Mental Grammar

Posting by Ade Tuty Anggriany | 11:19 AM

Grammar and Psycholinguistics

a. How do speakers produce and understand sentences?

Linguists have long puzzled over what the main goal of linguistics should be. Is it to describe a language? Or, is it to describe what speakers know about a language? There is a distinction, one that has important implications for psycholinguists.

b. Linguistics as psychology

Bloomfield argued for the psychological validity of the descriptions they were writing. He held that what they wrote about was not only a description of language but it was also a description of what people had learned. However, Twaddell, rejected such a goal for linguistics. He considered the description of language, not the psychological aspects of people, to be his goal. Moreover, Chomsky’s staunchest linguistic critics are in accord on the goal of linguistics as involving the description of knowledge that people have about language.

2. Chomsky’s Competence and Performance Distinction

Chomsky uses the term competence to indicate a certain kind of language knowledge. Competence is the knowledge that people have of the grammar of their language and, as such, it is the goal of linguistics to describe this competence. In Chomsky’s view, psycholinguistics has two major goals: (1) to specify how people use competence so that they are able to produce and understand sentences; and (2) to specify how people acquire competence (grammatical knowledge).

For Chomsky, the activities involved in producing and understanding sentences are performance processes. A theory of performance should explain sentence production and sentence comprehension. The relationship of competence to performance for Chomsky, therefore, is that of part to whole, with competence being a part or component of the whole, which is performance. Competence is the knowledge that persons have of their grammar while performance involves knowledge for using competence so that the processes of sentence production and understanding can be realized.

3. Chomsky’s Grammatical Conceptions

In 1957, Chomsky demonstrated how such a system could be used to explain how speakers can, in principle, produce and understand an infinite number of grammatical sentences. He also maintained one fundamental notion, which is that the syntax of the grammar is primary, with meaning (and sound) being secondary. It can be said that the meaning of a sentence is specified as a function of its syntactic form, and not vice versa. Chomsky claims this relationship to be innate and universal.

a. The Standard Theory

The Standard Theory (ST) essentially consists of various sets of rules: syntactic, semantic, and phonological. Each set of rules is systematically integrated and serves to provide, for every sentence, a linguistic description or representation at four different levels. There is a sound level (Phonetic Interpretation) where the phonetic sound pattern of a sentence is represented; there is a meaning level (Semantic Interpretation) where the meaning and logical relations in a sentence are represented; and, there are two syntactic levels (Deep Structure and Surface Structure) where various syntactic aspects of a sentence are represented. Deep Structure represents the underlying syntactic form of the sentence while Surface Structure represents its more overt form.

Transformational Rules and Surface Structure

Surface Structure is the outcome of Transformational rules operating on the Deep Structure. Transformation rules - rules which delete, add, and move material – and which have been applied to the Deep Structure. Deep structures are transformed into Surface Structures by means of Transformation (T) rules.

Phonological Rules and Phonetic Interpretation

The function of Phonological rules is to change the Surface Structure into a Phonetic Interpretation, which is a sequence of wholly phonetic symbols that, in effect, represents the pronunciation of the sentence.

Semantic Rules and Semantic Interpretation

Returning to Chomsky’s ST grammar, it is the Semantic rules which take a Surface Structure as input, so as to provide the Semantic Interpretation of a sentence in something like its propositional form. In this regard, it is important to note that Deep Structure, despite its somewhat misleading ‘Deep’ name, does not represent the meaning of a sentence. It is Semantic Interpretation that provides that specification. Deep Structure is a syntactic representation.

b. The Government/Binding (GB) Theory of Grammar

One principal function of government, in Chomsky’s theory, is to ensure that a word is assigned the proper case. How the nouns in such a sentence are related to each other and whether they refer to the same entities or other expressions is the function of Binding Theory. The relationship between D-structure and S-structure is restricted in terms of what can be moved, where it can be moved from, where it can be moved to, and how far it can be moved (the distance is limited by Bounding Theory).

4. Linguistic Challenges to Chomsky’s Grammar

Challenges to Chomsky’s grammar have mainly stemmed from two sources; (1) disagreement with the organization of his grammar where syntax is given a primary role over semantics; and (2) disagreement with the adequacy of his structural characterization of such basic syntactic relations and constituents, particularly Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object and Verb Phrase.

a. Meaning-based Grammars

Firstly, semantics is given the primary role. Syntax is given only a secondary role, which is to provide a realization of the semantic representation. Then there is only one type of syntactic rule, the Transformational; there are no Phrase Structure rules. Accordingly, there is only one level of syntactic representation, Surface Structure; there is no Deep or D-Structure.

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