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Syntax is not a Custom

I had a brief twitter exchange with @david_colquhoun the other day. Prof Colquhoun tweeted a response to a UCL press release about how learning something about grammar could be good for school children (a point made by Bas Aarts). Colquhoun’s view was that teaching children things about formal grammar was ‘daft’, and I’m sure he’s not alone in this view. When I suggested that learning about a fundamental attribute of human beings was a good thing for children, Colquhoon responded that ‘syntax isn’t an attribute. It’s a custom and it changes’.

I thought this exchange was interesting, though I did find it irksome. A well-respected scientist (a Fellow of the Royal Society), who comes from outside of linguistics, thinks that syntax is trivial enough that it’s legitimate to make categorical (and quite incorrect) pronouncements about it. Would he make such pronouncements about, say, palaeolimnology, or astrophysics? Why are we syntacticians doing such a bad job that academics from other fields think they know enough about syntax to say that it’s a ‘custom’? I don’t know, but I want to just give a few arguments here that syntax does not derive from culture and it is not a custom. The syntax of languages changes as Colquhoun noted, of course, but it does in ways that we have been describing quantitatively for years, and that we have have some theoretical grasp of. None of that work involves thinking of it as a custom.

In fact, one of the important findings of syntactic research over the last 50 years (if not longer) is that structure doesn’t reduce to custom or culture. The idea that the structure of a language is intimately connected to its culture is, I think, quite a common view amongst people who don’t study languages. Though it’s a stronger position than `syntax is custom’, it is, therefore, worthwhile to address first.

This view abjectly fails. Take how languages ask questions about things. In English, if you bought something, and your partner sees the shopping bag, they can ask What did you buy? There’s something funny going on with the syntax here. The part of the sentence that you are asking a question about appears, not where it would go if you weren’t asking a question, but right at the front. I bought a book but Which book did you buy? Linguists call this kind of syntax question-movement (or, more commonly, wh-movement, though that’s not such a good term). There are question-movement languages. English is one, so is Inuktitut, so is Mohawk. But there aren’t question movement cultures. There’s nothing about the culture of the Anglo Saxons and the Mohawks that leads to them having the syntax of question-movement in their languages.

There are also languages that are wh-in-situ. When speakers of these languages ask a question like what did you buy? they say it as you bought what?, leaving the question word in the same place (‘in situ’) as it would be in a declarative statement like you bought a book. This is a property shared by Turkish, Chinese, Malayalam, and many other languages. But again these are not wh-in-situ cultures. There are other languages that adopt a mixed strategy. Indeed, languages with very similar cultures can vary quite wildly in what they do with questions, with some dialects of Italian moving question words and others leaving them in situ.

There is a weaker version of the idea that syntax is custom, which is, I think, what Colquhoun was meaning. If someone comes visiting you, you tell them `the custom in London is to stand on the right hand side of a moving staircase’, so they avoid being mown down by irate Londoners. You can see people obeying customs like this, and once you know the custom, you can tell others what it is. But the syntactic rules of a language are not like this. Take movement of question words in English. Now I’ve told you what that is, perhaps you could think of it like a custom: you know it when you see it, and you can tell me about it. But that won’t work. Though you can say David likes the man you gave the book to, you can’t ask a question about the book, following this `custom’. You can’t say in English Which book did David like the man you gave to? Why not? There are hidden patterns, discovered by syntactic research over the years, that capture when this syntactic pattern works, and when it doesn’t. Unlike standing on the right, English speakers are neither aware of the syntactic patterns they use, nor can they say what they are. In fact, it required a lot of research to find out how this bit of syntax works, and we now have a good understanding of the abstract generalizations that predict whether a speaker of English will react to a sentence positively or not. That speaker has no idea of what these patterns in their use of language are, but syntactic theory can predict them. That’s not how customs work. Syntax is not a custom: it’s a complex, highly abstract system of rules generating patterns in the sentences we use. Different languages have different syntax because, as children acquire a language, there is to-and-fro between the set up of their brains (how human brains process linguistic data they are exposed to and what they do with it) and the linguistic acts of the people around them. Syntax is constrained by the ways our mind works, and it’s within these limits that historical change takes place.

The whole of syntax is like this: there are tiny scraps of it that are similar to customs (don’t end a sentence with a preposition, etc.), and those tend to be what people know about. But these are close to scientifically trivial, though they act as cultural shibboleths. The rest of syntax goes unnoticed; because we find it so effortless, we are unaware of the rich, abstract, and complex flow of syntax in our language.

The study of syntax is a straightforward scientific enterprise. There are many complex facts and phenomena that you need to do a lot of descriptive research to find. There are many possible hypotheses about what is going on, most falsified by new data that comes from observation or experiment. And there are fairly good explanations of many of these in terms of basic theoretical primitives and formalised theories of how they relate and combine. The theories are, without doubt, in a primitive state (maybe around about the level of chemical theory pre-Dalton). Indeed, we are very possibly not even thinking about this stuff in the right way. Nevertheless, research in syntax has been extremely intellectually fertile for years now, revealing many new discoveries about how the grammar of many different languages work, and uncovering broad laws and principles that govern these. There are areas of great controversy, but the basic phenomena, generalisations, and concepts are well researched.

I’ll finish on what the initial tweet was about. Is it a good idea to teach grammar to kids? My own view is that it’s a good idea to teach syntax to kids, looking at many languages, and showing them what some of the basic ideas are. Linguistics, and syntax particularly, is an excellent way to teach the basics of the scientific method. Children can go very quickly from observation to hypothesis to experiment to (dis)confirmation (though less easily to theory, it’s true). All using sentences of their own languages. From this they can learn precision in thinking, the rudiments of science, and, it must be said, some facts about the grammar of the language(s) they speak. None of these is daft.


20 Comments

  1. Wow. That is an unusually lengthy response. The 140 character limit is not conducive to clear explanations, so thank you.

    I wonder whether anybody has checked to see how many adults can score well on tests like these:
    http://indy100.independent.co.uk/article/can-you-pass-this-english-sats-exam-for-10-and-11-year-olds–W1XEAXrOfb
    or
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/05/03/can-you-pass-this-grammar-test-meant-for-11-year-olds/

    Even if one asked only people with degrees, or even if one asked only creative writers, how many would know what a “subordinating conjunction” was?

    I’m as irritated as anyone by misplaced apostrophes, but, like the schools minister, I can’t answer many of the questions that are now being put to 11 year-olds. There’s nothing daft about syntax. What’s daft is expecting people so young to be able to do stuff that is so formal and advanced that few adults can do it. Some of them, sadly, struggle to read at all.

    And, when I said syntax was a “custom”, that was intended to mean that languages are not fixed but evolve with time. Shakespeare is hard for 21st Century readers, and Chaucer is almost impossible.

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    • Sean says:

      Hello Professor,

      I stumbled on this conversation from a shared link, so please forgive the intrusion. There is a bit of confusion here, as some of the content of these tests doesn’t really pertain to “syntax” but rather the broader meaning of grammar to include punctuation. In any case, this is an odd route to choose to go. Because adults weren’t adequately taught means that children shouldn’t learn? I could see the benefits of learning what subordinated clauses are, as well as conjunctive adverbs. In fact, that would seem to help tremendously whenever we actually DO get to the use of punctuation in writing. There’s a reason certain clauses get set off with commas, em-dashes, etc. I am currently using this approach–that is, the use of structure to explain conventional grammar–in writing courses and it seems to be helping tremendously. However, much of this is advanced for college-level students when it probably shouldn’t be; if they were adequately exposed to this material early on, as certain concepts in math are, then it would certainly help.

      Further, syntax as you described it would still not be a “custom” since it is changing due to natural, evolutionary processes. It won’t be fixed in time, but perhaps explaining the differences between the way we speak and how Shakespeare and Chaucer respectively spoke would be easier if we introduced key linguistic concepts early on, no?

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    • davidadger says:

      We were probably tweeting past each other. I take syntax to be a property of human language and hence all human languages, and there are good methods for finding out about the syntax of languages, and pretty solid results, though, like any science, it’s in medias res. As a science there’s no reason that it needs be any more complex than other sciences taught at school level, though I accept it perhaps isn’t taught that way – you’re saying that it’s taught as a collection of disjointed terms. If so, then the curriculum is badly designed. However, understanding how language works, the basic concepts, is without doubt worthwhile knowledge as part of a general education about the world, since language is one of the most important parts of the world (which is what Aarts was saying). If taught well, I think many children find it fascinating. I find that talking to kids about this stuff is often way easier than explaining it to adults, as kids don’t have `common sense’ ideas about language which fly in the face of all the research evidence.

      On the notion of custom, and language changing over time. Of course. That’s why we have whole disciplines of historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, which use quantitative methods to plot how aspects of language change. The results here are very well established (e.g. changes follow an s-shaped curve and apply at a constant rate in different contexts), and we have some good theories of them. But, none of what we know has anything to do with custom as it’s usually understood, which is irrelevant to language change beyond the very margins.

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    • There are different kinds of linguistics and different kinds of formal grammar. The approach described above (“Syntax is not a custom: it’s a complex, highly abstract system of rules generating patterns in the sentences we use”) is just one of them. A whole range of approaches falling under cognitive functional linguistics essentially say that ‘syntax isn’t an attribute. It’s a custom and it changes’.
      (an in-depth overview of the most prominent cognitive-functional approaches: https://benjamins.com/#catalog/books/slcs.157/main)

      Also, there’s lots of fascinating research on grammars as the result of interactions between human culture and human cognition; see e.g. this conference on Place, Direction and Landscape in the grammars of the world: http://inss.ku.dk/english/calendar/geogram/

      Liked by 1 person

      • davidadger says:

        Indeed there are different approaches, but, this post is orthogonal to the point being made here. Usage-based approaches, for example, still take the restrictions on extraction I mentioned to be a result of cognitive factors (parsing, say, or, for Adele Goldberg, issues to do with information structure to syntax mapping constraints), and cognitive linguistics in general assumes a huge array of innate mechanisms for learning, many of them with complex semantic structures built in. The difference is that they are not generative, and have no special `linguistic’ type of cognition that is not also used elsewhere. So even these approaches do not say that syntax is a `custom’, though they probably take more of it to be learned than I would, it’s true. And everyone knows that syntax varies and changes, hence my point above about the entire fields of historical and sociolinguistics.

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  2. Usage-based approaches indeed do not say that syntax is a custom, which is why I used the phrase in quotation marks. Prof Colquhoon’s comments should be understood in a broad sense as he is not a linguist and is not using these terms in a technical sense. His use of ‘syntax’ does not equal generative syntax with the full implications of the term; and I am guessing that ‘custom’ as he used it does not strictly refer to ‘derived from a culture’. He seems to be expressing a generic view that language is a matter of conventions that are subject to change over time. And conventionalization is a basic premise of cognitive usage-based approaches.
    So my point is that his non-expert opinion can be seen as more right or more wrong depending on one’s linguistic perspective.

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  3. I feel that this conversation, interesting though it is, has wandered away from the central point. Is it, or is it not, sensible to try make 11 year-old children recognise a “subordinating conjunction”.

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    • davidadger says:

      well, I think the notion of `subordinating connection’ is close to incoherent, so probably not! But I think that the idea that some sentences can appear as part of other sentences is an interesting fact about language in general. English, when it does this, uses various words like `that’, `if’ and so on. I don’t think kids need the terms (especially when they are bad, like this term is), but the concept is pretty straightforward.

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    • I’d say it’s more sensible to teach them the kind of linguistics that will enable them to use their own mother tongue competently but without being daunted by explicit grammar rules; and to learn foreign languages successfully and without unnecessary pain. Teach them how language works in relation to human cognition and culture, and how it results from the interaction of the two. This will help them understand what’s happening when their own children are learning their own mother tongue(s) and that it’s okay to grow up bi- or multilingual.

      They can still be doing formal analyses, hypothesis testing and so learning about science, just within the framework of a formal grammar that is part of this kind of linguistics.

      This is an opinion based on my experience as a linguist, foreign language learner, teacher, and teacher trainer, as well as a mother of two multilingual children.

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      • davidadger says:

        Not sure why using patterns in syntax to teach about precise thinking and scientific method is daunting. That depends, like all of these things, on the skill of the teacher.

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  4. Martin Haspelmath says:

    I don’t see why people need to be conscious of customs. Surely people are not conscious of most of the syntactic rules they know, but neither are they (necessarily) conscious of many other complex social rules they follow, e.g. when to shake hands, when to help someone, etc. I do think that there are no other customs with the same degree of complexity and rigidity as syntax, but I don’t see why one should insist that syntax is not a custom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • davidadger says:

      Not sure how you can think of the example I gave above, where you can’t do question movement as being a custom. Consciousness was only one part of the argument.

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      • Martin Haspelmath says:

        You said that “There’s nothing about the culture of the Anglo Saxons and the Mohawks that leads to them having the syntax of question-movement in their languages.” Of course not, but this just shows that several aspects of culture (or several customs) can be independent of each other. What was the other part of the argument, not having to do with consciousness? (Of course it’s a bit odd to say that syntactic patterns are customs, but I don’t see how one can define “custom” in such a way that it clearly doesn’t encompass linguistic conventions.)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Lameen Souag says:

    This argument strikes me as reflecting a rather odd definition of both culture and custom. You’d have to be a rather hard-core structuralist to insist that a culture is a “système où tout se tient”: why should one arbitrarily chosen cultural trait (tea-drinking, say) be assumed to predict anything much about the rest of a culture? And surely it’s quite clear that people almost universally remain unaware of vast swathes of their own cultural practices unless they happen to get exposed to contrasting ones?

    There’s a rather obvious sense in which question movement is a custom: whether you do it or not depends on what the people you grew up with do, and you can learn to start doing it or to stop doing it depending on the people among whom you find yourself. A whole group can even copy the practice from the people around them: no example for question movement comes to mind offhand, but for SOV vs SVO we have handy cases like Central Asian Arabic or Northwestern Songhay or Amharic. Of course, you’re alluding here to the idea that we don’t pick up the observed limitations on WH-movement by learning them from other people. Well, the game of football is certainly limited by a variety of human physical inabilities (how far we can kick the ball, how fast we can run, etc) which we certainly don’t need to learn from other people. I don’t see that such limitations makes football any less of a custom, or any less a cultural practice.

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    • 1araucaria says:

      Well, maybe one thing which differentiates syntax from any recognisable custom, is that, one cannot stop doing syntax. Even if we consciously changed some superficial aspect of our language particular output to try to change our ‘custom’, the fact remains that we will not be able to stop our brains processing the language that we hear – even if it is in the original from. It is not possible for me to somehow change my processing so that I don’t understand a language that I am familiar with. Like it or not my brain will syntax the whole thing regardless of whether I want it to. On the other hand I can stop any real cultural customs just by not conforming with them. For example, I could ignore people when they said hello to me, walk down the street naked, or drive on the right in the UK (although that might be dangerous or illegal). My brains’ involuntary syntaxing, however, is outwith my control – just like my hearts’ beating.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Martin Haspelmath says:

        Syntax may be less conscious than other customs (e.g. saying hello and putting on clothes), but the proper analogy would be whether we can construct ungrammatical utterances, and that’s clearly possible (though admittedly more difficult, perhaps because of the degree of consciousness). Just as we cannot stop perceiving syntax in an utterance we hear, we cannot “switch off” our knowledge of other customs and not notice them, so if we see someone walking down the street naked, we automatically notice the deviation from the custom. The difference seems to be in the degree of consciousness, not the degree of automatization of processing.

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      • 1araucaria says:

        This is a reply to Martin:

        Even if you were to construct ungrammatical sentences, you would have to apply your syntactic knowledge of the language in order to be able to do that. In other words you would still be engaging in syntax.

        More importantly perhaps, when someone speaks to you in a language that you understand, you do not merely notice that their sentences are grammatical, you actually involuntarily apply your tacit systematic syntactic knowledge of the language to syntactically perform a mental operation on the physical input. So it is not that you notice that someone said something grammatical, it is that you cannot prevent yourself from engaging in this syntactic processing such that you parse the sentence up in the right way and involuntarily actually understand what was said.

        This is very different from noticing that someone walking down the street naked is not following some custom or other. Your noticing that would not involve you actively engaging in that process. You aren’t indulging in any dressing behaviour by noticing it. However, as listeners we do indeed involuntarily actively participate in syntaxing away at the utterances we hear. We have no choice in the matter. If someone chases me down the street shouting “I’m going to knock your block off” I cannot decide to not participate in this mutual syntaxing process, however uninclined I am to cooperate in any way with my assailant. My brain will involuntarily process the utterance such that I understand it. Syntax is as much about perception as it is about production.

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  6. Lameen Souag says:

    To be clear, though, I agree that Colquhoun’s comment was misguided. A sensible grammar curriculum would include arbitrary facts about English such as the obligatory nature of question movement, but would necessarily also feature concepts relevant to analysing human language in general. And, while question movement itself can reasonably be described as a custom, the ability to acquire it is clearly an attribute of humanity.

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    • davidadger says:

      I think we’re in agreement. There are both internal (non learned) and external (learned) aspects to the syntax of any particular language. I think the deeper issue is that syntactic knowledge is mentally stored as a system, a fairly abstract one, and it’s just weird to think of a custom as an internal system, rather than a set of observed and imitated behaviours (which, I think, syntax really is not, though construction grammarians would disagree).

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