Brief reading notes on Chomsky (1965)

Noam Chomsky’s (1965) Aspect of the theory of syntax presents a revised version of generative grammar that constrains the power of its syntactic transformations in order to maintain the predictive goals of generative grammar: produce all the grammatical sentences and only the grammatical sentences. In other ways, Aspects also functions as an apologetic to his detractors who have not jumped on the band wagon with him. And to that end, Chomsky presents a defense of his overall paradigm. What is striking in his preface is that in order to challenge those to continue to hold to the behaviorist perspective on language as well as his critics, Chomsky appeals back to some of earliest work modern linguistics: Wilhelm von Humboldt. In fact, Chomsky goes as far as to claim that the concept of a generative grammar should be considered even as ancient of Panini.

Still, it is likely, however, that his critics would view both of Chomsky’s claims, or at least the claim for Panini, as anachronistic. Nevertheless, it was surprising to me that a statement that many, many people unconsciously associate first and foremost with Chomsky should actually go back nearly 200 years to von Humboldt: “that a language ‘makes infinite use of finite means” (Chomsky v). It is Chomsky claim that what had prevented linguists such as von Humboldt from pursuing such a goal was the development of specific mathematic resources.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Chomsky’s preface to Aspects, as well as the following first section of chapter 1 is the tentativeness of the whole enterprise. All of Chomsky’s language is couched in epistemic modalities (such as “possible,” “perhaps,” “seems”). Statements such as the following are rather common: “In chapter 3, I shall sketch briefly what seems to me in light of this discussion, the most promising direction for the theory of generative grammar to take. But I should like to reiterate that this can be only a highly tentative proposal” (vi). All of this is rather incredibly considering that so many of his critics tend to talk as if Chomsky views his claims as a sort of last work on the subject of grammar and syntax. This surely cannot be the case in light of his words here, not to mention his later writings.[1]

The focus of the first section of chapter one, “Generative Grammars as Theories of Linguistic Competence,” is the goals of linguistic theory, which Chomsky claims should be “concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions … in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance” (3)[2]

What follow from this is an effort to distinguish competence from performance. The latter can only be viewed as a direct representation of the former under the circumstances describe above of the ideal speaker-listener. Practically, speaking this is impossible though. And this reality is reflected in the traditional and structuralist grammars, which provide lists of irregularities, but failure to capture the regular and universal features of language. Here again, Chomsky goes back a couple centuries to past linguistic research which distinguished universal grammar from particular grammar. He goes as far as to suggest that modern linguistic study, as of the 1960s), had failed to deal with the question of universal grammar by showing no interest in the creative aspects of language. And it is exactly this possibility that creative language use that drives Chomsky’s work.

1. For example, the concept of the “autonomy of syntax” continues to be a sticking point for functionalist linguists even today. And yet, according to Newmeyer (2005), Chomsky hasn’t made such a claim about syntax since 1975, but has instead revised his own claims about the nature of language.

2. It should, perhaps, be questions whether this is a valid goal. Specifically, it is not clear why a homogenous community should be ideal when the vast majority of language use in the world is not homogenous. By itself the statement appears somewhat ethnocentric and Chomsky provides no explanation as to why the homogenous situation of English should be treated as preferable to that of multi-lingual communities. Surely a multilingual community would provide just as much information and about universal grammar than any other community.

Empirical data grounding prototype theory

There’s plenty of already existing evidence for the nature of linguistic categorization and prototype theory. I laid much of it out in my (old) discussion of middle voice several years ago, where I explain categorization and cognitive linguistics in the context of discussions of middle voice.

But there’s a recent article on lexical semantics from a group of researchers at UC Berkeley using fMRI scans of people’s brains to map out how lexemes light up the brain. The result is fascinating and beautiful. It also provides additional compelling data for how the relationship between metaphor and meaning is realized neurologically.

Scans Show ‘Brain Dictionary’ Groups Words By Meaning (NPR Article)

On a more “linguisticky” note, if Jack Gallant and his research team work here had been possible in the 1970’s, the linguistic wars wouldn’t have ended they way they did. It’s a solid affirmation, too, of the models put forward in Langacker’s Foundations of Cognitive Grammar.

Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

James Clackson, the classisist/historical linguist, recently published on book on sociolinguistics in Ancient Greek & Rome: Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds. I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen is before. I try to stay up on these things.

Publishers blurb:

Texts written in Latin, Greek and other languages provide ancient historians with their primary evidence, but the role of language as a source for understanding the ancient world is often overlooked. Language played a key role in state-formation and the spread of Christianity, the construction of ethnicity, and negotiating positions of social status and group membership. Language could reinforce social norms and shed light on taboos. This book presents an accessible account of ways in which linguistic evidence can illuminate topics such as imperialism, ethnicity, social mobility, religion, gender and sexuality in the ancient world, without assuming the reader has any knowledge of Greek or Latin, or of linguistic jargon. It describes the rise of Greek and Latin at the expense of other languages spoken around the Mediterranean and details the social meanings of different styles, and the attitudes of ancient speakers towards linguistic differences.
Even better, Staffan Wahlgren just published a review of the volume (link) in Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

To sum up, this is a really good book. It is up to date, well written and an easy read, and it is well produced with only a very few misprints. The factual errors are neither many nor, on the whole, serious. Perhaps it is not unfair to suspect a certain Anglo-Saxon bias: the bibliography mainly lists works in the English language, and there is an very slight tendency to present multilingualism as abnormal. More important, however, is that this is a work with a clear aim and a lot of coherence; it will serve its purpose as an excellent introduction to a vast subject. Comparing it with the many handbooks that are flooding the market, it seems fortunate that it was written by one person only.

I’ll be giving it a look when I get a chance. Introductory texts on topics like this are greatly needed, for classicists, historians, biblical scholars, and linguists alike.

Διακρίνεσθαι and a non-existant “semantic shift”

I read an excellent article in Novum Testamentum yesterday that argues that the novel sense of διακρίνομαι ‘to hesitate,’ or as BDAG puts it: “to be uncertain, be at odds w. oneself, doubt, waver”, doesn’t actually exist. The author, Peter Spitaler, puts forward the argument that such a meaning is wholly unknown to Greek patristic interpreters of the text and that there is no solid evidence of this meaning outside of the New Testament. Rather, Spitaler argues, the meaning to “to hesitate/doubt/waver” came via Latin translation from Greek, which then influence. The article is particularly noteworthy in its analaysis of the distinction between the semantics of the active διακρίνω and the middle διακρίνομαι.

It’s an excellent article–very much in the spirit of John Lee’s A History of New Testament Lexicography and worth the time to read–and you can because JSTOR let’s you read articles online for free.

Spitaler, Peter. “Διακρίνεσθαι in Mt. 21:21, Mk. 11:23, Acts 10:20, Rom. 4:20, 14:23, Jas. 1:6, and Jude 22-the “semantic Shift” That Went Unnoticed by Patristic Authors”. Novum Testamentum 49.1 (2007): 1–39.


This article investigates how patristic and medieval writers interpret New Testament passages with the middle/passive διακρίνω. Contemporary NT scholars posit a difference between NT and classical/Hellenistic Greek meanings and usually justify their choice by means of a semantic shift. In the texts analyzed for this article, there is little evidence that Greek patristic and medieval authors acknowledge a meaning of διακρίνομαι that deviates from the Koine meaning. If, indeed, a semantic shift took place, they show no awareness of that movement. The transformation of meaning first occurs in translations from Greek to Latin.

New Testament Lexicography

contentSo apparently this book will eventually come into being and in English, at that!

Update: The original Spanish articles are here: Diccionario Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento (DGENT). Thank you, Masora digital!

New Testament Lexicography: Method and Methodoloy of the Greek-Spanish New Testament Dictionary

The release isn’t for another year and that could certainly be pushed back. Amazon has a listing for it, but you can’t even add it to a wishlist for later yet. I’ll need to find some other way to not forget about it over the course of the next 12-24 months.

I’m yet to have even seen any of the fascicles of the dictionary in any case. Still, in a very real sense I’m more interested in reading about their methodology than anything else. The third paragraph from the publisher’s blurb is a fairly big claim to make:

This text brings together in one volume two previous books that laid the groundwork for the construction of the entries in Diccionario Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento (Greek-Spanish Dictionary of the New Testament), namely Método de Análisis semántico aplicado al griego del Nuevo Testamento (Method of Semantic Analysis applied to the Greek of the New Testament) and Metodología del Diccionario Griego Español del Nuevo Testamento (Methodology of the Greek Spanish Dictionary of the New Testament), by Juan Mateos and Jesús Peláez.

In the introduction and first part of the text, the concepts of dictionary and meaning are defined and a critical analysis of the dictionaries of F. Zorell, W. Bauer (Bauer-Aland) and Louw-Nida is conducted. Their methodologies are examined with the purpose of then presenting a method of semantic analysis and the steps for establishing the semantic formula of the various classes of lexemes, which functions as the basis for determining lexical and contextual meaning.
In the second part the necessary steps for composing the dictionary’s entries are proposed. The text concludes with an analysis of related lexemes in order to demonstrate the accuracy of the suggested method.

For the first time, a carefully developed method of semantic analysis and the corresponding methodology are presented before the construction of the dictionary’s entries.


Studies in New Testament Lexicography

I recently encountered this monograph on Amazon. I’m a little surprised that I had never seen it before, especially considering it was published in 2011. I’m curious as to whether anyone here has taken a look at it. I’ll be hunting for a copy to borrow and examine. I like the idea expressed by the subtitle, however. It looks good.

Studies in New Testament Lexicography: Advancing toward a Full Diachronic Approach with the Greek Language

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scholars begin to publish works recognizing and demonstrating the early beginnings of Modern Greek, finding features in Greek writings of the first century and earlier that continue to exist in the modern language. Despite such research, New Testament lexicographers fail to systematically consult this later stage of the language when analyzing word meanings. After establishing an important unity of the New Testament with Modern Greek and a deficiency in New Testament lexicons in exploiting this unity, David S. Hasselbrook makes use of insights gained from the modern phase of the language to advance the understanding of general word senses, the construction of definitions, and the presentation of lexical entries.

A 2nd edition to Porter & Aspect series?

There have been a number of occasions when people have asked if I could do this–write or revise the four part series (HERE) on Stanley Porter’s published dissertation, Verbal Aspect and the Greek of the New Testament that I posted back in 2008. Some of my views since 2008 have changed. Eight years on, I somehow have both a more critical and also more sympathetic view of what Dr. Porter was seeking to accomplish with that book. Some of that is a result of dialogue with people like the late Rod Decker or friends that I have at McMaster Divinity School. Additionally, my reasoning behind my disagreement with some of his conclusions have evolved and developed with my ever growing interaction with the language data itself–I have a better grasp of the nature of the verbal system to day than I imagine I did in 2009, not to mention the historical and theoretical issues.

Were I to update (or replace?) the series, the tone would need to strive for respectfulness, of course. This is scholarship, not cage match*.

Anyway, it’s something I’m thoughtfully considering. We’ll see. It might also be too big of a task to accomplish efficiently. I’m not sure. At the verb least, I’ll be taking a look at the old.

*Incidentally, I think the appeal of creating “smack downs” and “cage matches” for particular debated issues at academic conference theme sessions is one of the most unhealthy aspects of biblical studies language scholarship.

Iterative usage of aspect in the imperative mood

When we look at aspectual choice in the indicative mood, we find that there are a number of usage-based factors that influence the speaker/writers decision to prefer the imperfective aspect or the perfective aspect. In narrative, the major driver of aspect choice is, of course, grounding (cf. Hopper 1981), but in non-narrative, that becomes less a factor (Runge 2015, forthcoming). Other facet of the aspects the come to the forefront for linguistic choice, such as contextual realizations of internal temporal structure for the imperfective aspect: progressivity, habituality, iterativity, etc. Each of these can come into play. In the previous post on this topic (Aspect, imperatives, and event conceptualization), we saw instances where the choice of a perspectival progressive ‘in the midst of it’ viewpoint was the motivator for aspect choice. I framed that discussion in terms of event conceptualization. And the same is true for other “usages” of the imperfective aspect. This week, ἀσπάζομαι provides an example of iterativity affecting aspect choice. This is a verb that, in the imperative, the perfective aspect dominates. In the NT alone, there are 26 instances of the perfective imperative. Outside the New Testament, Josephus, Philo, and the OT Pseudepigrapha provide an additional four instances. These contrast with a single instance of the imperfective imperative in the New Testament and contemporary texts:

Εἰρήνη σοι. ἀσπάζονταί σε οἱ φίλοι. ἀσπάζου τοὺς φίλους κατʼ ὄνομα (3 John 15).

Of course, there are a few more instances of this imperative beyond. Plato, in his epistles, provides this one for example:

καὶ τοὺς συσφαιριστὰς ἀσπάζου ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ (Plat. Letters 13.363d)

But the perfective imperative is, by a substantial margin, the preferred grammatical form. So what motivates the imperfective ἀσπάζου as an option? The 3 John example is probably the clearest in this regard. Clauses like this are sort of like the imperfective imperative equivalent of the iterativity in the indicative. John wants his audience to Greek the friends by name, i.e. individually. He’s commanding a repetition/iteration of greetings. Now, could John have used the perfective imperative here? Yes. He could have made that choice since the perfective imperative communicates no specific internal temporal structure at all, whether iterative or not. The choice of the imperfective, then, is a more explicit option that likely felt natural to the context, even if it wasn’t grammatically necessary. This is a case where the difference in form does not inherently communicate a difference in meaning, but rather just more meaning than otherwise would have been communicated.

When we look at the Plato example, the object of the imperative (i.e. the recipient of the greeting) there is also grammatically plural. I’m inclined to say that we can presume a similar interpretation, albeit less explicitly expressed—there’s no κατʼ ὄνομα here.


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