Natural languages, communication, etc

Mystery (?)

I downloaded the following from Paul Postal’s website on 06/19/2013 :

<cut and paste>

To me the most fascinating feature of current linguistics is that

although natural languages have been studied by untold linguists for

thousands of years, even the most intensively studied languages remain

sources of nearly endless mystery. In my own field of concentration,

syntax, even the most intensively studied languages like English

reveal in domain after domain properties which are unaccounted for.

For example, I am confident that not even the most exhaustive search

of the literature will provide any basis for such sharp differences as

those between (Ba, b), given the apparent parallelism in (Aa, b)

(prefixed stars indicate that the expression does not satisfy the

rules of English grammar):

    a. The director never reached Adam.

    b. That book never reached Adam.

    a. Adam was never reached by the director.

    b. *Adam was never reached by that book.

The puzzle of why, as syntacticians say, there is a good passive (Ba)

corresponding to (Aa) but none corresponding to (Ab) deepens when one

notes such corresponding differences as those in (C)-(F):

    a. Adam was difficult for the director to reach.

    b. *Adam was difficult for that book to reach.

    a. the reaching of Adam by the director

    b. *the reaching of Adam by that book

    a. Adam was unreachable by the director.

    b. *Adam was unreachable by that book.

    a. The director didn’t reach Adam although she did Louisa.

    b. *That book didn’t reach Adam although it did Louisa.

Such facts suggest that there is some systematic difference between

the (only) seemingly parallel expressions in (A), but of course they

do not tell us what it is. Research into such questions is one small

aspect of syntax. The fact that there is no known account of such

facts despite the immense body of work on English syntax, provides, I

think, a true perspective on the dual status of current syntactic

research. On the one hand, a great deal of knowledge has been gathered

and many generalizations and insights have been obtained. On the

other, the true structure of natural languages remains a significantly

open question and the potential scope for original work and

possibilities for current entrants in the field to fairly rapidly have

the possibility of exploring largely unknown and not well-understood

areas even in well-known languages are very great.

</cut and paste>

Assuming we can overlook Postal’s politics, isn’t he here making a

rather stupid mistake. Two different meaning of "reach" seem to be

involved. The director reaches Adam via telephone or the like and is

the active reaching agent. The book reaches Adam, in the only

acceptable example, via the mails or the like and is the passive

object being acted upon.

I think I could quote Postal himself on this issue were I to bother

looking.  Or have I missed the point?

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