Thursday, October 25, 2007

<, {, ?

In the most recent meeting, we discussed extensively the relationship between two observed kinds of syntactic operations: External Merge (née Merge) and Internal Merge (née Move). Furthermore, relations were set up between them in this form:

(1) EM < IM
(2) EM { IM

The first relation is read as "external merge precedes internal merge", where precedence is established in some sense of derivational time, however one prefers it. The second relation is read as "external merge is preferable to internal merge", at some given point of derivational time, possibly based on some notion of economy.

It was held, in class, that these two statements emerge from different sources, the former, at minimum, from empirical observation. And that, separate statements though they may be, they appear to lend support to one other.

Tim Hunter argued that at least one of them---the first one---may be entirely trivial given the second, which, if true, suggests that the second statement must cover every instance that the first is claimed to cover. After a brief discussion after class, I am even more inclined to agree with him than I was in class. Consequently, I---and possibly also he---are having difficulty engrokulating* what the attempt at making a distinction between (1) and (2) serves to explain, considering that it seems to be part of the basis for future discussion.

A major part of the distinction between the two appears to be the following reasoning and observations---which I may well have entirely misconstrued:

(3) a. Complex syntactic objects sometimes appear as the Initial Selection from the lexicon.
b. We never see a movement/IM within these objects before some EM occurs. If we did, we might see things like the "glob" and "gleb" verbs mentioned in class. We might also all get positive acceptability judgements for sentences like "The bucket was kicked by John's cohort."
c. Consequently, EM is prior to IM at least in this, so an IM never occurs before all EMs, even though in principle it could.

The bolded statement is the problematic statement, embedding an assumption that is rather too profound for both me and Tim, if I may take the liberty to speak for him in this. When does movement/IM occur? Typically, as I have understood minimalist syntax, it happens when an uninterpretable feature must be checked/valuated/whatever. So what situation is (1) actually blocking? It is blocking the situation in which a complex syntactic structure is selected wholesale from the lexicon, and it has an uninterpretable feature that needs checking at that point in the derivation.

If this is a situation that we need (1) to block, it follows that such an object must exist in the lexicon. Perhaps it is only my limited mind, but it's very hard for me to construct such a lexical item. Idioms like "kicked the bucket" were bandied about as unpassivizable (perhaps!) complex lexical units. But passivization and other operations typically always happen after a merge/EM involving T or something.

So if there are no such objects (an assumption of mine you may challenge), then it's difficult to see a nontrivial distinction between (1) and (2) that gives an independent meaning to (1).

*engrokulate = to cause to be grokked.