I’ve just started reading Phil Brannigan’s Provocative Syntax, which is very provocative. In that it provokes. Syntax!
OK, but seriously Dr. Brannigan, if you didn’t want these kinds of cheap puns made, you should’ve named your theory something less, erm, provocative.
OK, OK, I’m done. I swear.
I’m very much looking forward to this, mostly because my recent poster presentation at the LSA with Steve argues sort of the opposite. Brannigan seems to be defending bottom-up chain formation mediated through phases. We argued for top-down reconstruction, no explicit creation of chains, and no phases or multiple spellout.
Of course, since (Epstein and Seeley 2006), phase-based derivations have been under strong attack – largely because of the interminable EPP mystery. That is, a lot of languages seem to need a word in subject position for a sentence to be grammatical, even if that word is just a dummy word like it or there. Since no one can think of any reason why this should be so, most syntactic theories just stipulate it. That is, they say something like “the specifier of IP must be filled in language x.”
Minimalist theories – certainly not those that use Bare Phrase Structure – don’t really have the tools to state that kind of requirement, though. So, instead, EPP has been translated into a feature. Certain heads have a feature that requires that some suitable item occupy their specifier, and if they don’t get it, the derivation crashes. And of course, now that this is a feature (rather than a constraint on legal phrase structure rules), it gets used to fill other holes in the theory beyond just ensuring that subjects surface. As Epstein and Seely have pointed out, though, it isn’t clear that such a feature is needed in all the cases it’s been leveraged to address, that in many ways leaning on an EPP feature to provide an explanation raises more empirical questions than it answers, and that in any case the theoretical status of the feature is unclear. It’s entirely theory-internal; to the extent that it’s based on real evidence, it describes, rather than accounts for, the data.
Naturally a person like Brannigan who wants to save phases is going to have to deal with the EPP. Trying to explain why the EPP doesn’t overgenerate sentences like “*There seems a man to be in the room” is one of the primary motivations for proposing phases in the first place. So he’ll have to either come up with an answer to Epstein and Seely or find a suitable replacement for the EPP.
And he is definitely aware of this responsibility: it takes less than 4 pages in to the first chapter for the EPP to feature prominently.
Now, here’s my bone to pick. On page 4, Brannigan writes the following:
Notice that even in this model, the feature EPP feature remains representational, in the sense that it is to be deleted only when the phrase marker provides something to occupy the speciﬁer position for the probe in question. In other words, the right structure must ﬁrst be formed, and then it is examined to ensure that the probe head has a speciﬁer. If the phrase marker (representation) fails this test, the EPP feature remains intact, crashing the derivation. As Roberts and Roussou (1998) observe, positing this type of feature to characterize movement is inherently non-explanatory, since the feature does little more than point to the effect of movement.
That word “representational” sticks in my craw a bit. I’m not sure that this is a fair way to characterize the issue.
It’s true that the original formulation of the EPP was “representational.” It was a constraint on the kinds of phrase structure rules that a theory was allowed to have, and it operated basically like a filter – saying that trees of a certain architecture (namely those that had a specifier-less IP projection) were illicit.
In that kind of narrow definition, I don’t think the Minimalist concept of the EPP as a feature is “representational.” It’s rather “algorithmic,” saying that if a certain operation does not succeed at a particular point in a derivation, the derivation will crash.
Does that amount to the same thing?
Well, in some ways it does. It’s a constraint on architecture in the sense that it predicts that every grammatical structure in a langauge that respects the EPP will have members of a certain lexical class at specific points in the hierarchy. It’s hard to say that this doesn’t act like a representational definition, even if it isn’t formulated like one.
But in other ways it doesn’t. A representational rule has a more global feel to it. That is, there are these and those structures, and because these look like that and those don’t, these are good and those aren’t. That isn’t how this is formulated. In fact, this does’t make reference to structure at all. It’s true that it has a very restricted kind of structural side-effect – which is interesting, and I’ll come back to that in a bit – but as stated, it isn’t really any different from a lexical requirement that a particular head have an external argument. Merge only happens to check features, and this is one of those cases.
The reason I’m splitting this particular hair is that I think the EPP is actually a good example of where the Minimalist Program functions as Chomsky intended: that is, where attempts to reduce the operations of narrow syntax to those that satisfy “bare output conditions” in the least computationally burdensome way lead us to new insights.
I’m not claiming that we’re any closer to understanding what the EPP is or why languages have it (or don’t). It’s still quite mysterious; we still have to deal with it in ways that are frustratingly stipulative. But trying to rework the EPP as a local featural requirement (as opposed to global configurational requirement, which we’ve banned from the pallette of acceptable grammar construction tools) at least illuminates in more detail what it is, precisely, that’s mysterious about the EPP, and this is a good pointer to solutions.
First, the EPP is mysterious because it behaves like a selection requirement with no semantic import. This is something that’s been said about it for a long time, but restyling it as a feature on heads makes the point clearer, I think. Now that we can’t think about it as a global constraint on trees, we’re forced to think of it as a lexical selectional requirement. THAT is interesting. Why would languages have this kind of constraint on their lexicons? What purpose does it serve? Most of all, why is it so comprehensive? Usually for lexical phenomena, there will be exceptions, and yet there don’t seem to be any for the EPP. In this way, it casts some doubt on the whole Minimalist enterprise: should we really be attempting to state rules that appear to be global in local terms?
Second, the EPP is mysterious because it seems to be a constraint on pronounciation. This is where I think Minimalism has some unique new light to shed on the issue. Since in Minimalism we are able to state rules that are purely concerned with pronounciation order in theoretically satisfying ways, and since Minimalism has already given us a better understanding of the disconnect between structure and sequential order, this aspect of the EPP has a more natural expression. And it is interesting too. Why would there be a requirement that states, essentially, that a word of a particular class must precede a particular head in the final sequential output? And yet, that does seem to be what it says – because there is precious little evidence for the operation of the EPP in the covert component (that is, in fact, one of the more successful arguments against it). In more representational theories, the EPP was purely hierarchical; it was stated in terms of the hierarchy as a constraint on hierarchy. But it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with hierarchy – one of its hallmarks being that it has no semantic reflex. Before Minimalism, it would have been hard to notice this. Now that we think of structure-building patterns as universal, differing accross languages more in terms of whether they have a pronounciation reflex rather than whether they happen at all, it is easier to see the EPP is a pronounciation-directed operation.
On second thought, maybe Brannigan is doing everyone a great service by using the word “representational.” By doing so, he’s highlighting what is surely the central modern concern about the EPP. Namely:
Given that we’ve had so much success porting our representational theory to a non-representational framework, it is reasonable to hope that non-representational explanations are available for every phenomenon we wish to capture. The central (modern) question about the EPP becomes: what would cause a non-representational phenomenon to behave as though it were representational?
[cross-posted at The Only Winning Move]