Saturday, 30 May 2015

Athens Day 2

Athens Day 2

Quote of the day: Rizzi: ``I guess I agree with Norbert to the extent that he agrees entirely with me’’

The first session of Day 2 was a panel on the interaction of syntax with morphology and phonology (Anagnostopoulou, Cheng, van Riemsdijk).

When it comes to phonology, van Riemsdijk made a plea that we should do more of it because it might actually have some interesting internal properties that look a bit like syntax. Cheng argued specifically that prosody and intonation do  in fact have the `syntactic’  property of  hierarchy/recursive units, and that the mapping to syntax is one of the big exciting open issues.  They both argued for a reassessment of the arguments strictly separating syntax and phonology, and for building bridges.

Once it came to morphology,  it was immediately clear from the discussion that this was no bridge building exercise.   Every syntactician in the room was already convinced that morphology was in bed with syntax on one way or another, and considered it part of their domain of interest.  Specifically, the questions were of the form is the type  of syntax found inside the word level the same as that you find outside the word level. Are the features and operations identical? In a subset relationship? An overlapping relationship?  At some point on Day 2 or perhaps even Day 3, the discussion was so rich (and specific) about the issues at stake,  Bobalijk had to reiterate the point that actually the vast majority of morphologists in the world don’t believe this at all, and think that morphology is its own thing and is distinguished from syntax in having no internal structure.  For about half a second, the entire room went completely silent. And then  we just carried on.  Well, there really was nowhere to go from there, since there was no one in the room to argue with.  I have not tried to reproduce the details of the issues and individual contributions in this post since that way lies madness; I am hoping that the contributors will make their slides available for everyone to see the specifics of what was discussed.  Here, for example, are the slides from Anagnostopoulou, who has kindly provided me with a link to them here:

I cannot summarize the nitty gritty of this discussion, although it was extremely rich, specific and informed. One big picture question stood out, though, perhaps as a result of the syntax-all-the-way-down assumption. This was raised by Pesetsky some time in the middle of some morphological discussion. It  can be summarized thus:  ``Words. What’s up with that?’’ 

What followed was a flurry of discussion back and forth about whether this was a deep question or not, or whether we had an explanation or not, and are Words even a  Thing  such that there can be a mystery about them. But the discussion slowly converged on a general acknowledgement that there was a real linguistic unit here, crucially of our own making (i.e. we cannot hand it off to the phonologists to define it), and that we really have no idea how to explain  its existence (this is as opposed to being able to code  its existence), or  explain its internal variability across languages. 

In the morphology session there were no bridges to build because you don’t need to build a bridge from a thing to itself.

In the semantics session, Merchant and I seemed to agree that there was no real bridge.  Because the  proper hard core formal semanticists don’t seem to want one, and the syntacticians think that someone else is building it.

Specifically, Merchant worried that semanticists seemed very often to construct representations that used their own tools and ontologies that were a very poor fit with the shapes and ontologies of syntactic representations and their lexical items.  This gives rise to some very funny LFs if you believe that one is allowed to transform syntactic representations to make them fit better with the structure of the semantic formalism.  I agreed with this assessment, and went further to claim that a huge and coherent field of semantics exists,  which actually does not care about the match to syntax, and which is concerned only with the proper description of meaning.  Conversely, the semantic toolbox is in principle so powerful, that it does not provide any substantive constraints on syntactic representations. What is needed is an actual narrowing down of the semantic tools--- an actual theory  of semantic primes and primitive combinatoric operations that underlie natural language(s).    And not that many people are actually doing this.  (Deal agreed with me, but repeatedly asserted that she thinks this is just a temporary trend, and will be over soon once the field as a whole rediscovers the joys of the syntax-semantics interface). 

I provocatively suggested that syntacticians (since that was my audience) cannot simply sit back and relax in the belief that the problem of mapping to semantics is being taken care of somewhere else.  I even suggested that syntax-semantics might not even be a mapping problem at all, but in fact part of the core computation.   I argued that Structural Semantics is so inextricably tied up with syntactic hierarchy that the syntactician ignores it their peril.  By structural semantics I meant core things such as property predication over things of type e, modification and compositional semantic embedding.  This in turn massively underdetermines truth conditional meaning.  Let’s call  that Big Meaning.  Big Meaning  (albeit underwritten by structural semantics) is not part of the syn-sem computation, It actually sits over in the nonlinguistic C-I module. 

(In case anyone is getting upset, we can all (as syntacticians) think of a bunch of wonderful syn-sem people out there who are doing a great job. Yes. These are the ones we know. And guess what. The semanticists have a name for them---- Syntacticians, also sometimes known as NotRealSemanticists .)

When it comes to the interface with experimental and psycholinguistics, I am going to be a bit eclectic and fold in  remarks  and minidiscussions  that came from outside the actual panel slot, since the interesting controversies only seemed to emerge gradually in this domain.  Again, there were a number of specific results and ideas presented and discussed, but here I only have time for the big picture and methodological issues that struck me as interesting and stimulating.

Some people (e.g. Müller) were skeptical towards experimental linguistics, arguing that it really hasn’t discovered anything new for us, and that psycholinguistics  and especially neurolinguistics are remote from our concerns to be relevant to the kinds of questions we are asking.  But other people were more positive (e.g Rizzi).     Why this difference of opinion and what are the roots of the problem here?  One of the big problems seems to be that even though psycholinguists were eager for good input from us for what kinds of things to drive research questions,  we do not seem to be consistently providing them. This is not because we are not generating results and analyses, but because those `results’  are so  framework internal and notationally specific so as to make them useless to the granularity of the questions that are answerable by experimental or psycholinguistic techniques.  We need to scale up our questions to a different kind of granularity if we are going to reap mutual benefits.  Scaling up our questions is also therapeutic for us, I suggest, since it allows us to see the bigger issues on which the smaller debates depend.

I illustrate with an example from Rizzi’s recent work on the processing of object vs subject relatives, which he presented.  One might ask oneself  concerning certain dependencies that are known to be sensitive to intervention effects from a `like’  element, whether this sensitivity is due to a deep fact about the grammar (i.e. what we know when we know a particular language) or about the parser and its limitations.  To answer this question, Rizzi hypothesized that (i) if the effect was found equally in comprehension and production, then it was more likely to be a grammar problem than a parser specific problem, and (ii) if it was sensitive differentially to grammatically active  `like’  features as supposed to inactive features (language dependent classification),  it was probably a grammar issue not a processing or performance issue. Obviously this kind of question, experiment, and answer,  tell us absolutely nothing about the coding or implementational properties of the dependency relation if indeed it is found to be a grammatical as opposed to  processing fact.

Another big and recurring issue in the room, was the hard and (if I understand it correctly) largely open question of how to model the relationship between the parser and the grammar so that both the performance systems (comprehension and production) can make crucial reference to it while embedded in the online processes of actually producing and understanding language.   The problem is hard because we have make all kinds of decisions about working memory and things like that which have a huge impact on the result, but which we currently have no independent understanding of to guide us.    If we use a derivational metaphor in constructing our grammar description (minimalism), does that have any impact at all on its psychological plausibility?  In fact, no.  Graf says that it’s mathematically easy to write top down parsers for minimalist grammars.  Still the details of embedding grammatical knowledge within a performance system are largely unresolved to date.   Here’s a place where we need to continue to keep talking to each other.

Finally, we come to the issue of the communication of syntax with the outside world.    Van Riemsdijk  opened the very first day of the conference saying that although we have done great things in the past, our glory days are over and we fighting for our very survival. We need to shore up our position with respect to communicating with others and make friends which those who are antagonistic to us.  But also,  he claimed, we are simply not very good at generating research questions any more--- we  cannot allow ourselves to stay narrow.   The mood in the room on the end of the second day however was much more upbeat, even though we know that there really is a problem,  I think we were upbeat because we had all just spent two days have a very enjoyable and stimulating set of discussions so it was very hard to be grumpy.   Everybody put aside their differences of opinion and had a good hearty discussion containing suggestions for improving outreach to the community outside of our small group. There were different emphases, with some arguing that we need to get linguistics into schools, and others saying that communication with our fellow non linguist academics in related fields would be the most efficacious.  It was notable that most felt sufficiently positive that there were important and cool results to communicate, and all agreed that we need to do better in these various ways.  Each to his or her own talents, and sharing the burden around. 

I am going to save practical suggestions and outcomes for my discussion of the final day and end rather with A Salutory Tale  conveyed to us from the Greek linguist community.    Apparently,  a few linguists wrote a textbook for the schools, which was rather traditional in most respects, but which contained the linguistically uncontroversial assertion that Modern Greek contains five phonological vowels.  It took a while for the traditionalists to notice this, but what ensued was a furore of Orwellian proportions.  Now, as we know,  Greece is the proud inheritor of an ancient language with great prestige and cultural significance, and ordinary people have very strong feelings and opinions about it.   The problem is this: Ancient Greek had seven vowels which correspond to seven distinct orthographic marks.  Now, the Linguists had come along and were trying to steal vowels from the Greek nation.  Everyone was outraged. The book had to be banned!   Over a hundred Greek linguists signed a petition to explain  to the highest reaches of government that this was not a Mistake, and that there was difference between Ancient Greek and Modern Greek, and between phonology and Orthography.  But it was no good. The issue became a national scandal overnight and the whole country was in uproar.  The linguists (many of whom were in the room as this tale was being told) were then subjected to shouting and internet abuse, and public scrutiny of their credentials by ordinary citizens who were convinced that they knew better.  (In the end I think the Linguists managed to make their point stick in the end,  although I do not think they ever managed to win over the Common Man).

I think this is a particularly extreme example of the kind of problem the field as a whole faces. It highlights the difficulty of getting our message through to regular people, who have in many cases strong feelings and opinions about language.  But I tell this story also because the Greek Linguists have been our hosts these three days and I want to stand in solidarity with them.  They have been honourable in sticking to their ideals under trying circumstances;  they have been gracious in hospitality; they have been stimulating in conversation; they continue to maintain their standards and their good nature under the most difficult of conditions.  We are grateful to them for hosting this event.

In my blog for Day 3, I will try to assess what we got out of all of this navel-gazing.   Practical outcomes.   Concrete suggestions.   Affirmatory Lists.   Day 3 will have it all.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Athens Day 1

DAY 1: Summary

First of all I just want to say how surprisingly inspiring it is to be here. I feel like I am part of a big conversation with super smart people who share my nerdy passion. Such  a Big Conversation one rarely gets to have. All grumpiness on my part  is in danger of vanishing in the heady atmosphere of  just having a damn good time listening to people I respect,  debating the big issues surrounding my favourite topic.

A recurring theme of day 1 was the balance of power between language description,  analysis and implementation issues, and higher level theorizing.  An important concept in the discussions was the term `mid level generalizations’  which refer to  the concrete results  of bread and butter generative syntax (whether GB, LFG or HPSG) which would not have been discovered without the explicit goals and methodologies of generative grammar (MLGs).  We all seem to agree that these are many and I will try to cobble together a list for a later blog post.  (Thanks to Deal, incidentally, for insisting that Hornstein call this the MLG level and not GB, as he was referring to it. ) For example, Merchant in his contribution in the morning made the explicit claim that the discovery of locality in grammar (suitably relativized to individual phenomena) is one of the big and important MLGs in the field.

Hornstein thinks that minimalism is an exercise in meta level grammatical theorizing, and that its job is not to create MLGs at all.    My impression is that Hornstein feels quite happy with the current bag of MLGs and that we are ready to move to the next step (even though there is still more to be done to harvest MLGs).   

Dechaine’s contribution in that session was interesting to me because she expressed the view that I am very sympathetic towards, that our MLGs are still hopelessly limited.  Specifically, our failure to internalize the facts of more unfamiliar language types (so far) casts doubt on the generality of our so called ML`G’s, so that much more work needs to be done before we can be satisfied, even at that level.   So the syntactician’s job of generating MLGs, presumably at successive degrees of  abstraction,  is far from over.  The Typology session, which consisted of Dechaine,, Baker and  Bobalijk  drove home this point with respect to the problem of examining a representative sample of languages, when attempting to approach genuine universals, and a genuine formal typology. 
Bobalijk also explicitly took up the theme of the relationship of data to high theory. They are not separate strands; they need to sit together at the same table.  If you do one without the other then you  risk trying to do high level generalization over the WRONG mid level generalizations.   Bobalijk says for example that we don’t have good generalizations about Case yet.

The Typology session was inspiring  from the point of view of generating concrete productive suggestions for making progress.  Dechaine promoted the idea of more collaborative research to fill out the typological requirement in cases where one wants to make arguments about universals.  This involves changing some of the sociology of the field.  One cannot do this kind of thing on one’s own, but there might be ways to start building data bases and lists of  generative questions that we would like to have answers to, for each language that gets studied or described.   What we essentially want is Databases with MLGs, triggered by the questions that only generativists ask. (As all the panelists pointed out, in many cases this work is urgent since many of the more understudied languages are on the brink of extinction.) 

Pesetsky pointed out that there really needs to be a proper venue for unremarkable but potentially useful findings, which led to the semi-facetious suggestion of setting up a Journal of Unremarkable Results.  I think this is a great title.  Once it gets popular, we should have a Journal of Experimental Nonreplications.

In the session on Derivations vs. Representations , Müller  argued that recent syntactic work has largely neglected explanation and explicit proofs of the adequacy of the proposed analysis--- what he called the `algorithmic level’ . He looked at LI issues from nineties compared to noughties and counted the number of numbered `example’ -like thingies that corresponded to  data and the number of example-like thingies that corresponded to the statement of principles of theorems.   He claimed that the  number of principles had gone down drastically, and this was evidence for his assessment.  I actually could not make sense of his methodology or what those numbers meant.  I also found that he seemed to be worrying about the stuff that I WASN’T worried about.  But that might be a personal taste thing (I've never liked housekeeping and cleaning although I force myself to do it).   I do agree that explicitness is necessary if you want to say anything at all about anything.  It is at this technical implementational level that the issue of representations vs. derivations comes up,  although Müller was clear to point out that his algorithmic level was neutral between the two.   (Indeed,  he thought there were independent reasons to favour derivations, but this was a separate question). 

In the old days this was a major big picture topic. Sells was a great introduction to this session because he was there in Stanford on the ground  when the interest in this question was at its peak and when the choices between GB, LFG and HPSG were strongly informed by where you stood on this issue.    I also remember it being the big meta issue of my own graduate career.  Graf from  the audience pointed out that one can prove that the things such as derivation vs. representation that provoke so much internal debate can be shown to be notational variants at a very deep level.  He’s a mathematical/computational linguist so I assume he knows what he is talking about at a formal level.   More generally, it seemed to me that the young people in the audience were very unimpressed by the derivations vs. representations issue, and were inclined to dismiss it as a non issue. We Grey-Heads  kept going back to it, trying to push on what potential evidence there might be for choosing between the two.  In fact,  I really want the mathematical guys to win this one because I am SO bored of this particular issue.

In general, we had a number of differences of opinion on whether higher level considerations such as Darwin’s problem should drive our research programme.
Sells attacked the a priori notion of perfection saying that language is messy like people, and that it is amazing that we see the amount of order that we do. But a priori elimination of imperfections seems like a poor top-down imperative.  Hornstein thought that the ONLY way to generate hypotheses (which are crucial for doing science) is to have top-down higher level considerations, since hypotheses themselves do not emerge naturally from data.   I completely agree with this and I think most of us in the room, as scientists,  agreed too. The real question seems to be which  higher order considerations, but also I think what is the abstraction gap between the MLGs and the top-down considerations that are driving theory construction.  Roberts came out strongly against using Darwin’s problem as any kind of motivation, and would be in favour abandoning all discussions of language evolution.     Note that the nature of the high level generalization driving research is clearly subject to trends and fashion. Top-down is all very well, and is scientifically necessary, but how do we choose our favourite higher order principle?   Some high level considerations change over time, and these are for different reasons.  This could be a natural organic change, such as in the case of Plato’s problem which one might argue has disappeared from the syntactic discourse because in fact that it has been so thoroughly internalized.  Different is the case of the issue of parameters and parameter setting which seems to have fractionated and dissolved beyond recognition.  (We had a couple of strong Parameters people in the room however, so this is of course an exaggeration).

Here’s MY question:
What is the most productive and creative distance between top down principles and bottom up surface generalizations?

 My personal taste is that Darwin’s Problem is at too high a level of abstraction and the lack of commensurability between the primes of cognition and the primes of syntactic theorizing make it strikingly unproductive in some cases, and often misleading and wrong when wielded clumsily.
Couple this with the suspicion that most of our understanding at the MLG level is still woefully incomplete, and it looks like we are in very dangerous territory.

So how bad is it?  Most people in the room think that we know way more important stuff now than was known before.   Moreover, there are questions could not even  have been posed  if it weren’t for the  generative enterprise.

Ok, Ok, I’m going to go round the room and make a list. Stay tuned.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Thinking About The Road Ahead

Generative Syntax—Following the Yellow Brick Road to Athens

In the aftermath of Eurovision, and as a way of coping with the usual (though short-lived) withdrawal symptoms, I find myself fantasizing up a comparison between the upcoming Athens event on the future of Generative Syntax, and the Eurovision Song Contest.

The comparison was prompted by musing over the different positions and stances taken by the participants in their  written statements in advance of the event.  I am struck by the differences in tone and emphasis--- optimism vs. grumpiness when it comes to our own present achievements and research goals; bravado vs. caution and practicality when it comes to the outside world.    These threads run through the different contributions in different proportions, and with respect to different topics.    I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with things in all of these written statements, and swithering between optimism and despondency in equal measure.  I wonder what kind of conversations there will be, and what kind of common ground there will actually be when we all meet face to face.  For this is not obvious to me at all.   All of these smart, experienced, passionate linguists!  At the end of the event, what kind of  song will we choose when all the conversations are over, and the time has come to vote?
1.Upbeat catchy dance tune (We agree to list our achievements and reaffirm the rightness of what we are doing, and come up with practical suggestions for explaining how great we are to the outside world)
2.Soul searching mournful  ballad of unrequited love (Where did it all go wrong? Why are we so misunderstood? How can we do good science if we can’t even agree what good science is among us?)
3. Power ballad of the `I am Woman/Bearded-woman/Alternative –Hear-me-Roar’  variety (A bit like 1, but less conciliatory)
4. Or will the song that emerges be a watered down compromise statement that nobody really loves but  was a kind of lowest common denominator of things that no one violently disagrees with. (Think Ireland in  1990s Eurovision).

Facetiousness aside, I for one hope for a plurality of voices and a lot of Listening.  I have always liked working within a field such as Generative Linguistics where there is not yet a rigid framework or doctrinaire theory that one has to follow. I  hope Athens will make the conversation more open, and ideologies less rigid. In Eurovision, all the countries eventually went over to singing in English, pushing out all the other languages.   I think Generative Syntax has to go in the other direction, and old fixed genres and domains need to cross over, mix and creatively relook at old problems with new eyes, instead of hunkering down in their old corners.

Let’s see how it goes.