conversation and syntax

Frederick J Newmeyer fjn at
Mon Jun 9 18:54:04 UTC 2008

First, I would like to thank those of you who defended the appropriateness of my posting and/or provided substantive comments on the topics that I discussed in the paper.

Let me start by calling attention to what Ron Langacker has called the 'Rule-List Fallacy'. Ron noted, completely correctly in my opinion, that it was a fallacy to assume that lists have to be be excised from the grammar of a language if rules that subsume them can be established. The converse of this fallacy is equally fallacious: that rules have to be be excised from the grammar of a language if lists can be established. Even if it were the case that a huge percentage of language users' output could be characterized by lists (formulas, fragments, etc.), that would not exclude their also have a grammar composed of rules (or their notional equivalents) that allow hearers to analyze unfamiliar collocations and assign to them structure and meaning.

I have a couple of comments on Tom's useful posting of earlier today.

1. Tom says that 'Fritz does not believe in grammaticalization'. I can't imagine what it would mean 'not to believe in grammaticalization'. All that I have ever said in print is that what is called 'grammaticalization' is the by-product of a number of interacting processes. There is no historical dimension to my analysis, it is true, but that is because I endorsed (and briefly outlined) Boye and Harder's account of the grammaticalization of complement clauses, which brings in historical developments. By the way, it is not always the case that in grammaticalization 'semantic change precedes syntactic readjustment'. For examples of the opposite order of events, see chapter 5 of my book 'Language Form and Language Function'.

2. For quite a few years now I have endorsed the position that grammars are to a large degree functionally motivated and that frequency is an important factor shaping them. Where I part company with 'mainstream functionalism' (if there is such a thing) is over the question of whether performance factors (including frequency) are stated in the grammar itself. I think not, though, obviously this is a complex and difficult question. I did not take up this question in my paper because I believe that one can make a strong case that sentential complements are syntactically subordinate and that grammars are far more than 'fragments' and 'formulas' without addressing the question of where the dividing line between competence and performance might be. That's a topic for a different paper.



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]

On Mon, 9 Jun 2008, Tom Givon wrote:

> 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 ambition.
> 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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