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Empty linguistics

2006-03-22 @ 8:37

Looking at the course offering for next year at Concordia, I noticed that the linguistics department there offers its students a course devoted to nothing. That is, empty categories.

Empty categories, is some linguistic circles, are objects that appear in the syntactic (grammatical) structure but have no phonological or morphological form. Which means that they’re in the structure but do not manifest themselves. Basically, they seem to be there just to make the theory fit.

One such critter is PRO. This stands for pronoun, when there is actually (i.e. in the utterance) none. When none appear in straightforward structures, there can be talk of PRO-drop, as in “Italian is a PRO-drop language” in that you don’t need a subject pronoun (one says Piove, literally “Rains” instead of “It rains”). Fascinating stuff. It actually says a lot about anglocentrism in syntactic theory. Since English usually needs overt subjects for its verbs (though not always), there has to be a part of the structure for this, so languages who don’t necessarily care for overt subject pronouns must be dropping something. Of course, Occam might say that these languages didn’t have a PRO spot to begin with so there wasn’t anything to drop, but there are those linguists who are not interested in the simplest explanation.

Let’s have an example: in Latin, “I think” translates as Cogito. Empty-categ linguists would posit the following structure: PRO – V, where V = Cogito and PRO = nothing overt. And serve not other purpose than to fill an empty spot in their structure.

Where I come from, we start with words. We posit that people use words to build sentences. In this example, the speaker would think “cogito”; in and of itself, the verb is complete, in that the support offered, in languages like English or French, by the subject pronoun is integrated in the (semantic/syntactic) meaning of the verb. It could use a complement, but that is not compulsory and is actually another story. [Although this could serve as a useful illustration of what is meant by being complete: compare “I walk” and “I sharpen”. The former is okay but the latter seems to be missing something: a complement (of course, it could always be used in a general sense, depending on context – but let’s not go into that right now).] So, no need to add a PRO one would not pronounce.

In fact, we have a similar thing in French: Cogito translates as “Je pense” whereas Ego Cogito would be “Moi, je pense” (which is heard as often, if not more frequently than the former). Would someone claim that in the first instance we have a case of “Moi-drop”. I don’t think so. So why posit a Ego-drop?

For me, language is mostly WYHIWIT, what you hear is what is there. If you posit the existence of something that is not manifest, you should prove it’s not just there to plug a hole in the theory. Because that ends up trying to make the data fit the theory, and science is about getting the theory to fit with the data.

There’s another course that looks interesting, LING 222 which “deals with patterns of linguistic structure, rather than content or meaning. The goal of this course is to develop an understanding of the field of cognitive science (the study of knowledge and the mind/brain) and determine how linguistics fits in with disciplines like the study of vision, auditory perception and reasoning.” So we drop the main purpose of language, namely to express meaning, in an effort to link to tie it up with reasoning…

What do you think?