Minimalism and the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Part I (Introduction)

The central insight of the Minimalist Programme is that we should seek to pursue a model of grammar where the properties and core operations are pared down to the minimum necessary ingredients that can interface successfully with the non-linguistic aspects of the human mind/brain, while fulfllling the complex symbolic functions of natural language (Chomsky 1995b). Under this view, there is only one system, and the only interfaces are with non-linguistic cognitive systems. Moreover, the core computation that makes language possible (let us call this `syntax´) is highly constrained by virtue of the fact that it must interface with these independent properties of mind/brain, i.e. general cognition and things like long term and working memory. The minimalist conjecture is that these constraints imposed by the interface go very far in determining the specific form of language, and that the part of the system that is independent, and specific to language is actually quite minimal, possibly restricted just to the bare fact of (automatized) generalized recursion, or Merge (Hauser et al. 2002).

Part of what is obscure in discussions of the role of the interface is that the other modules of mind/brain can potentially constrain the syntactic computation at a number of different relevant stages, phylogenetically, ontogenetically and as a continually accessed component of the synchronic system. Arguably, all of these points of influence from general cognition exist, and help to determine the final state of any individual human´s grammar. We can engage in questions of the evolution of language independently of study of the final state of the grammar attained by any individual human. And the final grammar that belongs to a human being will certainly have more in it descriptively speaking, than recursion, even if the minimalist conjecture is correct that it is the only language specific hardwired universal. Putting aside the memorized lexicon for the moment, the actual system that a user of a natural language operates with in real time involves categorization (labels), category relations and linearization algorithms that become part of procedural memory. All of the specifics of these components can be language particular, but all languages seem to need these components, including the rich conceptual lexicon.

So the salient question then is, how much of this necessary detail on top of Merge is emergent, based on the constraints imposed by general cognition and other third factor considerations? The answer can only be arrived at by detailed theoretical analyses of actual natural languages, searching for generalizations which will ultimately allow us to explain some of the details via the properties of other modules of mind/brain, even when the incarnation of those effects within the language system is special to that local instantiation. To thoughtfully pursue a minimalist agenda, therefore, in addition to the description of languages and the building of generative theories, we need to collaborate with or at least keep track of research on the properties of the other systems of mind/brain that are implicated in the instantiation of language. There are many such potentially relevant cognitive building blocks that could have a constraining effect on the emergent system: working memory, conceptual categorization, access to long term memory, associative mechanisms, timing mechanisms, and cross referencing and control in parallel processing across submodules etc. to name just a few that spring to mind.

These are all things about human mind/brain that we now understand a lot better than we did even 20 years ago, and which exist independent of language but which, crucially, are harnessed by it. In fact, one can read the minimalist agenda as an invitation to aggressively pursue such sources as explanations for the details of syntactic description. In other words, the way the human mind works can reliably (and even universally) force a certain kind of syntactic system to emerge, without any of the cognitive precursors being specific to language itself, and without compromising the implementational autonomy of the mature system. The proposal that Merge, or more generally recursion, is specific to language, is actually a departure from a fully minimalist thesis, which would seek all the ingredients elsewhere, and seek the uniqueness of language in the coupling, or automatization or certain human innate cognitive abilities.

In this context, what do we mean by the `syntax-semantics interface’, and is it consistent with a minimalist agenda? In the next few blog entries, I will explore a series of themes related to this question with the ultimate goal of carving out a domain of inquiry which I think is vitally important and interesting, but which has so far, I think, been underexplored and often misunderstood.

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