conversation and syntax

Paul Hopper hopper at
Mon Jun 9 19:16:05 UTC 2008

Dear Colleagues,

Ricky Jacobs nicely sums up the two sides to this debate, and keeping my fingers crossed that we won't see a 'New Way' of Funknet messages consisting of an abstract and a link to an article in place of the off-the-cuff "squibs" we've all come to know and love, I'll sign off on the question of format.

I would like to add, though, that I would hate readers to infer from Tom's message that I berated him for not defending Sandy -- who doesn't need defending, and most definitely not by me. In fact my one and only comment to him was a humorous one, which I cite in full:

>Well, we may be at or approaching Emeritus status, but our memories haven't
>necessarily faded. What happened to the good ol' days of "Fritz the >Enforcer"...?

Those of us who are getting long in the tooth, including Fritz, will recognize the reference here, so I won't pursue it. It belongs to an even more polemical age. And I too appreciate that Fritz has taken functionalism seriously enough to focus his very considerable intellect on our work.



> 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]

Prof. Dr. Paul J. Hopper
Senior Fellow
Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies
Albert-Ludwigs-Universit├Ąt Freiburg
Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA5213

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