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Review of  Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax

Reviewer: Jason D. Haugen
Book Title: Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax
Book Author: Juan Uriagereka
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 11.484

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Juan Uriagereka. Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to Minimalist
Syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1998. 669pp.

Reviewed by Jason D. Haugen, University of Arizona


This is one big and bizarre book, but one which warrants attention
by linguists of all stripes. Especially since it presents what is
perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most artful)
introduction to the latest incarnation of Chomskyan syntax, the
Minimalist Program (MP), Uriagereka (U)'s Rhyme and Reason (R&R)
will provide fruitful reading for the uninitiated who are interested
in discovering what is relativelynew from this corner of the
linguistics universe, as well as for thosewho have been keeping up
on the latest from MIT-ish syntax.

(This is especially the case in light of the recent discussion on
this list of Frederick Newmeyer's new book Language Form and
Language Function (LFLF). As Newmeyer argues in LFLF, Chomskyan
formal linguistics is not as unamenable to functional analysis as is
often supposed. And as Andrew Carnie points out in his LINGUIST
review of that book, Newmeyer does not pursue his argumentation into
the MP, which is the closest that Chomskyan linguistics has come to
functional explanation, as will be discussed below. Subscribers to
this list who are interested in this debate should definitely take a
look at R&R).

Since one of U's major goals in this work is to situate Chomskyan
theoretical syntax within the larger frame of science in general,
and that this situation is at the heart of the driving assumptions
behind the MP (elegance, optimality, etc.), this book (or at least
parts therein) is also essential reading for practicing Minimalists
and other Chomskyan linguists.

A brief word about an unusual layout. The actual book itself is
roughly square, around 10 inches. The text generally comprises
about half of the possible text space, aligned inward on each page
toward the spine, leaving a line bifurcating the page into text and
empty white space columns for figures and pictures on the outside
edges. There are many figures and extended tangential discussions
in this second area, including an illustration of the spandrels of
the cathedral of Burgos, Spain on p.48 and a photo of the 1956
Olsen-Robinson Middleweight Championship boxing match on p. 382
(I'll let the reader refer to the text to discover why they are
there). My guess would be that about half of the pages have
absolutely nothing at all in these white spaces, leaving less than
half of the 521 pages at the heart of the book fully utilized.
Although the illustrations are indeed handsome and the unusual
layout gives the book an artsy coffee-table-book feel, I am not
quite sure how useful all of this (environmentally unfriendly)
extraneousness is.


R&R is framed as a set of conversations between an earthly linguist
and an interloper from, well, "elsewhere", who is brought to earth
at the turn of the 20th Century by a wormhole (sic!). The text
unfolds as a dialogue between this visitor, "the Other" (O), and
"the Linguist" (L), who didactically expounds upon the science of
language as conceived in the MP. If one can bear with the frame of
the fictional discussion and just read for content, this book is
ultimately worthy of much of its bulk, although I will admit that
this is not always easy to do. The opening of Day 2, for example,
begins with a particularly annoying paranoid discussion where the
interlocutors demonstrate a kind of awareness that they are mere
characters in a book, and speculate as to whether they are being
observed by God or the CIA. Also, given the word-on-the-street that
L is a fictionalized Chomsky and O is a fictionalized Einstein, the
implications of R&R's presumptions of Genesis-like time span is
indeed disturbing: the conversation takes place over six days, and
we are led to believe that on the seventh day Chomsky rests--'sic!'
once again).

R&R opens with a very handily detailed synopsis and concludes with a
section of chapter summaries which highlights the crucial topics
discussed on each day. This is handy because each day's
conversation clocks in at around 80 pages, many of which are, as
conversations tend to be, digressional, and these summaries are an
excellent place to get a feel for what is going to happen before
trying to wade through the denseness of the text itself.

Here is a (very!) truncated catalogue of a very few of the topics
covered in R&R:

The first chapter, "The First Day: the Minimalist Viewpoint", as one
would hope, introduces the MP and places it at the heart of the
scientific study of the human mind, which as here conceived includes
the move toward unifying linguistics and physics. In his
discussion, U treads over the familiar ground of the "mystery of
language acquisition", Plato's problem, Universal Grammar,
principles and parameters, as well as innateness and universality,
but his presentation is fresh enough that I would recommend that
readers who are quick to dismiss these as they are traditionally
presented refer to R&R, and the context of the discussion, rather
than to more out-dated versions of related arguments, such as
Chomsky (1965).

Day 2 is entitled "Notation and Reality", and begins the discussion
of the details of the layout of the MP: internal properties and
external conditions, the levels of representation LF and PF, Full
Interpretation, features and feature-checking, etc. The chapter
concludes with a brief discussion of Optimality Theory, and L
decides that OT has little to say about the generation of possible
input structures, which follow from principles of economy in MP
terms, with Merge and Move, but which are not so straightforwardly
handled in the Input-Output terms in OT syntax (although phonology,
which occurs at PF and is separated from LF by Spellout, may be so

Day 3, "Phrases and Linearity", begins the discussion of the
empirical consequences of the MP. U discusses Merge, constituency,
case, command relations, the Linear Correspondence Axiom and
linearity, and empty categories. Day 4, "Cyclic Transformations",
discusses movement, binding theory, adjunction, case-checking and
agreement, uninterpretable features, etc. Day 5, "Chains and Their
Checking Domain", introduces the Minimal Link condition, shortest
move, a discussion of derivationality, expletives, etc. Day 6,
"Words and their Internal Domains", covers heads and internal
arguments, definitions of checking domains, predicate-role
relations, impossible words, lexical entries and structures, covert
morphology, and so on.

Interspersed throughout are such conclusions that grammar can be
derived from the same natural forces that lead to Fibonacci
sequences and that all languages have the same underlying logical
form and movement operations, some movements coming before spell-out
to phonological form in some languages and some after in others.

As for the formalist-functionalist debate, R&R cogently argues that
much of what drives syntax are conditions externally imposed.
Syntactic movement operations, for instance, obey economy conditions
(e.g. 'Shortest Move') which hold that the closest available
features will be attracted to an item needing to check its own
features. This economy is not an internal condition of a capricious
specific language, but a property of efficient natural systems
generally. Other aspects of the MP are similarly motivated by
recourse to the way that the universe operates, language being but
an exemplary element of this larger domain.

That the MP is constantly changing its specific incarnation at a
very rapid rate is undeniable, and this is illustrated in the
variations in the program as conceived in chapter 1 (which
originally saw print in 1991) and chapter 4 of Chomsky (1995), and
now with the "phases" of Chomsky 1999 (which post-dates U's R&R).
There is no doubt more to come. Since this is the case, the
specific lines of argumentation for particular linguistic phenomena,
of which there are many discussed (and for the breadth of which U is
to be commended), are not quite as interesting as the actual
ambitious scope of U's project, and especially his discussion of the
foundational assumptions laying behind the MP, the precise things
which have been driving these changes: economy, optimality,
elegence, etc.

The usual reservations toward a lack of breadth of languages studied
do apply here: there is a heavy emphasis on Indo-European languages
and well-studied other languages such as Japanese and Chinese, and
not much byway of discussion of issues in indigenous languages of
North America, Austronesia, Africa, etc. But this seems to be the
result of a lack of extensive work on these languages from a MP
standpoint, rather than an oversight on U's part. (U does cover
quite a bit of ground as it is, and it is the case that these
languages have been receiving a lot more attention from
generativists in the last 25 years or so than was true in the
1960's-although there is still plenty of work left for us to do).
What U does do successfully is outline the workings of the MP enough
so that scholars working on these other languages can test the
empirical predictions of the MP with their own data: whether or not
the MP is conducive to the accurate description of any natural
language is an empirical question the results of which remain to be

Also, some of the rhetoric contained within (which I will attribute
to the fictional L rather than to U himself) is a bit heavy-handed
(the preponderance of the word 'trivial' throughout grates on this
reviewer),and much of the fictional conversation is stilted and
canned, but I still recommend the book minimally for its discussion
of the scope of the Minimalist Program.

Being so ambitious on a variety of levels, this book is a first in
the linguistics world, and as such it is worthy of a gander for its
unusual presentation and its stretching of academic publishing
possibilities alone. While looking at its flashy layout and
contrived narrativization one might also want to actually read (at
least some of) what U actually has to say.


Chomsky, N. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.Chomsky, N. 1995.
The Minimalist Program. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. 1999. ms.

About the Reviewer: Jason Haugen is a student in the joint PhD
program in Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of
Arizona. His primary interests are in the
syntax/semantics/pragmatics of Native American languages.