Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fear of Syntax

Fear of Syntax
A leitmotif in the history of linguistics is Fear of Syntax.

I don't mean by this fear of formalism. Certainly all branches of linguistics have formidable formalisms. Syntax is no harder than the other branches in this respect.
I mean fear that there is an independent body of knowledge that humans have that is syntactic in nature. A combinatory set of principles and rules operating over formal symbolic structures.
Can it really be the case that we move constituents around inside our brains? And even more horrible, are those movements constrained by 'islands'? Are there ghastly fractal like trees, with multiple layers, and multiple invisible heads? Is there a natural place inside of us for such strange mechanisms. Doesn't this call forth the image of the alien bursting from the captain's chest,  looking around, bewildered by its surroundings.
And worse, are we merely syntactic animals, blindly computing structures? Is our reasoning like a computer crunching away at code, syntactically combining premises to get conclusions?
A much more comforting thought is that what happens in our brains reflects reality. We have nouns, because we need to talk about things, and we have verbs, because we need to talk about what happens to those things. Our knowledge of language is imposed from the outside in, by the necessity of language for communication, by the things we need to communicate about. We start life as a tabula rasa, and absorb what we need from our surroundings and interacting with our care givers. From this point of view, there is no reason to assume abstract syntactic structures. What would they be based upon in the real world?
The field is driven by the desire to get away from syntax (and its horrible implications) at any cost. Morpheme order cannot be due to syntax, since that would be giving it too much power. Rather, a simple and surfacy templatic approach is called for. Semanticists prefer a WYSIWYG  approach, since to not do so would be to admit that meaning would be determined in large part by unwieldy syntactic structures. A typologist would rather suffer a grim death in exile than admit a CP node, and cartography is literally unthinkable.
Let's embrace our syntactic selves!!! Yes, we move constituents. Yes, that movement is constrained by islands. Yes, there are complex syntactic trees with invisible nodes. Accept what we are, and let's get on with the real work.

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