Reconstituting Generative Grammar

In the summer of 2014, Terje Lohndal, Artemis Alexiadou, Marcel den Dikken, Winnie Lechner and I decided to organize a round-table discussion in Athens (for continually updated information about the event see the event webpage). We contacted a couple dozen linguists who agreed to participate, and posted the following meeting description on the Linguist List (reproduced here in unedited form; some light edits were made to the version on the event website):

“Generative grammar has made important contributions to our understanding of language, and with it, the human mind. The field continues to be fecund and vibrant and new discoveries and developments continue apace. However, the rapid growth and development of this still-young field leaves it without a clear and uncontroversial canon, especially in syntax. There are few fundamental points that practitioners of the so-called minimalist approach have a clear consensus on. Because minimalist syntacticians generally cannot rely on a shared core of hypotheses and central principles, each paper has to build its case from the ground up, which results in publications steadily growing in size and presentations at conferences rarely generating the kind of excitement and fruitful discussion today that they used to more than a decade ago. It has become increasingly difficult to prove individual analyses, to prove them wrong, or to confront them in a meaningful way with counterarguments or supporting evidence.

“This conference represents a ‘reconstitutional’ meeting of major minds in generative syntax aimed at producing a white paper to (re)affirm the theoretical core, work towards creating an analytical lingua franca, and lay down a platform for research in the field in the coming years.”

This posting generated some interesting feedback, and also some back-talk, a lot of the latter being found on Facebook. It turns out that some linguists took exception to our characterization of the field and some took umbrage at our goals. Some felt that we painted too dire a picture, and that we should be focusing on achievements rather than obstacles. Others were upset that we should be talking about directions for the future of the field, feeling that this was an attempt to impose our own research agendas on them.

We are hoping that our event could help the field move forward collaboratively, for example by identifying areas in which we have already achieved consensus and areas in which there are major unsettled issues; by identifying areas and approaches for which renewed efforts are likely to be especially fruitful; and determining how to reach out to scientific communities outside our own for interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange of information. A related challenge is communicating our results to a nonscientific public.

So it is obviously of great interest to us to sort out any differences of perception or opinion regarding the starting point and the goals and directions and means of achieving them. In that spirit, I hereby invite any interested parties to discuss the premises and goals of the Athens event.

This discussion will be moderated, and comments not civilly addressing the central points will be deleted. I ask that all participants identify themselves by full real name (not in the legal sense, but full enough for purposes of identification, e.g. what you publish under). I apologize in advance for any inconvenience, confusion or time-lags that might be caused by the moderating process (I have not attempted to moderate a blog discussion before).

Peter Svenonius

Tromsø, January 29, 2015