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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter January 22, 2021

Mid-level generalizations of generative linguistics: Experimental robustness, cognitive underpinnings and the interdisciplinarity paradox

Evelina Leivada ORCID logo


This work examines the nature of the so-called “mid-level generalizations of generative linguistics” (MLGs). In 2015, Generative Syntax in the 21st Century: The Road Ahead was organized. One of the consensus points that emerged related to the need for establishing a canon, the absence of which was argued to be a major challenge for the field, raising issues of interdisciplinarity and interaction. Addressing this challenge, one of the outcomes of this conference was a list of MLGs. These refer to results that are well established and uncontroversially accepted. The aim of the present work is to embed some MLGs into a broader perspective. I take the Cinque hierarchies for adverbs and adjectives and the Final-over-Final Constraint as case studies in order to determine their experimental robustness. It is showed that at least some MLGs face problems of inadequacy when tapped into through rigorous testing, because they rule out data that are actually attested. I then discuss the nature of some MLGs and show that in their watered-down versions, they do hold and can be derived from general cognitive/computational biases. This voids the need to cast them as language-specific principles, in line with the Chomskyan urge to approach Universal Grammar from below.

1 Introduction

It has been argued that linguistics today is characterized by a certain degree of fragmentation and lack of terminological clarity. As a consequence, field-internal coherence, disagreements over unanimous identification of primitives, and decreased field-external visibility are some of the challenges the field faces at present (Hagoort2014; Déchaine2015; Legate2015; Varlokosta2015). Most of these opinions on the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of present-day generative linguistics were formulated on the occasion of an academic event that took place in 2015: Generative Syntax in the 21st Century: The Road Ahead. According to the call for papers, the absence of a clear, uncontroversial canon posits an important challenge for the field, raising difficulties that pertain to interaction and external visibility.[1] Addressing this challenge, one of the outcomes of that conference is a list that involves the most significant “mid-level generalizations of generative linguistics” (MLGs) (Svenonius2016; D’Alessandro2019). These refer to results that are (i) concrete (Ramchand2015), (ii) established reasonably well and (iii) usable as background for the pursuit of other research, such that “the negation of any of them would be a proposal that would have to be argued for” (Svenonius2016). Given the need to address challenges that carry implications for interaction with other disciplines, visibility, and the future of linguistics (Hornstein2015a), the aim of this work is to examine these MLGs from a broader perspective.

2 Defining MLGs

To the best of my knowledge, there is no definition of the term “MLG” in any of the sources that discuss them. Definitions of specific MLGs are offered (Svenonius2016; D’Alessandro2019), but there is no list of criteria according to which something is classified as a MLG. Although there is consensus that these are mid-coverage results that should be treated as observations made possible thanks to the tools and approaches of generative grammar, the precise nature of these specific generalizations remains somewhat unclear. For example, what does it mean to be a mid-level generalization, and what kind of generalizations do the other levels involve? Svenonius (2016) suggests that it means that these observations are general enough to apply to a large sample of languages as well as fairly clear to test. Following the types of universals proposed in de Vries (2005), it is unclear whether these MLGs should be understood as (i) absolute universals (i. e. for all checked languages: p), (ii) implicational universals (i. e. for all checked languages: p ⟶ q), (iii) general tendencies (i. e. for many checked languages: p), (iv) implicational tendencies (i. e. for many checked languages: p ⟶ q), or (v) a mix of all the above, such that the list of MLGs groups together different types of observations. With respect to the claim that they are fairly clear to test, again it seems that the list groups together observations of different granularity. For instance, some of these generalizations are marked as “robust”, “very robust” or “robustness not known” in Svenonius’ list, while others are not marked at all. Scarcely any explanation is offered about these different levels of robustness and how they were established. Similarly, in D’Alessandro’s (2019) presentation of these generalizations, experimental robustness is not demonstrated in the sense that the entries in that list do not come with a set of references that provides experimental evidence for each of the mentioned generalizations. Of course, the theoretical work that gave rise to these generalizations is data-driven, and this evidence should not be ignored. However, the total absence of references outside theoretical linguistics is somewhat surprising in a list that was developed as a response to the need to discuss the road ahead, while maximizing field-external visibility. Put differently, if this list is meant to showcase our most solid findings, its entries should probably count as our best candidates for interdisciplinarity, and yet there is nothing in their presentation that suggests so. Of course, it is possible that this list of MLGs is not intended to make sense to non-linguists and that if the task was to produce a list that would make sense to scholars from other disciplines, the wording would have been different.[2] Ιf that is indeed the case, Hornstein’s challenge (i. e. think of interaction with other disciplines, visibility, and the future of linguistics in the greater scheme of things in cognitive science) has not really been addressed through this list. Given that five years after the conference, this list still hasn’t reached the stage of “translation”, one would think that it still has not been addressed.

The second factor that lends some ambiguity to the nature of these generalizations is the absence of any explanation as to what sets them apart from other well-established generalizations in linguistics. More specifically, the question is whether this is really a well-established canon or a reflection of the research interests of some of the scholars that attended the conference. As D’Alessandro (2019) puts it, the list is subjective and had other linguists been invited to the meeting, this list would probably look different. In this sense, these MLGs are important observations, but it is unclear whether they are uncontroversially accepted as some of the most robust results of generative linguistics. It seems that they rather reflect a discussion at the conference, that may not be representative of the opinion of the entire list of invitees in that event.[3]

Recognizing the importance of Hornstein’s challenge, this work aims to take a crucial step towards the “translation” stage for some MLGs, approaching them from a broader perspective that combines insights from neurocognition and experimental psycholinguistics. Taking the Cinque hierarchies for adverbs and adjectives and the Final-over-Final Constraint as case-studies, it is argued that while the phrasing of certain MLGs may rule out data that are attested, the essence of these generalizations holds across languages, albeit not in a way that always agrees with the way they are presented at the linguistic level. Reaching the “translation” stage is an important and non-trivial move, given the gulf between the generative linguistic tradition and research in neurocognition (Marantz2005; Grimaldi2012; Hagoort2014). To reconcile these mid-level observations made in the study of language data with neuroscientific studies of human language and cognition requires focusing on the right type of primitives as well as creating a shared, interdisciplinary understanding of them, something that is still not attained (cf. the Granularity Mismatch Problem and the Ontological Incommensurability Problem in Poeppel and Embick2005). In other words, the fact that the list of MLGs did not reach the “translation” stage, either at the conference or five years later, may mean that this translation is not possible for all the MLGs in that list. The question then is the following: Can granularity considerations be addressed for all MLGs, in the sense that they are all of the same ilk when it comes to granularity mismatches? It seems that the only way to an answer goes through addressing Hornstein’s challenge.

The forthcoming exploration of the experimental robustness and the cognitive underpinnings of some MLGs leads to a discussion of the interdisciplinarity paradox (Weingart2000): there is a significant mismatch between the proclaimed interest for maximizing interaction with other disciplines and the actual presentation of MLGs, which almost exclusively involves discipline-based terminology and lacks an outlook that would either discuss the possible connections of this list with other disciplines or make some suggestion about the interaction envisioned from the linguist’s side.[4] In order to remedy this paradox, I discuss the nature of some MLGs and show that in their watered-down versions, they can be derived from general cognitive and/or computational biases. This voids the need to cast them as linguistic principles of Universal Grammar (UG), something that is in line with the urge to approach the latter from below (Chomsky2007a).

3 The Cinque hierarchies for adverbs and adjectives

The list of MLGs involves two entries that make reference to two different Cinque hierarchies (D’Alessandro2019):


Cinque hierarchy: There are semantically defined classes of Tense-Aspect-Mood functors that appear in the same hierarchical order in all languages in which they exist overtly. (Cinque1999)


Cinque hierarchy for adverbs: There are semantically defined classes of adverbs that appear in the same hierarchical order in all languages in which they exist overtly. (Cinque1999)

There is a third Cinque hierarchy that is not mentioned in the list, but as the latter is subjective, and given that the Cinque hierarchies are interconnected, it seems that its absence is more of an accident, than a deliberate choice.


Cinque hierarchy for adjectives: Different types of adjectives appear in the same hierarchical order in all languages in which they exist overtly. (Cinque2010)

(2) entails the syntactic hierarchy in (4), while (3) the one in (5). There are slight variations of these hierarchies in the literature in terms of their level of detail, but the bottom line is the same: An innate, syntactic hierarchy encoded in Universal Grammar (UG) specifies the relevant orderings.


Moodspeech act (frankly) > Moodevaluative (fortunately) > Moodevidential (allegedly) > Modalityepistemic (probably) > Tensepast (once) > Tensefuture (then) > Modalityirrealis (perhaps) > Modalitynecessity (necessarily) > Modalitypossibility (possibly) > Aspecthabitual (usually) > Aspectrepetitive I (again) >

Aspectfrequentative I (often) > Modalityvolitional (intentionally) > Aspectcelerative I (quickly) > Tenseanterior (already) > Aspectterminative (no longer) >

Aspectcontinuative (still) > Aspectperfect (always) > Aspectretrospective (just) > Aspectproximative (soon) > Aspectdurative (briefly) > Aspectgeneric (characteristically) > Aspectprospective (almost) > Aspectcompletive I (completely) > Voice (well) > Aspectcelerative II (fast) > Aspectrepetitive II (again) > Aspectfrequentative II (often) > Aspectcompletive II (completely)

(Cinque1999: 106)


Subjective Comment > Evidential > Size > Length > Height > Speed > Depth > Width > Temperature > Wetness > Age > Shape > Color > Nationality/Origin > Material

(adapted from Scott2002: 114)

Focusing on the experimental robustness of (2) and (4), both corpus data of naturalistic speech and data that come from judgment tasks suggest that orderings that are not deemed possible, according to the Cinque hierarchy for adverbs, are actually attested or accepted as well formed respectively. Cinque (1999) discusses potential explanations for apparent counterexamples to his adverb hierarchy, but as Payne (2018) shows, even after taking these explanations into account, some examples of unexpected orderings still remain. More specifically, Payne (2018) provides data that do not comply with (4), but are nevertheless attested in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (e. g., already quickly, almost just). Of course, a series of adverbs is a rare phenomenon in naturalistic speech, hence rigorous testing is needed to properly adjudicate on the robustness of certain orderings and on whether the accepted orderings always comply with the Cinque hierarchy for adverbs. Comparing the hierarchy-deviating patterns in the Corpus of Contemporary American English with their hierarchy-compliant counterparts (i. e. almost just vs. just almost) in an acceptability judgment task, Payne’s results showed that out of the 18 comparisons, only 5 showed a statistically significant higher judgment of the hierarchy-compliant ordering, at p=0.001, after adjusting alpha for multiple comparisons. Grouping together items in the two conditions (hierarchy-compliant and hierarchy-deviating), the average rating for compliant orderings was 4.39 on an 1–7 Likert scale, while the rating for the deviating orderings was 3.67. Payne (2018) suggests that this difference is statistically significant at p<.045, however it is not clear that this difference would survive the process of adjusting for multiple comparisons. More importantly, not all differences in the comparison of the two conditions favored the hierarchy-compliant orders. Overall, these results raise some concerns about the experimental robustness of the MLG stated in (2), which seems to rule out data that are actually attested in naturalistic speech.

Even if one interpreted the findings from the acceptability judgment task as showing a statistically strong preference for the hierarchy-compliant orders, this result would not be informative about the (un)acceptability of the hierarchy-deviating orders. The fact that one sentence is deemed more acceptable or more preferred/natural than another sentence, does not necessarily speak about the status of the latter, unless many variables are controlled. For example, the simultaneous, forced-choice juxtaposition of two orders, one hierarchy-complying and the other one hierarchy-deviating, may not tap into the acceptability of each order, but into the strength of the preference that may arise over the explicit comparison of the deviating order with the prescriptively correct variant of it (Leivada and Westergaard2019). Especially speakers that are literate and belong into groups that have specific sociolinguistic characteristics (i. e. college students, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers) are likely to recognize the prescriptively correct sentence when this is juxtaposed with its deviating counterpart. As the literature on acceptability judgment tasks has shown, prescriptive correctness interferes with acceptability, given that acceptable sentences may be rejected either on a prescriptive basis or because they are formulated in a way that is not the most preferred one for the informant (Tremblay2005). The bottom line is that as long as more than one order exist in the repertoire of a speaker, the less preferred one does form part of this repertoire, even if it is less preferred and given lower ratings in acceptability judgment tasks. The fact that two (or more, if one considers instances of three adjectives) orderings seem acceptable is a fact that a theory that postulates innate (and as such fixed) hierarchies cannot accommodate.

This fixity problem of UG has been identified and discussed in the context of parametric hierarchies (Boeckx and Leivada2013; Leivada2015): This problem concerns the essence of UG as – what Chomsky has called – an innate fixed nucleus (Piattelli-Palmarini1980). In 1974, a debate took place between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, and in this debate, the nature of this innate fixed nucleus was discussed. As Piattelli-Palmarini (1980) documents, the positions of Chomsky and Piaget are indicative of their different persuasions (empiricism vs. nativism):

In this sense, the final position of Piaget at Royaumont represents a manifestation of the “empiricist” position. Once the existence of a fixed nucleus is acknowledged, the contrast between the paradigms is even more remarkable. For Piaget, accounting for the stability of the fixed nucleus in terms of self-regulating mechanisms becomes the first goal of epistemology, whereas for Chomsky, the fundamental issue is precisely the specificity of the fixed nucleus and not the manner in which its fixity is attained.

(Piattelli-Palmarini1980: 353)

Chomsky and Piaget disagree about certain things, but they agree on accepting the fixed character of UG. If one accepts their view that fixity is indisputable, one cannot argue that innate hierarchies that were thought to be rigid – and as such giving rise to a single ordering – can at the same time be viewed as adjustable primitives that allow for flexibility in the orderings they permit.

Returning to the adverb hierarchy, perhaps the most important observation about the experimental robustness of (2) comes from Wilson and Saygın (2001). Upon observing some orderings in Turkish that cannot be properly accounted for by the Cinque hierarchy for adverbs, they make a crucial link between actual experimental robustness and the explanatory power of (4). In their words:

Cinque does postulate some lower heads which duplicate the functionality of certain higher heads; these are marked with ‘(II)’ in (4) above. It is always going to be possible to accommodate any observed ordering facts simply by duplicating heads. However, if heads can be duplicated as required, the motivation for having a hierarchy in the first place is called into question.

(Wilson and Saygın2001: 5; emphasis mine)

In other words, patterns that fall outside the domain of predictions of (2) entail that we must seek different functional positions on the hierarchy for identical elements that do not have different functions. This also relates to the fixity issue, because one could have argued that fixity is not a problem for as long the innate hierarchy has different positions for the same category of adverbs such that any flexibility in the attested orderings can be accommodated, without challenging the rigidity of the innate hierarchy. Wilson and Saygın’s (2001) observation is accurate: If the hierarchy was created on the basis of the data, it seems that nothing is preventing us from amending it, by duplicating portions of it in order to be able to (re)accommodate the data. However, this is a problematic move, because we neither explain the distribution of the data this way, nor do we uncover an innate primitive. Taking into account that the Cinque hierarchies that form part of the list of MLGs are taken to be encoded in UG according to standard cartographic assumptions (see Cinque and Rizzi2008: 48), one understands that some explanation is necessary as to why machinery that seems to be adjustable to fit the data is cast as innate. This explanation is conspicuously absent from the literature. As Cheng (2015) noted in the context of the Generative Syntax in the 21st Century: The Road Ahead conference, “one of the main weaknesses of the field is that there is no criterion concerning what counts as an explanation or an analysis. Take cartography as an example. Do cartographic analyses count as explanations?” This problem of explanation, as Larson (2018) calls it, comes together with what he identifies as the problems of plenitude and rigidity. Plenitude refers to the fact that we must assume that the entire hierarchy is covertly present even if only two elements are overtly realized, while rigidity boils down to the fact that functional selection is not a gradable notion, and yet the predicted rigidity of the hierarchy is not reflected in the speaker’s judgments, which eventually show flexibility (Larson2018). This matters because it attests to the mismatch between theory and results: at the empirical level the hierarchy is not as rigid as suggested at the theoretical level.

Although the Cinque hierarchy for adverbs suffers from three major problems (i. e. it rules out data that are attested, it lacks an explanation about why the data appear the way they do, and it inserts unnecessary complexity in UG by allocating to it a hierarchy that seems an ad hoc invention that is customizable on the basis of the data), it should also be acknowledged that most scholars find that the majority of the adverb patterns that have been examined across different languages do conform with (4) (see Payne2018 and references therein). This probably suggests that the essence of the hierarchy is correct and possibly rooted in some general cognitive/computational constraint, although we have not yet discovered which one. Instrumental in understanding this point is the Cinque hierarchy for adjectives [(3)(5)].

Similar to the idea that adverbs are ordered in a specific way cross-linguistically, it has been suggested that different types of adjectives occupy fixed positions via rigid hierarchies that permit specific orderings. Once again, this allegedly universal order for adjective placement has been argued to be the result of a syntactic hierarchy that is encoded in UG (Scott2002; Cinque and Rizzi2008; Panayidou2013). Although certain preferences about the hierarchy-compliant adjective orderings have been demonstrated (Scontras et al.2017), once again it has been shown that the hierarchies are not rigid, given that hierarchy-deviating orderings are judged as highly acceptable by participants in an experimental setting (Leivada and Westergaard2019). More importantly, evidence from reaction times has suggested that the hierarchy-deviating orders do not take longer to process than their hierarchy-compliant counterparts (Leivada and Westergaard2019). This result suggests that not only aren’t the deviating orderings unacceptable, but they are not even more marked, because if they were, the reaction times should have reflected this, given that deviations from an unmarked order induce an extra processing cost (Erdocia et al.2009). Still, exactly as happened in the case of the hierarchy for adverbs, in the case of adjectives too, it seems that the predictions of the hierarchy are largely borne out, in the sense that the hierarchy-compliant orderings are the most preferred ones and they are also the ones eliciting slightly higher acceptability ratings (Scontras et al.2017; Leivada and Westergaard2019). Importantly, unlike the hierarchy for adverbs, the hierarchy of adjectives has been successfully explained in terms of cognitive notions, voiding any need to appeal to a UG hierarchy. Several studies have suggested that the preference for the ordering that complies with the hierarchy is due to cognitive factors such as inherentness (Whorf1945), absoluteness (Sproat and Shih1991) and subjectivity (Hetzron1978; Stavrou1999; Scontras et al.2017): more objective/absolute adjectives (e. g., red is more objective than pretty) that denote noun-inherent properties appear closer to the noun. These cognitive notions facilitate certain orderings in order to serve communicative purposes: subserving the distinction between speaker-oriented and object-oriented information (Stavrou1999), adjectives are often ordered in a way that reflects this difference in subjectivity in order to aid successful reference resolution (Franke et al.2019).

Although the Cinque hierarchy for adverbs has not been explained yet along the lines of cognitive notions that facilitate certain orderings, this has happened for the Cinque hierarchy in (1), which was also included in the list of MLGs. It has been argued that (1) is rooted in general cognitive constraints and the hierarchical ordering of Tense-Aspect-Mood functors reflects how our perception organizes experiences in terms of events, situations, and propositions (Ramchand and Svenonius2014). It is likely that extralinguistic accounts such as those developed for Cinque hierarchy (1) and the Cinque hierarchy for adjectives (3) will also be developed for the Cinque hierarchy for adverbs (2) and other MLGs.

4 The Final-over-Final Constraint

Another MLG in the list that emerged from the Generative Syntax in the 21st Century: The Road Ahead conference is the Final-over-Final Constraint (FOFC):


FOFC: A head-final phrase cannot (immediately) dominate a head-initial phrase in the same extended projection.[5]

(Biberauer et al.2013)

FOFC was originally argued to be a linguistic universal, determining that three of the four logically possible combinations in the ordering of two phrases are licit options, while also noting that the third possibility is less common due to the preference for harmonic orders (Biberauer et al.2014): consistent head-initial, consistent head-final, and inverse FOFC (i. e. head-initial dominating head-final).

However, in V2 languages like German, head-final VPs immediately dominate head-initial PPs. This rendered necessary a modification of FOFC that narrowed down the empirical coverage of the universal by introducing the factor of categorial agreement, predicting (7).


*[Aux’ [VP V O] Aux]

(Biberauer et al.2014)

Yet, the new formulation of FOFC is not immune to counterexamples either.[6] Hindi, for instance, involves V-O-Aux structures, where a head-initial VP is dominated by a head-final VP (Mahajan1990). These data are discussed by Sheehan (2013) who argued that FOFC-violating V-O-Aux orders in Hindi are derived via remnant VP movement (A’ movement) which is not subject to FOFC. Yet, FOFC-violating patterns are also found in Latin and Old English.[7]


‘... he should be condemned, who manufactured the sword.’
(Biberauer et al.2014: 180 from Danckaert2012)

Biberauer et al. (2014) propose that the observed case-markings in (8) shouldn’t be possible if V and O were in situ (in what would indeed count as a FOFC-violating configuration). In other words, the argument is that since we see these markings, some movement must be in place, thus the underlying structure in (8) is not an instance of FOFC-violating configuration. However, Danckaert (2011) presents S-O-V-Aux (i. e. consistent head-final) patterns that show the same case assignment as in (8), In (9), for instance, V is nominative-marked, whereas O is accusative-marked, and this is not a marked order, derivable via movement. In fact, Danckaert (2011) argues that these SNOM-OACC-VNOM-Aux patterns correspond to the neutral and most frequently attested order in Archaic and Classical Latin. In this context, the argument about the underlying order of (8) not violating FOFC on the basis of the observed case-markings does not look very strong, since the same case-markings are found in the neutral, unmarked order in (9).


‘Advantage has followed friendship.’ (= Cic. Lael. 51)
(Danckaert2011: 53)

There are more FOFC-violating configurations (see Sheehan2013 for examples), but the aim here is not to go through all of them in order to prove that valid violations of FOFC exist, but to understand the nature of FOFC as a proposed MLG. Focusing on this, what started off as a claim for a strong syntactic universal progressively turned into a claim that is much narrower in scope, due to the added stipulations that served to explain away potential counterexamples. These stipulations are not explanations, but ad hoc ammendments that modify the definition of the universal to make it immune to disconfirming data. For instance, consider the following claim by Sheehan about the apparently FOFC-violating final discourse particles in Mandarin Chinese: “As a result, it is impossible even to add a stipulation to FOFC stating that it does not apply to particles, as at present the only diagnostic for particlehood is insensitivity to FOFC.” (Sheehan2013: 440) The nature of this argument again brings forward Larson’s problem of explanation: structure α is not sensitive to FOFC on the basis of an added part to the definition of FOFC that posits that structure α is not sensitive to FOFC. One can add stipulations to a definition ad infinitum, but has one captured and explained an innate universal this way or has one created it by tweaking its definition accordingly?

With respect to the experimental robustness of FOFC, the original proposal that this is an absolute universal (Sheehan et al.2017) has been replaced in recent work with the weaker claim that FOFC is a strong tendency, again in light of the growing number of the attested counterexamples (Clem2018). Also, despite the fact that MLGs are taken to be results that are well established and uncontroversially accepted, it seems that some controversy does exist not only about whether FOFC is a hard constraint, but also about whether it is a syntactic constraint or a cognitive/extralinguistic one. Although Sheehan et al. (2017) argue that FOFC is neither a tendency nor a general cognitive constraint in processing, it seems that for some scholars a cognitive explanation is possible. Hawkins (2013), for example, proposed that the human parser has a preference for minimizing domains of processing, hence the preference for harmonic patterns. Grohmann and Leivada (2020) suggest that this preference is due to a combination of computational conservativism and the way human memory works: Putting together Roberts’ (2016) Input Generalization – a 3rd factor principle that suggests that there is a preference for a given feature of a functional head to generalize to other functional heads – with the results of experiments on statistical learning in infants, which have shown that sequence edges are exceptionally salient positions and facilitate learning in a way that gives rise to harmonic patterns (Endress et al.2009), the infrequency of disharmonic patterns can be explained.

In sum, this discussion of FOFC aimed to show three things: first, it is not clear that FOFC-violating patterns are inexistent across languages. If they exist, the nature of this MLG as an absolute universal vs. statistical tendency is unclear, and this has implications about the expected robustness of this phenomenon. Second, even if one accepts that FOFC-violating patterns are not attested, it is not clear that their inexistence is due to a syntactic universal. The arguments given in favor of viewing it as such are not backed up by explanations that address the “why” question. This is crucial if MLGs are proposed to be the most robust findings of theoretical linguistics and, as such, our best candidates for meeting Hornstein’s challenge. Third, as in the case of the Cinque hierarchies of adjectives and adverbs, the essence of FOFC in its watered-down version (i. e. a cross-linguistic tendency, not a hard, syntactic constraint) is correct, because disharmonic patterns are indeed less frequent compared to consistent head-initial or head-final patterns. It is possible that syntax has something to do with this infrequency, but no definitive claims can be made until a cognitive account of FOFC has been formulated in detail, tested, and (dis)confirmed.

5 Outlook: The interdisciplinarity paradox

Weingart (2000) used the term paradox of interdisciplinarity in order to talk about a phenomenon that has been apparent in the science policy arena ever since the 1970s. This paradox has been defined as “a strange simultaneity of the proliferation and continued persistence of a programmatic discourse about interdisciplinarity on the one hand, and an ever increasing disciplinary and sub-disciplinary differentiation and specialisation taking place in academic research on the other” (Woelert and Millar2013: 756). In Weingart’s (2000) discussion, the tension is between a proclaimed interest for interdisciplinarity and an increase in disciplinary rigidity, manifested through boundary demarcating, niche seeking, and the exclusive use of discipline-specific concepts, terminologies, and technologies.

The Generative Syntax in the 21st Century: The Road Ahead conference aimed to address the challenge of coherence and visibility. This aim was presented in the call for papers in the following way:

A major challenge concerns the coherence of the field. Given the large number of different analytic approaches, it has resulted in small groups working on x, y, or z. From a scientific point of view, this is not problematic, but it raises difficulties when it comes to interaction, funding, recruitment and external visibility. We want to discuss ways of improving this situation. We believe that this is especially important given that linguistics and generative syntax are not major fields compared to e. g., psychology or physics. In addition to being problematic in its own right, the proliferation of approaches further exacerbates the problem of teaching and supervision.


Sub-disciplinary boundary demarcation is evident in the above juxtaposition of linguistics and psychology, for this view of the two as different fields is not an uncontroversial one. In fact, the most prominent figure of generative syntax, Noam Chomsky, has repeatedly suggested that there is no other way to conceive linguistics but as part of psychology. Actually, he has made a much stronger claim: “In my opinion one should not speak of a ‘relationship’ between linguistics and psychology, because linguistics is part of psychology; I cannot conceive of it in any other way.” (Chomsky2007b: 43) If one agrees with Chomsky, the issue is not that linguistics and psychology are not conceptually connected, but that in practice over the last years they have somewhat drifted apart in their tools and methodologies. Undermining this conceptual connection by talking about two different fields, while at the same time recognizing the need to improve visibility in neighboring fields, does not help in increasing interaction. It rather seems to be an instantiation of subdisciplinary identity shielding that is typical in the context of the interdisciplinarity paradox.

Another exemplification of the latter comes from some of the statements offered by various prominent linguists in the context of the Generative Syntax in the 21st Century: The Road Ahead conference. Consider the following view in Merchant’s statement:

We can stop tying our analytical proposals to old debates about Universal Grammar, innateness, and learnability, and stop even paying lip service to positions in these debates. These are independent issues, orthogonal to the central theoretical issues we face, and a wonderful red herring for those who would seek to ignore or dismiss all generative syntax work. One can argue for or against UG as a theory of the language faculty, but it makes no difference to whether our proposals about selection, agreement, movement, phrase structure, etc. are right.

(Merchant2015; emphasis mine)

Again, this is not an uncontroversial view. Chomsky (2007b) has argued that no discipline can productively concern itself with the utilization of a form of knowledge, unless it deals with crucial “why” questions about the nature of the system that underlies this form of knowledge. In other words, our theories of UG, the type of assumptions we make about it, and the kind of primitives we allocate to it are highly relevant to whether our proposals about movement and phrase structure are right. If one endorses Chomsky’s view, drawing a sharp line between proposals about, say, phrase structure and (i) the reason and the way the overall system implements them, (ii) the path through which the individual learns them and (iii) the way the learning process reshapes them, is a dangerous move, not because it leaves the crucial “why” questions unanswered, but because it suggests that leaving these questions unanswered does not carry implications about whether proposals on phrase structure are right. Without answering these questions, the proposals are bound to have important gaps (along the lines of Larson’s problem of explanation), which are usually filled in with stipulative, circular arguments. Put another way, proposals about selection, agreement, movement, and phrase structure evoke certain primitives and operations. For example, certain features have been argued to drive movement operations and the most common answer to the question “where does that feature come from?” is UG. This is true also of many MLGs, and certainly of the ones discussed in this work.[8] In this context, proposing a disconnection between the theory that evokes a primitive (be it feature, parameter, constraint, etc.) and the very component from which the primitive is argued to come from is not only a wonderful red herring (to use Merchant’s words), but also another example of disciplinary identity shielding, when this proposal occurs in a context that has identified field-internal interaction and field-external visibility as two of the major challenges it aimed to address.

Hornstein’s (2015b) statement in the same event makes a valuable point that relates to the above discussion. He argues that there is a danger in treating our descriptions about grammars (and by extension about how movement, selection, and agreement occur in these grammars) as ends in themselves instead of way stations to the deeper “why” questions of how the system is organized. Of course, not being interested in answering these questions is fine, and one is free to pursue their research aims until the point that concerns them. The problem arises when one suggests that the two sets of inquiries (i. e. grammars and the system that implements them) can be disconnected, because they are independent issues. They are not, because the answer to certain questions about the former goes through the developing knowledge about latter. One can ignore these questions, but this does not entail that the gaps in one’s theory about the former will disappear. Last, if we embrace the view that the research questions that link the field of linguistics with other closely connected disciplines are irrelevant to the field’s core aims and concerns, Hornstein’s challenge is bound to remain unaddressed for longer, with all the consequences this may have for disciplinary visibility and interdisciplinary progress.


I thank the editors of this special issue for their help throughout the process. For helpful discussions that helped me sharpen some of the ideas presented here, I thank Kleanthes Grohmann, Norbert Hornstein, Terje Lohndal, Richard Larson, Volker Struckmeier, and two anonymous reviewers. This work received support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement n° 746652 and from the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities under the Ramón y Cajal grant agreement n° RYC2018-025456-I. The funders had no role in the writing of the study and in the decision to submit the article for publication.


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Published Online: 2021-01-22
Published in Print: 2021-02-26

© 2020 Leivada, published by De Gruyter

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