Generative and non-generative ideas of the current questions and aims of linguistics

This is a blogpost about the way that different linguists see the great challenges and aims of linguistics, it's full of quotes that I hope will prove illustrative. The quotes are taken mainly from here  and here, you can also go there to read more. As usual, you're more than free to skim and scroll, there's quite a few quotes this time.

On this blog we're interested in discussing what the "Big Research Questions" in linguistics are, and also we've been interested in getting past the functional-fenerative divide that often is very destructive. Two of our readers even commented that the inflammatory "debates" of the Great War are "profoundly unattractive" and that they had left that part of linguistics intentionally because of it's unproductive nature. Here's Haspelmath describing the situation:

It is not hard to see that linguists who work on linguistic diversity tend to fall into two very rough sociological groups: Those who are more likely to attend conferences like the Association for Linguistic Typology and publish in journals like Linguistic Discovery, and those who are more likely to attend West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics and publish in NLLT. But what kind of intellectual difference, if any, corresponds to this grouping?

My feeling is that the intellectual difference between the two sociological groups is not well understood in our field, and that many linguists who tend to hang out in one of the groups more than in the other are perhaps not committed to a particular intellectual orientation. (free PDF of entire paper here) 

So, in light of this I'd like to make this post about grand challenges in linguistics, as formulated by generativist, but also non-generativists. I call to your attention a conference that took place earlier this year in Greece titled "Generative Syntax in the Twenty-first Century: The Road Ahead" and a similar event that took place in Poznan 2014 labeled Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century where less/not at all generative researchers discussed similar issues. Both events are very interesting and aim to incite a high/level discussion of foundational issues and identifying major outstanding research questions.

Generative Syntax in the Twenty-first Century: The Road Ahead (Athens, Greece)

Picture from a travel blog about Greece
At the conference in Greece there was a round-table discussions with representatives from many different parts of the generative school and our world. Prior to these discussions, the participants were asked to write up a short statement elaborating on the following questions, questions quite frankly that I wish were discussed more generally as well:
  • Strengths and Weaknesses 
    • What have been the main strengths of generative-syntactic research, with particular emphasis on the early 21st century, and what do you think is wrong with the field of generative syntax today? 
    •  How do you think the field could/should go about addressing the current problems? 
  • Central unresolved theoretical issues
    •  What are the major open questions in the field of generative syntax today? 
    •  What is or ought (not) to be in the field’s theoretical core? 
  • Syntax in relation to other fields of inquiry 
    •  What are the main success stories and bottlenecks in the interaction between syntax and the other core-theoretical subdisciplines (semantics, phonology, morphology)? 
    •  What are the main success stories and bottlenecks in the interaction between syntax and the experimental subdisciplines (language acquisition, sentence processing, neurolinguistics), and how can syntax be more useful to those? 
  • The road ahead
    • What do you see as the biggest challenges for generative-syntactic research in the coming years/decades? 
    • In which direction(s) would you like to see the field proceed, and where would you like the field to be in ten or twenty years’ time? 
These statements, and other material from the conference, can be found freely here. I highly-highly-highly recommend going there and having a read. Here are some quotes from these statements:

there remains an Indo-European bias in the field, which privileges certain data sets as being inherently more theoretically interesting than others.  
it [developing long-term interdisciplinary collaborative research teams that leverage the insights of formal syntactic theorizing] needs to be integrated into graduate training programs so that junior scholars are socialized at the outset to take a broader view of the field. 

Syntacticians are often highly selective in the way they read and cite, and they adopt main stream proposals without questioning their basic assumptions. At the same time, interesting theoretical work is ignored if it is not fashionable or produced at the right places. This imbalance does not encourage free thinking. Success measures are often one-sided and the pressure for increased productivity does not always outweigh the cost of decrease in depth 
Research on the interfaces requires formal knowledge of more subdisciplines than just syntax. Undergraduate and PhD programs that take this into account are more successful than those that don’t.

I think the field is generally in a good shape, better than it has ever been before. There has been substiantial progress in all relevent domains: More data from many more languages have been investigated, and there have been spectacular theoretical developments over the last few decades, mostly triggered by the move to come up with minimalist accounts. In addition, I take it to be fairly obvious that there is simply no viable alternative to generative grammar (where the concept is understood in a broad sense, as a formal approach that systematically predicts the wellformedness or illformedness of linguistic expressions and is prepared to envisage abstract concepts in doing so); it would seem to me to be the case, for instance, that any potential challenge from pure usage-based construction grammar approaches has by now all but disappeared, due to an absence of well-defined theoretical concepts (e.g., no ontology of theoretical primitives) and an almost complete lack of interesting results. 

It helps to start by asking what the subject matter of linguistics is. There are two related enterprises; descriptions of native speaker’s particular Gs [Language-specific Grammars] and descriptions of human capacity to acquire Gs. The latter aims, in effect, to describe FL [Faculty of Language, i..e Universal Grammar]. 
Moreover, I don’t believe that using route-1 [Inferring properties of FL from G’s up ] is sufficient to get a decent account of FL, as there is an inherent limitation to scaling up from Gs to FL. The problem is akin to confusing Chomsky and Greenberg universals. A design feature of FL need not leave overt footprints in every G (e.g. island effects will be absent in Gs without movement) so the idea that one can determine the basic properties of FL by taking the intersection of features present in every G likely is a failing strategy. 

Poster from the movie "Quo Vadis"
from 1951 (Amazon).

Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century (Poznań, Poland )

Now to the other event that has been going on, the round the table discussions iPoznań, and some quotes from their statements:
Some forty years ago the commonly held belief was that the relevant mental representations are propositional or linguaform in character. Hence, studying linguistic structures was vital for our understanding of the human mind. This is, however, no longer the prevailing view. 
Another reason why linguistics has lost some of its credibility in its scientific Umwelt is due to disagreement about the methodological standards that one should adhere to.

The first trend is that  linguistics is getting more quantitative, and the second trend is that the world is getting flatter. I expect these trends to become even stronger in the future. The first hope is that linguists will find a balance between uniqueness of individual languages and shared featuresof languages around the world. The second hope is that linguists will make better use of contemporary technology to connect people and ideas.

Linguists need to employ their language-related expertise to answer bigger scale questions about the nature of language systems in connection with other systems of meaning involved in communicative sense making. Neuroimaging research shows that language processing is not computed in a mental and neurophysiological vacuum. 

The field of grammaticalization studies has turned up a massive amount of data on the regularities of change that result in grammatical structures. It has also turned up counterexamples and rarer types of change that can result in grammatical structures. Of course, cross-linguistic study and research on historical change in languages with real documented historical corpora can help us to evaluate the hypotheses of grammaticalization research, but I would like to point to another avenue of research that bridges disciplinary boundaries, forging a link between the work of ‘unhyphenated’ linguists and experimentalists.

Martin Hilper who also participated in this discussion didn't write a text but made a video instead:

In conclusion
People have quite different understandings of what the underlying questions of linguistics as a field are, though the questions for different subfields are often more clear. These seems to be more agreement on the problems: too little is known of the great diversity of languages out there and more interdisciplinary work (both bridges between generativists and non-generativists and linguists and non-linguists) is needed.

Much more can be said, I will however stop now. Do go and read more of what these round-tables discussions contained, I think you'll find it most rewarding.


  1. The link to the list of pre-written statements has changed


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