proposed within LFG tend to be fairly well motivated typologically. Last October Peter Sells and I participated as “respondents” in a workshop on Austronesian syntax at UCSD. All of the papers were written within the Minimalist framework, and most of them adopted Kayne’s “anti-symmetry” hypothesis — essentially the claim that underlying phrase structure for all languages is strictly binary and right-branching — and Cinque’s recent proposals about universal D- structure positions for various types of adverbs. Whatever the merits of these proposals as theories of universal grammar, they impose an immense (and to my mind, intolerable) descriptive burden on languages whose surface word order is very different. Anti-symmetry seems like the most inconvenient possible analysis for a language like Malagasy.
Most of my students are not planning to do descriptive linguistics for its own sake. Many of them hope to use it to support their work in Bible translation, adult literacy, bilingual education, etc. The relevance of syntactic analysis to translation depends heavily on your philosophy of translation. Many years ago I read a review article about George Steiner’s book After Babel. I have not been able to find that article again, but as I recall the author was a Marxist literary critic who believed that a good translation was one that preserved the foreignness of the source text; the translation should feel almost as strange, difficult, and off- putting as the original would be for someone who does not speak the source language. For this type of translation, relatively little linguistic analysis is required since the form of the source text is largely preserved in a fairly literal way.
SIL has traditionally preferred a different model of translation. Local circumstances sometimes require a somewhat literal approach, but where possible the ideal is generally seen as a translation that is as faithful as possible to the meaning of the source text, but as natural as possible within the linguistic system of the target language. For this type of translation linguistic analysis is quite important. Any difference between the grammars of the source language and target language is a potential area where translators may be unconsciously influenced by the form of the source text, resulting in a loss of accuracy, clarity, and/or naturalness. Every detail of the grammar is important; the distinction between “core” and “periphery” is not too helpful in this context.
Ken Pike used to tell a story about a missionary that he met on one of his trips to Africa. This man had spent a year or so studying the local language and then got up to preach his first sermon. He told the people: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.’” The people replied, “Then we will worship you.” The man was horrified. He said, “No, wait, you don’t understand; Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’” The people answered, “If Jesus said it, we believe it; we will worship you.”