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History of Syntax Research



I'm interested in syntax research and theories development overtime. Could anyone recommend any literature on the topic? I'd love to find some broad overview and to go deeper from there. Pre-Chomsky is where I have some sort of a gap. Thank You in advance!

There's a huge amount of layered research in Syntax, such that you must understand at least the basics of the earlier work in order to understand the current work. Minimalism, for example, is an attempt to trim down the previous theories, and therefore requires and assumes relevant knowledge of those previous theories. The same applies throughout Generative (Chomskyan) approaches, though maybe less so before that, but those ideas have relatively little influence now, although your question about what was going on before that is interesting. A turning point was Chomsky's critique of Skinner, so that's one major earlier paradigm:
(Although Chomsky's ideas have been met with a lot of criticism and there are many competing approaches now, I don't think that Behavioralism in its original sense has been taken very seriously since Chomsky's critique. Other approaches do take issue with some of Chomsky's reasoning, such as especially Cognitive Linguistics / Construction Grammar, where discourse is more prominent than abstract structural analysis, so in some ways it echoes some earlier ideas I suppose.)

And whether or not you agree with Chomsky, he was the first to really emphasize "Syntax" as a theoretical domain. Before that, there were some theoretical questions, but also a lot of work on descriptive linguistics. For Syntax, that meant roughly making lists of syntactic structures (not entirely different from Chomsky's early work, but without much theoretical intent) and how they connected (also not unlike Construction Grammar in a general sense). At that point, another major area of research was historical linguistics, although that focused very much on phonology and sometimes morphology, with syntax not of major concern (only quite recently has syntactic reconstruction been taken seriously, for example).

A major descriptive approach that was popular just before and then during Chomsky's early years was Tagmemics, the results of which often seen by modern researchers as nearly incomprehensible. In its favor, it was a systematic notation of how the various levels of structure fit together and added up to a full sentence, sort of like interlocking puzzle pieces, and in principle it captured the relevant descriptive information, so grammars written in this way are still valuable sources of information today (if you can decode them). The problem is that the entire premise was based on making abbreviations for each of the structural components then layering them, so that by the time you get to syntax (especially e.g. complex sentences), it assumes you have almost memorized everything else, if you just want to understand the smaller structural components. Take a look at a tagmemic grammar to get a sense of this. It was remarkably popular at the time, from say the 1950s to 1970s.
(It looks like this might be a good overview: https://benjamins.com/online/hop/articles/tag1)

Broadly, early approaches, as well as modern syntactic theories, are rooted in some of the ideas of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_linguistics
Very little before that was theoretical in nature regarding syntax (and often syntax was overlooked entirely). See for example: https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315718453.ch27

Before that, you could look into older grammatical traditions like those of Panini for Sanskrit and the Arab grammarians on Arabic, both of which are remarkably detailed and resemble modern theories in some ways and may still have some useful insights for research. The Greek/Roman approach was more dismissive of variation and basically assumed that all languages not resembling Greek or Latin were inferior, so that won't get you much insight into syntactic theory, except to the extent that traditional grammatical descriptions of classical languages (coming directly from those older descriptions) until around the 1800s really shaped a lot of the basic descriptive categories and terminology in use today. For example, the contrast between "coordination" and "subordination" was not used in classical times, but came about as a way of describing the classical languages during the 1800s (in an interesting sort of indirect path with borrowing/calquing of Greek then German terms into English) and although there has been extensive research on those topics since, the basic dichotomy has been for the most part assumed and taken as a given in current research (with some recent work questioning that). So there has been a little recent work (although I don't know that it's collected anywhere) trying to understand where we get these basic ideas/assumptions from, since they were not explicitly reformulated scientifically with the rise of theoretical syntax, just taken as questions to apply the new theories to. Similarly, consider the terms "adverb" or "particle", which are useful(?) labels for categories we don't understand well, but sometimes adopted (perhaps without any more understanding) into theoretical work, and other times questioned mostly when they don't quite fit the theory. (On terminology in general, there has been quite a bit of work in typology in the last 10 years or so about issues of comparability and what terminology really refers to, leading some, e.g. Haspelmath, to suggest languages do not share any fundamental categories ['natural kinds'] but that comparison must be via the interpretation of the linguist, by definition and analogy. Others, especially from a Generative perspective, would disagree.)

Beyond my brief notes above, the place to start for this sort of question is often a "Handbook" (e.g. "[Publisher's] Handbook of Syntax"), although you'll specifically need one that has an overview of different theories including older approaches, and many just focus on the most popular ideas today, or just Generativism.

The Routledge Handbook of Syntax is mostly modern, but contains a chapter by Culicover called "The History of Syntax" so it provides some general overview, but a quick skim suggests it really starts with Chomsky. Other handbooks I've looked over quickly seem similar.

I feel like I've seen a handbook that does a better job covering more of the early theories, but at the moment I'm not finding it. Keep searching because there are some things out there. One that covers some of this in some chapters is: https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199585847.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199585847 (The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, ed. Allan: see various chapters on grammatical traditions in Europe and Asia, and then also "General or Universal Grammar from Plato to Chomsky", "American Descriptivism (‘Structuralism’)", "Noam Chomsky's Contribution to Linguistics: A Sketch", and "European Linguistics since Saussure".)

There are also several books or series of books looking at the "history of linguistics" (or similar titles), which might have more of what you're looking for. The four-volume "History of Linguistics" set (Lepschy 1994, Longman) might be helpful: volume 1 is about early Eastern grammatical traditions, volume 2 about classical and medieval approaches, volume 3 about Renaissance and early modern approaches, and volume 4 goes up until about 1900 although again that time period is more about historical phonology than syntactic theory. It also doesn't seem to cover the gap you specifically mentioned from say 1900-1950, but I'd recommend this for the earlier years. Another option (not as detailed, because it's only a single volume) in which the last chapter does cover that period is A Short History of Linguistics by Robins, 1967, so that might be a place to start, and it's old enough that those ideas were prominent then rather than just remembered now.

As I said above, syntactic theory is layered, so that old ideas (even the oldest ideas) resurface when relevant, and some general familiarity is often assumed even in current, cutting-edge research. That can be very challenging for students (so most textbooks try to present a specific, coherent picture of one approach, or a few, without layering in too much comparative information although that's what it takes to move on from an intro class to being a publishing syntactician), and it also means that for someone like you looking for an overview, instead you're mostly going to find scattered information that pops up as relevant in individual papers, rather than a broad overview or clearly demarcated stages set apart by the theory moving on in general, even though that's how we treat the abstract ideas. Saussure, Pike, early Chomsky, etc. are still cited in current papers.

Thank You for the time and effort You put in your answer! Now I have a lot to think about  :) Some of the mentioned references I'm already familiar with, but others will be really useful and helpful moving forward.

Here's something that may more directly address your question, by Seuren about Structuralism and prestructuralism:
And this earlier volume has several potentially relevant chapters:


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