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Syntactic nuts, Core and Periphery, and Universal Grammar

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Teresa Parodi.

In this talk I review some of the main points of Syntactic Nuts (Culicover 1999) and Simpler Syntax (Culicover and Jackendoff 2005), and the arguments for them. The approach that we have taken in Simpler Syntax and other work leads to a perspective that is rather different from that of the mainstream, motivated in large part by the Simpler Syntax Hypothesis:

Simple Syntax Hypothesis (SSH):

The most explanatory theory is one that imputes the minimum syntactic structure necessary to mediate between phonology and meaning.

This hypothesis in principle embodies an evaluation metric, in the sense of Aspects. It allows us to rank accounts of the phonology/meaning mapping in terms of their relative complexity, and it permits us to say when a particular mapping in a language is “natural” or unmarked and when it is “exceptional” or marked.

Mainstream generative grammar makes two divisions among linguistic phenomena, with the goal of identifying those aspects of language where deep generality and rich abstract deductive structure are to be expected. The first is the traditional division between grammar – the rules of the language – and the lexicon, which mainstream generative tradition takes to be the locus of all irregularity. The second division, introduced around the time of Lectures on Government and

Binding, distinguishes between two parts of the grammar itself, the core and the periphery. The core rules represent the deep regularities of language, those that are governed by parameter settings. The periphery represents “marked exceptions” such as irregular verbs, for which there are no deep regularities.

The logic of Syntactic Nuts is that there are constructions beyond the level of individual words that are readily learned, about which native speakers have sharp and reliable intuitions. They display various degrees of generality combined with irreducible syntactic idiosyncrasy. They must be acquired on the basis of experience, and cannot be accounted entirely on the basis of parameter settings and general principles.

I discuss a variety of such “peripheral” phenomena of English, some well known, some less so.They are presented with three morals in mind:

- “Peripheral” phenomena are inextricably interwoven with the “core.” The distinction is one of convenience, not principle.

- The empirically most adequate analyses of the peripheral phenomena conform to the Simpler Syntax Hypothesis.

- There is a continuum of phenomena between words and rules and between periphery and core. The distinction is one of degree, not principle.

I draw two conclusions:

- An idealization to the “core,” while a priori reasonable, has proven in practice to be systematically misleading.

- The traditional distinction between lexicon and grammar is mistaken.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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