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.

New Squib on EPP effects

This brief squib revisits a problem that’s been bothering me for a long time, first noticed by Jim McCloskey in a 1996 paper (presented at the first conference on Celtic I ever went to!). Jim noticed that in Irish certain verbs single argument appeared either as a prepositional phrase or as a nominal phrase. In the former case, the PP seemed to appear low in the structure, while the nominal phrase moved to the standard subject position. This seems like a perfectly sensible pattern, but is actually quite difficult to capture in the kind of approach, mainstream at the time, that said movements had to be triggered. If you need to trigger the movement of the nominal subject, what happens to that trigger when the subject is a PP. This squib shows that some ideas from Chomsky’s recent POP framework make this pattern much less weird. Overall, it suggests that there aren’t EPP features of heads; rather, phrases that can’t stay in situ, end up wherever they can be licensed.

The draft is on lingbuzz at:

A labelling solution to a curious EPP effect


New paper on language death

I’ve just finished a writeup of my NWAV ‘cornerstone’ talk. It’s an attempt to try to explain why a particular set of changes took place as the Gaelic dialect spoken in East Sutherland, and studied by Nancy Dorian, died in the latter half of the last century. The explanation, unlike Dorian’s, which relied on primarily sociolinguistic factors, appeals to the weakening and loss of syntactic agreement features, and how this leads to the replacement of a variety of null pronoun structures with alternatives. Which particular alternatives are chosen depends on what I call the ‘syntactic ecology’ of the language.

The draft is on Lingbuzz at:

Structure, use, and syntactic ecology in language obsolescence

Bird Syntax?

Bird syntax? Interesting new study in Nature but I’m not convinced. They report that birds have a particular behaviour associated with one call ABC (scan for danger), and another behaviour associated with D (approach nest). They say that when the birds hear ABC-D, you get scanning followed by approach, but with D-ABC, no reaction, and conclude that there’s a compositionally interpreted rule for the former, but no rule licensing that latter. But surely the lack of reaction to the reverse call (approach then scan for danger) could simply be because this is behaviourally odd, as opposed to not being generable by rule? Signalling to approach a nest and then to scan for danger (as opposed to the other way around) might just be unhelpful behaviour. If that’s the right interpretation, then there’s no compositional syntax, just serially ordered behaviour associated with the order of calls, with one kind of behaviour outside of the birds’ usual repertoire.

My first Monster Language

Early in 2015, I was sitting in my office, reading a student’s thesis, and the phone rang. It was a TV company, with an odd request. “Could you”, the producer on the line asked, “make up a language or two for us?”

The TV series was a version of Beowulf, the Old English Epic, which ITV was turning into a major fantasy series. They needed, as is almost de rigeur these days, languages for their otherworldly creatures, and for some human tribes that the heroes and heroines were to interact with.

I jumped at the chance, of course. When I was a Master’s student, in Edinburgh, I’d made up a language for a friend, Ricardo Pinto, who was writing a series of epic fantasy novels. I rather stupidly made this language (Quya) fiendishly complicated, a decision which came back to bite me as Ricardo asked for translations of various chapter titles and bits of poetry over the next decade. These took me ages.

Forearmed by this experience, and quite a bit more knowledge about how language works than I had over twenty years ago, I developed two languages for the series, one for the monsters and another one I’ll come back to in later blogs. As Beowulf  is about to appear on UK TV (the opening episode is on the 3rd January 2015), I thought I’d blog a little about the language and why I designed it the way I did.

The trailer features some monstrous creatures, bounding across a beach. Some of the creatures in Beowulf, the Warig, have their own language, and that language, Ur-Hag Hesh (literally, Not-Food Speech), now has a fairly large vocabulary and a reasonably complex grammar. In this blog, I’ll just talk a little about the sounds of Ur-Hag Hesh.

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that the creatures have little that you could call real lips. So I decided that the language would lack consonants that are made with the lips (labials). This means no sounds like p, or b, or m. I originally wanted to make up for losing these sounds by increasing the range of sounds made at the back of the throat (the producers wanted a ‘guttural’ sounding language). Unfortunately, these turned out to be too much to ask of the actors, so my plan to have a series of uvulars and pharyngeals was quickly scuppered.

So the system of sounds I came up with in the end looks as follows. I’ve given the transliteration I used for the producers, with the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol, where different, in parentheses.

Glottals: the glottal stop, ʔ; and the glottal fricative, h

Velars: the velar stops, k, g; the velar fricative, kh (x); and the velar nasal ng (ŋ)

Palatals: the palato-alveolar fricatives, sh (ʃ) and zh (ʒ); the palatal glide y (j)

Alveolars: the stops, t, d; the fricatives s, z;  the approximants r, l; and the nasal n.

Vowels: a, e, i, u (though given the lack of lips, the u should really be the unrounded back vowel ɯ). I suggested that the actors could grimace when they were pronouncing the language to get rid of all lip rounding, but I’m not sure if they did!

I also allowed combinations of a stop plus a following fricative to act as essentially single sounds, giving the following combinations.

kkh, ksh, gz, gzh

ts, dz, tsh, dzh, tkh

So that’s the sound system, and here’s a bit of Ur-Hag Hesh for you to listen to.