Ode to -e—Deedles D’Dee SpecGram Vol CLXXXIX, No 3 Contents The Linguistics Department Γυμνάσιον—A Guide for the Perplexed and Unretroflexed—Pynn Nupp-Gurle & Bīff Kāyke

Re-X-amining X-bar

From our Linguistics Bric-a-Brac Correspondent

Naomi Abrams Chewsky

The bane of syntax students’ lives pretty much the world over, that bastion of generativism, X-bar theory, has got itself all shook up after the recent discovery of a hitherto unknown ancient Greek tradition of linguistic thought in which the central insights of X-bar theory can be found. While not known for their configurational analyses of the abstract combinatorial properties of formatives, recently discovered papyri from around 200 BCE seem to suggest that Greek thought of late antiquity had produced what it called Ξ-bar theory (that’s Xi-bar (pronounced [ksaɪ]) if your alphabetical know-how is limited to Latin), which pretty much did what contemporary X-bar theory sets out to achieve.1 This is a shock for one of the great insights of 20th century linguistics and has left the global media and political leaders of every persuasion lost for words.

If you’re reading this journal, you’ll be more familiar than an A-movement-fronted wh- phrase with its trace with good ol’ X-bar. You know the score: a complement is the daughter of X-bar and sister of X; a specifier is ... (I’ll stop there); you’ll remember the bare, brutal, barren syntactocentrism of the whole escapade (no semantics to see here, sir; move along!); you’ll even have ready-made, off-the-shelf definitions of the X-bar-lexicon (if that’s not a contradiction in terms!) of headedness, maximal projections, configurational relationships and endocentricity (how’s that for a polysyllabic multimorpheme-fest?).

Whether you loved it or hated it, you sure had to study it. But what you never knew until now was that this was all apparently done and dusted over two millennia ago: documents have come to light that make pretty much the same arguments as to cross-categorical abstract structure as your standard syntax textbook. The papyri are attributed to the obscure Hellenic philosophers Nomavramacles and Rayjakendocrates who cite Heraclitus and Anaximander as authorities in their explication of the hierarchical, and allegedly universal properties of the phrase. Although rivals in other aspects of their respective philosophies, Nomavramacles and Rayjakendocrates seem to have shared a take on the question of the structure of the phrase. They seem to have selected the Greek letter ξ (xi pronounced [ksaɪ], remember?), the majuscule of which is Ξ, to represent an abstract variable because its appearance resembled the various hierarchical levels at which they argued the phrase can be said to have a structural existence. These shortly came to be referred to as Ξ-bars for obvious reasons.

In several sheets of highly dense prose, Nomavramacles and Rayjakendocrates make the same claims as Generativism as to the cross-categorical hierarchical structural identicalities; to wit: verbs obviously have complements in the form of objects and nouns and adjectives sort of sometimes do so let’s assume a highly articulated schema, stipulate its universality and re-examine all the evidence in light of this dogma.

Of course, it could still be said that 20th/21st century X-bar theory has added something to the mix: by extending the machinery into so-called functional categories, an observation not made in Greek texts, contemporary linguistic theory may be taking things forward somewhat. However, given that in a recent survey only 1.7% of syntacticians responded to the question ‘What are your thoughts on X-bar theory, specifically its extension functional categories?’ with an earnest ‘It’s made a significant difference to our understanding of the properties of languages’ and over 74% simply chuckled/guffawed/tittered/raised their eyes to heaven and walked off, it may be safe to say that the IP/DP/VP/vP/TP/CP (I’ll stop there) shenanigans are already past peak exposure and on their way to the archives of linguistic insight.

It is not known how it came to be that contemporary X-bar theory mirrors the work of the ancients so clearly. Of course, things can be rediscovered at different times: Leibniz and the other one independently came across calculus and Fred and Barney both discovered fire independently of each other.2 Most commentators however are of the view that it remains an embarrassment for one of the central contributions of post-war linguistic thinking to have been previously discovered millennia before.

1 We use the term ‘achieve’ loosely.

2 However, Wilma and Betty had been collaborating on experiments with combustible materials for some years previously; fragments of legal documents from around 25,000 BCE suggest that the two women sued their respective husbands for intellectual copyright theft.

Ode to -eDeedles D’Dee
The Linguistics Department ΓυμνάσιονA Guide for the Perplexed and UnretroflexedPynn Nupp-Gurle & Bīff Kāyke
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIX, No 3 Contents