporary version of Interpretive Semantics'', and pointing out that not only has MGG taken over many of the key ideas of Generative Semantics, the proliferation of syntactic complexity most commonly associated with that school is now a prominent feature of MGG. For example, in their treatment of the ''early history of mainstream syntax'' (Chapter 2), C & J make the strong claim that ''the application of Uniformity in the development of MGG has produced the consequence that the Minimalist Program is indistinguishable in its essential architecture from Generative Semantics, long since discredited'' (p. 45).
But If C & J were simply judging such an approach as out-of-date, with the Minimalist Program dismissed as merely a warmed-over version of Generative Semantics, their critique would not have the force it does. Their main critique of the ''simplicity'' requirements for Universal Grammar (UG) within both Generative Semantics and the Minimalist Program -- in terms of minimizing the distinct components of grammar and the distinct principles of grammar, respectively -- is that such a requirement only leads to complexity elsewhere in the grammar. C & J identify as the ''primary goal of explanation'' in SS -- a goal which is shared by but perhaps not as pivotal in actual theorising in the other two approaches -- the question of ''how the child acquires a grammar with a minimum of UG'' (p. 43). As they remark earlier in their argument, this goal of ''accounting for language acquisition gives empirical teeth to the desire to minimize the cross-linguistically variable principles of grammar'' (p. 11), and almost all of the theoretical innovations of SS in comparison to MGG can be traced back to the desire to minimize the ''internal resources that the child brings to bear in the construction of a grammar'' (p. 11). This empirical focus, though itself open to criticism (see below), gives the arguments for the SS model a seriousness and a ''reality'' that more theoretically- focused accounts often lack.
How the SS model itself measures up against the empirical facts, which are of course as ''facts'' - as opposed to raw data - constructs of the particular theoretical model adopted, is a harder question to answer. In this regard it may not be irrelevant to cite the two epigraphs C & J provide for their book. The first is the familiar quotation from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets about the goal of exploration being ''…to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time'', a standard experience for workers in the human sciences like linguistics that set out to characterize explicitly the faculties people use automatically and unthinkingly in everyday life. However, the second, simply sourced to ''Morris Halle'', and presumably representing a favourite saying of his recalled from the authors' student days at MIT, makes the rather larger claim: ''I'm not here to tell you the news, I'm here to tell you the truth''.
I must confess to being rather at a loss as to how to ''read'' this second epigraph -- or how C & J may have intended it to be read -- but must also admit to some unease about it, because it seems to resonate with at worst a degree of arrogance and at best a certain blindness demonstrated in the book proper. On the most charitable interpretation, the prioritizing of ''truth'' over ''news'' simply indexes C & J's concern for the empirical groundedness of their theory, and their consequent disinclination for the elaboration of theory on merely theory-internal grounds. But to take a more critical point of view, C & J's ''truth'' can only be awarded such a status if one accepts the key theoretical and empirical tenets of the generative tradition, most of which C & J certainly do, but which I would predict at least a significant minority of their readers, including myself, definitely would not.
How for example is one to make sense of a claim like the following that the ''first principles of generative grammar…have stood the test of time and have received further confirmation through the flood of research in cognitive science in the past forty years'' (p. 9)? Now this is certainly not in the same league as the extreme but not exactly rare claim by some generative linguists, for example Bickerton, in a recent argument addressed to musicologists, that ''''[w]e have found out more about human language in the last thirty years than we did in the preceding three millennia'' (2000: 154), but it exhibits a similar flavour of self- fulfilling prophecy. Bickerton goes on to claim that ''[w]e can now be sure that all human languages share a number of nonobvious characteristics, and that these characteristics derive directly from human biology'' (ibid.), but these ''nonobvious characteristics'' turn out to look suspiciously like a list of the main features of the Minimalist Program. Similarly, since cognitive science as currently constituted has been profoundly influenced by generative linguistics, it would be surprising if it DIDN'T provide confirming evidence for that paradigm.
The sort of mind-set revealed by examples like this is one in which there seems to be little awareness of the crucial distinction between the phenomenon itself and the theoretical characterisation of that phenomenon, even though we have no access to the former except through the latter. As I said above, ''facts'' are created by ''theories'', and so in characterising any phenomenon we need to be aware of the crucial ontological gap between the two. To give just a few examples, C & J refer at different points in their argument to the ''complexity of achieved grammar, as discovered by investigation in linguistic theory'' (p. 11), another claim of the self-fulfilling prophecy kind; and just a bit later claim that ''a theory of language also stands a better chance of being learnable if its syntax can be shown to have less abstract machinery'' (pp. 11-12). It is, I think, worrying for the SS ''enterprise'' that these kinds of claims bear directly on the main empirical ''guide'' for the form syntactic theorising takes, that of the relationship of UG to language acquisition.
Such a conceptualization of language acquisition leaves itself open to critique on two main grounds. Firstly, it seems to assume that the process by which a child learner ''constructs'' a grammar for him/herself is analogous to that by which an adult linguist describes the grammar of a language: in other words, that in both cases we are dealing with a similar kind of ''knowledge''. However, as Hockett pointed out very early on (1968), there are in fact two distinct kinds of knowing involved in the different cases. The first, for which Hockett used the Chinese verb hui 'to know, to be able to', is the ''know how to'' of the philosophers -- referring to the kinds of skills or habits that are learned without conscious analysis. The second kind, for which Hockett used the Chinese verb zhidao 'to know', is the ''know that'' kind of knowledge, factual, explicit, analytical. To base an argument about ''know how to'' on the basis of ''know that'' is hard to justify, and it is surely only the fact that the generative tradition by and large ignores the ''community'' in favour of the ''mind/brain'' of the individual (p. 10) -- in other words, creates a stark and quite unnecessary dichotomy between the social and the cognitive - that has led generative theorists to fudge this difference.
Secondly, on purely empirical grounds, treating the question of ''how the child becomes grammatically competent so rapidly and effortlessly'' (p. 11) as some sort of mystery calling for a complex cognitive explanation, again because the complex supportive social context in which the child learns language is largely ignored, must at best be rated as a rather dubious theoretical move. It may well be true that at the time of the foundation of the generative paradigm the relevant empirical studies had simply not been done, but this is no longer the case. To mention only one tradition within linguistics, the body of work that stems from Halliday's 1975 study Learning how to mean, including Painter 1984 Into the Mother Tongue, both dealing with protolanguage and the transition into the adult language, and continuing with an extended study of the speech of older children directed by Hasan (e.g. Hasan 1992), shows very clearly that an enormous amount of language learning can be explained in terms of the interaction of the child with its caregiver.
At one point in his lively and strongly expressed view of modern linguistics, Sampson (1980) remarks on the fact that the students at MIT used to dub the course they took on non-generative linguistic theories ''the bad guys''. On reading C & J's views on contemporary linguistics, one senses that for them, it is not so much a case of ''the bad guys'' as ''the invisible guys''. For example, in their account of the ''later history of mainstream syntax'' (Chapter 3), C & J refer to Baker's attempt to defend what they characterise as the ''syntactocentric'' Principles and Parameters model against the sorts of monostratal approaches to which SS belongs. They comment as follows (p. 74): ''Baker offers no argument against the monostratal approaches, whose syntactic components are, as he admits, highly constrained. He simply believes that there *has* to be more to syntax than this, and lays out a program in which this view is central. He is asserting not only architectural syntactocentrism, which is a legitimate theoretical position, but also a more dogmatic, perhaps even imperialistic, syntactocentrism.''
For an ''outsider'' reading SS, it is often difficult not to apply the same sort of ''imperialistic'' label to C & J's project. Of course the ''insider'' view which C & J are so well qualified to give is one of the reasons why they can speak with such authority on developments in the generative tradition, and why their criticisms have the force they do. But when it comes to accepting SS as ''truth'' rather than simply ''news'', it is hard to take seriously claims that such-and-such a feature of the SS theory, for example the Grammatical Function Tier, ''captur[es] something deep and true about language'' (p. 539), when the authors have so obviously not even looked at any comparable models outside of the generative tradition. Perhaps they might want to acknowledge that there are levels of ''mainstreamness'', and that those in the ''mainstream linguistic tradition'' might benefit from at least an increased sense of perspective through a greater awareness of ''alternative linguistic traditions''.
But when it comes to their concluding call for ''some change in the way people do syntax'' (p. 546), this current reviewer finds himself lined up unequivocally on C & J's side. On what they earlier called the ''conceptual'' aspect of theorising, their ''wish list'' includes what seem to me, allowing for differences in the way different theories frame such questions, unarguable propositions such as ''syntax cannot be studied without simultaneously studying its interaction with semantics (not to mention prosody)'' and ''an adequate theory of syntax should connect in a natural way to an account of how humans produce and understand sentences'' (p. 546). And on the ''technological side'', they strike a note of sheer wisdom gained from long experience in their call for ''more investigation that compares frameworks dispassionately, for it is only by doing such comparisons that we pit them against each other scientifically rather than merely sociologically'' (p. 546).
It is true that from a broader perspective I personally do not accept that ''most of the alternative frameworks conceive of themselves primarily in opposition to mainstream generative grammar'' (p. 546), and it seems to me that the ghost of that old chestnut ''notational variant'' floats over statements such as ''the goal of such comparison should be to distill out of each framework the essence of what it thinks language is like, free of the peculiarities of its formalism'' (pp. 546- 547). But these are quibbles in relation to the overall attempt to open up debate in SS. I hope that reactions to C & J's proposal will be characterised by a tone similar to their own that is measured, generous and above all honest about its own claims and preoccupations.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Edward McDonald has taught Chinese language, linguistics and semiotics at universities in Australia, Singapore and China, and currently New Zealand. His research interests are in the areas of the grammar and discourse of modern Chinese, theories and ideologies of language, and the semiotics of language and music. His book, Meaningful Arrangement: exploring the syntactic description of texts, will be published by Equinox in November 2006.