An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory
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An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory

Dominique Sportiche, Hilda Koopman, Edward Stabler

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eBook - ePub

An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory

Dominique Sportiche, Hilda Koopman, Edward Stabler

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About This Book

An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory offers beginning students a comprehensive overview of and introduction to our current understanding of the rules and principles that govern the syntax of natural languages.

  • Includes numerous pedagogical features such as 'practice' boxes and sidebars, designed to facilitate understanding of both the 'hows' and the 'whys' of sentence structure
  • Guides readers through syntactic and morphological structures in a progressive manner
  • Takes the mystery out of one of the most crucial aspects of the workings of language – the principles and processes behind the structure of sentences
  • Ideal for students with minimal knowledge of current syntactic research, it progresses in theoretical difficulty from basic ideas and theories to more complex and advanced, up to date concepts in syntactic theory

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Linguistics is a domain in which language is studied. The notion of language is a common sense notion. In general, a common sense name is not sufficient to characterize a field of research, as there may be many different fields studying more or less the object referred to by the same common-sense name. For example, one can study the oceans from the point of view of a marine biologist, a climate oceanographer, a plate tectonics physicist, a zoologist, a botanist, or a chemist. To get a more precise idea of the field of linguistics, it is necessary to define the type of questions that one is asking about the object of study. Most of what modern linguistics studies falls under the heading of the study of the “language faculty” that human beings possess as part of their human biology. The capacity for language shared by all normal members of our species includes, among other things, the ability to physically manifest thoughts, to linguistically express diverse and original ideas, in diverse and original ways. This faculty also underlies the ability to understand others, to have coherent conversations, and to deduce other people’s intentions from their utterances. These properties of language point to a field where the object of study is some mental property of individuals. So linguistics is a part of individual psychology, viewed in contemporary research as part of the study of the human brain.
Investigating this complex and often mysterious faculty appears a daunting task. One way to start is to try to formulate sensible questions about the output of our linguistic capacity – the sounds, the words, the sentences – so as to provide a framework within which incremental knowledge about this faculty can be gained.

1.1 Where to Start

We can start by looking at a simple case of basic linguistic behavior in an individual. When I hear language, my ears are sensing small, rapid variations in air pressure. This vibration, sound, is transformed into nerve impulses that travel to my brain, where the signal is somehow decoded and transformed into an idea, a thought. This is speech perception, or recognition. A similar process occurs in users of sign language: a visual signal is somehow decomposed and converted into an idea. Inversely, when I speak, an idea in my mind is physically manifested through speech or visual signs: this is speech production. These simple observations raise many questions. What exactly goes on when we produce or recognize speech? How does perception or production unfold in real time and how is this coded in brain tissue?
To understand language processing in the brain, we aim to understand how it rapidly changes state in ways that we can interpret as analytical steps in decoding the linguistic signal. How does the brain do this, exactly? In engineering jargon, we are faced with a problem of “reverse engineering,” a common problem for industrial spies. We have a machine – a body, particularly a brain – capable of accomplishing a certain task and we try to understand how it works and how it could be built. We have similar questions in vision, acoustic processing, and other domains of cognitive science. Note that our question is not simply how a particular ability could be produced or imitated in principle. Rather, we aim to identify how it is really produced in the human language user.
This “reverse engineering” problem is very difficult to approach directly. First, to find the physical mechanisms responsible for some ability, we need to have a good understanding of the basic properties of that ability. For example, studies show that certain areas of the brain (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, etc.) are active when we perform certain kinds of linguistic tasks, but to decipher what exactly they are doing, what computations are being performed, we need to know a lot about what these tasks involve. To obtain this kind of understanding, we must initially approach the problems of production and perception abstractly.
We start with the hypothesis that, stored in our mind somehow, we possess some information about certain basic things, some atoms of information that we can deploy in given contexts. As a starting point, we could assume that these atoms are “words” or something similar, such as table and book, and eat and curious, and the and before, and further that these elements have phonetic properties, or instructions on how to physically realize the atoms through speech, as well as meanings, a pairing of the elements to bits of thoughts.
So when it comes to expressing a thought to someone else, a simple story is that I search in my mind for the words corresponding to what I want to talk about and string them together in a particular way to express the thought. Of course, this string of words has to be physically manifested, as in speech or signing, which means that a signal has to be sent to the motor centers that coordinate physical gestures of the mouth or the hand, as the case may be.
Similarly, successful perception of a sentence might be achieved by an electrical signal sent to my brain by the hearing system, which is then segmented by my brain into words, each corresponding to a bit of thought. As my brain receives the particular sequential arrangement of these words, it can also calculate what the combination of the words in the sentence means as a whole.
We can schematize these processes with the following flow chart:
If we go from left to right, we have a crude model of spoken language perception, from right to left a crude model of spoken language production. If we replaced “sounds” with “signs,” we would have crude models of sign language perception and production.
Understanding how this could work, even at an abstract level, is not easy. For example, it is imaginable that the rules governing how sounds are composed into ordered sets of words in a particular situation depend on what the hearer is looking at when perceiving the sounds. This would mean that we have to worry the visual system and how it relates to the linguistic system. This is why we decide to concern ourselves with an even more abstract problem, and will not investigate how the flow chart above really works, how it unfolds in real time. Instead, we will ask: What necessary linguistic properties does the language processing task have? By linguistic, we mean that we are going to abstract away from the influence of visual clues or background knowledge about the world, and (initially at least) focus on grammatical properties (akin to those found in traditional grammar books). By necessary, we mean that we will concentrate on properties that hold across all normal uses of the language, properties that linguistic computations must respect in order to yield the linguistic phenomena we observe.
Here is a sample of more precise questions about necessary linguistic properties:
  • Do all orders of words yield meaningful expressions (in the way that all orders of decimal digits represent numbers)? If not, why not?
  • Do meaningful word sequences have any structure beyond their linear, temporal ordering? If so, what kind of structure, and why would this structure exist?
  • How are the meanings of a sentence determined by (or restricted by) the meanings of its component parts?
The discovery that speech can be symbolically transcribed, can be written down, is certainly among the most momentous human discoveries ever. It allowed the transmission of information across distances and across generations in ways that were never before possible.
In the famous 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems written by Galileo Galilei one of the characters, Sir Giovanni Francesco Sagredo, “a man of noble extraction and trenchant wit,” so marvels about this invention: “But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not he born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!”
What is less obvious is that this invention is also a theoretical discovery about human psychology: the structure of language, the nature of this system, allows thoughts to be transmitted in this way. One fundamental aspect of this discovery can be stated as follows: the speech signal – even though it is a continuous physical phenomenon – namely a continuous variation of air pressure for normal speech, or continuous motion for sign language – can be represented with a finite (sometimes small) number of discrete units. A particularly striking example of this property is illustrated by alphabetic writing systems, as the quote in the box opposite emphasizes: with a small number of symbols – letters – they can very effectively (partially) code speech. Informally speaking, it is clear that this segmentation of the speech signal occurs at various levels of “graininess.” Alphabetic writing systems segment the speech signal in very small units of writing, while Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphic writing systems segment it in somewhat larger units. That this segmentation can occur at various degrees of “magnification” can be illustrated with the following string:
these books burned
Evidence confirms that English speakers segment and analyze this expression at some levels roughly like these, where the number in the leftmost column indicates the number of units in its line (and the first line is written in phonetic alphabet and is meant to represent the sequence of sounds found in this string):
Linguists have extensively documented the relevance of such segmentations for our understanding of language structure. Hypothesizing that these modes of segmentation, these different “levels of magnification,” correspond to real psychological properties of the speech signal, we will need to at least answer the following questions about each level as part of understanding how our flow chart above really works:
  • What is the inventory of the smallest pieces, the atomic elements, that are assembled at each level?
  • What are the rules or principles that govern how these units can be assembled?
Traditionally, linguists have postulated the following divisions: Phonology studies the atoms and combinations of sounds; Morphology considers the atoms and how words are built; and Syntax considers how words are put together to form phrases. Of course, this preliminary division into such subdomains may not be correct. It could be that the atoms of syntax are not words but morphemes, and that the rules of combination for morphemes are the same as the rules of combination for words. If this were the case, there would really be no distinction between morphology and syntax. Or morphology might be part of phonology. (These kinds of proposals have been seriously explored.) But we will start with this traditional picture of the components, modifying it as necessary. In fact, where syntax books start with words, this book will start with morphology, i.e. the structure of words.
These two questions – what are the atoms of language, and how are they combined – characterize very well what this book is about. We view language as a system of symbols (e.g. sounds, which are paired up with meanings), and a combinatory system, where symbols combine to yield more complex objects, themselves associated with meanings. Here we concentrate on how aspects of this particular symbolic combinatory system are put together: this is a technical manual that almost exclusively worries about how to investigate and characterize the combinatory structure of morphological and syntactic units.
Even though the scope of this book is relatively narrow, the research perspective on language it embodies is part of a much broader research program that tries to characterize cognitive functions. The questions we address here are limited to the structure of the syntactic and morphological combinatory systems but, as will become clear, a substantial amount is known about these systems that suggests that non-trivial principles regulate how it works. This in turn raises all sorts of questions which we will not address but that are central research questions: how is this system put to use when we speak or understand? How much computational power is needed to master such a system? Is language fundamentally shaped by our communicative intentions? Where do the fundamential principles of language structure come from? Are they innate? Are they learned? Are they completely specific to language, or only partially so, or not at all? Are they specific to humans? Or...

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