Volume 7, Issue 3, 2007
Philosophy of Linguistics
Geoffrey K. Pullum, Barbara C. Scholz
Systematicity and Natural Language Syntax
A lengthy debate in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences has turned on whether the phenomenon known as ‘systematicity’ of language and thought shows that connectionist explanatory aspirations are misguided. We investigate the issue of just which phenomenon ‘systematicity’ is supposed to be. The much-rehearsed examples always suggest that being systematic has something to do with ways in which some parts of expressions in natural languages (and, more conjecturally, some parts of thoughts) can be substituted for others without altering well-formedness. We show that under one construal this yields a grossly weak claim that is not just compatible with a narrow version of associationist psychology but essentially coincides with a formalization of its descriptive power. Under another construal we get a claim (apparently unintended) that requires natural languages to fall within the context-free class, a claim that most linguists regard as too strong. Looking more closely at this proposed reconstruction of systematicity leads us to endorse, with further illustrations, the suggestion of Johnson (2004) that systematicity as a matter of substitutability of co-categorial constituents for one another does not appear
to hold of natural languages at all. The appeal of the ill-delineated notion of systematicity may lie in the fact that within certain subclasses of lexical items mutual intersubstitutability does seem to hold, and the
explanation for that lies in a limitation on human memory: we simply cannot learn separate privileges of syntactic distribution for all of the huge number of words and phrases that we know.