[b-hebrew] knowledge of language versus language use (was Pronoun )nky in Judg 6:8)

Robert Holmstedt rdholmst at uwm.edu
Sat Oct 9 22:59:17 EDT 2004


Let me try to defend later Chomsky a bit.  (This addresses a few of your
comments in various emails).

The common criticism about Chomsky using English too much (which typically
proceeds from a different starting point than your criticism, but still
pertains) misses two points.  First, there is his methodological point
that any one natural language could lead to basic principles of UG without
recourse to comparative data since each language is some instantiation of
UG.  (Of course, everyone admits that comparative work serves to check any
such hypotheses, but here we're discussing theory.)  This proceeds from
Chomsky's rejection of empiricism (of which he saw behaviorism as the
worst manifestation; note, this was not a rejection of the empirical
method), as I'm sure you know well, and is a product of his commitment to
rationalism.  Second, assuming that all would agree that English is a
language and not a creole, then because of (and not in spite of) its
complexity, it is a particularly good object of study.  That is, if one
can deduce and then empirically test principles of UG based on English,
then it is statistically more likely that those principles may be
confirmed by a "simpler" language like Hebrew.  (Although, I'm not sure I
agree on these rather subjective analyses of English and Hebrew...).

Now, with regard to your Bill Cosby example, we have to keep in mind
Chomsky's strict distinction between competence and performance.  Sure,
almost all English speakers could understand what Bill Cosby said, but
does that make it grammatical?  I can normally understand my 2-year-old,
but her sentences aren't grammatical whatsoever.  Here we are really
dealing with our processing mechanisms, not our language faculty or more
specifically not with our innate knowledge of language and the precise
parameters of our native language.

And finally, with regard to )$R and the issue of resumption, which you
bring up in the empty category discussion, I also treated this in my
dissertation, and found what would probably surprise most
Hebraists--resumption that isn't obligatory (e.g., a pronominal suffix on
a noun) isn't in the majority.  Indeed, I concluded that most cases of
resumption were a last resort strategy, used to "save" the clause from
"crashing" (somewhat like being ungrammatical, but technically different).
 So, BH relatives actually have far more empty position that you might

One more note: I read your other two notes about why you haven't followed
the gang into minimalism, or even into EST.  I cut my teeth on
Gov't-Binding, but am well aware of what EST was like, and it was only a
few years of that that I decided to try to get my mind around minimalism
and the arguments for it.  In the end, I found it not only a more elegant
model, but one that provided greater explanatory adequacy.   Let me see if
I can compare the two versions of generative grammar to illustrate why I
concluded this.  

At the highest levels of theory, Chomsky insists that any theory which
attempts to explain the mind's language faculty and also purport to be
some sort of "reflection" of its object of study will necessarily be
aesthetically pleasing.  In other words, given the position (which I would
not really call an assumption anymore) that the mind is orderly and
efficient, so must the theory be that attempts to describe the mechanism,
or at least mirror the process.   Minimalism is much more elegant and
efficient than GB or any of the Standard Theory precursors.  By the late
80's GB was subject to many of the same criticisms that had been leveled
at the Extended Standard Theory: in GB there had become too many
principles, just as there had been too many rules in EST.  It had become
implausible that UG was this complex, that every possible language could
derive from the enormous (and growing) set of principles proposed to be
within UG.  

So, Chomsky's response was to strip it all down.  Given that phonological
theory had done fairly well with "features" and that selectional critieria
also suggested that lexical items encode features, it was a fairly nature
move to make feature analysis the central component of the change, at
least in terms of the mechanics.  The result was a greatly reduced
computational system---Deep Structure (as a theoretical entity) was gone,
and so were all transformations (as well as the theoretical idea of
"ungrammatical" sentences).  In its place was a simple processing core. 
When a sentence is generated, the appropriate lexical items are inserted
into the computational system.  It's a bit like a corn harvest, to use an
agricultural metaphor.  The ears of corn are shoved in, and the machine
strips away all of the kernels (which represent, for the sake of
simplicity, all of the "sound" elements).  The remaining kernels and the
cob are then spit out the back into the "meaning" part of the mind.  They
are interpreted for the semantics.  All of the "sound" kernels are what we
speak and hear.  The key is this: all possible ways that the words can go
together are tried, but only the arrangement that ends up with the least
amount of "kernels" being spit out "converges" (what we used to being
grammatical).  This is is the principle of economy.  Every derivation that
is wasteful or inefficient "crashes".  

Now, only the early generative critics of minimalism argued that it was
simply a "moving of the problems around" (you mentioned Jackendoff as one;
Newmeyer is another).  What has happened in the decade since it started is
that the model has been able to explain more with less effort.   In
minimalism, since again, Chomsky's goals are really to understand the mind
by virtue of language (perhaps the mind's purest external product), there
are far fewer principles that then act upon the items inserted from the
lexicon.  It is in the lexicon, then, that much of the burden has shifted.
 This has great benefit, though: for example, in language acquisition, a
child need not acquire or set nearly as many parameters, since the
principles are fewer, but instead acquires the proper features for each of
the learned lexical items.  These language specific features are then
processed differently by the principles like move, merge, greed, etc. 

Well, as I look back, this is a spotty defense--again, its hard to do this
over email.  Heck, it's hard to cover it all in a semester...


--- Dave Washburn <dwashbur at nyx.net> wrote:

> On Friday 08 October 2004 22:27, Robert Holmstedt wrote:
> > Harold,
> >
> > I agree with you that there is often a difference (register, perhaps?)
> > between written and spoken language.  And certainly forming sentences
> is
> > not an "unconscious" process (or I couldn't even be typing at this
> very
> > moment).  And I try (but don't always succeed) in choosing my words
> > carefully, when writing or speaking.  ;-)
> >
> > However, since there is very little that is intuitive about putting a
> verb
> > before a subject, or vice versa, or even being able to carry
> information
> > over from one statement to the next (e.g. gapping), how in the world
> are
> > we to call this fully conscious activity?  Rather, when we speak,
> write,
> > or communicate in any way with our language, it is a subconscious
> activity
> > that springs from the "language faculty".  We are able to manipulate
> it
> > and use it, but not access it.  For instance, can you tell me exactly
> how
> > your mind puts together a sentence, processes an implicature, or
> anything
> > else?
> >
> > All of these issues are why Chomsky maintains a hard distinction
> between
> > knowledge of language and language use (or what is more often called
> > "competence" versus "perfomance").
> I thought about responding to Harold's post, but figured you could do a
> better 
> job :-)  I think the reason he doesn't understand the subconscious part
> is 
> because you and he are talking about two very different levels of
> language 
> usage, i.e. you are talking about the very deep, fundamental level that
> says 
> "I form a question by reversing the subject and verb, except when X, Y
> or Z 
> is needed" and that sort of thing, whereas he's talking about a very
> high 
> level of word choice, connotation, emphasis, and other matters of a more
> pragmatic nature.  It's always difficult to have a discussion when we're
> talking right past each other...
> > Even for those of you who are die-hard anti-Chomskyans, I think you'd
> find
> > the somewhat dated (but still valuable) book "Challenging Chomsky: The
> > Generative Garden Game" by Rudolf Botha (Blackwell, 1990 -- out of
> print,
> > though) very amusing and more than a little informative.
> Sounds like an interesting book.  I have Radford's earlier book about 
> transformational grammar and wasn't crazy about it.  Now I notice from
> your 
> earlier post that he's following Chomsky into minimalism.  I confess I
> have 
> always had difficulty understanding those who just follow him wherever
> he 
> goes...I once had a snail-mail conversation with Ray Jackendoff, one of 
> Chomsky's earlier students, and he told me in so many words that he
> finds 
> Chomsky, from about 1991-2 onwards, incomprehensible.  I figured if HE 
> couldn't understand Chomsky, I didn't have a prayer ;-)  For my own
> approach, 
> see my post in response to Clay.
> -- 
> Dave Washburn
> http://www.nyx.net/~dwashbur
> "No good.  Hit on head."   -Gronk

Dr. Robert D. Holmstedt
Hebrew Studies Program
Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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