12

The minimalist program seems to be very fashionable amongst linguists at present, but for the life of me I can't understand its appeal.

As far as I can see - and I've read my fair share of the literature by now - there is little minimalist about minimalist grammars. In fact, they seem to overcomplicate things, as they require so much metadata about grammatical constituents and moving and merging operations that one can hardly render an example sentence longer than a couple of words on a single page.

Why define grammars that require these operations in the first place? Why not stick to simple CFGs or CSGs with rewrite rules that generate precisely the same strings?

What am I missing? Is there a sensible reason for the existence of these lumbering structures?

  • 5
    This will be controversial, but my take is that Chomskyan transformational grammar in its various incarnations is now at a stage of development similar to medieval scholasticism or late Ptolemaic astronomy. It's still the dominant paradigm for historical reasons (in this case, the Chomskyan revolution of the '50s and '60s), but has outlived its usefulness and is struggling increasingly desperately to "save the phenomena", hence all the complicated machinery you describe. The reasons for its dominance are mainly institutional, namely that the large majority of tenured syntax professors these da – TKR Mar 20 '14 at 2:10
  • 1
    it might be added that at the height of the Chomskyan revolution (as some call it), US universities were undergoing a general expansion and various new linguistics departments were opened. the new programs were staffed by recent graduates, many trained at MIT or other pro-Chomskyan programs. Still to this day (with the immense difficulty for a graduating PhD to land a tenure-track job), an MIT degree in linguistics (as in other fields) has cachet. – user483 Mar 21 '14 at 0:18
  • 1
    "...one can hardly render an example sentence longer than a couple of words on a single page." - I think you're confusing notational simplicitly for theoretical parsimony. They're not the same thing. Another small point: Move and merge collapse down into a single operation. Additionally, CFGs aren't powerful enough to capture natural languages. That much is pretty uncontroversial at this point. See the work on cross-serial dependencies in Germanic. – P Elliott Mar 21 '14 at 0:24
  • 2
    Plus, since there's a new "program" every few years (rather like a new version of Windows), when hiring time comes up you'll need somebody who's au courant with the latest stuff, cause the folks already there don't really get it. – jlawler Mar 23 '14 at 18:08
  • 1
    @TKR Can you come to this question and explain why you think your answer is valid? I'd like to know why you think your answer should be undeleted (we can do that if necessary). You can do this by posting another answer to that question in the link. Thank you. – Alenanno Mar 26 '14 at 9:28
2

The Minimalist Program has to be compared to previous models in the generative approach to Grammar.

Government and Binding was an earlier theory developed by Chomsky which had several sub-theories such as Case Theory for assigning cases to nominals, Binding Theory to deal with anaphors, Control Theory to deal with implied nominals, Bounding Theory to deal with wh-movement, and I'm sure there are more. They were treated somewhat independently, and each had various rules and exceptions.

The Minimalist Program proposed that there was a single model of syntax which could replace all of those earlier theories. Morphemes are assigned to syntactic nodes through generic rules that aren't limited to a particular area of grammar. Rather than needing detailed and exception-ridden rules, morphemes are placed and moved as short a distance as possible. In order to do this a lot more syntactic structures are proposed, often each expressing a single semantic feature. The idea is that each morpheme will absorb a lot of syntactic structures in a predictable way.

So the minimalism isn't refering to the syntactic structures (which are rather the opposite of minimalistic), but how morphemes are assigned to those. As all theories do it has pros and cons. I'd certainly prefer it to Government and Binding, but I'd prefer Distributed Morphology or possibly even a non-generative approach to the Minimalist Program.

| improve this answer | |
  • @player.mdl thank you for accepting my answer, but I think Olivier's is much better. – curiousdannii Mar 27 '14 at 8:33
  • "The Minimalist Program has to be compared to previous models in the generative approach to Grammar. Government and Binding was an earlier theory developed by Chomsky which had several sub-theories such as Case Theory for assigning cases to nominals, Binding Theory to deal with anaphors, Control Theory to deal with implied nominals, Bounding Theory....... The Minimalist Program proposed that there was a single model of syntax which could replace all of those earlier theories. ",Chomsky may not agree with what you say, let me give an answer – XL _At_Here_There Nov 10 '14 at 5:17
7

The first thing to point out is that the Minimalist Program is a Program not a theory (the clue is in the name), following the distinction made by Lakatos. It can be thought of as an injunction to minimise the contents of UG, i.e. to minimise the the amount of linguistic-specific information we invoke in explaining natural language. The copy theory of movement, for example, is minimalist in the sense that it is ontologically more parsimonious than preceding theories, in which traces were posited as distinct linguistic objects. According to the copy theory of movement, a trace just is the moved element. Theories are only minimalist to the extent that they attempt to minimise the contents of UG.

Context Sensitive Grammars are highly unsuitable for analysing natural language, for reasons i've laid out in my initial comments. To reiterate, if we're at all interested in modelling the linguistic competence of an actual speaker, they're completely unrealistic as even just the recognition problem takes polynomial time to complete. Context Free Grammars have been shown not to be powerful enough to model natural language - see the answer to this question, for example: Could anyone give examples of context-sensitive sentences that cannot be generated by context-free rules?.

Exactly the same criticisms you level against minimalist approaches could be levelled against alternative frameworks, such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, or Combinatory Categorial Grammar. Both involve a high degree of notational complexity, but notational complexity isn't the same thing as theoretical parsimony. One would never think to criticise a physicist for the length of his formulae. Given that natural language is such a complex phenomenon with countless intricacies, it requires sufficiently fine-grained machinery to account for. I don't believe that minimalist accounts are the only or even the best way to think about syntactic phenomenon, but to dismiss them out of hand because of their apparent notational complexity is a mistake.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    your answer contains many words, but not much content. Minimalism in its current state (as presented for instance in the textbooks of Radford and Carnie) is anything but minimalistic -- numerous functional categories and projections for which there is little emperical motivation. Angels on pinheads, to use Jlawler's terminology. Most instantiations of HPSG are closer to what can be emprically verified, although I agree that the AVMs are often overly complex. Dependency grammars, in contrast, are truly minimalistic. I'll be happy to elaborate on that statement if you're interested. – Tim Osborne Mar 22 '14 at 1:06
  • Please do? I am :) – player.mdl Mar 22 '14 at 12:02
  • 2
    @TimOsborne if you read my answer more carefully, you'll note that i don't commit to any particular theory being minimalist in the sense that i take it, aside from one brief remark comparing copy theory to trace theory. Lots of what is referred to as 'minimalist' isn't minimalist in the sense intended by Chomsky. There's nothing inherently minimalist about spec-head agreement, for example. I'm not sure what it is exactly you're objecting to. Presumably not to my explanation for why CFGs and CSGs aren't suitable formalisms. – P Elliott Mar 22 '14 at 12:39
  • @player.mdl, Dependency grammars are minimal in a basic sense. The number of nodes in the syntactic tree cannot outnumber of the number of elements (e.g. words) in the sentence at hand. Take a look at the contrasting tree structures in Wikipedia in this regard, e.g. here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dependency_grammar or here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrase_structure_grammar. – Tim Osborne Mar 22 '14 at 19:29
  • 2
    @PElliot, aspiring linguists who have a similar reaction to mine and player.mdl's need to know (at every opportunity) that their reaction is legitimate. The influence of Chomskyan paradigm is due much more to politics than to good science. – Tim Osborne Mar 23 '14 at 19:16
7

There seems to be at least two quite distinct questions there: what is minimalist about the minimalist program? and Is there a sensible reason for the existence of the lumbering structures it deals with? P.Elliott and curiousdannii already provided general and historic answers to the first question, but I wish to supplement their answers with a more specific analysis of the framework of a typical argument within minimalism as it is usually practiced.

What is minimal?

What a typical minimal analysis will strive for is an explanation of syntactic phenomena relying solely on the following list of possible mechanisms.

  1. Bare syntactic structures constructed by the binary operation Merge (yielding only binary trees) usually with only left-adjunction by opposition to much flatter structure.

  2. The only other operation allowed is Agree, which operates blindly on a small finite set of features all having only positive or negative polarity by opposition to e.g a rich lexicon.

  3. Agree and Merge are only possible under stringent locality conditions.

  4. The geometric and feature characteristic of nodes of the trees should be mapped as cross-linguistically severely as possible with interpretive properties.

  5. As far as possible, the only further conditions put on the system should derive from core computational requirements (for instance two undistinguishable nodes of the tree, in the sense of say graph theory, or two identical set of features should be undistinguishable by the system; I also lump in this interface conditions).

This list can be deemed minimal because it is a negative list: it restricts the kind of explanation you are allowed to put forth. Especially, if one takes seriously point 4. and 5., it follows that the analysis of any construction in any given language (say left-dislocation in Spoken French) has to proceed through universal explanations in terms of geometry of the tree and feature properties, explanations which in turn possibly (and do, if the work is to have any value) imply predictions bearing on another totally different constructions (say wh-questions in Spoken French) or a similar construction in a totally different language (say left-dislocation in Japanese). For examples of what I consider good work done in this way, I would cite this or this.

Where do the lumbering structures come from and why they are actually empirical success stories for minimalism?

Now moving on to the justification of the lumbering structures. As Kayne first noted (as far as I know), the combination of point 1. and point 5. above implies the existence of many extremely refined functional projections (if only because a binary tree has a lot of internal nodes compared to the number of its leaves). So it is not that these functional projections were introduced, they were predicted to exist because they were essentially the only solution compatible with the imposed restrictions. This is indeed extremely reminiscent of the epicycles of Ptolemy and extremely worrying: if your theoretical framework leads you to postulate many things nobody has seen, shouldn't you be concerned? That's a very fair criticism but one which actually highlights the predictive power of the core principles above: if our prediction is correct, the functional projection posited (again as the only possible solution within the framework) have to be phonetically overtly present at precisely the assumed position in at least one language. The fact that this has been repeatedly shown to be true is one of the main scientific achievements of minimalism: any serious alternative account should face the challenge head-on and achieve similar predictive power within its own system. A prime example of such a successful prediction is successive cyclic movement (the point of departure between what became minimalism and many other formalization of generative grammar) which is phonetically realized (among may others) in Afrikaans and in cyclic agreement in Chamorro but one can also think about focal projection (realized in Vata) or voice projection (arguably realized in Japanese and Kiswahili). There are of course many more sophisticated ones, from binding theory, the structure of DPs, the properties of nominalizations, the logical interpretation of indefinite objects, the extraction properties of relative clauses... It thus seems to me that the comparison with angels on pinheads is quite unfair: these angels have been repeatedly found ex post on precisely the pinheads they were supposed to be dancing on.

What is the appeal?

To me, as a complete outsider to the field who has never taken a class in linguistics nor ever intend to (so I feel quite immune to any political influence this or that strand of linguistics might have on the curriculum or, a fortiori, on the hiring process), the appeal to this approach mostly stems from its cross-linguistic potential: as mentioned above, by nature, explanations valid in one language will make predictions and suggest insights for others. While it is quite easy to give a formal description of any specific linguistic phenomenon for a given language (any texas sharpshooter can do this), it seems to me that when it comes to the study of cross-linguistic correlations, minimalism is currently the only game in town. That said, I do think that the comparison with the Ptolemaic system is not off the mark: minimalism might currently be the most precise and clearest unified account we have of syntactic phenomena (just as Ptolemy's system, as famously argued by Otto Neugebauer, endured because of the clarity of its tenets and its very reasonable empirical basis) but it seems fair to me to say that linguistics is still awaiting its Kepler, not to speak of its Newton.

| improve this answer | |
  • A long answer with a lot of big words. Where is the empericism claimed in this answer? For instance, where is the empericism behind the claim that all syntactic structures are binary? What evidence is there that I can understand that a sentence such as "Fred gave Susan flowers" contains binary branching only? That would probably mean that "Susan flowers" is a constituent? What empericism can be produced showing that "Susan flowers" is a constituent? Let's get concrete here. – Tim Osborne Mar 24 '14 at 15:42
  • Where is the empiricism that backs the foundational assumption of the MP that syntactic structures are generated bottom up? We cannot see, hear, or measure Merge (as it generates structures bottom up) in any way that I am aware of? Where is the empricism in that model of syntax? – Tim Osborne Mar 24 '14 at 15:49
  • 2
    @TimOsborne Ask your questions on linguistics.SE and it will be my pleasure to get concrete. I will note, though, that you seem to be asking me to substantiate claims that I never made. For instance, I did not write that there was an empirical basis behind binary branching, I wrote that restricting oneself to binary branching was reasonably characterized as minimal, that it entailed the existence of many functional projections and that this kind of prediction turned out to be correct. Not the same thing at all. – Olivier Mar 24 '14 at 16:05
  • your comment confirms my associations with bad science. I ask for empericism backing the putative science, and I get a vague claim that it "turned out to be correct". I don't believe it is correct. For me to believe it to be correct, I need concrete empericism. Send me an email: tjo3ya@yahoo.com. I'll be happy to consider your claims about emperical validity for the theory. – Tim Osborne Mar 24 '14 at 17:07
  • 3
    @TimOsborne what is it exactly that you take to be the scientific method? Binary branching is a hypothesis which we inspect the world (i.e. the actual linguistic data) relative to. We evaluate hypotheses on a number of grounds, including how well they fit the world, how restrictive they are, and on their elegance. The model (e.g. binary branching) isn't in the data, as you seem to suppose -- we develop a model and then see how well it fits the data. That's how basic science works. – P Elliott Mar 24 '14 at 18:00
5

This will be controversial, but it might help you understand its appeal.

My take is that Chomskyan transformational grammar in its various incarnations is now at a stage of development similar to medieval scholasticism or late Ptolemaic astronomy. It's still the dominant paradigm for historical reasons (in this case, the Chomskyan revolution of the '50s and '60s), but has outlived its usefulness and is struggling increasingly desperately to "save the phenomena", hence all the complicated machinery you describe. The reasons for its dominance are mainly institutional, namely that the large majority of tenured syntax professors these days were trained as Chomskyanists, so that there are many more jobs, conference panels, etc., for linguists working in this model.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    it might be added that at the height of the Chomskyan revolution (as some call it), US universities were undergoing a general expansion and various new linguistics departments were opened. the new programs were staffed by recent graduates, many trained at MIT or other pro-Chomskyan programs. Still to this day (with the immense difficulty for a graduating PhD to land a tenure-track job), an MIT degree in linguistics (as in other fields) has cachet. – user483 Mar 21 '14 at 0:18
  • 1
    Plus, since there's a new "program" every few years (rather like a new version of Windows), when hiring time comes up you'll need somebody who's au courant with the latest stuff, cause the folks already there don't really get it. – jlawler Mar 23 '14 at 18:08
  • 2
    Why is this upvoted and accepted? It doesn't even answer the question. – curiousdannii Mar 24 '14 at 2:04
  • 1
    @curiousdannii Well, in fairness, it does offer an answer to the question Why define grammars that require these operations in the first place?. On the other hand, the offer answered implies that the field of linguistics is completely intellectually corrupt; an assertion that is not obviously false but which is obviously extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require... well, you know. In that particular case, no evidence at all is presented so... – Olivier Mar 24 '14 at 9:06
  • 2
    Can this be edited? I genuinely can't see how it answers either what is minimal about minimalism or why there are so many structures. The question is not asking why it's popular! – curiousdannii Mar 30 '14 at 4:23
-1

“Take any theory of language you like, you may or may not be interested in the questions raised in the minimalist program: why does the theory have these principles, not others. If you are interested, you are pursuing the minimalist program. MP is just normal biology, which proceeds from trying to discover what are the mechanisms of development and evolution to the further "why" question: why these, not others. This deeper inquiry -- which, incidentally, goes back to Turing's work on morphogenesis, on physical principles in development and eviolution, which he took to be the true science of biology -- seeks to determine what I've called "third factor" principles, such as computational efficiency. That's MP. It's analogous to what's called the "evo-devo revolution" in biology in the past 20 years or so.”

This is what Chomsky explains what the MP means.

| improve this answer | |
  • Please provide a reference for this quote. I don't think it really explains what is minimalistic though. – curiousdannii Nov 10 '14 at 5:27
  • @curiousdannii, it is from corresponding letters between Chomsky and me. You may judge by the sentences, English is not my mother tongue. – XL _At_Here_There Nov 10 '14 at 5:28
-3

I agree with some critics who think Minimalism is an awful theory, if it's even a theory at all. But I have a different diagnosis than some of what went wrong. We're looking at another incarnation of the long fight between Empiricism and Rationalism, or, that is, between the search for truth and the search for meaning. Chomsky is a rationalist, and looking for the truth seems to him useless if you can't find sense as well. So we wind up with a theory that tries and tries to make sense (opinions, of course, differ whether it does actually make any sense), but which apparently has no claim at all on the truth.

If only Transformational Grammar had worked, our East Coast brethren wouldn't have gotten into this pickle. The notion that parts of expressions get moved around to make them easier to express (this is roughly McCawley's version of TG) makes perfect sense, to me: transformations mediate between thought and physiology. It makes syntax much like phonology. If it were true, both the empiricists and the rationalists would be pleased and could be happy together, with only an occasional squabble.

But alas. It's not true. Things don't move around. This creates some tension among the theoretically minded. To make sense of things in face of the facts, or lack thereof, some have drifted off into a methodological heaven where the truth is discounted. Others retreat to descriptivism, or maybe just stay confused.

My own view is that giving up on context free grammar was premature.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    This isn't a place to put any and all criticisms of Minimalism, it's a specific question about which actually is "minimalistic" in Minimalism. You haven't answered that question at all. – curiousdannii Jul 23 '15 at 0:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.