Ronin Public Seminar: Biolinguistics and Language Evolution: formal ‘simplicity’ and ‘structural simplification’ (6th November 2020)

‘Biolinguistics and Language Evolution: formal “simplicity” and “structural simplification” ‘, presented by Keith Tse (me) on November 6 at 12:00 PM ET/ 16:00 UTC. Here is the registration link:

More info can be found on this blog post:

Do please sign up on the registration form since this is a public event and registration is required for attendance. All welcome!

Ronin Public Seminar: Biolinguistics and Language Evolution: formal ‘simplicity’ and ‘structural simplification’

October 29, 2020Ronin ActivitiesArika Virapongse

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter : Keith Tse, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time : Nov 6, 2020 at 12:00 PM US Eastern Time / 16:00 UTC (local time)(add to your calendar) Hosted by : Varsha Dani, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Summary : This presentation examines the history and evolution of modern syntactic theory from a Chomskyan perspective and compares different principles of proposed ‘simplicity’. Despite the current popularity of Internal/External Merge in Principles of Projection, it is maintained that there are good reasons, both empirically and theoretically, that External Merge is preferred to other syntactic operations such as Move (Internal Merge) and Agree, which may cohere with Chomsky’s latest principle of ‘Minimise Computation’ (MC) (Chomsky (2013)), a general cognitive principle which seeks to minimise computational space in syntactic derivation. This has important ramifications for typological and evolutionary linguistics, since there is evidence from language variation and change that functional elements formed by Merge are widely proliferated and historically derived from lexical elements formed by Move/Agree, which further supports the proposal made here that MC can be used as a driving-force in the formal derivation of syntactic structures.

Background : It has become orthodox in linguistics, in line with modern science, to formalise the universals and idiosyncracies of human language as simply as possible (Occam’s Razor). In fact, modern linguistic theory goes one step further in that the simplest formalisations for language structures are preferred not only for theory-internal reasons but also for empirical reasons (Martin and Uriagereka (2000)), since it has been established from language acquisition studies that human infants acquire their first language at an exceptionally high rate, which, in accordance with Plato’s Problem, indicates that there may be an innate component in the human mind which is species-specific and genetically designed for human language. Chomsky, a major pioneer of modern linguistic theory and a proponent of a cognitive approach towards the study of human language, has argued throughout his career (Syntactic Structures (1957) et seq) that formal metrics of ‘simplicity’ determine linguistic structures, and his Principles and Parameters (P&P) theory whose latest version known as the Minimalist Program (Chomsky (1995) et seq) has provided an important backdrop to many works which seek to account for language variation and change (Borer (1984), Biberauer (2008), Roberts (2007, 2012, 2019), Roberts et al (2003, 2010), van Gelderen (2004, 2009, 2011, 2016)). However, while common assumptions such as Plato’s Problem and formal ‘simplicity’ are widely held among scholars in generative linguistics, consensus remains elusive since technical details are yet to be agreed upon: in early Minimalism (Chomsky (1995, 2000, 2001)) seminal principles are proposed which state that syntactic operations such as movement and, by extension, agreement, are more complex and hence pre-empted by other operations like Merge, but from Chomsky (2004) onwards syntactic movement, remodelled as Internal Merge, is held to be on a par with External Merge (equivalent to old Merge), which significantly reshapes the debate on formal ‘simplicity’ in language processing (Chomsky (2013, 2014)).

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