Syntax and Semantics

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Syntax and Semantics



Associate Professor of linguistics

The Islamic university of Gaza



Chapter one

Language and mind

Knowledge of language

Language is of various definitions.

The generative grammar school, for instance, states

language refers to knowledge that native speakers

This together with other faculties in the mind enables
them to communicate, express their thoughts and
perform various other functions.

, (

The task of the linguist is
to characterize the
knowledge that native speakers have of their
This includes
word formation,
pronunciation, rules that govern social behavior and
rules of reference which enable people to interpret
utterances in relation to a given context.

The definition we are concerned with
in this study.

knowledge of language
knowledge of
the rules which govern pronunciation, and
word and sentence formation.

Language and faculties

Following the transformational generative grammar school,
Knowledge of language is probably independent of
intelligence. It can remain intact when other faculties are
impaired and vise versa.

This simply means that the human mind is said to have a
modular structure where each faculty has an autonomous
existence. The ability of speaking,
, the language relies on
the interaction between all such autonomous modules.

However, this knowledge of language can be studied
separately without being connected with the other faculties
of mind.

According to Chomsky the faculties of mind are like; the
logical faculty, moral and ethical faculties. Each one of these
has its own processing procedures.

Grammar and universal grammar

The term grammar refers to the rules, which
govern pronunciation (phonology), word
formation (morphology), and sentence
formation (syntax).


How does anyone of the native speakers of
English come to have this intricate and highly
specialized system of the grammatical rules of
his language?

Axiomatically, such rules are not learnt
consciously. That is it is impossible that
the native speaker was taught to say
brought instead of

and mice
instead of

and at a later stage
he/she tries to speak proper English
instead of teenage gibberish.

This type of knowledge is subconscious in the
sense that although native speakers possess it
and use it they do not have direct access to it,
therefore they cannot teach it.

It is impossible that they originally come to
know English by memorizing all sentences
that exist in this language because the
number of these sentences is infinite.

Additionally one of the properties of
language is that a substantial number of
sentences speakers produce are novel.
(uttered for the first time). This corresponds
equally to all natural languages.
Consequently such human languages are said
to be creative. This creative aspect of
language sets a prima
facie evidence that
knowledge of language is essentially
knowledge of rules.

This knowledge stands as a computational
system, which makes it possible to generate
an infinite number of sentences from such
finite number of rules together with the

In conclusion, one can learn a human
language as a native speaker by observing
others speak it, deriving the rules from their
speech and then internalizing those rules all
at subconscious level

the complexity of human languages is such
that learning the from scratch is beyond the
reach of living organisms, which do not have
some kind of special predisposition, i.e. an
innate ability of some sort. Consequently, we
can conclude that the innate predisposition to
master language basically consists of a set of
rules, i.e. a grammar This type of grammar is
called universal grammar (UG).


is a set of rules that all humans possess by
virtue of having certain common generic
features, which distinguish them from other
organisms. These universal rules are found in
English along with all other natural languages.
Thus any native speaker of any natural
language has the rules of UG, certain rules
specific to his or her language and the lexicon.

The task of the linguist is to characterize the
knowledge that humans have of their
language in formal terms. I.e. The linguist
tries to reconstruct via analyzing the data
collected in any language the knowledge that
exist in the mind of native speakers about
their language. This directly means that the
task of the linguist is to formulate a theory
sometimes called a model, of language.

The process of formulating such theory is
composed of attempts to introduce, describe
and analyze as many data as possible. The
result of such attempts formulates a theory
that governs certain constructions, which may
prevail in all natural languages or in some
specific languages rather than others.

An example that represents constructions
that exist in all languages can be syntactic
categories like; CP, IP, VP, DP. Having a theory
that accounts for any construction of these in
English must be directly applicable to the
same construction in other human languages.

However the example that represents
constructions that are available in certain
languages rather than others is represented in
preposition stranding, which is available in
English but not in French, Arabic and Romance

Who did John give the book

The preposition to is stranded in the sentence
final position.

Characteristics of syntactic rules

The syntactic rules permit speakers to produce or
understand an unlimited number of sentences never
produced or heard before. The production and
comprehension of the new sentences is called as the
creative aspect of language use.


and Rodman (
), the syntactic
rules in a grammar must at least account for

the grammaticality of sentences,

word order,

structural ambiguity,

the meaning relations between words in a sentence,

the similarity of meaning of sentences with different
structures, and

speakers’ creative ability to produce and understand any of
an infinite set of possible sentences.

To account for the phenomena above, a
grammatical theory is erected. Such a theory
is supposed to provide a complete
characterization of what speakers implicitly
know about their language. This theory is
called Universal Grammar

Universal Grammar Theory


) states that universal grammar
(UG) theory is the theory of natural languages
and the expressions they generate. It is
generally identified with a representation of
the language faculty with which humans are
endowed. This faculty, which is precisely
called mental faculty, is innate.

UG theory in its conventional form includes four levels of representation for any
natural language. These levels are represented below.






The grammar of any language is a mapping between these

A brief interpretation for these levels:

The lexicon contains lexical items which
project deep structures (D
structures); in turn,
these are mapped into surface structures (S
structures) by the rules of the
transformational component (movement or
move alpha). The S
structures are then
mapped into phonetic from ( PF) and logical
form ( LF) components.

The sub
components of grammar can be further
characterized. The lexicon specifies those
aspects of the abstract
structure of lexical items and their syntactic
features, including their categorical and
contextual features, which are not predictable
by general rule. Consequently the lexical entry
of a verb like

must specify just enough of its
properties to determine its sound, meaning and
its syntactic rules through the operation of
general principles, for the language to which it

structure is defined by Chomsky and

) as ‘a level at which lexical items are
inserted from the lexicon and lexical
properties are represented’ This level is
referred to as the internal interface level,
since it directly relates the computational
system and the lexicon.

structure is mapped into S
structure in the
computational system by means of Move
Alpha (move anything anywhere unless you
face a barrier as will be clarified later) The S
structure level can in certain respects be
construed as an abstract level involving
empty categories left by syntactic movement.

This intermediate level (S
structure) is in turn
mapped into LF and PF, for LF it is

assumed that this mapping is achieved via
move alpha as well, but it seems likely that
the mapping to PF includes some
fundamentally different processes.

Chomsky (
) refers to LF and PF as ‘the
interface levels’ which connect the language
system with other cognitive systems of the
mind/brain. PF is the component which links
the language system to the perceptual and
motor systems involved in language
production and perception. LF, on the other
hand, is the level, which connects language to
the conceptual and pragmatic systems.

Chomsky (
) refers to LF and PF as ‘the
interface levels’ which connect the language
system with other cognitive systems of the
mind/brain. PF is the component which links
the language system to the perceptual and
motor systems involved in language
production and perception. LF, on the other
hand, is the level, which connects language to
the conceptual and pragmatic systems.