Linguistic Frameworks

I’ll admit up front that this post won’t be relevant to many people, but I processing some reading and I’ve gotta get my thoughts down on “paper.”

Those of you who are still reading likely know that I enjoy looking at things from a couple of different linguistic perspectives, that I like reading and studying both Lexical-Functional Grammar and Role and Reference Grammar. The two theories have a lot in common in terms of presuppositions and theoretical basis, though there are a few major differences as well. For example, LFG assumes Grammatical Relations (Subject, Object) as linguistic primitives, while RRG does not, instead talking about “the preferred syntactic argument” – which is loosely parallel to the Subject. But to be honest, they’re less different on this than it sounds. One of the major reasons for the rejection is the existence of Ergative-Absolutive languages. These are cases languages which are structurally distinct from Nominative-Accusative languages.

For Nominative-Accusative languages, the Nominative case is always the Subject, regardless of the transivity of the clause and the Accusative case always the Object of the clause (yes, IE languages allow Accusatives after prepositions as well, I know).

But in Ergative-Absolutive languages, what we normally call the “Subject” is split in half. For transitive clauses the “Subject” of the clause will be in the Ergative case and the “Object” will be in the Absolutive case. This is the same as N-A systems so far, but it changes for intransitive clauses. For intransitive clauses, the “Subject” is always in the Absolutive case – the same case that the “Object” was in for transitive clauses.

Now RRG and LFG both saw this issue. RRG’s solution to the challenge was to say that Subjects and Objects are not universal across language; that at best, we can only talk about the “Preferred Syntactic Argument” of a clause (PSA). LFG followed a different track. They adapted their definitions of Subjects and Objects in such a way that allows for this alternation. So basically, they approached the same problem and provided different solutions. In terms of understanding theoretical frameworks, there is no disagreement here because were an LFG practitioner to accept RRG’s definition of Subjecthood, they would recognize RRG’s solution as valid and beneficial. Likewise, were an RRG practitioner to accept LFG’s adapted definition of Subjecthood, they would agree that the challenge of Ergative-Absolutive systems is not an issue either.

In a sense, then, this particular difference between the two frameworks is somewhat superficial.

One of the other major differences between the two frameworks is how they represent syntax and grammar visually. Role and Reference Grammar represents syntax and grammar in a highly complex single representation:


That’s a lot of information in one place.

LFG does not do things that way in representing grammar visually. They separate all the information into distinct structures. So we have a constituent structure:


But at the same time, there is a separate structure for grammatical relations and other functional information, called an F(unctional)-Structure:


If you read it slowly, you can probably figure out what it says. If not, here it is:

Subjects and Objects are represented in an abstract structure.

There is also a third structure for Discourse-Information structure, which unfortunately, I cannot show here without an excessive amount of work (the other two come from a probabilistic parser, HERE). Either way, LFG and RRG follow two very different methods for the visual representation of grammar and syntax. And up until recently, I didn’t really have any opinion about which one was better.

But I read something by Dooley and Levinsohn this morning before church:

The organization that hearers associate with a discourse is not simply a matter of the linguistic structure that appears. Rather, on a more fundamental level, it is a reflection of how the content comes together and is stored in the mind. The forms of language that the speaker uses certainly play a part in this, but psychological research shows that the way hearers understand, store, and remember a discourse corresponds only partially with what was actually said.

Dooley Robert A. and Stephen H. Levinsohn, Analyzing Discourse: A Manual of Basic Concepts (Dallas, Tex: SIL International, 2001), 10; my emphasis.

So here’s my question, if Dooley and Levinsohn are correct about how we remember a give discourse, which visual representation fits this more accurately? The one where everything is thrown together? Or the one where different grammatical elements are represented separately?

As of this morning, I’m leaning toward the latter.

This is not to say that I think LFG’s separate representations accurately depict the mental representation of a given sentence. LFG’s representation is mainly to provide a strong computational basis, but I do think that it might be closer to what the human mind does in comparison with RRG’s representation.

And incidentally, that book by Dooley and Levinsohn should have gone on my bibliography, thoughts its not a particularly exciting read and at times its downright hard.