X is for X-bar Theory

6 01 2010

There’s no entry for X in the A-Z. If there were, one of the few candidates would be X-bar theory, which is in fact a (1981) refinement of Chomsky’s theory of language known as Transformational-generative (TG) grammar. (For what it’s worth, X-bar theory argues that all phrases – whether noun phrases, verb phrases etc – have the same structure, and that this structure is a linguistic universal, i.e. it’s common to English, Japanese, probably even Klingon).

Noam Chomsky

As I say, there’s no entry for X-bar theory. There’s no entry for TG grammar in the A-Z, either. Nor for its predecessor, generative grammar. Nor for Government and Binding theory, nor the Principles and Parameters theory, nor the Minimalist program. In fact, there’s no mention of Chomsky or any of his theories in the entry on Grammar at all.

This might strike some readers as odd, even perverse. At best, negligent. After all, the study of TG grammar (or any of its offshoots) is a key component of  any self-respecting linguistics course on any MA TESOL program in the US. It is often the only theory of grammar that is studied. In fact, in many of the standard texts, such as Fromkin et al. (2007) An Introduction to Language, or the Ohio State University Language Files (ed. Stewart and Vaillette, 2001) it’s not even called TG Grammar, nor ascribed to Chomsky by name. It’s simply the grammar that is. The one and only. And, just in case you don’t know which one I’m talking about, it’s the one that involves the endless “tree-diagramming” of (invariably invented) sentences, like The child found a puppy and Where has Pete put his bone? (both from Fromkin et al.).

Simple tree diagram

So why did I ignore it?

Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that I really understand it. I can get my head around basic Phrase-structure grammar, even X-bar theory, and just about understand what Theta-theory is on about. But, as much as I want to get to grips with the Minimalist program (not least because it seems to be arguing a central role for lexis in determining syntactic structure), I’m struggling. In the end, all those upside-down trees leave me cross-eyed.

But there are more cogent reasons – both linguistic and pedagogical – for treating TG grammar cautiously, it seems to me. On linguistic grounds the theory seems flawed since it is based entirely on invented sentences in their written form. Try to apply the descriptive framework to spoken data – e.g. authentic utterances like: But the spa, you might want to use it, you know  – and it just doesn’t fit. By the same token, TG grammarians will reject forms as being ungrammatical even when they are commonly attested (one of the texts I consulted disallows the sentence John bought what? for example). Chomsky’s dogged insistence on making the “well-formed” sentence the centrepiece of his theory of language seems to undermine the whole enterprise – this, along with the misguided notion that all sentences are generated from the word up, and are hence all entirely original. (Chomsky’s acolyte, Stephen Pinker, woefully betrays his ignorance of developments in corpus linguistics by claiming – in The Language Instinct – that “virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand-new combination of words, appearing for the first time in the history of the universe” (1994, p. 22) Compare this to the corpus linguist, John Sinclair’s (1991) claim that “by far the majority of text is made of the occurrence of common words in common patterns”).

The blinkered disavowal of the validity of performance data is, of course, a side-effect of their (Chomsky’s, Pinker’s etc)  mentalist agenda, which is to demonstrate both the universality and innateness of their grammar. This means cherry-picking your examples (and re-configuring your theory fairly regularly so as to accommodate new, potentially disruptive, evidence), while consigning anything that doesn’t fit to the damaged goods bin – the one labelled “performance”.

But, more importantly for me, is the lack of pedagogical applicability. For a start, the idealised nature of Chomskyan grammar seems to bear only an accidental relationship to the way language is actually stored and generated in the brain. Chomsky (to his credit) was quick to acknowledge this.  Way back in 1965, he wrote: “When we say that a sentence has a certain derivation with respect to a particular generative grammar, we say nothing about how the speaker or hearer might proceed, in some practical or efficient way, to construct such a derivation.” (Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, p. 9.)  Quite right: the tree diagram describes the structure “after the event”, but it ignores the fact that (as David Brazil put it) “discourse [is] something that is now-happening, bit by bit, in time, with the language being assembled as the speaker goes along” (1995, p. 37). If the TG representation of grammar has little or no psychological foundation, it would seem to be fairly useless for teaching purposes.  I take heart, therefore, from a statement made by Bernard Spolsky, after a think-tank on the applications of Chomskyan grammar, held in the late sixties. He concluded:

Linguistics and its hyphenated fields have a great deal to offer to language teachers, but the fullest benefit can only come when their implications are integrated and formed into a sound theory of language pedagogy. Because linguistics is only indirectly applicable to language teaching, changes in linguistic theory or arguments amongst linguists should not disturb language teachers

(Spolsky, B. (1970) Linguistics and language pedagogy – applications or implications? [emphasis added]) 

So, why does the teaching of TG grammar (including X-bar theory) persist in the US academic context? And was I wrong to ignore it in the A-Z?