Syntax

Syntax

In linguistics, syntax (from Ancient Greek σύνταξις "arrangement" from σύν syn, "together", and τάξις táxis, "an ordering") is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages.

In addition to referring to the overarching discipline, the term syntax is also used to refer directly to the rules and principles that govern the sentence structure of any individual language, as in "the syntax of Modern Irish."Modern research in syntax attempts to describe languages in terms of such rules. Many professionals in this discipline attempt to find general rules that apply to all natural languages. The term syntax is also used to refer to the rules governing the behavior of mathematical systems, such as formal languages used in logic.

Early history

Works on grammar were written long before modern syntax came about; the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini is often cited as an example of a premodern work that approaches the sophistication of a modern syntactic theory. In the West, the school of thought that came to be known as "traditional grammar" began with the work of Dionysius Thrax.

For centuries, work in syntax was dominated by a framework known as grammaire générale, first expounded in 1660 by Antoine Arnauld in a book of the same title. This system took as its basic premise the assumption that language is a direct reflection of thought processes and therefore there is a single, most natural way to express a thought. That way, coincidentally, was exactly the way it was expressed in French.

However, in the 19th century, with the development of historical-comparative linguistics, linguists began to realize the sheer diversity of human language, and to question fundamental assumptions about the relationship between language and logic. It became apparent that there was no such thing as the most natural way to express a thought, and therefore logic could no longer be relied upon as a basis for studying the structure of language.

The Port-Royal grammar modeled the study of syntax upon that of logic (indeed, large parts of the Port-Royal Logic were copied or adapted from the Grammaire générale). Syntactic categories were identified with logical ones, and all sentences were analyzed in terms of "Subject – Copula – Predicate". Initially, this view was adopted even by the early comparative linguists such as Franz Bopp.

The central role of syntax within theoretical linguistics became clear only in the 20th century, which could reasonably be called the "century of syntactic theory" as far as linguistics is concerned. For a detailed and critical survey of the history of syntax in the last two centuries, see the monumental work by Graffi (2001).

Modern theories

There are a number of theoretical approaches to the discipline of syntax. One school of thought, founded in the works of Derek Bickerton, sees syntax as a branch of biology, since it conceives of syntax as the study of linguistic knowledge as embodied in the human mind. Other linguists (e.g. Gerald Gazdar) take a more Platonistic view, since they regard syntax to be the study of an abstract formal system. Yet others (e.g. Joseph Greenberg) consider grammar a taxonomical device to reach broad generalizations across languages. Andrey Korsakov's school of thought suggests philosophic understanding of morphological and syntactic phenomena. At foundations of their linguistic ideas, lies classical philosophy which treats reality as consisting of things, their qualities and relationships. From here the followers of Korsakov's school assert the subdivision of words by the parts of speech. Syntactic problems also get their enlightenment in the terms of philosophic processes. Some more approaches to the discipline are listed below.

Generative grammar

The hypothesis of generative grammar is that language is a structure of the human mind. The goal of generative grammar is to make a complete model of this inner language (known as i-language). This model could be used to describe all human language and to predict the grammaticality of any given utterance (that is, to predict whether the utterance would sound correct to native speakers of the language). This approach to language was pioneered by Noam Chomsky. Most generative theories (although not all of them) assume that syntax is based upon the constituent structure of sentences. Generative grammars are among the theories that focus primarily on the form of a sentence, rather than its communicative function.

Among the many generative theories of linguistics, the Chomskyan theories are:

  • Transformational Grammar (TG) (Original theory of generative syntax laid out by Chomsky in Syntactic Structures in 1957)
  • Government and binding theory (GB) (revised theory in the tradition of TG developed mainly by Chomsky in the 1970s and 1980s)
  • Minimalist program (MP) (a reworking of the theory out of the GB framework published by Chomsky in 1995)

Other theories that find their origin in the generative paradigm are:

  • Generative semantics (now largely out of date)
  • Relational grammar (RG) (now largely out of date)
  • Arc Pair grammar
  • Generalized phrase structure grammar (GPSG; now largely out of date)
  • Head-driven phrase structure grammar (HPSG)
  • Lexical-functional grammar (LFG)
  • Nanosyntax

Categorial grammar

Categorial grammar is an approach that attributes the syntactic structure not to rules of grammar, but to the properties of the syntactic categories themselves. For example, rather than asserting that sentences are constructed by a rule that combines a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase (VP) (e.g. the phrase structure rule S → NP VP), in categorial grammar, such principles are embedded in the category of the head word itself. So the syntactic category for an intransitive verb is a complex formula representing the fact that the verb acts as a functor which requires an NP as an input and produces a sentence level structure as an output. This complex category is notated as (NP\S) instead of V. NP\S is read as " a category that searches to the left (indicated by \) for a NP (the element on the left) and outputs a sentence (the element on the right)". The category of transitive verb is defined as an element that requires two NPs (its subject and its direct object) to form a sentence. This is notated as (NP/(NP\S)) which means "a category that searches to the right (indicated by /) for an NP (the object), and generates a function (equivalent to the VP) which is (NP\S), which in turn represents a function that searches to the left for an NP and produces a sentence).

Tree-adjoining grammar is a categorial grammar that adds in partial tree structures to the categories.

Dependency grammar

Dependency grammar is a different type of approach in which structure is determined by the dependency relation, as opposed to the constituency relation of phrase structure grammars. Dependencies are directed links between words. The grammatical relations between a word (a head) and its dependents are important. For example, syntactic structure is described in terms of whether a particular noun is the subject or agent of the verb, rather than describing the relations in terms of the phrases of phrase structure grammars.

Some prominent dependency-based theories of syntax:

  • Algebraic syntax
  • Word grammar
  • Operator Grammar
  • Meaning-Text Theory
  • Functional Generative Description

Lucien Tesnière (1893-1954) is widely seen as the father of modern dependency-based theories of syntax and grammar. He argued vehemently against the binary division of the clause into subject and predicate that is associated with the grammars of his day (and which is at the core of all phrase structure grammars), and in the place of this division, he positioned the verb as the root of all clause structure.

Stochastic/probabilistic grammars/network theories

Theoretical approaches to syntax that are based upon probability theory are known as stochastic grammars. One common implementation of such an approach makes use of a neural network or connectionism. Some theories based within this approach are:

  • Optimality theory
  • Stochastic context-free grammar

Functionalist grammars

Functionalist theories, although focused upon form, are driven by explanation based upon the function of a sentence (i.e. its communicative function). Some typical functionalist theories include:

  • Functional discourse grammar (Dik)
  • Prague Linguistic Circle
  • Systemic functional grammar
  • Cognitive grammar
  • Construction grammar (CxG)
  • Role and reference grammar (RRG)
  • Emergent grammar
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