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Home arrow History arrow A Minimalist View on the Syntax–Semantics Relationship: Turning the Mind into a Snowflake


(W)holes and doughnuts

B eginning at the beginning

Setting minimal(ist) limits

An ‘evolutionary fable’ told by Chomsky (2000a) as an exposition of the agenda of the Minimalist Program revolves, not surprisingly, around the relationship between the faculty of language, a newcomer in the mind/brain, and other mental capacities, primarily those which are hypothesized to have access to outputs of operations performed by the language organ:

Imagine some primate with the human mental architecture and sensorimotor apparatus in place, but no language organ. It has our modes of perceptual organization, our propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, etc.) insofar as these are not mediated by language, perhaps a “language of thought” in Jerry Fodor’s sense, but no way to express its thoughts by means of linguistic expressions, so that they remain largely inaccessible to it, and to others. Suppose some event reorganizes the brain in such a way as, in effect, to insert FL. To be usable, the new organ has to meet certain “legibility conditions.” Other systems of the mind/brain have to be able to access expressions generated by states of FL ((I-)languages), to “read” them and use them as “instructions” for thought and action. We can try to formulate clearly—and if possible answer—the question of how good a solution FL is to the legibility conditions, and these alone. That is essentially the topic of the Minimalist Program. (Chomsky 2000a: 94)

The thought experiment so delineated may be pursued further with different details filled in; the line of particular interest for current purposes is developed in Reinhart (2006) (cp. also Reinhart (2016: 2)):

Imagine a primate that by some mystery of genetic development acquired the full set of the human cognitive abilities, except the language faculty. We can assume, then, that among other cognitive abilities, he has a system of concepts similar to that of humans, and a sensorimotor system that enables the perceiving and coding of information in sounds. Let us assume, further, that he has an innate system of logic, an abstract formal system, which contains an inventory of abstract symbols, connectives, functions, and definitions necessary for inference. What would he be able to do with these systems? Not much. Based on the rich concept system of humans, his inference system should in principle allow him to construct sophisticated theories and communicate them to his fellow primates. However, the inference system operates on propositions, not on concepts, so it is unusable for the primate in our thought experiment. Possibly he could code concepts in sounds, but not the propositions needed for inference. (Reinhart 2006: 2)

Note the richness of the C-I component in this story: what is delivered to the interface with interpretive systems is subject to processes which have all bells and whistles of formal logic at their disposal. The assumption that the C-I component, including, but not being restricted to, a system responsible for reasoning exhibiting properties required of a system of formal logic, is innate—in the sense which the generative investigation into human cognitive faculty att ributes to the term—conforms to the general strategy of answering acquisition problems, which in the case of components interfacing with the syntactic engine become particularly severe and—mechanisms of triggering appropriate settings of interpretive mechanisms and their maturation taken into account (see e. g. Crain (2012a,b) for an overview of the state of the art with regard to this topic)—demand that, on pain of falling prey to the poverty of stimulus, objects and operations of the C-I component be acquired on an innate basis and be virtually uniform across the species; as a consequence, it seems inevitable ‘to entertain another bold but not implausible thesis: that generation of CI—narrow syntax and construal/interpretive rules—is uniform among languages, or nearly so’ (Chomsky 2016a: 21). Uniformity of the human language faculty is thus extended beyond the domain of narrow syntax to cover at least interpretive processes performed immediately upon the output of syntactic derivation after the C-I transition, so that ‘the Martian scientist might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language, with differences only at the margins’ (Chomsky 2000b: 7)—‘the margins’ being hypothesized to be restricted to externalization:

...there is substantial evidence that externalization to SM is the primary locus of the complexity, variability, and mutability of language, and that, correspondingly, mastering the specific mode of externalization is the main task of language acquisition: mastering the phonetics and phonology of the language, its morphology, and its lexical idiosyncrasies (including what is called “Saussurean arbitrariness”, the specific choice of sound-meaning correspondences for minimal word-like elements). (Chomsky 2016a: 21)

The direction in which the investigation of Reinhart (2006) primarily tends leads to inquiry into the relationship between the C-I component and a pre-linguistic system of concepts, by assumption both already available at the stage when the faculty of language in the narrow sense entered the scene, to see how the latter was made accessible to the former; narrow syntax acts on this picture primarily as a combinatorial engine, with its own properties and mechanisms to be investigated on their own, but in principle independent and confined to the syntactic module. Suppose, though, that you begin with an even more sparse picture, leaving the ‘system of concepts’ out of consideration and concentrating on the interpretive component which is assumed to be fed with structured expressions generated in the realm of syntactic rules. Approaching the issue from this viewpoint makes it possible to concentrate more closely on the syntax-semantics relationship following minimalist guiding principles:

One reasonable guiding idea is that interpretive operations at the interface should be as simple as possible. Barring empirical evidence to the contrary, we assume that the external systems are impoverished—a natural extension of minimalist intuitions to the language faculty more broadly, including the systems (possibly dedicated to language) at the “other side” of the interface. That means that the forms that reach the LF level must be as similar as typological variation permits—unique, if that is possible. These assumptions about the interface impose fairly restrictive conditions on application and ordering of operations, cutting down the variety of computation, always a welcome result for reasons already discussed. At the A-P interface, overt manifestation provides additional evidence. Such evidence is largely unavailable at the C-I interface, but the general conceptual considerations just reviewed carry some weight. (Chomsky 1995: 358)

The requirement that operations occurring at the interface be ‘as simple as possible’ and that this requirement be extended to cover ‘systems at the “other side” of the interface’ are much more in the minimalist setting than merely methodological requirements of simplicity, economy or theoretical elegance. They are directly relevant, instead, to fundamental problems posed by the minimalist inquiry into the nature of the human linguistic faculty, Plato’s Problem and Darwin’s Problem in particular: both the acquisition problem and the issue of evolutionary emergence of the faculty of language demand that specifically linguistic rules, principles, and basic vocabulary over which language systems operate, be as restricted as possible, lest the complexity of the linguistically parochial make going ‘beyond explanatory adequacy’ impossible. The main focus of inquiry remains the faculty of language in the narrow sense, understood by Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002: 1573) as comprising ‘only the core computational mechanisms of recursion as they appear in narrow syntax and the mappings to the interfaces’—including ‘aspects of phonology, formal semantics and the lexicon insofar as they satisfy the uniqueness condition of FLN’ (Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky 2005: 182) and it seems appropriate to extend the strategy outlined in Chomsky’s quote above to such properties of interpretive components—the C-I component being primarily in view—which are required for an immediate handling of syntactically structured objects beyond the syntax-external component boundary; in particular, covering both the syntactic generative engine together with operations leading to the interface with the C-I component and C-I processes applying to natural language structures as a consequence of minimal requirements which might be imposed on such interpretive procedures: systematic interpretation in compliance with third factor principles, allowing ‘language’s use for internal thought, as the cognitive glue that binds together other perceptual and informationprocessing cognitive systems’ (Berwick and Chomsky 2016: 111). To be noted is that procedures on the C-I side falling thus within the scope of linguistic inquiry do not exhaust the whole range of processes and their applications in systems of thought—restricting the domain of linguistic investigation to the closest neighbourhood of narrow syntax leaves out several applications and extensions of the interpretive apparatus immediately applying to outputs of the generative process. It is with this background, substantive and substantial, that methodological lessons for evaluation of theoretical approaches are formulated and repeatedly insisted upon in the minimalist mainstream:

There is also a general methodological point that should be kept in mind concerning “exotic constructions” such as ACD, parasitic gaps, or others for which the learner has little or no evidence (as is typically the case when the evidence is semantic). It is highly unlikely that they involve mechanisms other than those that account for simple and familiar constructions. There would be no way to learn such mechanisms, and it is implausible to think that they are properties of UG. These considerations impose significant constraints on investigation of these topics. Such investigation has often been highly revealing, but remains descriptive—posing problems to be solved—until this methodological condition is met. (Chomsky 2015b: 6-7)

The point made in the quote above, persistently applied to syntactic theory during the development of the minimalist approach, is also pertinent to the investigation of both the syntax-semantics connection and the C-I component as working on the outputs of syntactic derivation. Chomsky (2015a) first elaborates on the importance of methodological points expressed in the quote above for syntactic theory and evaluation of accounts of ‘exotic’ structures (And that pretty much throws out a lot of literature. More accurately, it leads us to take it to be descriptive, and perhaps very valuable as description, but still lacking a theoretical basis. Most of the work on these constructions introduces new notions’ (Chomsky 2015a: 82)), to proceed to consequences for the semantic theory:

There’s a strong methodological condition that should be taken to be an ideal. Actually most of formal semantics has some of these properties. Formal semantics doesn’t try to find the simplest solution. It just makes up the notations and the terminology, and the principles that get things to work. In fact it includes some of the most exciting work being done. That’s good. That’s a good preliminary stage, but it’s preliminary. It’s like transformational grammar of the 1950s. Let’s make up anything that’ll work. You have to do at least that just to get off the ground, but that’s just the beginning. Next, you ought to ask, “Well, why does it work like this?” (Chomsky 2015a: 83)

Going beyond this stage of inquiry requires that the direction of explanatory work be tentatively fixed, with methodological principles quoted above and their substantive background in view.

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