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]

Theoretical goals


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]


The MP aims at the further development of ideas involving economy of derivation and economy of representation, which had started to become significant in the early 1990s, but were still peripheral aspects of transformational grammar.[7]

Technical innovations

The exploration of minimalist questions has led to several radical changes in the technical apparatus of transformational generative grammatical theory. Some of the most important are:[8]

Bare phrase structure

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] 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 the verb drink can be put, so too can the phrase "drink water":

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

Furthermore, the phrase "drink water" can not typically be put in the same places as the noun water:

It can be said, "There's some water on the table", but not "There's some drink water on the table".

So, the phrase is identified with a label. In the case of "drink water", the label is drink since the phrase acts as a verb. For simplicity, this phrase is called a verb phrase (VP). If "cold" and "water" were merged to get "cold water", this would be a noun phrase (NP) with the label "water"; it follows 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, there is the following:

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

This can be represented in a typical syntax tree as follows:

or, with more technical terms, as:

Merge can also operate on structures already built. If it could not, then such a system would predict only two-word utterances to be grammatical. If a new head is merged with a previously formed object (a phrase).

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

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

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.


A "phase" is a syntactic domain first hypothesized by Noam Chomsky in 1998.[11] A simple sentence is often decomposed into two phases, CP and vP (see X-bar theory). Movement of a constituent out of a phase is (in the general case) only permitted if the constituent has first moved to the left edge of the phase. This condition is described in the "phase impenetrability condition", which has been variously formulated within the literature. In its original conception, only the vP in transitive and unergative verbs constitute phases. The vP in passives and unaccusative verbs (if even present) are not phases. This topic is, however, currently under debate in the literature.[12]


In the late 1990s, David E. Johnson and Shalom Lappin published the first detailed critiques of Chomsky's minimalist program.[13] This technical work was followed by a lively debate with proponents of minimalism on the scientific status of the program.[14][15][16] The original article provoked several replies[17][18][19][20][21] and two further rounds of replies and counter-replies in subsequent issues of the same journal.

Lappin et al. argue that the minimalist program is a radical departure from earlier Chomskyan linguistic practice that is not motivated by any new empirical discoveries, but rather by a general appeal to "perfection", which is both empirically unmotivated and so vague as to be unfalsifiable. They compare the adoption of this paradigm by linguistic researchers to other historical paradigm shifts in natural sciences and conclude that that of the minimalist program has been an "unscientific revolution", driven primarily by Chomsky's authority in linguistics. The several replies to the article in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory Volume 18 number 4 (2000) make a number of different defenses of the minimalist program. Some claim that it is not in fact revolutionary or not in fact widely adopted, while others agree with Levine and Johnson on these points, but defend the vagueness of its formulation as not problematic in light of its status as a research program rather than a theory (see above).

Further readings on the minimalist program

Much research has been devoted to the study of the consequences that arise when minimalist questions are formulated. This list is not exhaustive.

Works by Noam Chomsky

Linguistic textbooks on minimalism

Works on the main theoretical notions and their applications

See also


  1. Chomsky, Noam. 1993. A minimalist program for linguistic theory. MIT occasional papers in linguistics no. 1. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.
  2. For a thorough discussion of this distinction in the context of linguistics, see Boeckx, Cedric. 2006. Linguistic Minimalism: Origins, Concepts, Methods, and Aims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Boeckx, Cedric Linguistic Minimalism. Origins, Concepts, Methods and Aims, pp. 84 and 115.
  4. Boeckx, Cedric. 2006. Linguistic Minimalism. Origins, Concepts, Methods and Aims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. There are many introductions to Principle and Parameters. Two that align PP in such a way that make the transition to MP smooth are Carnie, Andrew. 2006. Syntax: A Generative Introduction, 2nd Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell, and Cook, Vivian J. and Newson, Mark. 2007. Chomsky's Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Third Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  6. For a detailed introductory discussion between the transition of the technicalities from PP to MP see, among others, Gert Webelhuth. 1995. Government and Binding Theory and the Minimalist Program: Principles and Parameters in Syntactic Theory. Wiley-Blackwell; Uriagereka, Juan. 1998. Rhyme and Reason. An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press; Hornstein, Norbert, Jairo Nunes and Kleanthes K. Grohmann. 2005. Understanding Minimalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and Boeckx, Cedric. 2006. Linguistic Minimalism. Origins, Concepts, Methods and Aims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. For a full description of the checking mechanism see Adger, David. 2003. Core Syntax. A Minimalist Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and also Carnie, Andrew. 2006. Syntax: A Generative Introduction, 2nd Edition. Blackwell Publishers
  8. For some conceptual and empirical advantages of the MP over the traditional view see: Bošković, Željko. 1994. D-Structure, Θ-Criterion, and Movement into Θ-Positions. Linguistic Analysis 24: 247–286, and for more detailed discussions Bošković, Željko and Howard Lasnik (eds). 2006. Minimalist Syntax: The Essential Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  9. See Chomsky, Noam. 1995. Bare Phrase Structure. In Evolution and Revolution in Linguistic Theory. Essays in honor of Carlos Otero., eds. Hector Campos and Paula Kempchinsky, 51–109.
  10. Osborne, Timothy, Michael Putnam, and Thomas Gross 2011. Bare phrase structure, label-less structures, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar? The Linguistic Review 28: 315–364
  11. Chomsky, Noam (1998). "Minimalist Inquiries: The Framework" MIT Occasional Papers in Linguistics 15. Republished in 2000 in R. Martin, D. Michaels, & J. Uriagereka (eds.). Step By Step: Essays In Syntax in Honor of Howard Lasnik. 89–155. MIT Press.
  12. See, among others, Legate, Julie Anne. 2003. Some Interface Properties of the phrase. Linguistic Inquiry 34: 506–516 and Chomsky, Noam. 2008. On Phases. In Foundational Issues in Linguistic Theory. Essays in Honor of Jean-Roger Vergnaud. eds. Robert Freidin, Carlos Peregrín Otero and Maria Luisa Zubizarreta, 133–166. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  13. Johnson, David E. and Shalom Lappin (1997), "A Critique of the Minimalist Program" in Linguistics and Philosophy 20, 273–333, and Johnson, David E. and Shalom Lappin (1999). Local Constraints vs Economy. Stanford: CSLI
  14. Lappin, Shalom, Robert Levine and David E. Johnson (2000b). "The Revolution Confused: A Reply to our Critics." Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18, 873–890
  15. Lappin, Shalom, Robert Levine and David E. Johnson (2001). "The Revolution Maximally Confused." Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 19, 901–919
  16. Holmberg, Anders (2000). "Am I Unscientific? A Reply to Lappin, Levine, and Johnson". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 18: 837–842. doi:10.1023/A:1006425604798.
  17. Reuland, Eric (2000). "Revolution, Discovery, and an Elementary Principle of Logic". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 18: 843–848. doi:10.1023/A:1006404305706.
  18. Roberts, Ian (2000). "Caricaturing Dissent". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 18: 849–857. doi:10.1023/A:1006408422545.
  19. Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo (2000). "The Metric of Open-Mindedness". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 18: 859–862. doi:10.1023/A:1006460406615.
  20. Uriagereka, Juan (2000). "On the Emptiness of 'Design' Polemics". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 18: 863–871. doi:10.1023/A:1006412507524.
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