Responses to comments on Syntax in the media

Thanks everyone for your comments.

@Bill Benzon: “Scholars have been hammering away on the distinction between description and prescription for years, and it still hasn’t gotten through”

Well, in the research world where people study language (in psychology, neuroscience, linguistics or computer science), this issue never comes up.  People in research understand that we are talking about the descriptive nature of language: what language people actually produce, not what some government body decides is “correct” or not.  It is well understood that language changes over time: there is no best version of any language.  So my comments about syntax in the media were aimed at discussing current research in syntax and semantics, none of which has any prescriptive component.  The discussion of descriptive vs. prescriptive is a different one, one which Steve Pinker engages in (admirably, in my view).

@Gary Lupyan: “I have a simple answer to the question of why the cognitive science community (never mind the public) doesn’t take formal syntax seriously. The questions generative syntacticians have been trained to answer are questions of their own making. It’s not just that the hypotheses are too complex relative to the quantity of data being explained (although there is that, too), but that the problems being “solved” by these hypotheses are theoretical constructions of the linguists themselves.” (and thanks @Caleb Everett for your approval of this)

Thanks for the comment, Gary.  I hear what you are saying, but I think you are overstating the case.  I agree that there is lots of research in syntax which is too narrow for me to be interested in.  But that’s like any field: this is true in psychology and neuroscience too.  I think that the questions that many linguists ask are questions that I want to know the answers to.  For example, one of the references that Pesetsky discusses is Cinque (1999): “In a better world … The Cinque hierarchy would have appeared first in Nature”.  The question that Cinque addresses is potential universal orders of adjectives and adverbs with respect to their heads.  This is a question that I think most cognitive scientists studying language are interested in (I certainly am). There’s lots of interesting discussion to be had about this work: such as whether the observations are really universals, or just approximate generalizations (see Piantadosi & Gibson, 2013, Cognitive Science for discussion of that general issue http://tedlab.mit.edu/tedlab_website/researchpapers/Piantadosi_and_Gibson_2013_CogSci.pdf), and whether the theoretical machinery that Cinque proposes to explain the generalizations is perhaps overly complex.  But the main point I want to make here is that linguists often ask interesting research questions: this is certainly one, and there are many others.

@Shalom Lappin: “The role that the competence-performance distinction has come to play in a considerable swath of theoretical linguistics may also be a factor in rendering it of limited interest to many researchers in cognitive science and other fields that should be natural allies of linguistics. … To the best of my knowledge no attempt has yet been made to construct an integrated theory of linguistic competence and performance that exhibits the relative contribution of each component to observed linguistic phenomena, and to predict these phenomena with any degree of measurable precision. This has created a situation in which competence has become inaccessible to rigorous empirical investigation, and the interface between competence and performance remains, at best, obscure.”

Right: I agree with this entirely.  I have usually broken competence / performance into three pieces.  That is, processing language involves (a) language competence (knowledge of sounds, words, syntax, prosody etc.); (b) contextual knowledge (world knowledge and local contextual knowledge); and (c) working memory and attention.  It is important to control all the other factors that we know affect language complexity before we attribute a linguistic contrast to one of these components.  And it will be important in the future to provide broad coverage parses of the relative contributions of these different factors in typical and atypical language.

Thanks everyone else who commented: I am glad that you liked the earlier post.

One Comment

  1. @Ted Gibson. Thanks for the responses. Just to be clear, by agreeing with @Gary I wasn’t questioning the importance of all work in syntax, and personally find some of these issues interesting. It seems to me, though, that whether it’s reasonable to expect such work to interest the media/general public is another matter. Another parallel between the study of syntax and other fields (besides the parallel you cite) is that specialists in many areas often feel their research or that of their colleagues merits broader attention. Not surprisingly, they find the work both interesting and important—hence their choice to devote their career to it. But pools of specialists hardly represent objective samples with respect to assessments of potential public interest. I’m guessing 10/10 syntacticians polled would say research in syntax merits broader attention. And while I wish more research on syntax received attention outside linguistics (particularly that done with corpus-based methods), there’s a chance that much/most of it may simply not be that interesting to a broader audience—especially in the light of the factors @Gary raised.

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