I would like to start off by saying, in case it wasn´t already perfectly obvious, that the posts I have been making are my own highly subjective highlights and interpretations from an extremely contentful and interesting event. I am not even attempting to provide a proper transcript, and these are not even Minutes. They also have no official status, in the sense that the organizers have no idea what I am writing. I thought I would start my last post in this fashion, because the final instalment will probably be even more subjective and interpretational than the previous ones.
I ended my last post with the assertion that it is hard to agree on the content and formulation of our field´s MLGs. To illustrate this I take a toy example from the realm of argument structure and think out loud for a bit. Suppose I range my own commitments and things I consider consensual in a kind of hierarchical ranking going from most general to most specific. The most general level is shared I expect by all generative syntacticians, while the lowest reaches might start to get more contentious.
GG1: The Language System discrete and symbolic, and makes crucial reference to hierarchy in its complex representations.
GG2: A linguistic representation includes the formation of dependencies and relations. These all seem to come with their own specific locality conditions.
MLGs (?) For Verbal Syn-Sem
1. There is a grammatically relevant notion of SUBJECT that cannot be defined purely by reference to thematic/semantic properties.
2. In the linguistic expression of an event where both agentive and patientive participants are obligatorily represented, the nominal constituent representing the Agent is always hierarchically superior to the nominal constituent representing the Patient in the syntactic representation (SYN-SEM generalization).
3. A monoclausal verbal structure cannot express more than one temporally non-overlapping dynamic portion (SYN-SEM generalization).
4. ARGUMENTS (thematic and notionally obligatory participants related to ta verbal expression) behave in a linguistically distinct way from ADJUNCTS.
(lots of sub-generalizations here related to the formation of dependencies into the two types).
5. Argument structure and aktionsart generalizations are properties of the verbal projection, not properties of verbal lexical items.
(Depending on who you talk to, there are different sorts of feeding relations between the lexical verb and the verbal structure it appears with).
6. In a phrase structure representing the verbal event, argument structure projections such as CAUSE and PASSIVE appear inside (i.e. hierarchically closer to the root) than inflectional and ASPECT, and TENSE projections.
Ok, that was just off the top of my head, and I was trying to state the MLG level in terms that would be acceptable to the maximum number of people who would consider themselves generative syntacticians. Notice that I didn´t put in Burzio´s Generalization, or express (5) in terms of acategorial roots. For the former, that´s because I couldn´t think of a way to express it in primes that I accept in a way that makes it both contentful and true; for the latter, I would not agree with (5) if I had to accept that extra analytic step.
There are also a lot of other things I could write down there that I believe are correct (with a fair amount of good reason), but which I reckon that too many other people would take issue with, so they didn´t make it. But where is the cut-off ?
Another thing. Groups of syntacticians that share more terms of art, will have more specific commitments in common. But are they MLGs really, or are they just agreements about how to use the toolbox?
Finally, some of the things one might want to write down as an MLG have been demonstrated and tested on only a small (and typologically narrow) set of the worlds languages. They are up there because they look good so far. There would be nothing on the list if we had to confine ourselves to things that are true of every world language. I think it is fair to concede that deep engagement with the facts and properties of currently less well understood languages can sometimes radically change the terms of the MLGs that ultimately turn out to be correct. (Dechaine was the leading voice of caution here).
It is worth emphasizing that the list above is both provisional and highly descriptive. Some of them may end up having a fan of sub-generalizations; some of them might end up being just be tendencies, or confined to certain language groups.
In all of this, we must not lose sight of the fact that this list is not a list of Universals in the sense of Universal Grammar, since we all think that whatever languages have in common, they have to be the abstract things that underwrite and give rise to these patterns and tendencies. Once this is recognized, even tendencies and conditional generalizations are valuable, because they give insight into what those commonalities might be. It is an empirical issue what level of abstraction the common UG properties might exist. It might be just MERGE, plus a range of cognitive tendencies, learning biases, and 3rd factor design properties.
I found it a good exercise to try to write some of these things down. And I also found it an interesting exercise to see a whole room full of generative syntacticians trying to brainstorm a list together. We can all agree broadly, but it is much harder to make the fine grained judgements that this kind of list requires in a consensual way.
But perhaps absolute consensus is neither possible nor desirable. The effort to transcend parochiality is good, but the list should have a more flexible and pluralistic status if it is going to have any good effects.
It certainly seems true to me that if we had such a list, however imperfect, it could be immensely useful in guiding research questions and providing a platform for genuinely comulative advance, especially after we have made the effort to state our commitments in the maximally general way possible so as to communicate across frameworks, and ultimately across disciplines.
What did We Accomplish?
I seriously hope that the subcommittee set up impromptu on the floor at Athens will manage to negotiate the minefield of the The List and come up with something that at the very least can serve as a springboard for discussion and further hypothesis testing (replications and extensions).
We also had a nice affirming experience in Athens in the sense that it was impossible to leave that event without thinking that syntacticians are serious, smart and committed and doing a lot of good and responsible work.
Finally, we came up with a number of practical suggestions for how we can manage the outreach to schools, to the public, and to academics in other disciplines. This was something we could all agree on.
So its all Good, Right?
The syntacticians at the Athens meeting are real live people, and so they straddle the whole spectrum of personality types with respect to thoughts on the Road Ahead, and the reasons for the call----- Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey and Doc. I want to concentrate for a moment on Happy and Grumpy.
Happy is the syntactician who was a little baffled by the terms of the call, and thinks that internal to syntax there is no problem, no crisis, and no reason at all for this meeting. Grumpy is the syntactician who sort of darkly suspects that the reason we have been so bad at communicating outside our own tribe is that we have some internal issues to resolve as well. I speak as one who would classify herself as Grumpy in this regard. I think, for example, my friend and colleague David Adger is Happy. (I hope David will not yell at me for this, but I think we have actually had this conversation). This could just be a personality thing. But if I can generalize, (and I know I am getting myself into trouble here) I would say that Happy is a syntactician working in the US or the UK who is comfortable using the canonical minimalist toolbox, terms and framework language. Grumpy was usually living in non English speaking Europe, and often had fewer mainstream commitments at the implementational level. I think Grumpy would be much happier if syntactic theorizing used a less parochial toolbox, emphasized generalizations at the MLG level more, and if it was a little bit more multilingual in its engagement with other implementational languages and of the bridging discourses to other disciplines.
I´m sure I´ve forgotten something, but it´s gone on too long already.