conversation and syntax

Tom Givon tgivon at
Mon Jun 9 16:59:11 UTC 2008

Dear FUNK folks,

I think Fritz's article has already achieved something, at least 
potentially, that has been absent from FUNKNET for quite a 
while--serious substantive discussion of a relevant topic. So he's done 
us a service, however resentful of him some folks may be. I go with 
Barbara King in noting that the full article is available, and it is 
better to react to it rather than to the abstract. Since I have seen 
that article a couple of months ago, & read it in full, I think maybe I 
can share with you my (very brief) take on the issues Fritz's raised. 
This comes out of private correspondence with Paul Hopper, who berated 
me for not jumping to Sandy's defense. Here goes:

Well , in my innocence I thought there were at least two empirical 
arguments in Fritz's article. (i) Semantic: It is not true that ALL uses 
of V-COMP constructions are the "grammaticalized" ones. Some are not. 
And (ii) Syntactic: The uses that are semantically "grammaticalized" are 
not necessarily syntactically one-clause--yet. Syntactic properties have 
to be demonstrated by syntactic tests, independently of semantics. This, 
by the way (unnoticed by Fritz) is a run-of-the-mill observation in 
grammaticalization: Semantic change precede syntactic re-adjustment. Tho 
of, course, Fritz does not believe in grammaticalization, so he couldn't 
see this part of his own argument.

What was missing from Fritz' article were the developmental 
("emeregent") components, which are well backed up (I think) by 
frequency counts:
(iii) That in diachrony & ontogeny (child language acquisition), V-COMP 
constructions first emerge is the "grammaticalized" (direct speech-act) 
use, and only later develop the other (two-clause) use (Diessel 2005). 
This omission exposes Fritz's lack of interest in the role of frequency 
distribution in the "emergence" of syntax, indeed his lack of interest 
in development/emergence. And
(iv) The primacy of spoken language in these two developmental/emergent 
processes, as demonstrated by frequency distribution (in this case, of 
the "grammaticalized" sense). Both of these omissions are due to Fritz' 
abiding faith in "competence", and his disinterest in the role of 
"performance" (in this case, rising usage frequency) in creating 
"competence" (syntax). But Fritz's attitude is echoed by that of some 
confirmed functionalists, who believe only in emergence but not in any 
RELATIVELY stable product of emergence. So all in all, Fritz' article is 
indeed an interesting exemplar, and people could benefit from seeing its 
internal contradictions, or at the very least, it's lack of explanatory 

The last comment I have goes to Paul's demonstration of usage 
frequencies from Google. What I missed in his demonstration is an 
explanation of what these frequencies mean. Frequency counts are only 
meaningful in CONTRASTS: "X is frequent, as against Y that isn't". And 
if not in x-y contrasts, than at least against some BASE OF 
COMPARISON--"what is the total population within which X appears a 
certain number of times?" So frequencies by themselves are not all that 
meaningful. Still, if you have a hypothesis you want to test, you can 
formulate a frequency count in a way that would be meaningful--and test 
your hypothesis.

This is, by the way, an argument I had with Andy Pawley when he came out 
with his formulaic usage papers from the 1970s and 1980s. The phenomenon 
was surely recognizable. What I wanted to know was (a) What was the 
frequency distribution of formulaic vs. non formulaic usage in 
particular texts. Or (b) in what communicative contexts do we have 
higher vs. lower frequencies of formulaic usage. Andy wasn't interested 
in frequencies at the time, so I talked one of my grad students, Lynn 
Yang, into doing her MA thesis on this issue. It was a two-part 
experimental study, one with two contrasting videos ("Chicken story" vs. 
"Breakfast Story", a contrast of cultural familiarity) the other with 
recorded coffee-shop chats under two contrasting conditions (familiars 
vs. strangers). The results were quite instructive. That MA thesis may 
be available wherever U. Oregon theses are available (somewhere in 
cyberspace, I guess).

Best, TG


Paul Hopper wrote:
> Dear Colleagues,
> In Fritz Newmeyer's article on conversation and syntax, he gives the following example of a text in which an analysis in terms of formulaicity and formulaic fragments would be impossible:
> A: hi  
> B: hi so did you hear what the topic is
> A: yes it's about terrorism right  
> B: yeah  
> B: um  
> A: so what are your feelings on that [laughter
> B: i have [laughter] i personally can't imagine anyone staying 
> calm [laughter]
> A: yeah nor can i yeah 
> B: um you would even i- though if you're panicked i would assume you would try and  
> B: keep your head clear enough to act to protect yourself but  
> A: right  
> A: yeah i don't know if there was an explosion or something 
> i don't it it's a shock so i don't know that anybody can really think about it and
> control themselves 
> B: um  
> B: right even with all the um  
> B: (( [sigh] the ))  
> B: the publicity and media coverage you know that's been on 
> that topic 
> A: (( [mn] right ))
> B: twenty months it's still um  
> B: is something that you wouldn't be  
> Newmeyer writes (MS p. 13): "There are certainly formulaic expressions here: hi, right, take in stride, I don't think, and possibly a few others. But in other respects the transcript reveals a sophisticated knowledge of syntax that defies any meaningful analysis in terms of 'fragments'. The speakers know how to handle purpose clauses, wh-inversion, relative clause attachment, participial complements, and much more. If these are somehow to be subsumed under the rubric of 'fragments', then I would say that this infinitisemally small sample of natural speech would have to contain at least two dozen fragments. How many more would be needed to describe a typical speaker's daily output?"
> Regarding Fritz's last statement: Dwight Bolinger said somewhere that there's a reason the human brain has trillions of cells...! Well, I identified the groups of words that I would suspect are formulaic and typed them into to see if they were as unique (and therefore syntactic) as Fritz claims. The results are, it seems to me, consistent with the idea that the speaker is indeed stringing together formulaic fragments. The statistics are Google's, of course--they are rough and may fluctuate with different trials.
> - Paul
> -----------------------------
> did you hear what the topic is\ "Topic" doesn't occur, but about a dozen other NPs do; the formula is: \did you hear what the * is\.
> it's about terrorism\ occurs 5,240 times
> what are your feelings on that\ occurs 266 times
> can't imagine anyone\ occurs 387,000 times; 
> staying calm\ occurs 275,000 times
> nor can I\ occurs 1,210,000 times
> you're panicked\ occurs 2,090 times
> i would assume you would try and\ occurs twice
> to keep your head clear enough to\ occurs 14 times.
> to act to protect yourself\ occurs 14 times
> if there was an explosion or something\ occurs 6 times (!)
> it's a shock\ occurs 98,400 times
> i don't know that anybody\ occurs 17,900 times 
> can really think about it\ occurs 69 times
> control themselves\ occurs 406,000 times
> even with all the publicity\ occurs 190 times
> media coverage\ occurs 295,000 times
> on that topic\ occurs 2,970,000 times
> in the last twenty months\ occurs 1,070 times [NB specifically with "twenty", not just any number!]
> something that you wouldn't be\ occurs 140 times
> able to take in stride\ occurs 289 times
> -----------------------------------------------------------
>> Dear Colleagues,
>> What is to be the nature of Funknet?
>> Most of us would think of it as an arena in which we can discuss topics
>> within the/a functionalist paradigm by swapping ideas in an ongoing
>> conversation. However, the polemical "article of faith" abstract Fritz
>> Newmeyer has sent round contains no empirical arguments, so it cannot be
>> responded to without reading the entire article. The controversial points
>> he makes in the article will basically go unanswered in this forum simply
>> because the genre of email doesn't permit a paradigm-level response. Only
>> another article can respond to an article. So Fritz gets to trash someone
>> else's work in public on the basis of a promissory note.
>> It would be sad if Funknet became a clearing house for the exchange of
>> titles and abstracts rather than the actual discussion of ideas.
>> - Paul
>>> Dear Funknetters,
>>> I think that some of you might be interested in the following paper of 
>>> mine:
>>> 'What Conversational English Tells Us About the Nature of Grammar'
>>> ABSTRACT It has become an article of faith among many functional and 
>>> cognitive linguists that the complex abstract structures posited by 
>>> generative grammarians are an artifact of 'disembodied sentences that 
>>> analysts have made up ad hoc, ... rather than utterances produced by real
>>>  people in real discourse situations' (Michael Tomasello). Their view
>>> is that if one focuses on 'naturally occurring discourse', then grammar
>>> will reveal itself to be primarily a matter of memorized formulas and
>>> simple constructions. This paper challenges that view. Basing its claims
>>> on a 170MB corpus of conversational English, it argues that the nature
>>> of real discourse reinforces the need for a sophisticated engine for
>>> representing and accessing grammatical knowledge. At a more specific
>>> level, it challenges Sandra Thompson's claim that evidence from
>>> conversation leads to the conclusion that sentential complements (e.g.,
>>> 'you're ready to go' in 'I guess you're ready to go') are not
>>> grammatically subordinate.
>>> The paper can be accessed at the following url:
>>> Best wishes,
>>> Fritz
>>> Frederick J. Newmeyer Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
>>> Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser
>>> University [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

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