November 06, 2006

Charles Carpenter Fries

I had occasion recently to refer a graduate student to Charles Carpenter Fries's 1952 book The Structure of English.  She's working on a cluster of issues having to do with syntactic categories and subcategories, and I recalled with pleasure Fries's careful development of a system of parts of speech via distributional analysis, using as raw data some fifty hours of (covertly) recorded conversations.  Though many linguists are now looking at syntactic categories and subcategories through the lens of the constructions words can and cannot occur in, and though a great many linguists now draw their data from corpora, Fries's work is scarcely known.  He has no Wikipedia page, except for a place-filler ("Diese Seite existiert noch nicht") on the German Wikipedia site.

Well, I think it's time for people to pay some attention to C. C. Fries.

I never met Fries, or Paul Roberts, whose 1956 textbook Patterns of English is a presentation of Fries's system for classroom use.  But the two books are an important part of my intellectual history: one of my high school English teachers used Patterns as a text in English grammar -- quite a remarkable step, then as now -- and so gave me my first taste of linguistics.  It was delicious.  A couple of years later, at Princeton, I took intro linguistics (with the Gleason text) first chance I got, even though I was a math major.  I was hooked.  On to the intro to historical linguistics (with the Hockett text) and reading Sapir, Bloomfield, Fries's Structure book, Harris's Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951), and, yes Syntactic Structures.

The Fries system has four major syntactic categories, called "parts of speech", in "classes" numbered 1 through 4 (Roberts maintains Fries's notation, but is willing to label the four classes Noun, Verb, Adjective, and Adverb), plus fifteen minor categories of "function words", in "groups" lettered A through O.  Some of the groups have only one member (Group C, not; Group H, expletive there), and several gather together words that are largely ignored in traditional English grammar (Group K, comprising utterance-initial well, oh, now, and exclamatory why; Group M, comprising the discourse markers look, say, and listen).  There are extended treatments of sentence patterns, immediate constituents, the syntactic functions "Subject" and "Object", and much else.

Well worth looking at now.

But what happened?  Why did Fries pretty much disappear from sight?

Look at the dates.  While Fries was getting his book to press, Chomsky was writing The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory; he finished the manuscript in 1955, the year before the Roberts book was published, and the next year after that Syntactic Structures appeared.  By the time Fries died, in 1967, generative grammar was flourishing and American structuralism was increasingly marginalized.  Fries's careful procedures and concepts defined from (real-life) data had no place in the world of Universal Grammar.  Well, they're back, and it's time to say some good words for Charles Carpenter Fries.

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[Update from Mark Liberman -- Dan Everett writes:

Ken Pike told me many stories about Fries that support Arnold's statements. Ken's first presentation in linguistics was on tone languages, to the plenary session of the LSA in 1936. There were only 12 people in attendance, but on the front row were Bloomfield, Sapir, Trager, Bloch and Fries. In the second row was the new PhD, Charles Hockett. After his presentation, Pike said that Sapir wanted him to do his PhD with him at Yale. Bloomfield offered him a spot at Chicago. And Fries talked to him about coming to Michigan. Pike said that he chose to work with Fries over Bloomfield and Sapir because Fries' work was more concerned with helping people learn to do linguistics and apply it.


Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 6, 2006 04:00 PM