Friday, November 14, 2014

On reading Syntactic Structures

Noam Chomsky's book Syntactic structures clearly was an inflection point in the development of linguistics as a science. It's pretty clear that no linguist has had more influence on the field, and this book was revolutionary in its impact. It has been criticized for general theoretical weaknesses, for example, by Geoffrey Sampson, and clearly the ideas have been revised over the years as new discoveries have been made, but it's less common to see people point out basic inconsistencies, both internal, and external.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Some naive thoughts on intuition

Much of the last two weeks has been spent trying to get my head around what a head is. A representative definition might be.
A head is the syntactic function of the dominant constituent within a phrase to which other constituents are subordinate or a two-word dependency relationship. “In the simplest account, other units depend on it” (Matthews 2007:191).
My starting point was Zwicky (1985), for no better reason than that’s what I stumbled on first. And this was where the issue of intuition came up. Zwicky writes,
The intuition to be captured with the notion HEAD is that in certain syntactic constructs one constituent in some sense ‘characterizes’ or ‘dominates’ the whole. (2)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hudson on Zwicky on heads

As you can see, I've been reading Hudson's on syntactic relations. In his 1987 paper, like the others, it’s hard to judge the arguments because I don’t have a view of the whole system that he's working in. As so many linguists do, he suggests a few items and leaves it to the reader to imagine the complete set he has in mind. Nevertheless, my impression is of very interested data, opportunistically deployed: lots of cherry picking going on here. Not that others don’t do the same. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Hudson on "determiners"

In a 2004 paper, Dick Hudson casts doubt on the very idea of determiners. But like so many others, he appears to confound the idea of a category and a function.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What's a specifier?

Nik and I were discussing my dissertation topic, and part of it related to the syntactic function that CGEL calls determiner, and which I'm calling specifier. Nik said he didn't really know what a specifier was. I don't think he meant in modern English in particular, where CGEL gives a fairly explicit list of characteristics. Instead, I think he meant more generally. For example, if you wanted to know if there was a specifier function Old English or in Dinka, or whatever, how would you know?

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Before coming to Scotland, I had all my medical tests done, had my eyes tested, and had necessary dental work done. Unfortunately, one of the inlays I got doesn't seem to be working out, and I'm experiencing a lot of sensitivity to temperature and food.

When I went to the dentist, the receptionist set up an appointment for me and said she'd extended it because I had toothache. Have toothache? I thought.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How TV expressions wind their way into your mind

Next month, the English Language Research Group here at the University of Edinburgh will be discussing Blythe & Croft (2012). The paper considers how language changes occur, and finds that, statistically speaking, changes that succeed tend to follow an s-curve. In other words, they start slow, then pick up steam and go along for a while before slowing down. Like this:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A thought while dreaming

The phrase, lungs full of dream cake occurred to my while I slept. I roused myself, thinking that I should remember it, and it seems I've managed to do so. I thought you might enjoy it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'Then' as adjective?

Yesterday, Nik Gisborne, mentioned off hand that English adjectives don't begin with /ð/ (the voiced "th-sound" at the beginning of there, but not thin). I offered then, as in his then wife, as an example and Nik suggested I follow up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Another feature structure with LaTex

This is really just me playing around with LaTeX. By the way, for now I'm doing this on my sandbox on Wikipedia. I've downloaded some LaTeX tools, but I'll have to ask somebody here how to use them. Anyhow, here's the feature structure for the word defendants. The code is below.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Subjects as specifiers

While reading Syntactic Theory by Sag, Waslow, & Bender, I once again ran across the idea (mentioned previously here), that the subject of a clauses (where Clause = Subj + VP) is analogous to the Specifier of an NP (where NP = Specifier + NOM). Here, however, the example given in (34) on p. 64 is unambiguously comparing a clause with an NP:
  1. We created a monster
  2. our creation of a monster
They use this idea in their constraints-based grammar to reduce the number of rules needed. Thus instead of defining NP one way and Clause another (they use S, but I'll stick with Clause), they can use one feature specification to capture both as in figure 1:

Figure 1. A feature structure representing either Clause or NP.

(At this point, things get very technical.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The functional creep of "all"

Despite yesterday's post about their failure to consider the idea that all is a determinative, Buchstaller and Traugott (B&T) present a good deal of interesting data on the functional creep of the universal determinative all. These are nicely summarized in their Table 2 (p. 365).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Were they al demonyak?†

In "The lady was al demonyak: historical aspects of Adverb all", Buchstaller and Traugott (B&T) consider the "development of the functions and structural properties of Adverb all, and suggest that degree modifiers in general should be analyzed in similar terms" (p. 345). They claim that the authors of CGEL mention "Adverb all as a ‘modifier in an AdvP’ that means ‘completely’, but do not subclassify it in their discussion of types of adverbs" (p. 345). The reason that all is not subclassified as a type of adverb is that it's not an adverb at all. It's a determinative.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An instance of category-function confusion

I worry about how so many arguments are built on faulty assumptions stemming from category-function confusion. Often it's the confounding of NPs and subjects. The thinking seems to be that NPs typically function as subjects ∴ all subjects are NPs. This is clearly a non-sequitur, but it's a pervasive one.

On reading Quasiregularity and its discontents

Months ago, before we'd met, my PhD supervisor, Nik Gisborne, mentioned to me that he does most of his work in the area of construction grammar. Since, I didn't know what this was, I've been doing some reading in the lead up to my studies at Edinburgh, and on top of many other things, I've come to think that I need to know a good deal more about semantics than I currently do. In response, I've now borrowed a number of books on the topic and attended the first lecture in Nik's Introduction to Semantics course. That is to say, I've got a lot of reading lined up in this area.