I’m up to page 220, which probably means I’m half done with the Syntax Construction Kit. So it’s time for another progress report.

The last book I read, Robert Van Valin’s An introduction to Syntax, is perhaps the least useful on the details of syntax, but the most useful on what syntax has been doing for the last forty years. There are two overall strands:

  • A focus on constituent structure, the path taken by Chomsky.
  • A focus on relations between words: semantic roles, valence, dependencies.

That’s really helpful, and it’s a better framing than the division I learned in the 1980s between Chomskyan syntax and generative semantics.  The problem with that was, in effect, that GS disappeared. So it kind of looked like the Chomskyans won the battle.

But like Sith and Jedi, you can never really get rid of either side in this fight. In many ways GS simply regrouped and came back as Cognitive Linguistics. Plus, it turns out that many of the specific GS ideas that Chomsky rejected in the 1970s… came back in the ’90s as Minimalism. In particular, semantic roles have a place in the theory, and even the semantic breakdown of verbs (show = cause to see) that GS emphasized years ago, and that Chomsky at the time bitterly resisted.

Also, an unexpected side path: in order to understand and explain a lot of modern theories, I’m having to re-read papers I read for my first syntax classes, nearly forty years ago. My professor had pretty good taste in what would prove important.

There’s two challenges in writing this sort of book.

  • How to communicate that Chomsky isn’t the only game in town, without simply writing a brusque travelog of maybe a dozen alternatives
  • How to make this useful and interesting for someone who just wants to write conlangs, man

Van  Valin scupulously divides his page count between the constituent and the relational point of view. I will emphasize relations far more than I originally intended to, but I’m still going to focus on constituent structure. Partly that’s because there’s so much to cover, but it’s also because I’ve already written quite a bit about relations and semantics in my previous books.

But in general, I’m trying for breadth of syntactic data, not depth in Minimalism (or any other school). The problem with the latter approach is that you may learn to create a syntactic tree that your professor won’t scribble red marks over, but you won’t learn why that particular tree is so great. Every theory can handle, say, WH-movement.

Hopefully, that will address the second challenge as well.  As the Conlanger’s Lexipedia gives you a huge amount of information about words, my aim with this book is to give you more things to put in your syntax section than you thought was possible. And hopefully some pretty weird things. Wait till you see a Bach-Peters sentence.

Plus, web toys! I don’t know why more syntax books haven’t been written by computer programmers; it’s a natural fit. Though I have to say: Chomsky should have run his ideas on Minimalism past a programmer. Some of Minimalism is beautifully simple: you can set out the basic structure of a sentence with a minimum of rules. Then, to handle tense and case, question, and movements, you have to add an amazing superstructure of arbitrary, hard-to-generalize rules. The idea is to get rid of ‘arbitrary’ rules like Passive, but the contrivances needed to do so seem just as arbitrary to me.

 

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