Principles and Parameters - Criticisms


Criticism of the P&P approach has come from a number of quarters, but with varying impact. These can be subdivided into three main groups.

  • Theory internal critique
  • The lack of consensus on a set of parameters
  • Inter-paradigm critiques not specific to P&P

Perhaps the most influential criticisms of P&P have been theory internal. By its very nature, research published within the P&P paradigm often suggests reformulations and variations of the basic P&P premises. This is the norm for any developing field of enquiry. Notable debates emerged within P&P including (a) derivationalism vs representationalism (b) the locus of morphology (e.g. lexicalism vs derived morphology) and (c) the tension between a production model and a competence model amongst others. The development of head-driven phrase structure grammar (HPSG) and lexical functional grammar (LFG) reflect these debates: these are both strongly lexicalist and representational systems. Nevertheless, perhaps the most coherent and substantial critique of P&P is the Minimalist Program, Noam Chomsky's most recent proposal. This program of research utilizes conceptions of economy to enhance the search for universal principles and parameters. Linguists in this program assume that humans use as economic a system as possible in their innate syntactic knowledge. The Minimalist Program takes issue with the large number of independent postulations in P&P. and either (a) reduces them to more fundamental principles (e.g. Merge, Move, Agree), (b) derives them from `reasonable’ interface constraints on derivations (e.g. bottom-up Merge and requirement that no derivation be counter-cyclic derives Relativized Minimality effects) or (c) programmatically suggests that they be either derived from more basic principles or eliminated subject to future research (e.g. Binding Principles). Note that there is debate about whether the Minimalist Program is motivated by the empirical shortcomings of P&P or whether it is motivated by ideological concerns with `elegance’ etc. (see main article on the Minimalist Program).

Aside from this major move within the discipline, it seems that consensus has not been achieved over a list of universal parameters. Certainly, there is no publicly available list of these parameters and textbooks tend to cite the same ones: the interrelated verb-movement parameters (V-v, V-T, T-C), noun-movement parameters (N-D), subject-related parameters (pro-drop and EPP) and headedness parameters. This is not to say that the theory has not been fruitful (e.g. Holmberg and Platzak’s comprehensive analysis of parametric variation in Scandinavian languages), or that the theory is not descriptively adequate, but rather that the accomplishments of this line of thinking have been less than anticipated in terms of explanatory adequacy. Notably lacking is the development of a systematic, predictive system of parameters, their properties and interactions along the lines of the periodic table in chemistry. This is not to say that such a system is impossible in principle, merely that it has not yet been developed. Generally, theorists have moved to regarding parameters as varying feature specifications on lexical items within languages and derivations rather than parameters which are globally defined.

For example, while formal linguistics takes the sentence to be the canonical unit of analysis, conversation analysis (CA) takes the turn at talk as canonical. Speakers in conversation often do not use complete sentences or even complete words to converse. Rather, discourse is composed of sequences of turns which are composed of turn constructional units (e.g. a word, phrase, clause, sentence). In CA, the form and meaning of an utterance is a product of situated activity- which is to say meaning is highly contextual (within a social, interactive context) and contingent upon how participants respond to each other regardless of grammatical completeness of an utterance.

Similarly, other discourse and corpus linguistic analyses have found recursion and other forms of grammatical complexity to be rather rare in spoken discourse (especially in preliterate societies) but common in written discourse suggesting that much of grammatical complexity may in fact be a product of literacy training.

Other critics point out that there is little if anything that can unequivocally be called universal across the world's languages. Discourse analyses have focused on the dynamic, dialogic, and social nature of language use in social situations. These critics argue that P&P and discourse analysis differ in the same way that chemistry and cookery differ: one is the study of fundamental interactions at a mico-scale in a deterministic model that attempts to be scientific in the broad sense, the other is a more macro-scale, non-deterministic, non-scientific model focussing on use of chemicals in everyday situations in the real world. What these critiques have in common is the claim that the analysis of I-language does not carry over to E-language. From a Chomskyan perspective, this is a truism because the two objects of study are fundamentally different.

There is a tendency for inter-paradigm critiques to focus on a number of assumptions that are commonly associated with P&P, but which actually are common to Chomskyan generative linguistics as a whole. These include innateness, modularity, the poverty of the stimulus, language universals, binarity, etc. See for example, Connectionist, Functionalist and Cognitivist critiques. As another example, the linguist Larry Trask argues that the ergative case system of the Basque language is not a simple binary parameter, and that different languages can have different levels of ergativity. Also, some have argued using evidence from historical linguistics that grammar is an emergent property of language use. Language evolution theorist, Terrence Deacon notes that it is problematic to consider language structure as innate - that is, as having been subject to the forces of natural selection, because languages change much too quickly for natural selection to act upon them. There are many more critiques. There is debate about the validity of these arguments, but since these are not specific to P&P they will not be dealt with here.

Read more about this topic:  Principles And Parameters

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