Minimalism and the Syntax-Semantics Interface Part II: The Autonomy of Syntax

The question of semantics and its relationship to syntax is often confusingly entangled with questions concerning the autonomy of syntax, controversies around the nature and scope of Minimalism’s universalist claims, and further confounded by the many different implicit definitions of what semantics itself is taken to be.

At a descriptive level, language systems are complex, involving both form-based facts as well as generalizations related to effects on truth conditions. The overall system is clearly modular. Some effects on truth conditions are not part of the syntax itself but of pragmatics and inferential processes. Some effects on acoustics/articulation have to do with phonetic implementational algorithms that are not part of the narrow linguistic computation. At least when it comes to inputs and outputs anchored in the external world, we can pose objectively clear questions. For sound, the externalized and objective acoustic reality is measurable and quantifiable, and we can ask questions about the gap between that measurable output/stimulus and the internal representations that generate it (or perceive it). Similarly, meanings of sentences can be anchored through detailed descriptions of the external realities that make them true. We can thus ask about the relationship (gap) between the linguistic representations produced/comprehended and the truth conditions associated with them in context. These interface questions are important questions of synchronic grammatical description. So for meaning specifically we can ask what part of the mature speaker’s behaviour is controlled directly by their linguistic competence, and what part is controlled by their pragmatic competence. Our pragmatic competence of course is finely tuned to subserve language, but it also arguably operates in non linguistic domains.

But, I would argue that when it comes to the nature of the syntax-semantics interface. specifically, it is much less clear what the question is about, since linguists seem to disagree on what is meant by these labels, and they do not have neutral architecture/ideology independent definitions.

In a mature grammar, syntax as a computational system operates with its own relations and primitives which, by hypothesis, are not reducible to either semantics or phonology. This is the gist of the autonomy of syntax proposal put forward by Chomsky as early as 1957 in Syntactic Structures, and maintained explicitly by Chomsky in 1982. Adger ( 2017) gives the following articulation of the principle:

“. . . syntax as a computational system that interfaces with both semantics and phonology but whose functioning (that is the computations that are allowed by the system) is not affected by factors external to it“. Adger (2017)

In terms of the functioning of a particular grammar as part of a person´s synchronic competence, it is relevant to ask what sort of system the combinatorial engine is, and what determines its functioning. For example, if we consider the interface with systems of externalization such as phonology, most would agree that syntax does not have rules like the following (1)

(1) Allow a syntactic unit which begins with a plosive to syntactically bind a syntactic unit that begins with a liquid, but not vice versa.

It appears that a kind of modularity that operates between the phonological system and its categories and relationships, and the syntactic system proper, which operates in a way that is blind to the difference between a stop and a liquid. This makes sense given that modes of externalization can vary, and that externalizing via sign for example gives rise to human language, with all the distinctive characteristics we are trying to understand, just the same as vocalized externalizations. In each case, the internal representations have to be systematically externalized for uptake by others, and then decoded and interpreted reliably by their own minds.

Do we have a parallel to (1) when it comes to semantics? Indeed, nobody believes that there should be a rule of syntax that distinguishes directly in terms of referential content.

(2) Perform syntactic operation R on a syntactic unit A, if it refers to a mammal in an actual context of use.

This would cause syntax to treat some of its nominal units the same way based on whether they ended up referring to a mammal in a particular utterance. It would mean that the name Fido would have to behave differently syntactically if it were the name for a dog, or for my pet lizard. And it would force my dogto pattern with one of those Fidos and not with my lizard . It seems bizarre to think of a language with such syntactic rules.

This seems fully parallel to the non-rule of syntax making reference to phonological segments, and at first blush argues for a parallel autonomy of syntax from semantics. But is this the right, or equivalent, analogy? Phonological features are, after all, abstract mentally represented generalizations over auditory percepts, not acoustic reference itself. It is important to note then, that there are cases of syntactic rules that appear to make reference to `semantic’, or interpretable features. For example in languages that care about animacy for subject selection. Even in those cases though, language seems to care about the abstract syntactic category rather than the actual denotational facts, or even conceptual category facts about what the culture conceives of as `animate’ or not, so that mismatches are found between abstract linguistic classification and cognitive judgements.

Consider also, as in (3) here, a toy rule which needs to make reference to a [+Q] feature, correlated with being interpreted as a question.

(3) Move the syntactic element in T to C if the latter bears the feature [+Q]

But, this is not a counterexample to the autonomy of syntax from semantics because [+Q] is a syntactic feature by hypothesis. And though it might systematically be translated via an abstract interrogative semantic representation, it is not exceptionlessly correlated with an actual questioning speech act in practice.

Pragmatics may intervene as in (4-a) so that the outcome of [+Q] being present in the structure is not actually a request for information; conversely, the request for information in (4-b) does not in fact require the syntactic feature [+Q] that is responsible for the movement of an overt tensed element past the subject. (Although distinctive intonation may be present, as is well known, this is actually dissociable from overt question-movement).

(4) a. Is the pope catholic?

b. You broke my favourite vase?!

It is widely acknowledged that the actual form of utterances radically underdetermines their truth conditions. Aspects of context, anchoring of indexical elements, resolution of anaphoric dependencies and conversational implicatures triggered by the particular the discourse context are all required before truth conditions can be specified. Nevertheless, the syntactic representation does provide a foundational skeleton of meaning contribution which is an important ingredient of the concrete meaning intended and apprised in context.

Because of their inter-subjectivity, truth conditions have seemed a convenient, plausible (and indeed necessary) way of grounding discussions about what sentences of a natural language `mean'. There is a well established use of the term semantics to pick out facts of reference and truth in an external, non-linguistic domain. I will refer to this use of the term semantics as E-semantics. The use of the feature [+Q] in syntactic theorizing can never be replaced by E-semantic facts concerning requests for information. Obviously. But let us imagine that we can isolate a contribution to truthmaking that was always the `translation’ of the syntactic feature [+Q], as a component of some kind of intermediate semantic representation. Syntax would still be autonomous in the sense that it manipulates syntax-specific units of syntactic representation, it is the translation algorithm that maps these syntactically active features onto something regular in a corresponding (intermediate, and still language-specific) semantic representation.

Very many features standardly assumed in syntactic representations are suggestively labeled with words that gesture towards a kind of interpretation (interpretable features), but which are fully paid up syntactic club members in practice. Their status as [+interpretable] only refers to the fact that such a feature is in the domain of the translation function from the syntactic representation to whatever representational form the underspecified linguistic `meaning’ occurs in.

I suspect that most working linguists and semanticists believe that there is an independent semantic representation which operates with different primes and primitives from syntax, and the question of the syntax-semantics interface is a question of how the primes and primitives of the one kind of representation translate into the other. The challenge here is to understand the systematicity of that relationship, which somehow must hold, if children are to acquire the ability to creatively generate meanings of complex utterances from component parts. Given the role of context, no direct mapping between form and E-semantics is possible. But if there were an intermediate semantic representation generated by a systematic translation algorithm, then the gap to E-semantics could be filled in by studying the systematic relationship between that semantic representation and actual truth conditions. (This latter is what I take to be the traditional understanding of the field of pragmatics.)

One standard understanding of the syntax-semantics interface, then, is the study of the translation algorithm that operates between syntactic and this intermediate semantic modes of representation; pragmatics is the study of the inferential processes that fill the gaps between the intermediate semantic representation and the fully precisified representations that can be paired up with truthmakers.

What is the status of this intermediate semantic representation itself? If it is on the language side of things, then doesn’t that mean that the strong minimalist thesis is false?. If it is on the non-language side of things, then its abstractness, its variability from language to language (which I think is an undeniable empirical fact), and its mismatch with non-linguistic categories of meaning are difficult to account for.

Posing the question in this way however, would be in my opinion, a misapplication of the strong minimalist thesis. For the strong minimalist thesis is not intended to hold at the level of descriptive modularity in the mature speaker’s system of competence, but rather refers to the role that other properties of mind/brain play in how the final system emerges. It refers to how we understand the initial state of the language faculty, and what (if anything) we need to put in there to ensure that the language systems we describe have the properties that they do. The strong minimalist thesis is about explanatory modularity, about what is present innately in the human brain that makes language possible. It differs from earlier incarnations of Chomskian writings in postulating a larger role for independent properties of mind/brain (which also could be unique to us, and also possibly innate). The minimalist programme says it is more `minimal’ to explain language properties through things we have to assume anyway about human minds, than to invoke language specific devices.

Barbara Partee, in one of her recent papers on the history of formal semantics within the generative paradigm makes the same point, in attempting to explain why Chomsky’s own attitude towards formal semantics (of e.g. the Montagovian type) has been often quite ambivalent:

“. . . it has seemed to me that it was partly a reaction to a perceived attack on the autonomy of syntax, even though syntax is descriptively autonomous in Montague grammar. But syntax is not explanatorily autonomous in Montague grammar, or in any formal semantics, and I do not see any rational basis for believing that it should be. The child learns syntax and semantics simultaneously, with undoubtedly a great deal of `innate knowledge’ guiding the acquisition of both (Partee 2014 pg 9)”

If we take the strong minimalist thesis in the sense of explanatory autonomy, then it is still perfectly consistent with that thesis to assume a language specific system of abstract semantic representations, correlated with syntactic forms, and not identical to the way non-linguistic cognition is structured, but in turn interacting with it. The mature system, the semantic representations and their internal vocabulary are in some sense hybrid representations that are not the same as that provided by cognition more generally, because they have been constructed over the course of acquisition to interface with syntax in order to solve the particular problem of codification and creativity. To quote Partee (2014) again,

“. . . syntax should provide the relevant `part – whole’ structure for compositionality to work.”

One can work on problems of the syn-sem interface in this sense without that being inconsistent or contradictory with the strong minimalist thesis. That is because it is perfectly possible that the final complexity of the system is emergent based on some rather simple abstract initial ingredients, only a small part of which is unique to language itself. The way in which language is set up is heavily determined by the need to interact with non-linguistic cognition (among other things), and this constrains the concrete systems that emerge in practice. Still, I would say that someone working on the syntax-semantics interface in the sense of constructing a computational theory of the mature grammar is not actually pursuing the minimalist agenda directly, even though they might be sympathetic to it or have it in the back of their mind as an important project. The descriptive patterns of actual syntaxes and generalizations about how they map to our agreed format for semantic representations are however surely part of the data that will be important empirical ground for other families of theories exploring the question of the explanatory role of cognition in constraining the general form of natural languages. So the existence of the subfield of research exploring the syntax-semantics interface is not a threat to either the autonomy of syntax , or in contradiction to the strong minimalist agenda.

In Part III, I will explore a somewhat different approach to the syntax-semantics interface, which is more directly engaged with the other project of exploring the questions of explanatory modularity at the heart of the strong minimalist agenda.

3 thoughts on “Minimalism and the Syntax-Semantics Interface Part II: The Autonomy of Syntax

  1. On the matter of whether the Strong Minimalist Thesis is supposed to be about the synchronic state of the adult speaker or about the initial state of the language-acquirer, it seems to me that Chomsky himself vacillates on the matter. In _Beyond Explanatory Adequacy_ (2004), he indeed couches it as a thesis about “the initial conditions on language acquisition” (p. 106). However, in the later _On Phases_ (2008), he states that potential departures from the SMT come in the form of “postulation of descriptive technology that cannot be given a principled explanation” (p. 135). Now, “descriptive technology” is the stuff of characterizations of the synchronic knowledge of adult speakers. Of course, one could claim that by “given a principled explanation” he is gesturing (among other things) at the kind of ontogenic explanations you have in mind; but I think Chomsky’s own work shows that he does not actually understand it this way. In _Problems of Projection_ (2013), for example, he argues that in light of the “simpler Merge-based conception of UG” it is necessary to reimagine syntactic labels as a requirement that applies to syntactic objects only “so that they can be interpreted at the interfaces [with the sensorimotor and conceptual-intentional systems]” (p. 43). Now, if the SMT was only about the initial state, there would be no impediment to an ontogenic development of a completely syntax-internal labeling mechanism (by and for syntax-internal needs), where it is this *development* that is guided by language-external forces. But Chomsky proceeds as though this option is immediately foreclosed on by the SMT, suggesting that he indeed understands the SMT to hold of the adult grammar every bit as much as it holds of the initial state.

    None of this precludes one from engaging in an alternative research program whereby the SMT holds only of the initial state. But I think people (e.g. me!) are entirely right to criticize *Chomsky’s* SMT on the grounds of its profound inability to underlie an adequate theory of the adult state.


    • I think that Chomsky does think about the SMT as a proposal about the initial state. But I think that he imagines a closer relationship, i.e. less of a gap between that initial state and the state of the mature grammar, between the initial state of the language faculty (what he used to call UG) and I-language (the grammatical competence of the mature speaker). I think he has systematically underestimated that gap over the years and his language involves a lot of slippage between the two. That is where I find myself in strongest disagreement with him. I think he can only think this because he has not spent the last 20 years reading about what we currently know about brains and what they do. Regardless, I am actually more interested in the research programme itself (which I think is an exciting and important research question), as interpreted in the way I suggest, than in any exegesis about what Chomsky actually believes.


      • Yup, I’m generally less interested in exegetical exercises too, except that I’m on the record both in print and online criticizing (Chomsky’s version of) the SMT on precisely these grounds. And so I thought it worthwhile to explain why I thought (and still think) it’s a relevant target of criticism. That said: I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what you think this research program should look like instead!


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