Call for papers

Towards a theory of Syntactic Variation

Bizkaia Aretoa, Bilbao (University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU)

June 5th-7th 2013

The language research groups Basdisyn (Basque Dialect Syntax) and The Bilingual Mind co-organize an International Workshop entitled Towards a theory of Syntactic Variation. The workshop will take place in Bilbao, The Basque Country, June 5-7, 2013. The goal of the workshop is to provide a forum of discussion on different approaches to the nature of syntactic variation and its place in linguistic theory.

The Principles and Parameters model of grammar (Chomsky, 1981, henceforth P&P) conceived of syntactic variation as a systematic phenomenon resulting from combinations of a finite set of discrete parameters of binary values, such as the pro-drop parameter or the head parameter, among others. The interplay between invariant principles and experience-dependent parameters has been argued to be a central distinguishing feature of the language faculty. However, there is currently no prevailing view on the nature of syntactic variation both inside and outside generative linguistics. On the one hand, some authors outside generative grammar hold the view that linguistic traits are not discrete properties, but at best constitute statistically based generalizations, and that individual languages offer radically different answers to communicative needs of shared intentionality, so that there is no possible general theory of variation in syntax (e.g. Evans and Levinson 2009). On the other hand, and within generative linguistics, the success of the P&P model in accounting for cross-linguistic variation patterns of human grammars has been subject of much criticism (Newmeyer 2004, 2005, 2006, Boeckx 2011). Syntactic variation has thus become a key aspect of the debate in current linguistics regarding the very nature of human language and the ultimate source of its diversity. Following on the wake of the P&P model, new concepts such as macro and micro parameters have been proposed (Baker 2003, 2008, Kayne 2000, 2005), which take different views on how to account for systematic aspects of syntactic variation. The Kaynean view, tightly related to what Baker (2008) calls the Borer/Chomsky conjecture, attributes syntactic variation to differences in the features of functional lexical items. Roberts and Holmberg (2005, 2010) provide a new perspective into a parameter-based theory that attempts to reconcile micro and macro variation in syntax. Other claims distinct  from parameter-based theories have also been  made (Boeckx 2010, 2011). In sum, the status of syntactic variation is undergoing profound rethinking in contemporary generative syntax, with alternative proposals to the classical P&P model. This Workshop aims at gathering and discussing different views on the nature of syntactic variation in language. We thus invite original contributions related to any of the following issues:

  • The locus and nature of syntactic variation
  • Theoretical accounts for syntactic variation
  • Principles and narrow syntax
  • The issue of parameters and their status in the minimalist framework
  • The “Borer-Chomsky”conjecture: variation and the Lexicon
  • Microparametric vs. macroparametric approaches to syntactic variation


Baker, Mark C. (2003). Language Differences and Language Design. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, 349-353.

Baker, Mark. 2008. “The macroparameter in a microparametric world”. In Theresa Biberauer (ed.) The limits of syntactic variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 351-374.

Boeckx, Cedric. 2010. “What Principles and Parameters got wrong”. Manuscript, ICREA/UAB.

Boeckx, Cedric. 2011. “Approaching parameters from below”. In C. Boeckx and Anna Maria Di Sciullo (eds.) The Biolinguistic enterprise: New perspectives on the evolution and nature of the human language faculty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Evans, Nicholas, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2009. “The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32. 429–492.

Kayne, Richard S. 2000. Parameters and Universals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kayne, Richard S. 2005. “Some notes on comparative syntax, with special reference to English and French”. In Guglielmo Cinque and Richard Kayne (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Syntax. New York: Oxford University Press. 3-69.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2004. “Against a parameter-setting approach to language variation”. In Pierre Pica, Johan Rooryck and J. van Craenenbroek (eds.) Language Variation Yearbook. vol. 4. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 181-234.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2005. Possible and probable languages. A generative perspective on Linguistic Typology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2006. “A rejoinder to ‘On the role of parameters in Universal Grammar: A reply to Newmeyer’ by Ian Roberts and Anders Holmberg”. [available in the Internet: http:// lingBuzz/000248]

Roberts, Ian and Anders Holmberg. 2005. “On the role of parameters in Universal Grammar: A reply to Newmeyer”. In H. Broekhuis, N. Corver, M. Huybregts, U. Kleinhenz & J. Koster (eds.) Organizing grammar: Linguistic studies in honor of Henk van Riemsdijk. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 538-553.

Roberts, Ian and Anders Holmberg. 2010. “Introduction: parameters in minimalist theory”. In Theresa Biberauer, Anders Holmberg, Ian Roberts and Michelle Sheehan (eds.). Parametric variation: Null subjects in Minimalist Theory. Cambridge University Press. 1-57.

Abstracts should be sent in PDF or Word Format to Ane Berro ( They should not exceed one page, with an optional additional page for examples and references. Submissions should be anonymous. Contact details (name, affiliation and e-mail) along with the title of the talk should be included in the body of the e-mail.

Language of the workshop: English.

Deadline for submission of abstracts: September 30th, 2012.

Notification of acceptance: November 30th 2012.