Problems of Syntax
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Published: Wed, 06 Sep 2017
If generative grammar focuses on establishing rules:
The underlying thesis of generative grammar is that sentencesare generated by a subconscious set of procedures (like computer programs).These procedures are part of our minds (or of our cognitive abilitiesif you prefer). The goal of syntactic theory is to model these procedures.In other words, we are trying to figure out what we subconsciously knowabout the syntax of our language.In generative grammar, the means for modeling these procedures isthrough a set of formal grammatical rules (Carnie, 2012)
Cognitive linguistics combines its theory of syntax with itstheory of motivation. The theory of motivation transpires useful for the cognitiveapproach, since its account of radial categories leads to the conclusion that moreperipheral subcategories are neither computable or derivational (in the Chomskyansense) from the central category nor completely arbitrary (in the de Saussurian sense).Lakoff (1987) offers a syntactic analysis with a view to demonstrating that radialcategories are also to be found in the domain of syntax and that they, similarly to theones in lexicon, motivate correspondences between form and meaning. Thus, in the thirdcase study of his monumental Women, Fire and Dangerous Things,Lakoff endeavors to show that the generative view of grammar is unsatisfactory, as itfails to observe that the meaning of many grammatical constructions motivates theirlinguistic form so that syntactic structures are very often motivated by the structure ofcognitive models. As there is no point in relating Lakoff’s meticulous analyses, suffice itto say that he offers a theory of syntax in which syntactic categories are semanticallymotivated and grammatical constructions possess meanings. His conclusion is that thecentral syntactic categories can be predicted from the semantic conditions, while thenoncentral syntactic subcategories are motivated extensions of central categories. Whatis crucial is that in neither way can syntactic categories be viewed as autonomous in thegenerative sense.
When protesting against the exaggerated arbitrariness of every linguistic sign andagainst the generative view of grammar, cognitive linguistics postulates also theprinciple of iconic sequencing. If, after Sweetser (1990),we compare sentences such as Iread books and newspapers versus I read a book and went to bed, we can observe thatthe usage of and in both sentences is quite different. In the former sentence, the usage ofand is symmetric, since we can freely change the conjuncts and the meaning does notchange with the reversal of conjuncts, whereas the latter sentence exhibits an asymmetricuse of and, since a change in the order does change our interpretation of the events.Sweetser (1990) explains that such an asymmetricality is ‘due to the iconicconventions of narrative word-order’. While the sequence of the two clauses reflects thesequence of the events in this sense that the first clause is interpreted as temporally priorto the second, it is important to notice that the conjunction and does not convey anyinformation about the order of events: the sequence of events is simply reflected by thelinearity of the clauses. If we now compare sentences such as He opened the door andentered the house and *He entered the house and opened the door, we can conclude thatthe former sentence is acceptable, since the sequence of the clauses reflects thechronological order of events, whereas the latter sentence is hardly acceptable preciselyfor this reason that the chronological order of events has been violated. As Ungerer andSchmid observe such sentences ‘are unacceptable because the order in which theclauses are arranged violates the principle of iconic sequencing (1996:251). From thepoint of view of cognitive critique of generative grammar, the following issues should bepointed out. Firstly, it is crucial to notice that the unacceptability of the latter sentencecannot be explained by reference to the clause patterns and the rules of syntax alone.Secondly, the phenomenon of iconicity confirms our earlier suggestion thatextensionality should be seen as rather untypical of natural languages. Finally, cognitiveanalyses of iconicity corroborate the thesis that meaning and grammar interface, asgrammar transpires to be an ‘image’.
Inasmuch as syntax rules, within generative linguistics, are independent of semanticsand pragmatics, generative grammar runs counter to natural intuitions with itsimplications that natural language consists of uninterpreted symbols and, consequently,its primary function must be production of sequences of uninterpreted sounds rather thancommunication. This is clear already in Syntactic structures were Chomsky declares
“we were studying language as an instrument or tool, attempting to describe itsstructure with no explicit reference to the way in which this instrument is put touse” (1957:103).
Generative grammar makes two important divisions: firstly, it differentiates betweenacceptability and grammaticality and, secondly, it differentiates between semantics andpragmatics (cf. e.g. Chomsky 1965:11 sqq.). With regard to the first division, it has to besaid that when differentiating between acceptability and grammaticality of sentences,generative grammar relegates the former to the sphere of performance, while the latter isgenerated by the syntax. This differentiation results in the opposition between sentencesand utterances: sentences are identified with competence and belong to grammar whichis viewed as an algorithm generating a set of sentences, whereas utterances are relegatedto performance, as they are seen as particular and contingent instances of sentences.With regard to the second division, it has to be said that when differentiating betweensemantics and pragmatics, generative grammar deems semantics to be far important, as itdeals with the meaning of sentence that is to be ‘objective’, i.e. independent of speaker’sintensions and capable of correctly corresponding to the external world. Pragmatics,which deals with how speakers use sentences, is clearly separated from semantics andrelegated to a role of secondary importance. Needless to say, the primacy of semanticsover pragmatics stems from the assumption that it is semantics that concerns itself withthe objective relations between language and the external world.
On discovering that syntactic categories and grammatical relations are notautonomous, but dependent of meaning and use, cognitive grammar repudiates the ideaof an autonomous syntax and maintains that many a syntactic analysis is incompleteunless supplied with semantic and pragmatic analyses. Inasmuch as it is not onlyacceptability but also grammaticality that is determined by the context, meaning and use,cognitive linguistics departs from the generative enterprise in its assumption that theorder in which component structures are integrated into composite structure (i.e. theconstituency in Langacker’s terminology) is flexible and variable, while in generativegrammar it is always fixed and invariable. Langacker demonstrates that special (e.g.communicative) circumstances can exert profound impact on the constituency and,consequently, change it in a way that cognitive linguistics can explain much better thangenerative grammar. As an example Langacker gives the sentence: This target / thearrow hit / (but not that one), explaining that the canonical NP + VP organization is readily suspended when communicativefactors favor isolating the direct object as a separate major constituent(1987:319).
Accordingly, Langacker demonstrates that semantics must not be seen asautonomous not only at the level of the internal structure of the word meaning but also atthe level of sentence semantics.
Similarly, Lakoff offers a thorough analysis which shows that the rules forcombining clauses must be accounted for on semantic and pragmatic grounds. Thescholar’s analyses lead to conclusion that syntax cannot be viewed as autonomous andtransformations cannot explain all relationships among grammatical constructions, sinceone can make better predictions with regard to the syntactic behavior of a construction, ifone does not disregard its semantic and pragmatic constraints. Thus, Lakoff shows(1987:475) that the transformational approach cannot explain why rhetorical questionssuch as ‘Who would like to live here?’ can be combined with because-clauses (I amselling my apartment, because who would like to live here) and why a true question suchas ‘Which apartment would you like to buy? cannot (*I am selling my apartment,because which apartment would you like to buy). Lakoff offers an interestingexplanation: rhetorical questions are in fact statements (I am selling my apartment,because no one would like to live here), whereas true questions are requests forinformation (cf. also Lakoff & Johnson 1999:485)9. His generalization is based onconditions that are not only syntactic but also semantic (the clauses offer justification)and pragmatic (the syntactic constructions function as statements). In view of this,Lakoff shows that, contrary to the autonomous syntax hypothesis, many a syntacticphenomenon must be understood with reference to its semantics and pragmatics.Moreover, as the example demonstrates there is no clear-cut syntactic rule whichprecludes the possibility of a question being combined with a because-clause, it becomesevident that one must take into consideration the so called performative functions ofspeech acts. As a result, Lakoff arrives at the conclusion that if a question is in fact astatement, then it can be combined with because-clauses and if it is not, then it cannot.Consequently, semantics proves to be hardly autonomous at the level of syntax, sinceevery analysis conducted at the level of sentence semantics must also includepragmatics. In the final analysis, Lakoff shows that when it comes to the study of syntaxeven the absolutely fundamental distinction between subordinate and coordinate clausescan under certain circumstances be suspended, since clauses expressing a reason allow speech act constructions that conveystatements, and the content of the statement equals the reason expressed(1987:480).
Inasmuch as Lakoff’s bases his analysis on the illocutionary forces of grammaticalconstructions, he incorporates semantic and pragmatic conditions into the study ofsyntax and, thereby, formulates a generalization about syntax in semantic and pragmaticterms which generative grammar, being founded on the dogma of the autonomy ofsyntax, can by no means formulate. Having concisely (and – needles to say -superficially) dealt with the cognitive account of such linguistic phenomena asmetaphors, constructions, motivation, iconicity and performative functions of speechacts, we can attempt succinctly to present the most important consequences of thecognitive approach.
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