Minimalist Program

In linguistics, the Minimalist Program (MP) is a major line of inquiry that has been developing inside generative grammar since the early 1990s, starting with a 1993 paper by Noam Chomsky.[1]

Chomsky presents MP as a program, not as a theory, following Imre Lakatos‘s distinction.[2] The MP seeks to be a mode of inquiry characterized by the flexibility of the multiple directions that its minimalism enables. Ultimately, the MP provides a conceptual framework used to guide the development of grammatical theory. For Chomsky, there are minimalist questions, but the answers can be framed in any theory. Of all these questions, the one that plays the most crucial role is this: why language has the properties it has.[3] The MP lays out a very specific view of the basis of syntactic grammar that, when compared to other formalisms, is often taken to look very much like a theory.

The MP appeals to the idea that the language ability in humans shows signs of being incorporated under an optimal design with exquisite organization, which seems to suggest that the inner workings conform to a very simple computational law or a particular mental organ. In other words, the MP works on the assumption that Universal Grammar constitutes a perfect design in the sense that it contains only what is necessary to meet our conceptual and physical (phonological) needs.[4]

From a theoretical standpoint, and in the context of generative grammar, the MP draws on the minimalist approach of the Principles and Parameters program, considered to be the ultimate standard theoretical model that generative linguistics has developed since the 1980s. What this approach suggests is the existence of a fixed set of principles valid for all languages, which, when combined with settings for a finite set of binary switches (parameters), may describe the specific properties that characterize the language system a child eventually comes to attain.[5]

The MP aims to get to know how much of the Principles and Parameters model can be taken as a result of this hypothetical optimal and computationally efficient design of the human language faculty. In turn, more developed versions of the Principles and Parameters approach provide technical principles from which the MP can be seen to follow.[6]

A major development of MP inquiry is Bare Phrase Structure (BPS), a theory of phrase structure (sentence building prior to movement) developed by Noam Chomsky.[9] Interestingly, the introduction of BPS has moved the Chomskyan tradition toward the dependency grammar tradition, which operates with significantly less structure than most phrase structure grammars.[10]

This theory contrasts with X-bar theory, which preceded it, in four important ways:

  1. BPS is explicitly derivational. That is, it is built from the bottom up, bit by bit. In contrast, X-Bar Theory is representational—a structure for a given construction is built in one fell swoop, and lexical items are inserted into the structure.
  2. BPS does not have a preconceived phrasal structure, while in X-Bar Theory, every phrase has a specifier, a head, and a complement.
  3. BPS permits only binary branching, while X-Bar Theory permits both binary and unary branching.
  4. BPS does not distinguish between a “head” and a “terminal”, while some versions of X-Bar Theory require such a distinction.

BPS incorporates two basic operations: Merge and Move. Although there is active debate on exactly how Move should be formulated, the differences between the current proposals are relatively minute. The following description follows Chomsky’s original proposal.

Merge is a function that takes two objects (say α and β) and merges them into an unordered set with a label (either α or β, in this case α). The label identifies the properties of the phrase.

Merge (α, β) → {α, {α, β} }

For example, Merge can operate on the lexical items ‘drink’ and ‘water’ to give ‘drink water’. Note that the phrase ‘drink water’ behaves more like the verb ‘drink’ than like the noun ‘water’. That is, wherever we can put the verb ‘drink’ we can usually put the phrase ‘drink water’:

I like to _____________ (drink)/(drink water).
(Drinking/Drinking water) __________ is fun.

Furthermore, we typically can’t put the phrase ‘drink water’ in places where we can put the noun ‘water’:

We can say “There’s some water on the table”, but not “There’s some drink water on the table”.

So, we identify the phrase with a label. In the case of ‘drink water’, the label is ‘drink’ since the phrase acts as a verb. For simplicity, we call this phrase a verb phrase or VP. Now if we were to Merge ‘cold’ and ‘water’ to get ‘cold water’, then we would have a noun phrase or NP with the label ‘water’. The reader can verify that the phrase ‘cold water’ can appear in the same environments as the noun ‘water’ in the three test sentences above. So, for ‘drink water’ we have the following:

Merge (drink, water) → {drink, {drink, water} }

We can represent this in a typical syntax tree as follows:

  • Minimalist Tree Drink Water.png

or, with more technical terms, as:

  • Minimalist Tree VP.png

Merge can also operate on structures already built. If it couldn’t, then such a system would predict only two-word utterances to be grammatical. Say we Merge a new head with a previously formed object (a phrase).

Merge (γ, {α, {α, β}}) → {γ, {γ, {α, {α, β}}}}

Here, γ is the label, so we say that γ ‘projects’ from the label of the head. This corresponds to the following tree structure:

  • Minimalist Syntax Tree 1.png

Note crucially that Merge operates blindly, projecting labels in all possible combinations. The subcategorization features of the head then license certain label projections and eliminate all derivations with alternate projections.

Merge (usually capitalized) is one of the basic operations in the Minimalist Program, a leading approach to generative syntax, when two syntactic objects are combined to form a new syntactic unit (a set). Merge also has the property of recursion in that it may apply to its own output: the objects combined by Merge are either lexical items or sets that were themselves formed by Merge. This recursive property of Merge has been claimed to be a fundamental characteristic that distinguishes language from other cognitive faculties. As Noam Chomsky (1999) puts it, Merge is “an indispensable operation of a recursive system … which takes two syntactic objects A and B and forms the new object G={A,B}” (p. 2).[1]

In some variants of the Minimalist Program Merge is triggered by feature checking, e.g. the verb eat selects the noun cheesecake because the verb has an uninterpretable N-feature [uN] (“u” stands for “uninterpretable”), which must be checked (or deleted) due to full interpretation.[2] By saying that this verb has a nominal uninterpretable feature, we rule out such ungrammatical constructions as *eat beautiful (the verb selects an adjective). Schematically it can be illustrated as:

 |                 |
eat [V, uN]   cheesecake [N]

Chomsky (2001) distinguishes between external and internal Merge: if A and B are separate objects then we deal with external Merge; if either of them is part of the other it is internal Merge.[3]

In other approaches to generative syntax, such as Head-driven phrase structure grammar, Lexical functional grammar and other types of unification grammar, the analogue to Merge is the unification operation of graph theory. In these theories, operations over attribute-value matrices (feature structures) are used to account for many of the same facts. Though Merge is usually assumed to be unique to language, the linguists Jonah Katz and David Pesetsky have argued that the harmonic structure of tonal music is also a result of the operation Merge.[4]

This notion of ‘merge’ may in fact be related to Fauconnier’s ‘blending’ notion in cognitive linguistics.

Standard Merge (i.e. as it is commonly understood) encourages one to adopt three key assumptions about the nature of syntactic structure and the faculty of language: 1) sentence structure is generated bottom up in the mind of speakers (as opposed to top down or left to right), 2) all syntactic structure is binary branching (as opposed to n-ary branching) and 3) syntactic structure is constituency-based (as opposed to dependency-based). While these three assumptions are taken for granted for the most part by those working within the broad scope of the Minimalist Program, other theories of syntax reject one or more of them.

Merge is commonly seen as merging smaller constituents to greater constituents until the greatest constituent, the sentence, is reached. This bottom-up view of structure generation is rejected by representational (=non-derivational) theories (e.g. Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Lexical Functional Grammar, most dependency grammars, etc.), and it is contrary to early work in Transformational Grammar. The phrase structure rules of context free grammar, for instance, were generating sentence structure top down.

Merge is usually assumed to merge just two constituents at a time, a limitation that results in tree structures in which all branching is binary. While the strictly binary branching structures have been argued for in detail,[5] one can also point to a number of empirical considerations that cast doubt on these strictly binary branching structures, e.g. the results of standard constituency tests.[6] For this reason, most grammar theories outside of Government and Binding Theory and the Minimalist Program allow for n-ary branching.

Merge merges two constituents in such a manner that these constituents become sister constituents and are daughters of the newly created mother constituent. This understanding of how structure is generated is constituency-based (as opposed to dependency-based). Dependency grammars (e.g. Meaning-Text Theory, Functional Generative Description, Word grammar) disagree with this aspect of Merge, since they take syntactic structure to be dependency-based.[7]


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