Friday, January 13, 2017

Is generative grammar moving to the “we knew it all along” phase?

As you may know, for the last few years the linguistics world has been transfixed by a cage match between Daniel “The Pirahã Whisperer” Everett and Noam “The World’s Greatest Intellectual” Chomsky over the nature of language. Chomsky claims, has claimed for years, that recursion is the central defining feature of human language, where syntax is the central ‘organ’ of language. Everett, on the other hand, claims that while recursion is central to human thought, it is not a necessary component of language. The argument centers on whether or not the language spoken by the Pirahã has recursive structures. Everett says “no” while Chomsky says “it has to.”

Everett has recently published an informal account of the controversy in Aeon, “Chomsky, Wolfe and me”. In his article he quotes Schopenhauer as saying “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I think the generativists are about to enter the third stage.

For the last few years I’ve been following, albeit at a distance, Faculty of Language, a blog devoted to generative grammar (GG). On January 6 Norbert Hornstein posted “Inchoate minimalism” and that post reads like the third stage is about to begin. As you may know minimalism is the latest version of Chomsky’s theory. He quotes a passage from Chomsky’s 1968 Language and Mind, arguing that it presages the minimalist program. Here’s the passage followed by Hornstein’s gloss:
Here’s the quote (L&M:182):
I would, naturally, assume that there is some more general basis in human mental structure for the fact (if it is a fact) that languages have transformational grammars; one of the primary scientific reasons for studying language is that this study may provide some insight into general properties of mind. Given those specific properties, we may then be able to show that transformational grammars are “natural.” This would constitute real progress, since it would now enable us to raise the problem of innate conditions on acquisition of knowledge and belief in a more general framework....
This quote is pedagogical in several ways. First, it does indicate that at least in Chomsky’s mind, GG from the get-go had what we could now identify as minimalist ambitions. The goal as stated in L&M is not only to describe the underlying capacities that make humans linguistically facile, but to also understand how these capacities reflect the “general properties of mind.” Furthermore, L&M moots the idea that understanding how language competence fits in with our mental architecture more generally might allow us to demonstrate that “transformational grammar is “natural”.” How so? Well in the obviously intended sense that a mind with the cognitive powers we have would have a faculty of language in which the particular Gs we have would embody a transformational component. As L&M rightly points out, being able to show this would “constitute real progress.” Yes it would.
Could those “general properties of mind” include recursion? Is that where this is going? Inquiring minds want to know.

Here’s Hornstein’s next paragraph:
It is worth noting that the contemporary conception of Merge as combining both structure building and movement in the “simplest” recursive rule is an attempt to make good on this somewhat foggy suggestion. If by ‘transformations’ we intend movement, then showing how a simple conception of recursion comes with a built in operation of displacement goes some distance in redeeming the idea that transformational Gs are “natural.”
Hey, Dan! Get ready. You’re about to be mugged!


  1. Amusing thought that Chomsky might come around one day and claim he had said it all along. Though it would not be a novel tactic for Chomsky, he did exactly that when he finally ditched 'deep structure' after insisting for decades that such a move would be 'the worst possible' move. For documentation see:

    1. It's all just footnotes on Plato, and no doubt Plato was cribbing from someone else.