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."


Blogger Andrew said...

Here Here!

I'm sure Ken Hale's Ghost is echoing your call!

This P&P practitioner is about to sit down and see if he can make sense of his recently gathered field data on Scottish Gaelic pronoun postposing.


10:48 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Vachement d'accord, HH!

6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yuyuyuyu (vehement agreement in Yolŋu Matha), with a bit of a however.

The 'however' is that P&P work is still overwhelmingly concerned with major languages, and particularly major European languages. That's true of linguistics as a whole, not just P&P. It's also true that most people who work on endangered/minority languages come more under the title 'functionalist' rather than 'formalist', again with exceptions of course. Remember that although the number of Ph.D.'s on endangered languages has doubled in the last five years, it doubled to 2.5% of all Ph.D.'s (the total number of degrees been awarded has been roughly constant). Then you get situations like the person at the LSA who said that we should "walk away" from the little languages because we can't use them in theory. I've been told off (more than once) for using data from two Australian languages on the grounds that the languages are related (and therefore perhaps the phenomenon is not independent), although this never stops comparative work on, for example, English and Dutch, which belong to the same subgroup! So while I absolutely agree with you and Andrew about P&P as a theory, the impression that practitioners give as a group go some way to explaining comments like this.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Anggarrgoon, I hope you aren't implying that there aren't Endangered and understudied European languages. Because I've worked on those all my professional life. I assure you they are just as endangered and in many cases just as typologically diverse as other endangered languages. I often hear from the documentation community the bizarre assertion that if a language isn't Native American or Aboriginal, then it isn't really endangered. I *certainly* believe we need to make every effort to document (and theorize using) ALL endangered languages.

3:51 PM  
Blogger hh said...

yes indeed, I agree with your however, claire, definitely, too! and I'm sure she didn't mean to imply that endangered european languages (or any endangered languages) weren't endangered, or worthy of notice or something; i don't see that at all. but anyway, i'm definitely of the opinion that 'walking away' from small languages is a crazy thing to suggest. I hope whoever suggested it got a suitable earful...

5:53 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Oh, and re functional/formal -- I also think that when only a few people are working on a language, we can only benefit by pooling observations, functional or formal...especially when a formalist is coming to a language for the first time, it does no good to not try to be as open and interested as possible in previous functionalist descriptions and analyses; it's only counterproductive to get on one's high horse coz it's functionalist work. but we all know that here too, I'm sure.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous anggarrgoon said...

Hi Andrew, nope, definitely not implying that at all! and of course not all understudied languages are endangered either.

Someone once used this argument to me: that there are endangered languages in Europe, too, therefore we don't need to document "exotic" languages in places like Africa and Oceania, because we can do endangered language documentation closer to home. (I think this was somewhat missing the point...)

I blame the Indiana Jones fieldwork model, too. There's the idea that linguists have to go somewhere exotic and dangerous to do real fieldwork, and this gets tied up with antiprestige and values which have nothing to do with linguistics.

The charge of Anglocentrism is just as true in the aggregate for functionalism, of course.

~Claire (who didn't mean to be anon last time, I assumed that wordpress would print my name)

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Luis said...

I just remembered (and spent some time trying to locate) this post by Dan Everett.

where he says that, besides islands and information structure, we haven't really learned anything ever. I find it interesting because it's sort of the opposite attitude: he's got no problem admitting that P&P people have done great empirical and descriptive work, but he's convinced that, on the theoretical side, we might as well have gone on a constant holiday for the last 50 years.

2:20 AM  
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