Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Focus on Focus: A Review Article of Aspects of the Grammar of Focus: A Minimalist View by Przemyslaw Tajsner

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Focus on Focus: A Review Article of Aspects of the Grammar of Focus: A Minimalist View by Przemyslaw Tajsner

Article excerpt


"Chomsky's book The Minimalist Program is a sad example of spurious science, as it fails to satisfy basic scientific criteria, such as respect for data, unambiguous formulations, falsifiability, and also, on a different level, simple good manners" (Seuren 2004: 4).

1. Introduction (2)

There are a number of reasons why I decided to write a rather extensive review article of Tajsner's book.

A. I was interested in the problem of focus for over 20 years during the 70s to 90s, publishing 2 books and some 30 papers on the subject. I have read Tajsner's book to learn what is new in this area.

B. To my astonishment I discovered that none of my works, as well as many works of other authors, are even mentioned by Tajsner (one of my papers is mentioned in a footnote (p. 21), but it refers to iconicity, not to focus). Of many scholars of the Prague School for whom focus was the main theme in a span of 40 years of research, only Mathesius and Sgall are mentioned.

C. My astonishment became even greater when I found that practically all English and Polish structures discussed by Tajsner had been exhaustively discussed decades ago by many authors, including myself. I understand, of course, that the subtitle A Minimalist View limits the scope of the book, but the main title is Aspects of the Grammar of Focus which means that the book is on focus rather than minimalism. I consider it a non-academic practice (in the order of Seuren's "simple bad manners") to repeat examples and interpretations earlier research without citing them.

D. The situation appears to be even more perplexing in view of the fact that I have met Tajsner at conferences where we listened to each other's presentations on focus and word order, so Tajsner cannot claim ignorance of my views and works, just as he cannot claim ignorance of other research, for example, by Prague School linguists.

To my objections B and C, Tajsner answered in a private conversation that it is "common knowledge" ("a basis of language data") and that he does not have to make references to such previous research. What is "common knowledge" is a subjective judgment and far from clear, as there is no objective corpus called "a basis of language data". Tajsner makes frequent and highly inconsistent use of it.

By ignoring references to important and substantial research, Tajsner creates an impression that he is the first to introduce and discuss the problems in the field. The impression is exacerbated by his frequent use of expressions like "I (we) assume (...)", "An interesting example is (...)" before introducing topics discussed decades ago.

As I will demonstrate below this tendency not only applies to Tajsner only, but also to other proponents of minimalism in the last decade whom Tajsner quotes, accepting their views as original.

Another criticism is that in many places Tajsner expresses assumptions without offering support. They often turn out to be either wrong or ungrounded. This is at odds with his declaration that "the only proper way to form a theory of language is by applying the method of systematic, scientific and empirical study of the facts of language themselves (...)" (T 22). It seems that Tajsner considered unnecessary laboratory testing and consultations with native speakers of both English and Polish. This is quite odd, because the School of English employs some 30 native speakers of English, and there is no shortage of speakers of Polish around. Adequate laboratory equipment is also available.

An example of Tajsner's careless statements is found on page 327 where he writes that "there is no change of canonical word order affecting the placement of nuclear stress, where, as commonly assumed, the canonical word order in Polish is SVO, and [SVO.sub.i][O.sub.d]" (T 327; emphasis mine A.S.). The only source supporting this "commonly assumed" view is Witkos (2007) mentioned in a footnote. …

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