Phonology continues to get no respect

An interesting-seeming call for papers came out over LinguistList today, for a workshop in Berlin in December called Descriptive and Explanatory Adequacy in Linguistics. (Abstracts due Sept. 15.) I should have known, though, that “Linguistics” in this context means (only) “Syntax”.

The call begins with a “somewhat coarse and oversimplified” description of “the differences between” the Minimalist Program (MP) and Optimality Theory (OT) “in order to highlight the general tendencies.” Here’s the upshot:

MP is a very austerely formulated theory, but this seems to go at the expense of descriptive adequacy […]

OT, on the other hand, can readily be applied to virtually any imaginable subfield of linguistics. […] The explanatory adequacy of OT is limited, however, which is clearly related to the fact that OT only offers a general scheme for the formulation of grammars […]

The content of the rest of the paragraph about MP can best be described as “cautiously optimistic”:

[T]he empirical scope [of MP] seems to be restricted to syntactic and semantic phenomena that involve or can be directly related to movement and features, and during the last decade much effort has been devoted to incorporating established insights of earlier phases of the theory. Although this endeavour has been successful to a certain extent, much still seems to be out of reach of the theory in its present formulation.

The rest of the paragraph about OT, by contrast, struggles to be “fair and balanced”:

[OT] has a system of ranked violable constraints at its core, but OT grammars can be specified in various, sometimes even incompatible ways. A great advantage of this freedom is that OT has brought together researchers from various theoretical frameworks (such as GB, MP, LFG, HPSG, etc), but a drawback of this is that the body of work that could be referred to as OT-syntax lacks internal consistency, so that OT-syntax is still far from acquiring a reasonable degree of explanatory adequacy.

The author(s) surrender(s) to the negative side of the struggle in the next paragraph:

The problem concerning explanatory adequacy is actually enlarged by the fact that there is no clear consensus about what constitutes the core of OT-syntax, the universal set of constraints CON. […] This, in its turn, is related to the question what forms the input of the OT-syntax. Many possibilities come to mind: a numeration, a pre-established phrase marker, a semantic representation, etc.

As a semi-outsider in this “debate”, I’m mildly surprised at the confusion displayed in this call for papers between what theories/frameworks say and what people who work within those theories/frameworks have said. To see what I mean, it will help to try one or both of the following thought experiments.

Thought experiment #1
Imagine yourself back in the early 1990s. Let’s say Joan Bresnan decides to adopt the most basic assumptions of the Minimalist Program and applies them to LFG — the result being LFG-MP. Bresnan trains a group of students who do LFG-MP, and all of this work exerts a substantial amount of influence on the field.

Thought experiment #2
Imagine yourself back in the early 1990s. Let’s say that Chomsky ends up colloaborating with Paul Smolensky, establishing the basic assumptions about OT syntax rather than about OT phonology, including some basic types of constraints on features, movement, etc. Chomsky then goes on to collaborate with another influential syntactician — Howard Lasnik, let’s say — to further develop specific aspects of OT syntax. Both train students, etc.

Either one of these scenarios is totally plausible, it seems to me. To clarify the first, it has to be noted that the MP isn’t about movement and features; its earliest practitioners just happened to have already been following this thread of syntactic theory. (Put it this way — I doubt anyone who didn’t already believe in syntactic movement was all of a sudden convinced about movement based on early work in the MP as opposed to, say, GB.) All it would take to make the MP seem more fractured (and thus less explanatorily adequate?) is the emergence of a suitably strong opponent to Chomsky’s views about movement, features, etc.

The fact that the major practitioners of OT have been more open about the fact that OT “is not committed to a particular representational formalism” is arguably the key to the overwhelming success of OT in phonology; you don’t need to believe in moras in order to believe in ranked and violable constraints.1 Do you need to believe in movement in order to believe in virtual conceptual necessities and interface/bare output conditions? I don’t think so. Last I read, anyway, “minimalism is a research program […] [t]here is no ‘minimalist theory’ yet, but some of us are working on it.”

All that said, it’ll probably be an interesting workshop. The invited speakers are Edwin Williams, David Pesetsky, Géraldine Legendre, Jane Grimshaw, and Chris Collins, ending with “a roundtable discussion of the five keynote speakers chaired by Henk van Riemsdijk.” I don’t think that any real issues will be settled, however; I imagine people arguing more about the proper distinction between “descriptive adequacy” and “explanatory adequacy” than about actual substantive differences between MP and OT (such as they are). But that’s just me being cynical.

Confusion about this kind of point was exhibited in a 1995 LI paper by Stuart Davis; this response by John McCarthy clarifies the issue. In the same vein, a not-so-anonymous reviewer (who shall nevertheless remain nameless) once wrote the following comment on a paper of mine: “Problem: OT doesn’t have onsets.” No, really, I’m not kidding. [back]

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