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John H. McWhorter


It Takes Three to Tango

Neither syntax nor semantics maps the full richness of everyday speech.

Ray Jackendoff's Foundations of Language is a response to what the author sees as a crisis. In the 1960s, Noam Chomsky electrified theoretical linguistics with his hypothesis that humans possess an innate capacity for language. The heart of his conception was a linguistic "deep structure," invariant across the species, with individual languages varying according to how they translate this foundation into "surface structure," plugging in their own words and rules of grammar.

Showcase example of "deep" versus "surface": we are more likely to render Who do you want to see? as Who do you wanna see? than we are to render Who do you want to win the game? as Who do you wanna win the game? Now why is that so? Chomsky's theory proposed that if we look at the deep structure of the latter case, who immediately precedes to win—the verb that who is, if you think about it, the actual subject of in the sentence. (And if you are already having trouble sorting all this out, that's merely evidence of the efficiency of our innate linguistic capacity, which allows us to make such complex distinctions effortlessly, so long as we don't have to explain what we're doing.)

Thus what begins as You want who to win the game? becomes Who do you want to win the game? when who "moves" to the front of the sentence in surface structure. And the reason we are loath to say Who do you wanna win the game? is that when who moves, it leaves behind a "footprint" that blocks want and to from coming together as a contraction: Who do you want __ to win the game?

As originally proposed, Chomsky's deep structure was taken as synonymous with "meaning" itself. Psychologists and philosophers were fascinated with the possibility that linguistics had identified universal structures of meaning underlying the bewildering variousness of the world's languages. Indeed, the notion of deep structure, like relativity or the Uncertainty Principle in physics, quickly became unmoored from its context to be bandied about with abandon ...

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