David Adger Colloquium

February 4
3:30 - 5:00 pm
Rosenwald 011
Queen Mary University, London
Merge: Taming the Menagerie
Usually simplification of a syntactic system leads to an increase in its expressive power, as the removal of restrictions widens the potential richness of representations. The proposal, within Minimalist Syntax, to reduce the structure building part of the grammar to the operation Merge, has lead to an explosion in the kinds of derivations and representations admitted by the theory. We have External Merge, Internal Merge, Self Merge, Under Merge, Parallel Merge (and its cousin Sideways Move), Late Merge (and its big sister, Wholesale Late Merger), Morphological Merge(r), as well as an increase in the kinds of structure admitted, with Roll Up, Remnant Roll Up, and Head Roll Up. And the field hasn't yet really got its mitts on Pair Merge and various imaginable versions of that.
This talk, points out the problem, and suggests two avenues to reduction of this richness. One is to impose a restriction on the design of the structure building system: syntax builds hierarchical structures that can be mapped to semantic interpretation with no loss of information. That is, the system does not have the capacity to change structure without semantic effect. The other avenue is to reduce the complexity of the structure building operation itself. 
I briefly outline why head movement and roll-up movement fall foul of the first restriction, and outline a system (an update of Adger 2013) that analyses the phenomena differently, and maintains a strict mapping from the syntax to the semantics. However, the focus of the talk is on a simplification of the structure building operation Merge itself. In Borges' short story, Funes the Memorious, the protagonist has such a prodigious memory that every moment's existence of every object is distinct to him, and generalization becomes impossible. It is the limits on our memory that make abstraction available. Taking a lesson from this, I propose a theory of Merge with radically limited memory. I propose to bifurcate what is classically termed the Workspace, in Minimalist Syntax, into two memory domains, mimicking the separation of computer CPU memory into a cache-register structure. The cache contains the resources necessary for a derivation, and, once a computation has halted, it is the single element in the cache that is submitted to interpretation by systems of meaning and externalization. However Merge does not apply in the cache; rather elements are moved from the cache to a register, which is binary in structure, and Merge operates on the contents of this register, returning the contents to the cache when completed. This allows the recursive step of Merge to just be a general grouping operation, with binarity being a result of the architecture of the memory structure of the system, rather than stipulated in the operation itself. I also show how such a system rules out Parallel Merge and Late Merge, removing the theoretical motivation for such operations that usually figures in their justification.