grammaticality judgements

debra ziegeler dziegeler at YAHOO.COM
Wed Mar 8 07:10:06 UTC 2000

Dear Funknetters,

It is difficult to resist a comment on Spike Gildea's
interesting note on grammaticality judgements:

"I believe a part of FUNKNET's antipathy for
"formalist" linguistics follows from our collective
impression that it is precisely these sorts of
unreliable data that are at the core of the empirical
database for most formalist theories.  It is not
*just* the limitation of the database to
sentence-level data, but to a type of sentence-level
data (grammaticality
judgements of unusual sentence types) that does not
appear to represent the way speakers really *use*

While I have no comment on the way in which formalist
theory makes use of grammaticality judgements, I do
believe this type of data can be useful, in some way
or other, to functionalists as well. First, it is
often the case that grammaticality judgements can
indicate roughly the distribution of a morphological
feature across a population, and given a sample of
speakers large enough and representative enough, can
give some clue as to patterns of synchronic
grammaticalisation (though these would necessarily
have to be compared with actual production levels).
Statistically, though, they provide interesting data.
Second, grammatical intuitions often can be found to
correlate very precisely with diachronic phenomena,
amd make for a fascinating ground for observing
grammaticalisation processes in the psychology of the
individual speaker. Again, in a large and
representative population of speakers, the data can be
examined for levels of grammaticalisation at a single
time point across a community.
        The problem naturally concerns the fact that
grammaticality judgements only concern the
comprehension of utterances. However, they can provide
a useful means of testing the presence and
distribution in a population of pragmatic inferences
and conversational implicatures, phenomena which may
require some means of elicitation in order to observe
them without interference from the subjective analysis
of the observer.
        Finally, even the production of specific
target items may be successfully accomplished by the
use of more creative, naturalistic methods of
elicitation. Given a
typical set of circumstances in which a speaker may
have no option but to use the item required, the
observer has already provided the functional setting
for use of the form, and the speaker may have no idea
of the linguistic objectives of the task. Furthermore,
if the speaker IS unaware of the task objectives, the
data obtained will not be likely to be at the level of
the sentence, but at the level of the utterance,
however much that does or does not comprise a sentence

Debra Ziegeler
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