This is the first substantive piece for LanguidSlog. It’s quite short and should be easy for the reader. Books on syntax typically jump straight into tree diagrams or nested brackets to represent sentence structure. The graphical conventions are not difficult. But the purpose of those representations isn’t self-evident. Let’s look at some issues.
Structure and meaning
Linguists discern structure in sentences. They then show that differences in sentence structure correlate with differences in meaning perceived by native speakers of that language. They therefore assume that the meaning of a sentence is given by its structure. The phonological string (the sounds or the signs) is merely how the meaning/structure is encoded for efficient transmission from speaker to hearer.
Some might quibble with the following model but most theories imply sentence processing is a sequence of steps like this:
meaning intended by speaker
=B=> phonological output
===> phonological input
=D=> meaning comprehended by hearer
The cognitive state initially producing the sentence triggers a process of construction (step A); and the cognitive state finally produced by the sentence results from a process of deconstruction (step D).
Others theories could imply that the initial and final cognitive states are the structure itself operating directly in the mental architecture (A and D do not occur).
None of these possibilities has ever been explained clearly enough for me. That’s unhelpful but forgivable because ‘meaning’ is inaccessible. Conjecture about it can only be expressed by reverting to language and that is rarely convincing.
No such vagueness applies to steps B or C. Actually the scholarly literature pays more attention to C because authors usually start with a paradigm sentence and thence develop a structure to suit. And for a computational linguist bravely trying to build a parser based on grammar, identifying relations within the phonological string is the primary aim. This blog will therefore also concentrate on step C and assume any theory falsified in those terms must fail whatever it might claim for A, B or D.
Structure and depiction
Structure might be used merely to depict a sentence, with no assumption that it actually participates in the production or comprehension of that sentence. That is not to say trees and nests are strictly for the birds. Structures are useful – perhaps essential – to enable syntacticians and students to discuss sentences.
But a theory denying anything like steps A to D could not claim to be explanatory without some other means of showing how, for a sentence, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This blog will eventually reveal such a theory.
My scepticism needs a firm basis. We must therefore give due consideration to the possibility that structure does play a part in comprehension. The next two pieces will discuss what would need to be stored from an incoming sentence in step C.