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Review of  Linguistic Variation in the Minimalist Framework

Reviewer: Kariema El Touny
Book Title: Linguistic Variation in the Minimalist Framework
Book Author: M. Carme Picallo
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 26.2634

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Review's Editors: Anthony Aristar and Sara Couture


The book is a collection of articles that were presented at the workshop “Linguistic Variation in the Minimalist Framework” in Barcelona 2010. It is divided into two parts, which correspond to the two main strategies for describing and explaining variation within the Minimalist framework. On the one hand, there is the view that maintains the use of parameters, albeit with some modifications. On the other, variation is described and explained without the notion of parameters.

Introduction: Syntactic Variation and Minimalist Inquiries
M. Carme Picallo

Prior to providing a comprehensive overview of the content of the volume, the editor gives an account of the basic components, initial merits, and subsequent failings of the Principles and Parameters theory since its inception in the late 1970s. Similarly, the development of the Minimalist Program in the 1990s is presented along with its salient features.

Part I The Parametric Approach: The PP Revisited View

On the Elements of Syntactic Variation
Luigi Rizzi

The author sheds light on the debate within the theory of parameters pertaining to their function. He starts by describing the origins of the parametric approach, and its impact on the study of syntax and acquisition. Following this, he discusses the benefits of combining the principles and parameters approach in its current state with minimalist syntax to reach a better system in the study of language variation. Finally, he utilizes the results of Franck et al. (2013) study of 19-month old infants exposed to French to highlight the relevance of language acquisition studies in the debate between “language faculty” versus “culture” approaches to language acquisition and cross-linguistic variation.

Types of Cross-Linguistic Variation in Case Assignment
Mark Baker

In this article, the author promotes his Baker (2010) approach called Formal Generative Typology. In it, he combines integrating abstractedness in language description and analyzing the outcome of a precise formalization of the patterns with a radical comparison of different linguistic systems. He reviews two of his earlier research studies, Baker (2008a) and Baker and Vinokurova (2010), which focus on overt structural case, to compare Chomskyan and Marantzian case assignment proposals. He presents typological evidence, from 25 Indo-European and Niger-Congo languages, that supports a Marantzian approach in the study of structural ergative case.

Parameters and the Three Factors of Language Design
Anders Holmberg and Ian Roberts

The authors argue for the validity of parameters in describing and explaining linguistic variation in general and comparative syntax, specifically Universal Grammar research. They adopt an ‘emergentist’ view to parametric variation explaining that cross-linguistic variation is a result of the interaction of Chomsky’s (2005:6) three factors of language design:

F1: the genetic endowment, Universal Grammar.
F2: the environment: Primary Linguistic Data for language acquisition.
F3: General principles of computation and cognition. (p.61)

They provide a case study of English and Finnish answers to yes/no questions to further support their postulation. They argue that it is a case of parametric variation in (narrow) syntax. They explain how structures are derived by different implementations of Agree and Move/internal merge

Cross-Linguistic Variation in the Syntax of Subjects
Anna Cardinaletti

Cardinaletti hypothesizes that the properties of a functional lexicon is where parameters exist and directly affect computational operations. The author discusses two cases of variation, related to Move and Spell-Out, found in Romance and Germanic languages. The first case study analyzes the location of the subject in interrogative sentences, for example, subject DP-verb inversion in English and other languages. The second case study is about null subjects, i.e.the micro-variation between Italian and Northern Italian dialects.

Contact and Change in a Minimalist Theory of Variation
Ricardo Etxepare

The author provides an extensive analysis of the dative case and its agreement properties in the Navarro-Labourdin variety of North-Eastern Basque (spoken in France). He attributes the changes in this language variety, starting from the 19th century, to be a result of Basque-French interaction. He claims that the emergence of a dative alternation could be accounted for in a single parameter, where the Dative is associated to a directional Path (pp123). However, this parameter is not the only explanation for variation in this language variety. Thus, he incorporates Chomsky’s (2005) three factors into the analysis.

Towards Elegant Parameters: Language Variation Reduces to the Size of Lexically-Stored Trees
Michal Starke

Although the author starts with a pessimistic view towards current variation research, he offers a solution and opens the door for further research. He attributes the dwindling amount of research studies into cross-linguistic variation to the ongoing success of the Principle and Parameters theory (PandP, Chomsky 1981). He examines the mechanism by which PandP gained its popularity in analyzing the ‘invariant’ parts of the grammar (principles), and how its parochial approaches resulted in treating features as ‘invariant’ as well. His solution is a theory of parameters that explains language variation as a case of lexical elements spelling out bigger or smaller syntactic phrases.

Part II Variation without Parameters

What Principles and Parameters Got Wrong
Cedric Boeckx

The author argues for the abandonment of the notion of parameters since it has lost its original function of accounting for cross-linguistic variation, and provides evidence from minimalism and biolinguistics to support his claim. He examines the shortcomings of Principles and Parameters theory observed by him and others, and presents the arguments made by pro-parameters theorists and refutes them.

Variability and Grammatical Architecture
David Adger

In his article, Adger aims at providing a research program, in which minimalist theories are used in sociolinguistic analyses, in order to benefit researchers of both fields. He gives an outline of the program with the topic of internal factors to show its mechanism.

Syntactic Doubling and Deletion as a Source of Variation
Sjef Barbiers

The author presents a case study of focus doubling in Dutch to support two hypotheses. The first hypothesis presented is that syntactic doubling is a core property of natural language syntax and necessary for interpretation at the level of Logical Form (LF). The second is that syntactic doubling is a valuable source for cross-linguistic intralinguistic variation.


The book is a useful guide for researchers interested in current polarizing views within the Minimalist framework. A common theme of the first section is that even though the Principles and Parameters theory is a good (but not a perfect) model, the minimalist approach is better suited for the analysis of cross-linguistic variation. The second section abandons the notion of parameters altogether with the authors supporting their claims by presenting new research programs and/or case studies where a phenomenon could be described and explained without resorting to parametric analyses.

One negative observation of the volume is the concluding remarks chapter at the end. It is completely redundant and does not offer any new insights since these ‘remarks’ could be construed from the articles themselves.


Baker, Mark (2008a). The Syntax of Agreement and Concord. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baker, Mark (2010). ‘Formal generative typology’, in Brend Heine and Heiko Narrog (eds), Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Baker, Mark and Nadezhda Vinokurova (2010). ‘Two modalities of case assignment in Sakha’, Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 28:593-642.

Chomsky, Noam (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Chomsky, Noam (2005). ‘Three factors in language design’, Linguistic Inquiry 36:1-22.

Franck, J., S. Millote, A. Posada, and L. Rizzi (2013). ‘Abstract knowledge of word order by 19 months: An eye-tracking study’, Language Acquisition 34:323-36.
Kariema El Touny holds an MA from Women’s College, Ain Shams University. Her interests include (but are not limited to) Syntax, Arabic Dialectology, Typology, and Theory Construction. She presented and published her research on Cairene Arabic syntax within the frameworks of the Minimalist Program and Optimality Theory.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198702894
Pages: 336
Prices: U.K. £ 70.00