Sunday, December 30, 2012

The SVO myth

There's a benefit to the world getting smaller, and our being able to know more information, have it at our fingertips, be more worldly, etc. And that is, people no longer pawn off assumptions based on parochial thinking, that don't stand up to the facts. At least they do this less, because they're more likely to be proven wrong, and they're more careful about their assertions, because it's so easy to check the great database and prove someone wrong. This is why I never make assertions.

Ah, but here's one I can't resist. It's all very tentative, because what do I know? That's why I put it in a blog, and not, say, in a published academic journal. But I've been around the block a few times, and I'm sharing the best of my observations here. Take them or leave them.

When I was in graduate school (80's), the concept of SVO languages came into my field of perception. English, they said, was an SVO language, and so was Chinese, but Korean was SOV, verb last. S=subject, V=verb, 0=object.

Now the assumptions behind this observation were not stated directly, but it could be inferred that S, V and O were the main building blocks of a language, and that all languages would have them. Sure, they'd also have genitive, and instrumental, and locative and all that other fine stuff. But at their base, they were the actor, the action, and the victim. He kicked the desk. In English, you could say, sometimes there was no object. But generally there was always a subject, except when it was understood, as in Kick the desk.

So I remember wondering: why would you separate the object from the verb? So I asked: is there any such thing as an OSV language? Or VSO? I was assured that there were such things but the proof wasn't immediately forthcoming. Someone at some point allowed that they weren't distributed evenly among the what, six possibilities?

But as it turns out, this view, that there are six different kinds, whether languages distribute evenly or not, is not very useful. I have found languages that don't really have subjects; instead, they have topics and they omit those whenever possible. So where we'd like to think of subject and predicate as the two basic placeholders, like Mom and Dad, of a sentence, the fact is, there are a lot of languages where even SOV, or (S)(O)V is a fairly inaccurate way of describing them, even though it may be true to the order. You end up saying that, for the vast majority of this language's sentences, they have a subject, but it's understood, they just give you the topic, and you figure out who did it. A sentence that can be translated literally as, "As for me, the desk-victim kick-past" forces you to interpret an actor, which is not really a problem if you get used to it, but makes it hard really to maintain that the actor is the big honcho of a sentence, one of two main characters. And a LOT of languages are like this.

So what to make of it? I've noticed that people use terms like "SOV" and "SVO" a lot less these days, and maybe it's just as well, rather than beat a dog that's down already, I'll just let it die a natural death and start talking about languages another way. But somehow, I've been unable to let it die peacefully in my mind. That's because I think it is representative of another problem: that we in the west are so quick to assume that the construction of every language we've ever learned (English, Spanish, maybe a tad of French or German) makes it necessary that all languages share these properties, that S V & O are building blocks of our language because they must be natural inherent big honchos in every sentence that's ever been made in any language. It's just one more case of a kind of western ethnocentrism, and ultimately isn't very helpful in classifying the worlds's languages.

So how should we classify them? I have no idea. Linguists use words like "agglutinative" vs. "non-agglutinative" but I fancy myself a linguist, and couldn't even explain what that is, let alone assure you that there is such a thing as that second one. One thing about S V O, is that at least we could explain what it meant...and that's why it stuck around linguistics books for so long. Not because evidence provided any support for classifying languages in that way.

One final irony: you'd think that, sharing an SVO structure would make a language essentially easier to learn. Thus, Chinese would be easier (for us) to learn than, say, Korean. I'm not sure that's true. The Chinese have that SVO order, all right, but everything else is so different, including the function of grammar within the language, that Chinese I think is one of the hardest languages for us to learn. It's one thing to say, I don't think a language is going to change its basic order very easily; in other words, if our languages are SVO today, they'll probably be SVO tomorrow. An order, or a way of constructing sentences, does in some kind of way seem to be a fundamental characteristic of a language. But, though we and the Chinese both construct our sentences with subject first (and they presumably have subjects, unlike Korean), Chinese learners are famously stumped by English grammar. It brings up the question of whether patterns that are similar to yours, but way different in some ways, are actually harder to learn, than patterns that are just way different from the very start. There's an argument to be had, in there, somewhere.

spanglish: two sources

Just before the term was out I got some information about so-called Spanglish, but things were busy and I was unable to write much of it down. Now, in the heart of break, I am remembering some of it and hoping to write down what I know so that it's not lost altogether. Sometimes ruminating about what I know helps me at least come up with the right questions. There will be more sources, I'm sure, but if I don't know how to approach the subject, I won't get much information.

One problem was that my students were very naive about grammatical rules and linguistics in general. I phrased the problem as this: We know that there is a lot of language-mixing going on. We know that people make sentences that use both languages (English and Spanish) freely. The question is this: Is this widespread enough, with a large enough community, that this language begins to have its own rules? And if it has its own rules, what are they? Would they be the same where Spanglish is spoken in California and New York? Can we prove that it's a language of its own? I invited them, in a prompt for a research paper, to enter the discussion and try to prove it one way or the other.

When I brought it up in class, I got very little argument, because they really had little concept of what I meant by "rules." They even now have little concept of rules, as we know them, in English, and corresponding but different rules in Spanish. My interest really is in the interaction of these rules. I wanted to know what happens.

One of the most helpful people to me was I.D., who identified herself as being from Lubbock, but seemed to have relatives elsewhere in Texas and roots in Mexico. She said that Spanglish was a way of life when she was growing up, but she called it Tex-Mex. "Isn't Tex-Mex a kind of food?" I asked her, but she was more comfortable using the term "Tex-Mex" for what she spoke. It's definitely not Pachuco, she said, though I was unfamiliar with that term. She explained that there was a Californian side of this picture, where it's glorified in movies and such, and made to sound fancy, or glorified. She felt that what happened on a day-to-day basis in Texas was quite removed from this and wasn't described adequately by what one could experience in the media.

She gave examples which all seemed to be English words or expressions that had been worked into a Spanish system. By Spanish system I mean they sounded Spanish and had Spanish endings, gender, Spanish grammar. Tex-Mex would simply take an English word, say "truck", and make it "troca", and "park" became "parquear" or some such; clearly borrowed words that were integrated into Spanish pronunciation and grammar. She admitted to mixing Spanish and English within a single sentence; it happened all the time.

One thing she made clear which was verified by the second source. It really depended on context, how much you used, and what you did. She had one grandmother who wouldn't tolerate it, either that, or didn't know the English words, so she in effect had to use Spanish 100% of the time at that grandmother's house. Another grandmother had very limited tolerance of it. It wasn't that she couldn't understand, but because she wouldn't use it and they respected her, they wouldn't use it around her. She said, the young used it all the time; they lived in a bilingual world, and switched freely. To the older generation, it had different meaning.

One thing that has become clear to me since I got here, independent of the sources, is that the Spanish-speaking Texan community feels a little isolated from Mexico itself. A whole swath of northern Mexico has been overrun by drug lords to such a degree that people don't feel as comfortable visiting, or traveling through, as they used to. They still call family in Mexico as often as possible, and visit whenever they can. They have problems at the border as there is a heightened sense of watchfulness of people coming and going. It is just not as easy as it used to be; Mexican-Americans have in effect stepped out of that problem but in the process have isolated themselves from their community back home, which in many cases is going through the political turmoil of adjusting to the terror of very wealthy drug gangs.

A second source, C.L., identified himself as from Austin, and also claimed that Spanglish was a way of life for him as he grew up. If there are no rules, he wrote, let's make some, because this is definitely a language. He also maintained that it was different for his generation and that of his parents. The parents, he said, would use it for a different reason, to show that they were trying to fit in to the new world. We kids, he said, would use a lot more of it, and would use it sometimes to aggravate the elders.

He gave a number of examples, but I was unable, overall, to answer my own questions. If it had rules, what were they? Also, I misplaced the paper; it does not seem to be where I left it, though I'm sure it's around and will bring up more questions when I find it and reread it. The impression I got, that stuck with me, was the emotional nature of its use. These were kids who lived in two worlds; they grew up in two worlds. They spoke two languages interchangeably with each other, as something they shared, but, being bilingual, could slip immediately into either all-English (school) or all-Spanish (grandmother's house). Their concept of rules for either language was somewhat limited, so they had no examples of times when one language's rules would interact with another's. I don't get a sense of an organized community developing something and going in its own direction, or having rules such as, "when we make noun phrase constructions in this mixed language, we generally do it this way". It happens spontaneously, but it happens a lot, because you are talking about millions of people now, in Texas alone.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

so far

1. Leverett, T. (2012, Jan.) Right metaphor, wrong conclusion. Google docs.

2. ___. (2012, Dec.) Principles of language construction and change.

3. ___. (2012, Dec.) The centrality of perception. Google docs.

4. ___. (2012, Dec. Differences in Self-organizing systems. Google docs.

a. ___. (2012, July). Symbols and the language learner. Google docs.

b. ___. 2012, July). Koutsoudas' first principle. Google docs.

c. ___. 2012, May). Saussure and the Oral-writing relationship. Google docs.

d. ___. 2012, Dec. The role of intonation. Google docs.

OK, so here's what I've got, besides what I wrote back eight or nine years ago. I wrote #1 as the introduction, a year ago, and then, in my opinion, #a-c were diversions. It was necessary to say them, I think, but as I read them, I notice that they are disorganized, and often say more than they imply, but not quite in good order, etc. I have now gone back and written #2 and will continue. #1 and #2 and the numbered ones are the book as it's developed. I want to save #a-c, as records of my thinking, but I will not use them or include them as chapters of the book.

I have a question about these Google docs. I put things here, because I can look at them, and revise them, and get comments on them, have my friends read them, etc. Yet I always feel that the computer is treating me differently, as an editor etc., than my friends who are coming in from some outside computer. How do I see them as they see them? How do I know they are seeing anything at all? And why, if they are "publicly available", do they not show up on searches, when I search for them?

Mysteries for another day.

In addition, by the way, here is more writing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chomsky, sometimes you're of full it

There are two things that always bugged me about Chomsky and his 50-year run dominating the field of linguistics. There are plenty of things that didn't bug me, including the fact that he really knew his grammar, and that he was against the Vietnam War; however, these things just tended to entrench his rule and kept people from seeing the more obvious problems with his philosophy.

Yes, so the first one was that he was wrong. He talked about universals, and he framed them in terms of restrictions, and worse yet restrictions that we have access to, as if being born into humanity is like being put into a genetic, biological straitjacket which now demands that we see things hierarchically, construct languages in certain ways, etc. Yet history and even modern textbooks are full of these alleged "universals" that haven't panned out. All languages have subjects? No, lots don't. All languages pluralize noun phrases at the phrasal level? No, many don't have a phrasal level, or even a concept of "pluralize" that we could call universal. All languages have ways to count? No. All languages express basic human relationships like father, mother, etc.? No. All languages have recursion?

This last one seemed to be Chomsky's last stand, and I have to stay out of it, partly because recursion could conceivably be defined so broadly that all languages must have it, but also because the one guy who disproved even that (pointing out that the Piraha of Brazil don't have it) - well, he could be right or could be wrong, depending on what you figure out after you put six or seven years into learning their language. So the jury's still our on that, but even if everyone had recursion, would that be a universal? And if so, what value would it have; what would it prove?

The second thing that really, really bothered me about Chomsky was the language. It's true that all academic fields have their own language, and that in many cases this language is incomprehensible to laymen. I accept that. But after reading enough Chomsky, and the work of his followers and those who have adapted the language of argument in this case, I've come to several conclusions. First, framing it negatively ("access" to restrictions) is the wrong approach to finding universals. Second, you don't have to get very deep into it before you realize that you've lost touch with the basic workings of the human brain. The whole point, after all, is to replicate the way the average person sees and explains the language. I think it's good to keep that in mind every step of the way. My international students are fond of saying that English grammar is very hard, very twisted, extremely hard to comprehend and master. Actually I think they're wrong about this. It may be extremely different from theirs, and may have patterns that are hard to get used to. But in its fundamental nature it's not made to confuse, it's made to be mastered by as many people as possible. And therefore the language we use to describe it should resonate with what we did as children to figure it out.

We in the native-English-speaking community learned our language as a basic part of our environment, much like mastering tying our shoes (which was common in that era) or riding a bicycle (also a common thing that kids did). We never really made a conscious choice to learn it, but we did have several years to listen to it before we felt pressured into actually using it, and even then our parents knew most of what we wanted without the words (they were in the habit of giving it to us anyway) and they greatly encouraged all our speaking efforts. But the intensity with which a two or three-year old attacks the organization of language shows that they really are developing a system, a machinery, an explanation for everything that happens. If there is such a thing as a "deep structure", native speakers ought to be able to say, basically, yes, that makes sense, that's how I do it, and that's how I've always done it. Yes indeed, that's the system I used to explain it and set up my own language production machinery.

Now I find that when Chomsky starts talking about deep structure, and c-command and hierarchical structure of language, he's already losing me. I'm not convinced that those trees adequately or clearly represent what is going on in my head or that of others. If there is a universal grammar that is calling the shots or determining how this system works, I have trouble seeing the separation of universal restrictions from local parameters that determine things such as, where do we put the preposition, or how do we show singular/plural in this particular construction. Chomsky has been unable to convince me that there is anything universal in the series of processes I use to construct a sentence.

Chomsky's whole point was, having postulated this universal set of rules or restrictions on all language learners everywhere, he should be able to show how our common humanity led us to construct things in certain common, universal ways. It seems to me that if we had found any of these, we would have been able to recognize them, and say something to the effect that, yes, that makes sense, I con see why that would be true for everyone. When I say that grammar has to be learnable and understandable, I think you should say, yes, that makes sense, if a culture is going to pawn this system off on many generations in a row, and expect them to grow up and use this language in this group to function and get what they want, then their grammar is going to have to be learnable and understandable, or else their system is not going to hold up over time. And you should recognize this and realize that, yes, no matter what language you grow up in, generally you can learn that language, and function in it, and the progression where you listen for a year or two, and you start speaking, and pretty soon you're making whole sentences: this progression is about the same, no matter what language you're born into. And you don't have to be a genius to become reasonably fluent in your first language, in a reasonably short period of time, with a working system that constructs verbs correctly, and puts prepositions in the right place, etc.

Now there are a number of things that I often say about this process, and I've noticed which ones resonate and which ones are going to be a little tougher to prove, because they are not so obvious. Let's play along as I start with the easier stuff. To me it's all an open question but I have no doubt about what I've written so far, and I'm willing to accept arguments about virtually everything. OK, here's the first. Children make hypotheses about how things work, and they actually test out the data (what they hear) against the system as they understand it, in order to come up with the best possible working explanation for how things are. Therefore language is, to them and to all of us native speakers, a system of best-possible-explanations for how things are made and how they are done. Our system can be described partly like this: "We start out with a subject...the subject is generally a noun and is marked as a hcan have several words but if it does, a determiner comes first and all adjectives come before the noun...adjectives are words that describe nouns...then, you have a verb...generally sentences have subjects and verbs...generally you mark both subject and verb as matching each other...

Now you may find fault with my system as I've begun to construct it, and you can certainly find exceptions, for example sentences that don't have a subject, or sentences in which some verb acts as a subject. But my point is this. My system as I construct it should make sense to the vast majority of native-speaker-readers, most of whom should recognize the machinery of their own system in the words I've used to describe it. They should be able to recognize fundamental truths of our system (like determiners, articles, subject-verb matching) though they may use different words for them or understand them slightly differently. The biggest difference between different speakers of the same language will be in relative importance of different rules in constructing a language; you will often understand something I say, yet disagree about when it should be said or how important it is in the grand scheme of constructing this language.

But in any case it will resonate with you at every step of the way, and you should find yourself agreeing by saying, yes, that explains why we do what we do. And the question is, why do we do it this way? And my main point is, the answer, "because all humans do it this way every time" has not proven to pan out very well, whereas the answer "because we in our community have done it this way for years, and taught our children to do it this way" is a far more accurate explanation, in almost every case.

Now, if linguists can stick to this principle - that what we explain should always make sense to native speakers, then, we can stay true to the science of what we are doing, and also stay true to the fundamental purpose of linguistics, which is to explain why people use language in certain patterns and why science can explain changes in these patterns over time. We can say that there is a reason for observable human behavior and that all of us, native speakers of a language, have similar or common understandings or perceptions of how things are done. We can, finally, I hope, find out what is truly universal in this set of sets of rules, and know when we recognize it: something that all people, everywhere, do, because they are people. If there's something universal, let's find it, identify it, put it on the table. Because it matters, and because, finally, Chomsky and his followers will back off.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Occam's razor and the point shavers

One of the points I've been mulling over from the Honda book is the assertion that Occam's razor (the principle of parsimony) would dictate that remembering two rules, say A & B, is harder and more complex than remembering the choice between those rules, A OR B. Thus, it would be more parsimonious to posit

1. John gave to Mary the book

as opposed to 2. John gave the book to Mary

ss the underlying structure of

3a. John gave the book to Mary and 3b. John gave Mary the book.

To get from #1 to the first sentence, you would delete "to"; to get to the second you'd move the prepositional phrase. Thus you have A OR B which Honda posits as parsimonious. However, to get from #2 to the first sentence, you'd do nothing, but to get to the second, you'd have to move the phrase forward AND delete the "to". Thus the second rule has more complexity?

At first my take on this was to wonder who said there's an underlying structure in the first place? Or, that the underlying structure itself has any order? When I was in graduate school we had this idea of marked/unmarked which didn't quite explain everything but we'd use it in a case like this: When the indirect object is right up against the verb, it must be marked, and it's marked by not having its preposition. OK, so it's like a sign of a specially marked indirect object.

Honda kind of flies through this without much soul-searching or discussion, but to me it brings up the heart of the problem: how do we explain the internal workings of our minds in the simplest way possible? We native speakers hear such sentences every day and have representations of these rules (transformations, allegedly) in our minds.

My students were of no help in the matter. They stared at me blankly when I told them that 3a. and 3b. were legitimate sentences in English; that we consider them both grammatical; that linguists would like to explain their relationship and explain the rules we native speakers use to get from 3a. to 3b., or from the underlying structure to each of them. They had no problem with the idea of "direct object" and "indirect object" which some had heard of, vaguely, at some time in their past. They really really didn't know which would be more parsimonious.

My second reaction is that any time you have A AND B, you have to possibility of bundling them, and saying something to the effect that, "any time you do this, you have to do these," putting A and B together, and remembering them together as basically one rule, one move. Remembering two rules AND remembering to choose one or the other but not both, seems to me more complex, and requires that you separate them out in your mind, and keep them separate. Oh bother!

What might be required here is a closer look at what the rule of parsimony really entails. I think that almost all linguists buy into the idea of Occam's razor to begin with; that's because, with language having as many rules as it does, everyone has to grab and remember them as well as possible, and what can't be remembered, doesn't survive. However you represent what is happening in our minds, it has to ring true with us; it has to make us say, "that's what I do, I've been doing that all along."

Now my students, as I said, were of no help here. They don't know what they've been doing all along, and they're not sure if "transformations" or "movement" is a fair representation of what is happening. Finally I challenged them: You tell me what is happening (I said). If you don't like Honda's explanation, find a better one! (silence again).

Two issues came up repeatedly. One was Chomsky's claim of hierarchical structure of trees. Thus we have trees which represent the underlying structure of the sentences we produce, and moving a prepositional phrase such as "to Mary" to the end of a sentence would allegedly move it to a higher node, thus would align with a generalization that all transformation moves things to a higher node (I have come to align this general rule with the rule about kittens and Christmas ornaments) - but, I don't really agree with this for several reasons. First, it seems that maintaining this theory would cause trouble with other structures, most notably passive (John kissed Mary becomes Mary was kissed by John) - in which you would have to go out of your way to posit underlying structures with nodes that were somehow lower than places where these structures would end up. But second, what justification is there for calling the whole picture hierarchical? None. I don't feel, deep in the quiet center of my mind, the need to take any language I hear and construct my understanding of it in a hierarchical way.

Now mind you, we construct most things in heirarchical ways. When we see a group of people, we try to figure out who their leader is. When we see trees, we say, it's a kind of elm, and elm is a kind of shade tree, etc. People have constructed hierarchies and have constructed hierarchies in our understanding of the universe, especially for other things we don't understand. But that doesn't mean that nature constructed them. Or that we, in our inner minds, constructed what we heard as hierarchical in nature.

So I would not be surprised that people believe that the structure of language is hierarchical in nature, and that they believe Chomsky when he claims that such hierarchy-based transformations make up what we do and understand as language; Chomsky has had a good run with this. But my question remains: what is parsimonious? What is the way that most people will remember this stuff?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Chomsky who mentioned?

I've just finished teaching Anthropological Linguistics, 3305, here in Texas, and it was kind of a review for me of what has happened over thirty years in the field of linguistics, based mainly on a book:

Honda, M. and O'Neil, W. (2008). Thinking Linguistically. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

(there was another book, but I'll say more about that later). This book was very well done in many ways, and it trained students to think linguistically (as promised), making hypotheses about how languages work and then testing them out. It also repeatedly brought up Chomsky's ideas and in many cases presented them as standard; in some ways it was the Chomskian language that irritated me more than the theories themselves, which as far as I am concerned are as good as any others in the open marketplace, until disproven.

My real bone to pick with Chomsky is this. It's ok to talk about universals, and human universals in language, since there probably are some, and in fact they could be universal to all symbol-producing animals but even then we'd want to know about them. What bothers me is the representation of them as restrictions, and worse yet, as restrictions that we have access to, as if it made a difference whether we could reach them or not. If they are universal, access is not an issue; but, even if it were, it makes it sound like we check with the rule book quickly before we do a transformation or create a question in our minds. And that that rule book is either right there on the seat next to us, or, in some limited cases, we don't have access.

The last section we did was about making questions, specifically WH-questions of the form, Where did he go? Whose car did he take to Chicago? Why did he go to Chicago? etc. These are quite complex and involve auxiliary movement (creating the do, moving it to the front); WH- movement (in some cases moving the entire noun phrase, as in whose car); adding upward intonation at the end, etc. The recognition that the intonation is a key aspect of the creation of a question is monumental since it implies correctly that grammar is only part of the story and that any given message is actually conveyed through the combination of grammar and other crucial elements. This quote is interesting: "languages form questions in structurally different ways, but Universal Grammar (UG) allows only a small number of structurally different ways." (p. 136). This is typical of the check-with-the-rulebook mentality; it's basically negative.

In fact in English you have several interesting variations on the above questions. One is using only intonation but using absolutely no other transformations or grammatical cues. That would look like this:
He went to Chicago?
Now this question is marked; we could say that it's a special kind of question, confirmatory perhaps, but clearly a non-standard variety. Nevertheless, it's valid; people do it; they mark questions with intonation only. Similarly, there is the following:
He went WHERE?
which follows some of the rules (putting the WH- into the right slot, for example) but ignoring the others (creating an AUX, moving the AUX, moving the WH-). What's up with taking or leaving these obligatory rules? Here again, this is a special question, one that has the question intonation, but not the question order; one that emphasizes the where in a special way; one that is clearly non-standard, untypical. But it wouldn't be considered ungrammatical in the same way this one would:
Whose did he take car to Chicago?
Here, you see, we are taking and leaving rules, and it's not working.

It occurs to me, after all this discussion, and going on and on about it with my students, who speak fluent English but don't have a clue about the inner workings of their own language production facility, that we should consider a number of possibilities in order to adequately explain the inner workings of our production systems. Those would be the following:

It seems fair to assume that questions derive from base structures, that questions are related to the declarative statements that are their answers, and that these transformations from base form to surface form do not change meaning. OK. But what if the question itself is the base form? Or the base form is simply the parts, and both question and declarative sentence are surface realizations? What if the AUX is there in the base form, for both declarative sentence and question (Or, for yet another variety, the tag, He went to Chicago, didn't he?, which seems intuitively to show that this AUX + V is readily available to us for every structure, and doesn't have to be created by a lengthy, distorted process unless we are truly a second-language learner and have no concept of how to use these effectively). My suggestion: We start out with the parts: SUBJ, AUX + V, TIME; we put them together; all the forms are derived from the parts.

It's not necessarily hierarchical. Honda makes a big deal of how all transformations move things to a higher node. With my students I compared this to moving Christmas tree ornaments to a higher branch (to keep them away from the kitty). You may be surprised by a "religious" reference in class but it really wasn't intended that way. What I was getting at was that Honda infers that, if all transformations move things up, then we have found a universal tendency in our hierarchical minds, and we can thus explain language behavior in millions of other places in the same way. But when we transform I broke the lamp to The lamp was broken by me, we have in effect moved something down, and my guess is that this isn't the only time. Now I'm sure Chomsky would come in with all guns loaded; he knows grammar better than anyone, and can explain reasonably well why anything has an exception. But we are trying to explain how humans set up an inner mechanism to explain and produce language that others will understand. Is there a reason it has to be hierarchical? I don't think so.

On the contrary; I think there is a hierarchy of salience which is to say, things are easier to notice at the beginning or the end of an utterance, so things go there that we need to show others. Or, s is more salient than p, so s is more likely to be a grammatical marker. These are natural hierarchies. Nature makes some things stronger, some weaker, some more salient, etc. But the human mind: does it make things like a tree, because it has a need to organize information in a hierarchical manner? I don't think so. I think there is nothing about language itself that is necessarily hierarchical, though with some languages, you can see it that way, if you so choose.

Chomsky's characterizing our internal mechanisms for understanding language structures hierarchically, I believe, sets up an unnecessary complication in a picture that is complicated enough already. Looking at it negatively, with a constant idea of restriction, you end up, as Honda did, saying that all languages must have noun phrases (for example), must have plural, must express plural at the noun phrase level, and must express it in one of several ways. But in fact Honda tells us, later in the book, that some (in particular Western Apache) express plurality in the verb. I believe that some in fact don't even have subjects (or, having expressed a topic, or having one understood, they don't generally need one, so that, grammatically, it is so often gone as to be insignificant). The wide variety of things that in fact do happen leads us to the following conclusion: if UG were to be the binding fence that contains everything we see, it must be a very wide, or useless fence, full of holes. In my mind there's still little benefit to positing a rule book that is by your side at every moment, and saying that we all have "access" to UG. Why not just say we tend to do things for positive reasons; we perceive a large number of things as possible but too much trouble; the main binding fence keeping us from doing all this vast number of things is simply our own laziness and desire to limit the new things we have to master in order to survive. We have a language; it works fine for us; we naturally assume that they all are like ours, and, when they're not, we're surprised, but, basically, we adjust and survive. Let's stick with what we know happens.