Syntax without the bumps

You might have heard of phonology-free syntax; this posting is about phrenology-free syntax, syntax without the bumps.

Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night. (As Bette Davis’s character Margo Channing said in the 1950 film All About Eve — though the quote has become famous with “bumpy ride” rather than “bumpy night”.)

First, phonology-free syntax.

The Principle of Phonology-Free Syntax (PPFS) is a proposed universal principle of grammar that prohibits reference to phonological information in syntactic rules or constraints. (link)

(Note that this is a technical proposal within a theory of grammar, not an informal claim about the relationship between phonological and syntactic phenomena. See section 4, “Phonology in syntax”, of Pullum & Zwicky on “The Syntax-Phonology Interface”, here, for clarifying discussion.)

Now, phrenology-free syntax, that’s a different, and much sillier, matter. Not that phrenology makes no claims about language. In fact, language is, more or less, in (or around) the eyes — #35 in the list of the phrenological organs (by Samuel R. Wells, after Orson S. Fowler) here, as seen on this chart:

The text:

35. LANGUAGE. –Ability to express ideas verbally or in writing, and to use such words as will best express our meaning; memory of words. 
Excess: Volubility of expression; great talkativeness; more words than thoughts. 
Deficiency: Extreme hesitation in conversation; inability to select appropriate language for the expression of ideas.

The association between the eyes and language apparently comes from an early phrenological claim that protuberant eyes indicate high ability in verbal memory.

By locating various human characteristics in regions of the brain, phrenology paved the way for neuropsychology. And now we have Chomskyan talk of Language as a “mental organ” — but without the bumps.

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