Comparative Siouan Grammar project

Rory M Larson rlarson at
Thu Jul 3 21:50:38 UTC 2008

Bob wrote:
> Do we intend to limit ourselves to surface grammar
> (that's certainly what the historical apporoach would
> require) or should we admit solutions that appeal to
> invisible/hypothetical superstructure?

Johannes wrote:
> On the last point mentioned in Bob's mail, I can
> comment on pretty shortly. I have no interest in
> invisible underlying structures or superstructures or
> aim to proof certain rather abstract models of grammar
> with data from SL. I think, many of us share this
> view [...]

Catherine wrote:
> I personally DO have a very deep (sorry) interest in
> what Bob and Johannes call "invisible" structures.
>  And I'd argue that it's pretty much impossible to talk
> about grammar without invoking some degree of abstraction:
>  "Noun Phrase", for instance, is an abstract, "invisible"
> concept - even phonemes are abstractions --- 

Bryan wrote:
> [...] I would caution us against going too far with rooting
> out "invisible" things. Bob's original question was whether
> we should even admit solutions that appeal to "invisible"
> things, and I think the answer to that should be a
> resounding Yes, as long as the primary focus is
> morphosyntactic description and not theorising. Sometimes
> the "invisible" answer is much better than any other answer,
> and quite frankly, morphosyntactic descriptions often don't
> provide any answers at all, so at least a tentative first
> stab at one should be welcome, no matter how visible its
> structure is.

Gee, it's been so long since we had a good argument on the list!  :-)

I wonder if we aren't dancing around a difference in our fundamental 
conceptions of what language is about here.  One pole might be a top-down 
approach that sees all human language as variants generated by a common 
universal grammar.  In this view, the aim of a linguist is to work back 
from specific languages to discover the invisible universals that are at 
the heart of all grammar and ultimately control it.  The opposite pole 
would be a bottom-up approach that sees human language as a practical 
communication system for a biological organism.  In this conception, 
language would be variable, heuristic, and evolving; there would be no 
invisible grammatical universals to find.

"Phonemes" might be used as an example of the difference.  In the top-down 
conception, each language constructs its words as a sequence of discrete 
phonologically distinctive building blocks that are symbolically 
recognized as such in the brain of each native speaker.  In this view, 
phonemes are universally real.  In the bottom-up conception, perhaps, we 
track on fluctuating sound patterns composed of several concurrent lines 
of analog features, which tend toward standard momentary forms due to 
speaker articulatory habits and the need to distinguish one word from 
another when confusion might be possible.  In this view, phonemes are 
merely useful abstractions conceived by linguists who are trying to fit 
the language into an alphabetical writing system.

"Invisible" things may provide valid solutions to visible problems, but 
invisible things that relate only to other invisible things circularly 
within the same philosophical system are not helpful.  I have nothing 
against "deep structure" models provided that their proponents make clear 
what their conception of language is and how their models improve our 
understanding of the linguistic real world.  If the models are 
demonstrably realistic with respect to Siouan data, then I think they 
deserve inclusion.

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