Minimalism is the latest (though still programmatic) development of an approach to SYNTAX -- transformational GENERATIVE GRAMMAR -- first developed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and successively modified in the four decades since. The fundamental idea was and continues to be that a sentence is the result of some sort of computation producing a derivation, beginning with an abstract structural representation, sequentially altered by structure-dependent transformations. The Minimalist Program maintains that these derivations and representations conform to an "economy" criterion demanding that they be minimal in a sense determined by the language faculty: no extra steps in derivations, no extra symbols in representations, and no representations beyond those that are conceptually necessary.

As articulated by Chomsky (1995), minimalism can best be understood in juxtaposition to its predecessor, the "Government-Binding" (GB) model of Chomsky (1981, 1982). (It should be pointed out that Chomsky prefers the name "principles and parameters" for the model, reasoning that government and binding are just two among many technical devices in the theory, and not necessarily the most important ones. For some discussion, see Chomsky and Lasnik 1993, a work that can be regarded as the culmination of the GB framework or the beginnings of minimalism.) In that model, there are four significant levels of representation, related by derivation as in following diagram:

figure 1

Items are taken from the LEXICON and inserted into the D-Structure in accord with their thematic (q) relations (roughly, subject of . . . object of . . . etc.). Transformations alter this D-Structure representation, the movement transformations leaving traces that mark the positions from which movement took place, eventually producing an S-Structure. Transformations of the same character (and arguably the same transformations) continue the derivation to LF, the SYNTAX-SEMANTICS INTERFACE with the conceptual-intentional system of the mind (cf. LOGICAL FORM). Rules of the phonological component continue the derivation from S-Structure to PF, the interface with the articulatory-perceptual system. The portion of the derivation between D-Structure and S-Structure is often called "overt syntax"; that between S-Structure and LF is called "covert syntax" because operations in that portion of the derivation have no phonetic effects, given the organization in (1). Under the traditional view that a human language is a way of relating sound (more generally, gesture, as in SIGN LANGUAGES) and meaning, the interface levels PF and LF are assumed to be ineliminable. Minimalism seeks to establish that these necessary levels of representation are the only levels.

Introduced into syntactic theory by Chomsky (1965), D-Structure was stipulated to be the locus of all lexical insertion, the input to the transformational component, and, most importantly, the representation determining thematic relations, as indicated above. Given traces, already a central part of the GB theory, the role of D-Structure in determining thematic relations becomes insignificant. Being theory internal, the other arguments for its existence disappear under more recent developments of the theory. S-Structure, the terminus of overt syntax within the GB framework, has a number of central properties, particularly concerning abstract case (dubbed "Case" by Chomsky 1980) and binding (structural constraints on anaphoric relations; cf. BINDING THEORY and ANAPHORA).

In a partial return to the technical apparatus of pre-1965 transformational theory (as in Chomsky 1955), minimalism has lexical items inserted "on-line" in the course of the syntactic derivation, roughly in accord with the fundamental notions of X-BAR THEORYand q-theory. The derivation proceeds bottom-up: the most deeply embedded structural unit is created first, then combined with the head of which it is the complement to create a larger unit, and so on. Consider first the following simplified example (assuming the widely accepted "VP-internal subject hypothesis," under which the subject is initially introduced into the structure inside VP, then moves to an external position):

[IP The woman [I' will [VP t [V' see [DP the man]]]]]

In the derivation of (2), first the noun (N) man is combined with the determiner (D) the to form the determiner phrase (DP) the man. This DP then combines with the verb see to produce an intermediate projection V'. (Phrase labels of the X' type, while convenient for exposition, are largely holdovers from earlier models, with no particular significance within the minimalist approach.) The DP the woman is created in the same fashion as the man, and is combined with the V' to produce the VP. Next, this VP merges with the tense/inflectional element will producing I'. The DP the woman finally moves to the specifier position of I', yielding the full clausal projection IP. In a more complicated derivation, such as that yielding (3), the derivation of the embedded clause proceeds exactly as in the case of (2):

I think the woman will see the man

(2) has combined with the verb think to produce a V', and so on. Notice that the movement of the woman to the embedded subject position precedes the merger of the embedded sentence into the larger V', so that there is no one representation following all lexical insertion and preceding all transformations. That is, there is no D-Structure.

On the other hand, S-Structure, persists in one trivial sense: it is the point where the derivation divides, branching toward LF on one path and toward PF on the other. The more significant question is whether it has any of the further properties it has in the GB framework. One of the primary technical goals of the minimalist research program is to establish that these further properties (involving Case and binding, for instance) are actually properties of LF, contrary to previous arguments (as suggested in Chomsky 1986, contra Chomsky 1981). The attempts to attain this goal generally involve more operations attributed to covert syntax than in previous models.

Another technical goal is to reduce all constraints on representation to bare output conditions, determined by the properties of the external systems that PF and LF must interface with. Internal to the computational system, the desideratum is that constraints on transformational derivations will be reduced to general principles of economy. Derivations beginning from the same lexical choices (the numeration, in Chomsky's term) are compared in terms of number of steps, length of movements, and so on, with the less economical ones being rejected. An example is the minimalist deduction of the Chomsky (1973) Superiority Condition, which demands that when multiple items are available for WH-MOVEMENT in a language, such as English, allowing only one item to move, it is the "highest" item that will be chosen:

Who t will read what
*What will who read t.

Economy, in the form of "Shortest Move," selects (4) over (5) because the sentence-initial interrogative position "needs" a Wh-expression, and is closer to the subject than it is to the object. Many of the movement constraints falling under the Relativized Minimality Constraint of Rizzi (1990) are susceptible to a parallel analysis. This constraint, which had an important impact on the developing Minimalist Program, forbids movement to a position of a certain type: head position, A(rgument type)-position, A' (non-A)-position across an intervening position of the same type. Within the minimalist approach, the effects of this constraint are taken to fall under general economy constraints on derivation.

Theoretical developments in the minimalist direction, many well before minimalism was formulated as a program, have generally led to greater breadth and depth of understanding. Thus there is reason to expect that the Minimalist Program may eventually give rise to an articulated theory of linguistic structure, one that can resolve the traditional tension in linguistic theory between descriptive adequacy (the need to account for the phenomena of particular languages) and explanatory adequacy (the goal of explaining how linguistic knowledge arises in the mind so quickly and on the basis of such limited evidence).

See also

Additional links

-- Howard Lasnik


Chomsky, N. (1955). The logical structure of linguistic theory. Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Revised 1956 version published in part by Plenum Press, New York (1975) and by University of Chicago Press, Chicago, (1985).

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (1973). Conditions on transformations. In S. Anderson and P. Kiparsky, Eds., A Festschrift for Morris Halle. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 232-286.

Chomsky, N. (1980). On binding. Linguistic Inquiry 11:1-46.

Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Chomsky, N. (1982). Some Concepts and Consequences of the Theory of Government and Binding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of Language. New York: Praeger.

Chomsky, N. (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N., and H. Lasnik. (1993). The theory of principles and parameters. In J. Jacobs, A. von Stechow, W. Sternefeld, and T. Vennemann, Eds., Syntax: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research, vol. 1. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 506-569. Reprinted in Chomsky (1995).

Rizzi, L. (1990). Relativized Minimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Further Readings

Abraham, W., S. D. Epstein, H. Thráinsson, and C. Jan-Wouter Zwart, Eds. (1996). Minimal Ideas: Syntactic Studies in the Minimalist Framework. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Boskovic, Z. (1997). The Syntax of Nonfinite Complementation: An Economy Approach. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Collins, C. (1997). Local Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Freidin, R. (1997). Review of Noam Chomsky. The Minimalist Program, Language 73:571-582.

Kayne, R. S. (1994). The Antisymmetry of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kitahara, H. (1997). Elementary Operations and Optimal Derivations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lasnik, H. (1993). Lectures on minimalist syntax. University of Connecticut Occasional Papers in Linguistics, 1. Storrs: University of Connecticut.

Lasnik, H., and M. Saito. (1991). On the subject of infinitives. In L. M. Dobrin, L. Nichols, and R. M. Rodriguez, Eds., Papers from the Twenty-seventh Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Pt. 1, The General Session. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, University of Chicago, pp. 324-343.

Lasnik, H., and J. Uriagereka. (1988). A Course in GB Syntax: Lectures on Binding and Empty Categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Uriagereka, J. (1998). Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Watanabe, A. (1996). Case Absorption and WH-Agreement. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Zwart, C. J.-W. (1997). Morphosyntax of Verb Movement. A Mini malist Approach to the Syntax of Dutch. Dordrecht: Kluwer.