John Cowan wrote:

>> It's true that "Would you pass the salt?" is not interpreted as a yes/no
>> question, but I think that the use of the yes/no question formula to
>> express muted commands is prevalent enough to be considered a part of
>> the grammar.
>Hmm.  It's definitely part of the grammar my wife and I use, but
>my daughter persists in interpreting such remarks as mere
>requests or even questions (so it goes when you're eleven).

Uncooperative pre-teens are as good an example as I know of the need to
distinguish competence from performance!  :-)

># At one point, Chomsky said something like "if you're a physicist, you
># don't stick a video camera out the window and start filming. You
># conduct controlled experiments. Similarly, if you're a linguist, you
># don't just turn on a tape-recorded and start taping people.
># You construct sentences."
># In one word: Bollocks.
># In a few more words: constructing sentences does give us some insights
># into language we wouldn't otherwise get --- although the enterprise is
># fraught with difficulties and fine print. But to say that turning on a
># tape-recorder and analysing speech as it actually happens is not
># linguistics [...] will not win you favour...

I'd be surprised if very many linguists would agree with Chomsky's
statement here (it sounds like an extreme example of the desire to defend
the academic legitimacy of the field by modelling linguistics on the hard
sciences).  The point is a valid one though.  Chomsky's view, in its
strongest form, is that:

(a) The proper object of study for linguists is Mental Grammar.

(b) Linguistic performance involves the interaction of Mental Grammar
with various other cognitive and physiological systems, and that it's
impossible to tease apart the effects of those systems from the effects
of Mental Grammar simply by 'passively' observing examples of performance.

(c) The only way to examine Mental Grammar by itself is to study patterns
of linguistic competence, as deduced from elicited native-speaker judgements
of constructed sentences, since these judgements are 'uncontaminated' by
the extra-linguistic conditions which affect linguistic peformance.

I think that very few linguists - even those who don't mind being called
"Chomskyans" - would accept all three of these points.  Personally, while I
agree with (a) and (b), I do not believe that there is sufficient evidence
for the claim in (c) that elicited judgements constitute 'uncontaminated'
data.  I doubt if Chomsky *really* believes this either, although that's
definitely the viewpoint he's been advocating.  I think that, at least
given the current state of the field, it's impossible to completely separate
linguistic from extra-linguistic effects on the data, either elicited or
spontaneous, and that the best we can do is to just be aware of the problem.

Thomas Payne puts it well in his "Describing Morphosyntax" book
when he talks about the need to balance spontaneous and elicited data.
Spontaneous data helps to orient you and give you the broad picture of
what's going on in a given language.  Elicited data allows you to clarify
specific points of structure by controlling for irrelevant factors.
My favourite approach is to use them together:  My Malagasy consultant
and I will begin a fieldwork session by going over part of a text together
(a folktale or newspaper article, for example), after which I'll pick out
various sentences from that text and modify them to see how that changes
their meaning and acceptability, e.g. "Would this sentence still be good
if I changed the order of these two words?  How about if I leave this word
out or substitute another word?  How about if I change the prefix on the
verb?" etc..  I find I can get a lot of good work done that way, although
it can go rather slowly.


Matt Pearson
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UCLA Linguistics Department
405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1543