Friday, November 14, 2014

On reading Syntactic Structures

Noam Chomsky's book Syntactic structures clearly was an inflection point in the development of linguistics as a science. It's pretty clear that no linguist has had more influence on the field, and this book was revolutionary in its impact. It has been criticized for general theoretical weaknesses, for example, by Geoffrey Sampson, and clearly the ideas have been revised over the years as new discoveries have been made, but it's less common to see people point out basic inconsistencies, both internal, and external.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Some naive thoughts on intuition

Much of the last two weeks has been spent trying to get my head around what a head is. A representative definition might be.
A head is the syntactic function of the dominant constituent within a phrase to which other constituents are subordinate or a two-word dependency relationship. “In the simplest account, other units depend on it” (Matthews 2007:191).
My starting point was Zwicky (1985), for no better reason than that’s what I stumbled on first. And this was where the issue of intuition came up. Zwicky writes,
The intuition to be captured with the notion HEAD is that in certain syntactic constructs one constituent in some sense ‘characterizes’ or ‘dominates’ the whole. (2)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hudson on Zwicky on heads

As you can see, I've been reading Hudson's on syntactic relations. In his 1987 paper, like the others, it’s hard to judge the arguments because I don’t have a view of the whole system that he's working in. As so many linguists do, he suggests a few items and leaves it to the reader to imagine the complete set he has in mind. Nevertheless, my impression is of very interested data, opportunistically deployed: lots of cherry picking going on here. Not that others don’t do the same. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Hudson on "determiners"

In a 2004 paper, Dick Hudson casts doubt on the very idea of determiners. But like so many others, he appears to confound the idea of a category and a function.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What's a specifier?

Nik and I were discussing my dissertation topic, and part of it related to the syntactic function that CGEL calls determiner, and which I'm calling specifier. Nik said he didn't really know what a specifier was. I don't think he meant in modern English in particular, where CGEL gives a fairly explicit list of characteristics. Instead, I think he meant more generally. For example, if you wanted to know if there was a specifier function Old English or in Dinka, or whatever, how would you know?

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Before coming to Scotland, I had all my medical tests done, had my eyes tested, and had necessary dental work done. Unfortunately, one of the inlays I got doesn't seem to be working out, and I'm experiencing a lot of sensitivity to temperature and food.

When I went to the dentist, the receptionist set up an appointment for me and said she'd extended it because I had toothache. Have toothache? I thought.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How TV expressions wind their way into your mind

Next month, the English Language Research Group here at the University of Edinburgh will be discussing Blythe & Croft (2012). The paper considers how language changes occur, and finds that, statistically speaking, changes that succeed tend to follow an s-curve. In other words, they start slow, then pick up steam and go along for a while before slowing down. Like this: