Chomsky -- Put up or blah blah

Scott Martens smartens at
Wed Mar 29 10:47:57 PST 2000

> CB: Does this Russian tradition include Vygotsky ?

> Interesting and learned critique of Chomsky's GG you make. What is
> the status of structural linguistics, Saussure, et al. ?

It's been a while since I read Vygotsky, but I think the short answer is no, not really. Vygotsky's notions of mediation may be part of the inspiration for recent Russian lexical semantics (which requires a certain amount of mechanical mediation between texts and meanings), but I can't think of any reference to that effect.

I remember Vygotsky for Activity Theory, which is primarily a school of psychology and education. Most of what he described would be considered pragmatic rather than semantic in the current dependency syntax terminology. It seems to me that the current big man in activity theory is Alexei Leont'ev, who I think has had a few nice things to say about linguistics but hasn't contributed much. I don't remember much about him, so I can't be sure.

Tesniere is really the more important influence. He wrote __Elements de syntaxe structural__ in '59, and died shortly thereafter. IIRC, his analysis had a cetain amount of similarity to traditional teaching methods in schools in Slavic countries, and French linguistics has always gotten a friendlier treatment in eastern Europe than in the English speaking world, so Tesniere's work found a home in Russia after he died, and has been fairly successful in the Soviet (and I suppose post-Soviet) school system. (Compare to phrase structure grammar - e.g. generative grammar - which has been an abysmal failure as a tool for education.)

The thing to note about dependency syntax people is that they tend to be very lexicalist and disagree with the Chomskyan idea that syntax is independent of semantics. At one extreme end, there is a school that thinks there are only words and their properties and no such thing as grammar at all. Even those who don't take that extreme position tend to place a lot of importance on words, and view structures as arising from mental links between words. Syntactic relationships will generally, therefore, reflect relationships of meaning.

The dependency syntax people are very definitely structuralists in the Saussurian tradition. The more extremist members of the school see themselves carrying the flame of "true linguistics" that runs from Saussure to Tesniere to people like Dick Hudson and Igor Mel'chuk. Some of these ideas are being rediscovered and reinvented by Anglo-American linguists who have become disenchanted with phrase structure grammar. Ron Langacker's 1987 book __Foundations of Cognitive Grammar__ owes a lot to Tesniere and restates a lot of things the dependency syntax people have been saying for years. With the rise in interest in natural language processing in the 90's (after a long hiatus that started when early machine translation efforts failed in the 70's) there has been a big renewal of interest in this kind of linguistics. A fair number of successes in NLP have come from methods pioneered by dependency syntax people. An example is the French grammar checking program "Correcteur 101,"!

made by Machina Sapiens in Montreal, which makes explicit use of dependency syntax.

Full disclosure: my background is in the French-Canadian wing of the Russian dependency syntax school. I am, therefore, not an impartial observer. This school has had a lot of influence in lexicology (which is what I was doing in grad school), and I suspect has had a hard time catching on the Englsih speaking world because the tradition of lexicology is very poor here. I have important disagreements with all of the schools of linguistics that I know of, even the ones I'm promoting here, but I wouldn't be a good linguist if I didn't. :^) However, I am basically with the cognitivists and the dependency syntax people.

Scott Martens


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