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.

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