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Title: Major Discoveries of Modern Syntactic Theory
Submitter: Daniel Everett
Description: Since the late 19th century, the study of human syntax has been of enormous
interest to a large number of researchers in North America and the rest of
the world. We might refer to this period as the period of modern
linguistics, beginning with one of the University of Leipzig's most famous
graduates (the most famous may be Nietzsche), Ferdinand de Saussure. In all
of this time, through the various phases of its development, an
ever-growing body of literature has been emerging on human syntax.

I wonder what we have learned in all of these studies? Especially, I wonder
what we have learned about syntax (from so-called theoretical syntax) of
any generality since 1957, just to take a year at random? I can think of
the following things that have stood the test of time:

1. Islands - Ross 1967.

2. Grammatical constructions (which I trace back to Ross's early 70s paper
on 'Linguistic Freezes')

3. Information structure and its relation to intonation

4. Perhaps some typological generalizations, but those are by and large not
insights into the nature of language, but statistical interpretations of
extant data.

Note that we cannot say that we have learned that there are derivations,
Universal Grammar, Parameters, etc. since these are not of sufficient
generality to be accepted outside a fairly narrow range of practioners. One
can 'do syntax' quite well without any of these assumptions. But one cannot
do syntax without a recognition of island constraints, information
structure, or grammatical constructions. By 'do syntax', I mean figure out
how languages work, e.g. field research.

I don't claim that this is an exhaustive list (though if it is anywhere
close to being on the right track, it reminds us of how important the work
of Haj Ross is).

The discovery of 'islands' is interesting in various ways. First, no one
has ever explained these islands. Second, it may be said with a minimum of
hyperbole that a large portion of syntactic theory since 1967 has been a
footnote to Ross's PhD dissertation.

What are the other major discoveries of syntax? Perhaps I am just raising
the bar too high? Perhaps I am totally wrong. Whatever the outcome, I think
it would be interesting for readers of this list to discuss what they
believe the major discoveries of modern syntax have been.

Dan Everett

P.S. *I* believe that the truly important discoveries that have been made
since the last century are specific facts about specific languages,
discovered by field researchers. So I am not saying that only discoveries
of high generality are important. In fact, I think that they are less
important, in a Jamesian sorta way.
Date Posted: 09-Aug-2006
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
LL Issue: 17.2277
Posted: 09-Aug-2006

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