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Syntax: is the branch of linguistics concerned with the study of word order.

Generally, it is assumed that a word order is determined mostly by word class and context. For example, John loves X, is an acceptible sentence if the X is replaced by (almost) any word from the class of words referred to as NOUN. There are limitations to this generalization, however. X could be replaced by "Mary", for example, but it could also be replaced by "sincerity" resulting in the sentence "John loves sincerity", which may very well be true. But then, John is also a noun but "Sincerity loves Mary" is not generally an acceptible sentence of English. It is idiosyncratic characterisitcs of words and their possible positions (probably of "sincerity" and, even "love", in this case) that are presumed to be stored in the lexicon.

The bulk of modern theory on this issue was inspired by the works of Noam Chomsky.

He and his followers are frequently refered to as generativists ---- a term that was inspired by the nature of their syntactic theory. According to the generativists, each sentence of English is generated from elements in the lexicon with a minimal set of operations.

Imagine a set of words A={John, Mary, love}. Our intuitions as native speakers of English convince us that each of these words is capable of standing alone as a meaningful element of the language. These intutions are well-founded but each of the meaningful elements in A in isolation lack the expressive richness of even the simplest sentence of English. It is the ability of Natural Language to combine the meaningful elements in A that gives it its unique status as an expressive system. For instance,

(1) "John loves Mary."

the sentence in (1) is a combination the elements in A that expresses a meaning that only aprroximates the meaning of the composite of the elements ("John", "Mary" and "love" in this case).

We can refer to the fact that the elements can be put together into larger structures as compositionality. An important characteristic of compositionality is that it is not a hap-hazzard operation. The elements taken from A to form the sentence in (1) cannot be assembled in just any order wihout affecting the meaning of the composite:

(2) "Mary John loves."

(3) "Mary loves John."

Indeed, the sentences in (2) and (3) each express a meaning quite different from that of the one in (1). [ sentences (1)-(3) This property of language allows us to group it with DNA as a "Discreet Combinatorial System." The elements each have a "meaning" but it is a string of those elements, arranged in a particular way that actually expresses "information". This is where the study of syntax takes over.

Look at (2), for example. The proposition expressed in (1) is similar to that in (2), but the arrangement of words in (2) suggests a focus on Mary. (Imagine that it had just been mentioned that John doesn't very much like Jane.) It is the order of the elements that apperars to be responsible for the difference in meaning between these three sentences.

Consider (1) and (2) from above. It is frequently (although not necessarily appropriately) assumed that the sentence in (1) is in some way more "basic" than the sentence in (2). Many of the models proposed in the generativist tradition are based on this principle. In this way, the sentence in (2) is produced by first producing (1) and then putting it through a "transformation" that results in (2). In this case the transformation is referred to as "topicalization" because it moves the noun "Mary" to the front of the sentence implying that it has some contrastive role in the sentence.

The issues at stake in generative linguitics involve fundamental issues of mind. How is it that children are capable, given the complexity of natural language, to learn - without "instruction" - to flawlessly speak the language(s) of their surrounings? What types of operations are consitently being executed by the human mind and how do these operations reflect the nature of conscious intelligence?

The response offered by many of the generativists is that children are born with some sort of "innate mechanism" or zero state from which the grammar of their native language is constructed. Pinker does a good job of laying out the basics in his book The Language Instinct but the best way to find out about this stuff is to go straight to the source and read Chomsky himself. A good place to start might be Rules and Representations but I hear that this is a difficult book to find. Easier to find, but more difficult to read are Aspects of the Theory of Syntax - which is "the original Chomsky", from the 1950's - or, more recently, The Minimalist Program - which outlines the assumptions of most of the more recent work in generative syntax.

Chew on this for a while, more later.