Friday, July 24, 2015

More on experimental syntax

In a recent post (here), I discussed a really nice result that our experimental syntacticians (ES) have delivered wrt island phenomena. As I noted, they have shown that ES can find (and has found) a distinctive super additivity signature of island violations even in highly acceptable sentences in Scandinavian (i.e. independently of overall acceptability). This strongly challenges (IMO debunks) the long held view that islands are parametric, a view that makes little sense when viewed through the lens of the Poverty of Stimulus (PoS) argument. Given that a well-formed PoS argument is virtually apodictic, this is what we should have expected all along. Given ES tools, our expectations have been realized. Chalk this one up as a victory for PoS logic.

I also remarked on another nice feature of this application of ES methods; it has yielded a really novel result. We actually could not “see” island effects using more conventional binary judgment (* vs ok) methods and this misled syntacticians. In other words, opening one’s mind to the conceptually impossible (i.e. “results” that violate PoS logic), encourages (a comfortable, yet fraudulent) skepticism regarding our best-grounded insights (e.g. concerning the universality of island effects) and this in turn leads research in the wrong direction. Well-grounded results, like Ross’s islands should be fixed points in ongoing inquiry and they cannot serve this function if GGers doubt their standing. At any rate, hooray for Kush, Londahl, Sprouse and Almeida.  They have done something both valuable and new.

I wanted to offer up two other results based on ES methods that I believe are “novel” in the sense of being heretofore less easily investigated without ES tools.  I was involved with two of these and so I know something about them. Hence what follows has the whiff of self-promotion. Believe me when I tell you that my contribution to both efforts was very minimal.  I invite readers to inform us of other new kinds of results using ES methods.

The two I know about are both chapters in the book that Jon Sprouse (with a small amount of help from moi) edited (here). The first is the chapter by Johannes Jurka on subject islands in German.  This paper examines these uisng ES methods. It shows that extracting out of subjects is worse than extracting out of objects and (this is the fun part) that extracting out of non-agreeing specifiers lies midway between the two. Thus, extracting out of specifiers is harder than doing so out of complements even in the absence of much agreement or any evidence of displacement.[1] This effect appears to be independent of freezing, which Jurka notes seems to function as an independent factor. Indeed, extraction out of external arguments is always harder/worse than extracting out of complements regardless of movement or agreement. This is very much worth knowing for, if correct, it suggests that subject islands cannot be reduced entirely to freezing effects. In fact, one can go a little further: so far as I know there are not many current theories (as opposed to Barriers style accounts that might be able to accommodate this asymmetry via differential L/theta-marking) that predict that extraction out of a specifier per se should be harder than extraction out of a complement.[2] Thus, Jurka’s ES empirical work suggests that we need to think quite a bit harder about the subject side of CED effects.

The second paper is one that I co-authored with Brian Dillon (again, he did most of the work). The paper presents ES evidence that what islands are sensitive to is syntactic structure.  “Opposed to what?”, you might be wondering. Well, opposed to semantic structure in particular. There once was a time when people tried to reduce island effects to semantic ones (I faintly recall Rodman trying to do this in the early 80s). And given the close connection between semantic hierarchical structure and syntactic hierarchical structure it is very hard to tease apart whether island effects are actually syntactic.  In fact, doing this requires holding the semantics constant and manipulating only the syntactic form, and this is not easy to do while keeping all other factors more or less the same. The above paper does this by focusing on extraction form small clauses and their semantically (largely) identical nominal counterparts. Thus pairs like (1a,b) mean the same thing (both denote events with the same John/Mary participants) but it turns out that extracting out of the nominal complement is harder than extracting out of the small clause complement.

(1)  a. Mary heard John clumsily attempt to kiss Mary
b. Mary heard John’s clumsy attempt to kiss Mary

There are, of course, all sorts of manipulations required on this basic theme to control for all sorts of things (e.g. definiteness effects among others (btw, Brian did this)), but the basic result is that extracting out of nominal event denoting complements is harder than extracting out of their small clause counterparts and this seems to be entirely due to the fact that one is nominal and the other is not.  Again, many of the judgments are in the acceptabl-ish territory so we have a kind of subliminal island effect. At any rate, to my knowledge this is one of the first attempts to pin down the claim that islands are syntactic effects, i.e. effects sensitive to syntactic structure.  In this particular case what matters is the distinction between a nominal and a sentential complement (i.e. labels seem to make a difference here).  If this is correct, then island effects are syntactic phenomena at least in the sense that the relevant primitives need to allude to the syntactic features of constituents.

Again, I mention these papers because they try to do something new with ES methods, they try to find effects that are hard to spot using the easier more convenient ask-your- next-door-neighbor methods. Let me repeat, lest this be grossly misunderstood, that I am NOT endorsing the view that we all now do ES experiments to ground our data. This is not necessary in general (again as Sprouse and colleagues have argued successfully IMO). However, there seem to be times when ES methods can yield new insights, and when this is so, we should not be reluctant to use these (more expensive) methods. When might this be? 

I suspect that it is not an accident that ES has been most successfully applied to island phenomena. Why? Because we know a hell of a lot about islands, both empirically and theoretically. Much of this knowledge is based on data collected in the standard way, and the conventional methods have clearly proven to be very productive.  However, what the ESers have shown is that when we get down to more refined and filigree issues especially in areas that we know a lot about, it should not be surprising that we might need more careful empirical probes.[3] In fact, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, what we should find surprising is that the very crude methods we have used till now have proven to be so robust and subtle. This surely tells us something about FL, namely that it leaves very deep footprints so that even slapdash methods suffice to probe it. However, we should never have expected this charmed state of affairs to continue forever. Happily, ES, which is pretty easy to deploy, provides another method for probing structure. Happily it largely leads to the same results in the well-understood cases. Happily, it sometimes delivers new insights.  All in all, this is all a very happy fact. So, be happy and be catholic in your choice of tools.

[1] An interesting feature of Johannes’ results is that they provide an argument for binary branching. How so? Well, IOs and DOs cannot both be complements given his results. This should be possible were non-binary branching possible. Though I believe that binary branching is in fact a condition on constituency, there are not all that many arguments in its favor, so far as I know. There are the Barss-Lasnik data, bit aside from that I don’t know of many others. Do you?
[2] The one that I do know of (and that Jurka cites) is Uriagereka’s version of multiple spell out, which, to my knowledge is not widely investigated or accepted.
[3] Akira Omaki has used ES methods to explore a Relativized Minimality approach to WH-islands (here). I hope to discuss his results in a forthcoming post on RM. But no reason for you to wait to read it.

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