Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Subjacency: The judgements

Thank you very much for your responses, everybody! (If you haven't answered yet and want to, please do it before reading the rest of this post.)

Chomsky's intuitions were as follows (* marks ungrammaticality as usual):
  1. * That's the boy who they intercepted John's message to.
  2. * That's the boy who he believed the claim that John tricked.
  3. * That was a lecture that for him to understand was difficult.
  4. * Which book did John wonder why Bill had read?
  5. √ Which book did John think that Bill had read?
  6. √ What would you approve of John's drinking?
  7. * What would you approve of John's excessive drinking of?
Mine were that 1, 4, 5, 7, and (only after some thought) 6 were good, while 2 and 3 were wrong - but I exclude those judgements here, since I was reading the book and might have been swayed by my reactions to the arguments. My sister found 1, 2, and 4 wrong, 3 "weird but comprehensible", and 5-7 good - so even within a single family judgements vary significantly. Your 11 collective judgements (plus some friends and family, and excluding non-native speakers) add up as follows (grading "uncertain" as 0.5):

The discrepancy, and the level of individual variation, are striking - not a single reader agrees with all of Chomsky's judgements, and the only consistent judgements are 2 (always wrong) and 5 (always right.) Most of Chomsky's judgements also happen to be predicted by his (and others in the generative tradition's) theories; your judgements therefore often pose problems for those. According to Chomsky, 1 and 2 should both be ungrammatical for the same reason - they involve movement past more than one "barrier" (boundary of a 'noun phrase' (DP) or clause excluding the complementiser (IP)) at a time. Yet more than half the people here (including me) accept 1, while nobody accepts 2; one could argue that 2 should be less acceptable than 1 because it crosses three barriers rather than two, but why should 1 be acceptable at all? 4 should be ungrammatical because "why" is occupying a position that "which book" should have to move through - but about half of you (including me) think it's fine. And most readers of this blog find 7 to be better than 6 - the opposite of Chomsky's judgements and of the predictions of the "A-over-A" principle he was working with then (although the latter is obsolete.)

Chomsky (1963:51) said of sentences like these: "In some unknown way, the speaker of English devises the principles of [wh-movement etc.] on the basis of data available to him; still more mysterious, however, is the fact that he knows under what formal conditions these principles are applicable... The sentences of [1-3] are as 'unfamiliar' as the vast majority of those that we encounter in daily life, yet we know intuitively, without instruction or awareness, how they are to be treated by the system of grammatical rules which we have mastered." This seems to be false; individually we often find it difficult to decide the grammaticality of sentences like these, and collectively we routinely disagree on them. Certainly it cannot be construed as belonging to that part of the "knowledge of language" that is, in the words of Chomsky (1963:64), "independent of intelligence and of wide variations in individual experience".

If it did, then that would be rather interesting: it has been claimed that the principles of Subjacency must be innate, because children aren't exposed to enough evidence to deduce them otherwise. But given the level of variation actually observed, it is tempting to reverse the reasoning: children don't deduce most of the principles of Subjacency, so they must neither be exposed to enough evidence for them nor have innate knowledge of them. Rather than postulating arbitrary rules hard-wired into the brain and specific to the language faculty, a more promising way to explain Subjacency phenomena might be to try to derive them from processing difficulties, as suggested by Sag et al.


Joe Perry said...

Wow, those results are really quite surprising to me. Of those, I only find 5 straightforwardly grammatical, and I find 2 actually better than many of the other sentences. Often I tend to think that the problem with examples such as these is that they're declared (un)grammatical with a particular intonation in mind, and it's quite difficult to work out which interpretation the author is referring to. Perhaps that accounts for some of the variation in judgements.

For example, the only interpretation of 6 that I can recover ("what of John's excessive drinking do you approve?") has a fairly marked intonation which doesn't seem obvious to me when I read it.

David Marjanović said...

What is 4 supposed to mean?

I understand 2 now that I interpret "who" as "whom", but that took a few seconds to occur.

Lameen Souag said...

4 may be paraphrased as: "John wondered why Bill had read a certain book - which book?" Chomsky's interpretation of 6 likewise boils down to "You would approve of John's drinking a certain beverage - which beverage?" 7 (for me) is the same, only John is drinking excessively.

Joe Perry said...

Oh, right, I see now. I think to get that interpretation I'd usually say "What do you approve of John drinking"

David Marjanović said...

4 may be paraphrased as: "John wondered why Bill had read a certain book - which book?"

So... "of which book did John wonder why Bill had read it" with the first and the last word left out?

Lameen Souag said...

DM: Yeah, except that I would find that version significantly less grammatical.

John Cowan said...

I was just rereading Evans & Levinson 2009, which gives this example of a subjacency violation:

(6) Where did John say that we had to get off the bus?

(7) Did John say whether we had to get off the bus?

(8) *Where did John say whether we had to get off the bus?

and then comments "However, it turns out that this constraint does not work in Italian or Russian in the same way, and theorists have had to assume that children can learn the specifics of the constraint after all, although we do not know how." I, however, read (8) as perfectly grammatical, not a subjacency violation, parallel to:

(8') When did John say whether we had to get off the bus?

and paraphrasable as:

(8'') At what location was John / were we when John said whether we had to get off the bus?

Of course, this is pragmatically unnatural, because surely John didn't say "We never have to get off the bus"!

John Cowan said...

Bah, bad link: Evans & Levinson 2009. The example is on p. 18.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

That interpretation is possible but not relevant for the study of subjacency, since in it "where" is an argument of the main clause alone semantically as well as syntactically, not of the subordinate one. In general, subjacency violations are relative to a particular intended meaning rather than to the string alone; that meaning should have been explained more clearly in the text.