Friday, January 18, 2008

A broad range of data

Jerry Sadock is here at AZ giving a short series of talks introducing autolexical syntax to us. He gave an interesting presentation today outlining the structure of the theory. In the q&a, though, he hit one of my sore spots hard enough that I just can't stop myself from a public cry of anger and frustration.

He was saying that Autolexical Syntax (AS) has been called a more 'descriptive' framework, but that he finds merit in that compared to more 'theoretical' frameworks such as oh, I don't know, Principles and Parameters-style work -- us P&P people might have some elegant theory but it's much better to be able to cope with a 'broad range of data', rather than the same tired old 5 examples again and again and again and again.

I've been working in a P&P framework for about 18 years now and I've heard that charge levelled at P&P again and again and again and again. Perhaps it had some teeth once. It DOES NOT anymore.

In the course of my still-short career, I have read valuable, often beautiful, P&P dissertations and papers on Navajo, Ewe, Inuktitut, Mohawk, Warlpiri, Bahasa Indonesian, Malagasy, Hindu, Kannada, Tagalog, Zapotec, Itelmen, Niuean, Chichewa, St'at'imcets, Passamaquoddy, Tsez, Kiowa, Malay, and Nuu-chal-nulth. And if your particular language isn't mentioned in this list, it's not because I necessarily haven't read it or didn't think it was valuable or beautiful; these are just the first twenty less-studied languages that popped into my head as I typed on this particular tired Friday night. There's LOTS more.

And of course that's not even touching on the vigorous, thriving research communities that devote serious P&P effort to the major European, Middle-Eastern and Asian languages.

And by 'valuable' I don't mean just 'valuable within the context of P&P theory'. Essentially *all* of these works described new data, or new patterns in old data, that constitute important contributions to the field in themselves, regardless of framework (though of course they're even more valuable within the context of P&P theory, since they're datasets designed to discover a good P&P account). Future analyses of these languages, and of human linguistic ability, will build on these data, generalizations, and analyses, whatever framework they are conducted in.

How many kinds of data does a theory have to have worked with in order to qualify as being applicable to a 'broad range of data'?? P&P's track record in this regard is at least as good as any other syntactic approach out there.

There may be good arguments to adopt a different framework; I always like to participate in a good argument. But the discussion should not involve assertions to the effect that the only sentence that P&P theory or Minimalists is interested in is "There seems to be a man in the room."