autonomy of syntax

H Stephen Straight sstraigh at BINGHAMTON.EDU
Fri Jan 7 23:38:17 UTC 2000

Noel Rude says:

>       Probably I don't understand what Prof Straight is saying. Or maybe we
> can agree to disagree, perhaps mostly in what Science is.  For it seems
> to me that theories can be very abstract and "supernatural" (if you
> will).  If they are predictive-refutable--as our grammars and Grammar
> should be--they are "scientific".  Also it seems to me that the
> messiness of linguistic data, rather than refuting an underlying system,
> actually suggests it, whatever flaws there might be in Saussure's langue
> et parole and Chomsky's competence-performance models.
>       Is this just an esoteric argument where in practice we come down to the
> same thing?  Will we both draw up verbal and nominal paradigm charts,
> describe grammatical relations, posit functions, etc., and some of us
> will call it "grammar" and "rules" and others will call it something
> else?
>       Aren't we all looking for regularities--whatever we might call them?

The disagreement between us is not about the nature of Science but rather
about the predictive power and refutability of Grammar.  Significantly,
Saussure did not posit Grammar but rather Langue, which he specifically
defined as the central component in the neuropsychology of _receptive_
language processing, rather than as an abstract entity mediating both
reception and production.  The evidence of several generations of research
on language leads me to conclude that grammars have no predictive value or
meaningful refutability because the events they putatively predict,
judgments of grammaticality, (1) fail to predict what people say and can
understand, which I would think is what we want a theory of language to do,
and (2) lack empirical stability, being subject to endless second-guessing.
This is a slim and slippery kind of "regularity" to accept as the standard
for the scientific study of language.

Where Noel and I appear to agree is that work on Grammar provides heuristic
analytical guidance, in the form of categories, relations, functions, etc.,
for the study of language processes.  However, to posit the rules of a
grammar as entities that are active during the process of language use makes
no more sense than to posit the formula e=mc2 as an entity that operates
during the process of nuclear fission, even though the things referred to in
the rules (nouns, verbs, subjects, instruments, etc.) and in the formula
(energy, mass, the speed of light) clearly DO play critical roles in these

To use Chomskyan terminology, there is no empirical evidence that
Competence, as defined in generative grammar, plays any role in even the
most idealized models of Performance, even if (at least some of) the
elements referred to in models of competence do undoubtedly play essential
roles in models of performance.  Indeed, to posit Chomskyan competence as
playing any role whatever in Chomskyan performance is to commit a
fundamental category error, though it's an error introduced and frequently
reiterated by Chomsky himself.

Best.           'Bye.           Steve

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