In books on generative syntax it is often said that LF itself becomes an input to the so-called syntax-semantics interface to satisfy some conditions (e.g. to get rid of uninterpretable values). But that happens only after spellout. Surprisingly nothing is said about how this interface might work before a sentence is generated - if we want to say "John hit Mary", we must know who is the agent and who is the patient before any generative operations happen - otherwise we might get something like "Mary hit John". Does that mean that syntax-semantics interface interacts with our "faculty of language" constantly? There still might be no clear answer so I'd like to hear your opinion.

  • There's no clear answer because there's no clear question. All of the things you mentioned (e.g, LF, spellout, generate, "faculty of language") are suppositions, not facts. They should all be in scare quotes; not just the last one. I.e, there may be some more epicycles that can be added, to "explain" the others, but then they'll need "explanation" themselves. There are no interfaces in real biological systems like language -- all the phenomena, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, phonological, cultural, etc. interact and reinforce or suppress one another; it's very messy, not computerized.
    – jlawler
    Jul 26, 2015 at 15:38
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    I have a strong intuition that I would disagree with the assumptions of this question, if I understood the question. What does "get rid of uninterpretable values" mean? Is this an allusion to the old Katz-Fodor theory (which has been abandoned for many years, now)?
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 26, 2015 at 16:36
  • @GregLee By "getting rid" I meant what Chomsky explains in his book "On nature and language": "Movement is seen, in this system, as a way of eliminating uninterpretable features. For instance, movement of a direct object to the subject position has the effect of placing it in a local environment in which its uninterpretable Case feature can be checked off by the agreeing inflectional head, an operation, which, simultaneously, checks off the uninterpretable agreement features on the inflectional head". That's how he explains why movement happens to make a sentence fully interpretable. Jul 26, 2015 at 17:55
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    I didn't read that book. Thanks for your explanation. From your characterization, the general idea seems strikingly like McCawley's account of transformational movement (which I mentioned a short time ago in answer to the question about Minimalism). Assuming that "spellout" has something to do with connecting pieces of LF with lexical forms, that would have to be done piecemeal, else you couldn't tell what transformations still needed to apply to make a form pronounceable. I don't see how there could be a time in the derivation of a sentence "before" it is generated.
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 26, 2015 at 19:12

2 Answers 2


Within the framework that grew from Chomsky's post-70s work, the answer to the question

Does that mean that syntax-semantics interface interacts with our "faculty of language" constantly?

is clearly taken to be no. Consequently, you are right that the problem of distinguishing "John hit Mary" from "Mary hit John" exists. The null hypothesis in this school of syntax could be formulated as follows.

Unless forced to by strong empirical evidence, assume that the narrow syntax of every human language is the same.

Applied to the particular problem you raise, this takes the form of the Uniform Theta-role Assignment Hypothesis (UTAH) which was first formulated in Mark Baker's 1985 thesis in the following way (in the language of X-bar theory).

Identical thematic relationships between items are represented by identical structural relationships between those items at the level of D-structure.

In plain language, this means that these people believe that thematic roles are encoded in the syntax. In a contemporary formulation, the UTAH is usually taken to mean that there exists a step in the building of narrow syntactic objects (so before spell-out) where arguments are introduced in a certain way which is characterized by structural relations only (order and position of first Merge) and which is uniform across language. The element first merged in the structural position of agent, for instance, will always be interpreted as the agent after spell-out, independently of wherever it might have landed at the end of the derivation because of movement/re-merge/etc.

The works in minimalist syntax that I'm familiar with are unanimous that this step occurs very early in the construction of the narrow syntactic object object. A majority of them believe that patients are introduced below agents (so are first merged deeper in the structure than agents) but Bowers (2010), for instance, disagrees.

To sum up, the majority of works in minimalist syntax believe that "John hit Mary" is semantically distinguished from "Mary hit John" because Mary was first merged in the deeper structural position corresponding to patient in the first sentence whereas John was first merged there in the second one. Importantly, these works believe that "Mary" and "John" are first merged in the same loci in all of the following sentences, that "Mary"'s locus is deeper than that of "John" and that this explains why "Mary" is always interpreted as patient.

John hit Mary.

Mary was hit by John.

(French) Marie, Jean l'a frappée. (Marie, Jean her have hit).

I should add, of course, that the UTAH is just the null-hypothesis. Of course, many syntactic phenomena (ergativity, experiencer verbs...) do not fit well with it and are the objects of many interesting debates (see these notes of Idan Landau for a first introduction to some of these debates).

  • Thank you. For some reason I've never heard about UTAH (probably because this problem never really bothered me before). I'll give a read to papers you introduced. Jul 27, 2015 at 19:33
  • But, if we go deeper, can we say, for example, that thematic roles of lexical items are determined even before they are merged in certain positions (because we must know what position to merge these items in)? Jul 27, 2015 at 19:42
  • @syntaxfairy The problem of first merge remains very hard and mysterious. In your comment, you seem to assume that what is merged are lexical items. Maybe, but maybe first merged items are just elements of a very simple inventory of bi-valued abstract features and lexical insertion happens only at spell-out (all actual interaction with the interface would then occur at spell-out but that also would seem to require that re-merged objects "know" they come from a certain theta position). The problem seems hard anyway.
    – Olivier
    Jul 27, 2015 at 20:49

Realize that linguistic competence (i.e. I(Internal)-language) is the object of study in generative grammar. Hence, syntactic computation consisting of Merge + Move giving rise to LF is NOT meant to model speaker externalization. Its only purpose is to compute/generate the hierarchically structured expressions which already exist in your brain.

  • Well, in the mind of the computer/generator, anyway. The hypothesis that everybody has the same software in their minds as everybody else is what it all rests on. Just mentioning that it's sposta be finally proven by all the people coming on behind us, calculating the human competence factors and showing that they're identical. We're still waiting, but not very hopefully, I'm afraid.
    – jlawler
    Aug 30, 2015 at 15:04

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