Thursday, October 04, 2012

Dressing an Octopus (cross-posting)

Just completed these three paragraphs in the revised Preface. I hope they improve things. Comments welcome.

With respect to the former goal, I hope to demonstrate that a generative, universalist approach to Vietnamese grammar can be genuinely elucidating: that the concepts and constructs of Universal Grammar[1], which have been postulated as part of a top-down, hypothetico-deductive strategy, and largely on the basis of (sometimes abstruse) data from a limited range of Western languages—that such concepts can be applied productively to the analysis of Vietnamese as well. What’s more, I will argue that Vietnamese can be shown to express these properties more directly, and more clearly, than is the case in more synthetic or fusional languages. Developing the ‘transparent onion’ analogy in the prefatory quote above,  I shall claim that what is most remarkable about Vietnamese are the formal properties it shares with other unrelated language varieties, including English and French. What makes Vietnamese special is not, I will suggest,  the properties that distinguish it from other language, but rather its unique capacity to express commonalities with such phenomenal clarity.
A reason for stressing this point is to acknowledge that many—perhaps most—scholars of Vietnamese are highly sceptical of ahistorical formal approaches to grammatical analysis, especially those based on English and French. Often, this scepticism is justified by reference to previous treatments in which Vietnamese has been analyzed directly in terms of Western surface categories or constructions; for example, an analysis that identifies the TAM markers (sẽ, đã and đang) as Tense morphemes, or one that equates null subject in Vietnamese with those in Italian or Spanish. One can always fit a square peg through a round hole if the diameter of the circle is large enough, but that doesn’t make it a good fit. In other cases, certain real or hypothetical attempts to impose Western-derived analytical constructs can appear preposterous: to seek to explain the behaviour of the modal-aspectual particle đựơc in terms of a construction-based analysis of the English or French Passive, for example, almost entirely misses the point. One can dress an octopus in a t-shirt for the sake of propriety, but little is gained by it and the problem of the other six legs remains.
Whichever metaphor is more useful, it is a fact that many linguistic scholars have rejected generative theory in the past, and that historical or functional explanations are to the fore in contemporary grammatical research. But this is to ‘throw the baby [square peg, octopus] out with the bath-water.’ In this work, I hope to make the case that—at the right level of abstraction—Vietnamese fits not just well, but nearly perfectly, into a universal template: it is the other object languages of grammatical theorising that require prodding and shuffling about. When viewed from this opposite perspective, the Generative Enterprise (as it once was called) becomes not only more attractive, but empowering: if Vietnamese offers a model of perfection, then one can ask a different set of questions: why don’t other languages seem to work so well? This brings us to my second goal, viz., to understand what Vietnamese tells us about the details of UG.

[1] At least, of a particular construal of UG; see Chapter 2

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