Dec 262020

I was reading some comments by Dan Milway about Chomsky’s recent UCLA lectures, and I realized something I hadn’t noticed before: committing oneself to the brand of minimalism that Chomsky has been preaching lately means committing oneself to a fairly strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Here’s why. Consider Chomsky’s “Strong Minimalist Thesis” (SMT), which states that the properties of natural-language syntax can be derived entirely from Merge, interface conditions (about which, see below), and so-called “third factors” (e.g. properties of efficient computation). In particular, the only part of this that is linguistically proprietary, from a cognitive standpoint, is Merge. As Dan points out at the end of his note, this actually entails that there cannot be any substance-based conditions on the application of any syntactic operations – well, of the one syntactic operation. If there was a feature that made Merge apply or not apply (in a way that wasn’t wholly reducible to Sensory-Motor or Conceptual-Intentional considerations), that feature would ipso facto be a linguistically-proprietary entity. And the SMT entails that there can be no such entities.

Now consider the issue of cross-linguistic variation in general, and syntactic variation in particular. Needless to say, if the only linguistically-proprietary element of natural language is Merge, then that doesn’t leave a lot of room for linguistically-proprietary variation. As pointed out ad nauseam by many, Merge is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. There isn’t really anything about Merge that is a candidate for varying cross-linguistically. And so the SMT commits one to a version of the Borer Conjecture, whereby all cross-linguistic variation is variation in the content of lexical items, and a very particular version at that: since there are (by hypothesis) no syntactically potent features, all variation must be located in interface-visible properties of lexical items. That is: properties that either the Sensory-Motor system or the Conceptual-Intentional system (or both) care about.

So let’s grab ourselves a nice example of cross-linguistic variation that looks syntactic: in Kaqchikel, the subject of a transitive clause cannot be targeted for wh-interrogation, relativization, or focalization. In English, it can. How could this variation arise, given the SMT and all that it entails? Well, there could certainly be differences between English and Kaqchikel in the contents of various lexical items, and in particular, the contents of functional vocabulary like wh-elements, interrogative complementizers, and functional elements in the verb phrase, to name a few. But to have any effect on the respective languages, these differences would have to be differences that the Sensory-Motor systems and/or the Conceptual-Intentional systems cared about. Now, if you’ve ever done fieldwork on Kaqchikel, you know that the Sensory-Motor systems of speakers have no problem with sentences in which, e.g., the subject of a transitive clause has been focalized. That’s because, by and large, speakers are perfectly able to use these systems to say the offending sentences, before immediately commenting that those sentences are “wrong.” (Granted, there are of course speakers who refuse to even say the offending sentences. So for the sake of uniformity, let’s run our argument only on the sub-community of speakers who are willing to say these sentences and only then comment on their wrongness.) I can already imagine some people who are reading this rushing to say something like, “Just because they can say the relevant sentences doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with those sentences from the perspective of the Sensory-Motor system.” But that kind of retort would be specious; the only way to evaluate the SMT is to take Chomsky at his word and then see what that entails. And since he says “Sensory-Motor system,” I think the only way to proceed is to assume that what he means by that is Sensory Motor system. Indeed, if the idea is that nothing outside Merge is linguistically proprietary, he certainly can’t mean, by “Sensory-Motor system,” anything that is about language in particular. And so, the fact that speakers can say the sentences in question means that, ipso facto, they have no Sensory-Motor problems with those sentences.

And so what we’re left with is the Conceptual-Intentional system. Epistemologically speaking, we have much less direct access to what’s going on there. So for all we know, it may indeed be true that the Kaqchikel sentences in question (involving, e.g., focalization of the subject of a transitive clause) are bad for reasons having to do with this system. But here, again, it is important that we take Chomsky at his word: the Conceptual-Intentional system is not “LF” or “semantics” or anything linguistic in nature; it is, well, the system of concepts and intentions. And so, by way of elimination, we have arrived at the conclusion that the difference between sentence (1) and its ill-formed Kaqchikel counterpart is a difference located in the system of concepts and intentions.

(1) It was the dog who saw the child.

This does not (yet) amount to the claim that the Conceptual-Intentional system of Kaqchikel speakers is different from that of their English-speaking counterparts. The respective systems can be functionally identical, with the relevant difference lying only in the Conceptually-Intentionally potent part of the relevant lexical items (wh-elements, complementizers, and so on) in English vs. in Kaqchikel.

But it does amount to the claim that either the Conceptual-Intentional systems of English speakers and Kaqchikel speakers differ, or else sentences like (1) express different Conceptual-Intentional content than their Kaqchikel counterparts. Since the former plainly amounts to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, let us choose the latter for now. This would mean that English speakers are able to construct Conceptual-Intentional content that their Kaqchikel-speaking counterparts are unable to construct. While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in many guises and varying strengths, I think most people would recognize the claim that speakers of one language can construct Conceptual-Intentional content that speakers of another language are categorically unable to construct as a claim that is itself decidedly Sapir-Whorfian. Remember, this is not the claim that speakers of one language can construct “LFs” that speakers of another language cannot construct, nor is it the claim that speakers of one language have lexical items that speakers of another language do not have. This is a claim about the ability (or inability) of speakers to construct a sentence that picks out a particular bit of language-external content, concepts and intentions that live wholly outside the linguistic system. A difference in the ability to pick out such content would be a quintessentially Sapir-Whorfian thing.

Now, regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my opinion of the Strong Minimalist Thesis as well as my opinion of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. But you don’t need to agree with me on either of those things to appreciate that the two are linked in the fashion just described. Like it or not, if you buy into the SMT, you’ve bought into (a nontrivial version of) the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

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