Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The hunt for new syntactic theories

It seems like syntacticians, of both mathematical and generative stripes, are constantly hunting for a new and improved syntactic theory. But I'm not really sure what we are supposed to be looking for. Surely now, it is established that any theory capable of generating languages of sufficient complexity is capable of "capturing the data" or describing it or whatever. Yet syntacticians still publish papers where they demonstrate that some new notion or theory is capable of deriving some fancy piece of data that somehow eludes the others. Is this really what they are doing? Because this seems like a moot argument.

It seems to me that, if there is to be any rationale for improving syntactic theory, it should be something like cognitive plausibility or computational effectiveness, or perhaps even theoretical elegance. I don't know what people are driving at, because the desiderata of a better syntactic theory are almost never discussed. Should we all know what we are seeking? Because I'm not so sure anymore, and thus I am not convinced we should continue to hunt around. For the moment I'm satisfied that type-logical grammar is capable of deriving everything that needs to be derived. Am I wrong?


  1. I agree. But in my opinion things are even worse than what you describe. Not only do syntacticians keep on developing their own framework as it were the only one, neglecting general desiderata and the neighbouring disciplines, but syntactic theories are undergoing a process of balkanization. As late as fifteen years ago you had a few solid traditions in syntactic theory: orthodox Chomskyan generative grammar (formerly Transformational Generative Grammar), the so-called constraint-based frameworks (HPSG, LFG) and the categorial tradition. Today inside the Chomskyan generative school lines of research are splitting so fast that in ten years former colleagues do not even understand each other’s work. If syntacticians are not willing to draw a common agenda for the next years, neo-empiricist, theoreto-phobic trends will grow stronger and stronger. I am afraid that in a couple of decades syntactic theory itself could be marginalized and left to die in its obscure corner. A better awareness of the goals of syntactic theory and its role in linguistics as a whole is sorely needed. Maybe even more than any interdisciplinary effort, which would be good anyway.

  2. Good question -- but what are the desiderata for syntactic theory that Emilio suggests syntacticians are neglecting?
    Understanding the goals is crucial.
    The abandonment or marginalisation of acquisition in the MP removes a crucial goal. Without that, syntacticians are just doing descriptive linguistics.

  3. OK OK, I thought of one interesting desideratum of syntactic theory. Beyond describing the extant data, a perfect theory would tell us, on its own theoretical terms, precisely why every impossible sentence is impossible. This was the point of Chomskyans messing around with bounding theory, binding theory (remember Principles A, B, and C?) and all that stuff. Nowadays it is phrased more as "constraints on Move" or something, but the goal is the same. The trouble is, it appears that this enterprise is no closer to success than it was when it started back in the 1960s. At least the pure descriptive grammmars are capable of deriving something approximating a language - witness Microsoft's efforts to encode English so that their "grammar check" feature works. But their approach can never tell us why the nonsentences of English are not allowed.