Dilige, et quod vis fac

by Mark Liberman

In 1972, Alan Prince invented minimalism. Or, as I prefer to call it, Augustinian Grammar (AG).

Noam Chomsky was exploring Conditions on Transformations [1] in his syntax course, and Alan and I, both grad students at the time, were sitting together towards the back of the room. Noam observed that the statement of syntactic transformations could be substantially simplified by imposing appropriate constraints on their operation. Through some combination of scribbled notes, sotto voce conversation, and sign language, Alan and I exchanged the opinion that rules and constraints are generally intertranslatable, implying that you could completely replace all transformational rules with constraints. The logic programming language Prolog (then recently invented) might have been mentioned.

This reminded one of us of a quotation we had heard attributed to St. Augustine, that only one law is needed to regulate behavior: Love God, and do as you like. So Alan raised his hand and said something about the extensional equivalence of rules and constraints; and citing Augustine, he noted that perhaps the transformational component should be entirely replaced by the rule “Love UG, and move as you like”. In fact, he added, you could apply similar ideas to the base component, and generate deep structures as well as surface structure by free combination and re-arrangement of lexical items subject only to universal principles: “Love UG, and speak as you like, shall be the whole of the grammar.”

Noam looked faintly pained, said “That would be ridiculous”, and went on with the lecture.

In fact we slightly misquoted Augustine. What he actually wrote [2] established morality on the basis of love alone, rather than the love of God:

Semel ergo breve praeceptum tibi praecipitur: Dilige, et quod vis fac: sive taceas, dilectione taceas; sive clames, dilectione clames; sive emendes, dilectione emendes; sive parcas, dilectione parcas: radix sit intus dilectionis, non potest de ista radice nisi bonum existere.

Or as translated by H. Browne [3]:

Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

I’ll spare you my thoughts about the implications of this revised quotation for the nature and evolution of language.

[1] Chomsky, Noam. “Conditions on Transformations”. In  Stephen Anderson & Paul Kiparsky, Eds., A Festschrift for Morris Halle (1973).
[2] S. Augustinus Hipponensis, In Epistolam Ioannis ad Parthos, Tractatus 7 (407-409)
[3] H. Browne. “Translation of Augustine’s Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John” In Philip Schaff, Ed., From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. (1888)

N.B. It’s possible that the events described took place in 1973 rather than 1972.


Suggested citation:
Liberman, Mark. 2015. Dilige, et quod vis fac. In Short ’schrift for Alan Prince, compiled by Eric Baković. https://princeshortschrift.wordpress.com/stories/liberman/.

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