Thursday, August 19, 2004

Not my job

My recent move thrust me into a broadband-free wilderness, and my resulting internet withdrawls had become so severe (after a couple of days) that I now write to you through the mediation of a stolen AOL CD. As I attempted to get a handle on what had happened in the lingosphere during my days of submersion, I noticed a very interesting discussion on overgeneration over at phonoblog. To this, I would add my two bits.

I have to agree with Charles Reiss's terminology: simply waving one's hands over overgeneration is a “cop-out”. The goal of phonologists should be to explain all of the sound patterns in language. As a linguist who prefers his phonology “hold-the-substance”, I believe that much of this explanation must reside in domains outside of the grammar (but certainly, not outside of langauge). As Reiss rightly notes, this note has been pounded by John Ohala for years, and as John Ohala will tell you, this idea predates Ohala's work by many generations. Perceptual and articulatory factors feed sound changes and ensure that certain types of patterns will be very common, while others will be quite rare. The inherent computational properties of the grammar must also constrain the set of possible phonological patterns, making certain conceivable grammars uncomputable or unlearnable. Given these two modes of explanation, it should be acceptable to excuse one's grammatical model for the sin of overgeneration only when some extragrammatical factor can explain the gaps.

On the other hand, I do not think that evidence from typological gaps is as compelling as is conventionally assumed. First of all, the number of human languages for which we have reliable and complete phonological descriptions is not large. Secondly, there are very good reasons--discussed by Johanna Nichols among others--for believing that the human languages that currently exist, and those that have existed historically, do not form a representative sample of possible human languages. The idea is that there are evolutionarily plausible and computationally possible languages that have never existed simply because human linguistic history has not yet played out all of it's options. If we accept these two propositions, we should assume that many typological gaps are purely accidental. Frankly, we have to believe in the possibility of a lot of things for which we have no direct evidence, just as we have to believe that Proto-Indo-European was a possible human language even though it is completely unattested.


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