Monday, March 7, 2011

Thoughts on Progovac (2010)

I definitely am sympathetic to Progovac's introductory point about the mismatch between the units of syntax and the units of neuroscience currently, and so I like her idea of trying to identify syntactic primitives that might map more naturally to what we know about biology. And I'm also sympathetic to the small clause as syntactic primitive, since it could form the basis of other structures (transitive, intransitive, etc.) and so there's a nice evolution from less complex to more complex that goes along with it. That being said, I'm not quite sure I see the connection between small clauses and brain biology.

Some additional thoughts:

  • On p.239, where she discusses exocentric verbal compounds like daredevil as proto-syntax evidence that transitivity emerged later than intransitivity: Clearly, many of these seem to be modern words. Is the idea that they persist because they make use of ancient processing structures in the brain, while other kinds of exocentric compounds that could exist (but don't) don't use these same structures?

  • On p.244, where she discusses Serbian unaccusative clauses as evidence for the small clause as the basic primitive: Serbian appears to have the same intransitive order as English (Subject Verb) - should we expect to see more small clauses with unaccusative verbs like "Come November" in English? Since we don't (as footnote 16 seems to indicate), why don't we? Is this just an accident of history that these don't persist, even though they're based on the small clause structure that's processed by the ancient brain structures?

  • p.245, where the claim is made that formulaic speech like idioms is processed by more ancient structures in the brain: I can certainly see why idioms would be processed more like one big word, but why should they be processed by more ancient brain structures? Is it that they lack more syntactic structure and so are more equivalent to the minimal syntactic structure that small clauses exhibit?

  • p.248: I like the discussion of subjacency restrictions as deriving from fossilized syntactic structures, since subjacency has been notoriously tricky to properly characterize. With respect to acquisition, would it be that children have to learn which constructions are mapped to these different kinds of fossil structures? Or would it be that by their very nature (semantic? syntactic?), these constructions are processed differently in the brain?

  • p.249, footnote 19: I understand that there's very little evidence (if any) to draw on about the actual evolution that led to the structures we see today in languages, but the story about how noticing the non-dominant hand during bimanual toolmaking is linked to (noticing?) the topic of a sentence seems like a bit of a stretch.

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