Introduction To Syntax (ARTS2692)

What is Syntax?

Syntax is the scientific study of sentence structure.

We're looking at syntax as a cognitive science. From a psychological perspective it's the organisation of sentence structure in the mind. i.e. what you know about your language.

What is a Sentence?

A sentence is a hierarchically organised structure of words that maps sound to meaning and vice versa. It's the intersection of phonology and semantics.

What are Rules?

Rules in this sense are descriptively created, attempting to evaluate and explain grammar. Essentially a kind of hypothesis.

A group of rules is a grammar.

What is a Grammar?

A grammar is a cognitive structure. It's the part of the mind that generates and understands language.

Punctuation in Syntax

Punctuation is a non-issue. In linguistics we only use spoken (rather than written) data, and hence never actually encounter punctuation, only the phonetic equivalents.

Corpus for Data

Corpora are bad for basing a grammar off for a number of reasons:

  • They usually contain only correct/actually human-produced sentences.
  • They are not a sufficient sample of the language (even phone transcriptions only contain human speech errors, not incorrect/badly-formed sentences).
  • They can never contain all sentences
  • Hence they don't contain all information necessary to disprove/falsify a hypothesis.

As such we need to use our own linguistic knowledge to work out a grammar.

Acceptability Judgement

Linguistics use acceptability judgements to tap into our syntactic knowledge. Essentially an acceptability judgement is asking a native speaker of the language if certain sentences seem valid.

The answers to these are called intuitions. The word has a bad connotation, but they're statistically sound and experimentally valid (can be repeated under valid experimental conditions).

Semantic vs Syntactic Judgements

We're only concerned with syntactic judgements, rather than semantic ones.

E.g. we don't care that "my toothbrush is pregnant" makes no semantic sense, only that "red toothbrush my is" makes no syntactic sense.

Three Levels of Grammar Adequacy

Chomsky declared there were three levels of adequate grammars we could aim for.

  1. Observationally Adequate Grammar: Accounts for all observed data.
  2. Descriptively Adequate Grammar: Accounts for all observed data and acceptability judgements.
  3. Explanatorily Adequate Grammar: Accounts for all observed data and acceptability judgements and also explains how the system arose, and accounts for language acquisition.

We aspire to create Explanatorily Adequate Grammars.

Learning vs Acquisition

Learning
Consciously seeking out and gaining knowledge.
Acquisition
Subconsciously gaining knowledge.

Language is acquired, schoolwork is learnt.

The That-Trace Effect

Sentences like *"Who did you think that hit Bill?" are syntactically ungrammatical, and the reason is called the "that-trace" effect. When we look at the original sentence that became the question, we see:

"Do you think that Bob hit Bill?" -> "Who do you think that _ hit Bill?"

Even though we've never heard this sentence before, we can intuitively tell that it is ungrammatical. This is due to our innate linguistic knowledge.

The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition

We have a very simple proof to show that language is innate:

  1. Language is creative and countably infinite (any sentence can have another adjective added or be placed inside another sentence).
  2. Infinite systems are unlearnable/unacquirable

Therefore being unlearnable it must be innate.

Language Paramaters

Languages only differ in terms of vocabulary and parameters (e.g. Word Order - SVO vs VSO vs etc).

Acquired vs Innate

Innate knowledge is built in, it is a-priori, hard-wired.

Acquired knowledge is still gathered (like learnt knowledge), just subconsciously.