Thursday, 18 June 2015

Anticipation: Roots

ROOTS

The recent meeting of syntacticians in Athens has whet my appetite for big gatherings with lots of extremely intelligent linguists thinking about the same topic, because it was so much fun.  

At the same time, it has also raised the bar for what I think we should hope to accomplish with such big workshops. I have become more focused and critical about what the field should be doing within its ranks as well as with respect to communication with the external sphere(s).

The workshop I am about to attend on Roots (the fourth such) to be held in New York from June 29th to July 3rd, offers a glittering array of participants (see the preliminary program here http://wp.nyu.edu/roots4/wp-content/uploads/sites/1403/2015/02/roots4_program.pdf ), organized by Alec Marantz and the team at NYU.   

Not all the participants share a Distributed Morphology (DM)-like view of `roots’,  but all are broadly engaged in the same kinds of research questions and share a generative approach to language. The programme also includes a public forum panel discussion to present and discuss ideas that should be more accessible to the interested general public. So Roots will be an experiment in having the internal conversation as well as the external conversation. 

One of the things I tend to like to do is fret about the worst case scenario.  This way I cannot be disappointed.  What do I think is at stake here, and what is there to fret over in advance you ask?  Morphosyntax is in great shape, right?

Are we going to communicate about the real questions, or will everyone talk about their own way of looking at things and simply talk past one another?  Or will we bicker about small implementational issues such as should roots be acategorial or not? Should there be a rich generative lexicon or not?  Are these in fact, as I suspect,  matters of implementation,   or are they substantive matters that make actual different predictions?  I need a mathematical linguist to help me out here.  But my impression is that you can take any phenomenon that one linguist flaunts as evidence that their framework is best, and with a little motivation, creativity and tweaking here and there, that you can give an analysis in the other framework´s terms as well.   Because in the end these analyses are still at the level of higher level descriptions, and it may look a little different but you can still always describe the facts.  

DM in particular equips itself with an impressive arsenal of tricks and  magicks to get the job done. We have syntactic operations of course, because DM prides itself on being `syntax all the way down´.  But in fact, but we also have a host of purely morphological operations to get things in shape for spellout (fission, fusion, impoverishment, lowering what have you), which are not normal actions of syntax and sit purely in the morphological component.  Insertion comes next, which is regulated by competition and the elsewhere principle, where the effects of local selectional frames can be felt (contextual allomorphy and subcategorization frames for functional context).   After spellout, notice that you still get a chance to fix some stuff that hasn´t come out right so far, namely by using `phonological´ readjustment rules, which don´t exist anywhere else in the language´s natural phonology.  And this is all before the actual phonology begins. So sandwiched in between independently understood syntactic processes and independently understood phonological processes, there´s a whole host of operations whose shape and inherent nature look quite unique. And there´s lots of them. So by my reckoning,  DM has a separate morphological generative component which is different from the syntactic one. With lots of tools in it.

But I don´t really want to go down that road, because one woman´s Ugly is another woman´s Perfectly Reasonable, and I´m not going to win that battle. I suspect that these frameworks are inter translatable and that we do not have, even in principle, the evidence from within purely syntactic theorising, to choose between them.

However, there might be deep differences when it comes to deciding what operations are within the narrow computation and which ones are properties of the transducer that maps between the computation and the other modules of mind brain.  So it´s the substantive question of what that division of labour is, rather than the actual toolbox that I would like to make progress on.

To be concrete, here are some mid-level questions that could come up at the ROOTs meeting.

Mid-Level Questions:
A. Should generative aspects of meaning be represented in the syntax or the lexicon? (DM says syntax)
B.  What syntactic information is borne by roots? (DM says none)
C. Should there be late insertion or  should lexical items drive projection? (DM says late insertion)

Going down a level, if one accepts a general DM architecture, one needs to ask a whole host of important lower level questions to achieve a proper degree of explicitness:

Low-Level Questions
DM1: What features can syntactic structures bear as the triggers for insertion?
DM2: What is the relationship between functional items and features? If it is not one-to-one, can we put constraints on the number of `flavours` these functional heads can come in?
DM3: What morphological processes manipulate structure prior to insertion, and can any features be added at this stage?
DM4: How is competition regulated?
DM5: What phonological readjustment rules can apply after insertion?

There is some hope that there will be a discussion of the issues represented by A, B and C above. But the meeting may end up concentrating on DM1-5.

Now, my hunch is that in the end,  even A vs. B vs. C are all NON-ISSUES. Therefore, we should not waste time and rhetoric trying to convince each other to switch `sides’.  Having said that, there is good evidence that we want to be able to walk around a problem and see it from different framework-ian perspectives, so we don’t want homogeneity either. And we do not want an enforced shared vocabulary and set of assumptions.  This is because a particular way of framing a general space of linguistic inquiry lends itself to noticing different issues or problems, and to seeing different kinds of solutions.   I will argue in my own contribution to this workshop on Day 1, that the analyses that adopt as axiomatic the principle  of acategorial roots prejudges and obscures certain real and important issues that are urgent for us to solve.  So I think A, B and C need an airing.

If we end up wallowing in DM1-5 the whole time, I am going to go to sleep.  And this is not because I don’t appreciate explicitness and algorithmic discipline (as Gereon Mueller was imploring us to get more serious about at the Athens meeting), because I do. I think it is vital to work through the system, especially to to detect when one has smuggled in unarticulated assumptions, and make sure the analysis actually delivers and generates the output it claims to generate.   The problem is that I have different answers to B than in the DM framework, so when it comes to the nitty-gritty of DM2,3 and 5 in particular, I often find it frustratingly hard to convert the questions into ones that transcend the implementation.  But ok, it’s not all about me.

But here is some stuff that I would actually like to figure out, where I think the question transcends frameworks, although it requires a generative perspective. 

A Higher Level Question I Care About
Question Z.  If there is a narrow syntactic computation that manipulates syntactic primes and  has a regular relationship to the generation of meaning, what aspects of meaning are strictly a matter of syntactic form, and what aspects of meaning are filled in by more general cognitive processes and representations? 

Another way of asking this question is in terms of minimalist theorizing. FLN must generate complex syntactic  representations and semantic skeletons that underwrite the productivity of meaning construction in human language. What parts of what we traditionally consider the `meaning of a verb’  are contributed by (i) The narrow syntactic computation itself, (ii) the transducer from FLN to the domain of concepts (iii) conceptual flesh and fluff on the other side of the interface that the verb is conventionally associated with. 

Certain aspects of the computational system for a particular language must surely be universal, but perhaps only rather abstract properties of it such as hierarchical structuring and the relationship between embedding and semantic composition. It remains an open question whether the labels of the syntactic primes are universal or language specific, or a combination of the two (as in Wiltschko’s recent proposals). This makes the question concerning the division of labour between the skeleton and the flesh of verbal meaning also a question about the locus of variation. But it also makes the question potentially much more difficult to answer. To answer it we need evidence from many languages, and we need to have diagnostics for which types of meaning we put on which side of the divide.  In this discussion, narrow language particular computation does not equate to  universal. I think it is important to acknowledge that. So we need to make a distinction between negotiable meaning vs. non-negotiable meaning and be able to apply it more generally. (The DM version of this question would be: what meanings go into the roots and the encyclopedia as opposed to meaning that comes from the functional heads themselves).

There is an important further question lurking in the background to all of this which is of how the mechanisms of storage and computation are configured in the brain, and what  the role of the actual lexical item is in that complex architecture.  I think we know enough about the underlying patterns of verbal meaning and verbal morphology to start trying to talk to the folks who have done experiments on priming and  the timing of lexical access both in isolation and integrated in sentence processing.   I would have loved to see some interdisciplinary talks at this workshop, but it doesn’t look like it from the programme. 

Still, I am going to be happy if we can start comparing notes and coming up with a consensus on what we can say at this stage about higher level question Z. (If you remember the old Dr Seuss story, Little Cat Z was the one with VOOM, the one who cleaned up the mess).


When it comes to the division of labour between the knowledge store that is represented by knowing the lexical items of one’s language, and the computational system that puts lexical items together, I am not sure we know if we are even asking the question in the right way.  What do we know of the psycholinguistics of lexical access and deployment that would bear on our theories?  I would like to get more up to date on that. Because the minimalist agenda and the constructivist rhetoric essential force us to ask the higher level question Z, and we are going to need some help from the psycholinguists to answer it.  But that perhaps will be a topic for a different workshop.

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