Acceptability judgments are reports of a speaker’s or signer’s subjective sense of the well-formedness, nativeness, or naturalness of (novel) linguistic forms. Their value comes in providing data about the nature of the human capacity to generalize beyond linguistic forms previously encountered in language comprehension. For this reason, acceptability judgments are often also called grammaticality judgments (particularly in syntax), although unlike the theory-dependent notion of grammaticality, acceptability is accessible to consciousness. While acceptability judgments have been used to test grammatical claims since ancient times, they became particularly prominent with the birth of generative syntax. Today they are also widely used in other linguistic schools (e.g., cognitive linguistics) and other linguistic domains (pragmatics, semantics, morphology, and phonology), and have been applied in a typologically diverse range of languages. As psychological responses to linguistic stimuli, acceptability judgments are experimental data. Their value thus depends on the validity of the experimental procedures, which, in their traditional version (where theoreticians elicit judgments from themselves or a few colleagues), have been criticized as overly informal and biased. Traditional responses to such criticisms have been supplemented in recent years by laboratory experiments that use formal psycholinguistic methods to collect and quantify judgments from nonlinguists under controlled conditions. Such formal experiments have played an increasingly influential role in theoretical linguistics, being used to justify subtle judgment claims or new grammatical models that incorporate gradience or lexical influences. They have also been used to probe the cognitive processes giving rise to the sense of acceptability itself, the central finding being that acceptability reflects processing ease. Exploring what this finding means will require not only further empirical work on the acceptability judgment process, but also theoretical work on the nature of grammar.
Blocking can be defined as the non-occurrence of some linguistic form, whose existence could be expected on general grounds, due to the existence of a rival form. *Oxes, for example, is blocked by oxen, *stealer by thief. Although blocking is closely associated with morphology, in reality the competing “forms” can not only be morphemes or words, but can also be syntactic units. In German, for example, the compound Rotwein ‘red wine’ blocks the phrasal unit *roter Wein (in the relevant sense), just as the phrasal unit rote Rübe ‘beetroot; lit. red beet’ blocks the compound *Rotrübe. In these examples, one crucial factor determining blocking is synonymy; speakers apparently have a deep-rooted presumption against synonyms. Whether homonymy can also lead to a similar avoidance strategy, is still controversial. But even if homonymy blocking exists, it certainly is much less systematic than synonymy blocking. In all the examples mentioned above, it is a word stored in the mental lexicon that blocks a rival formation. However, besides such cases of lexical blocking, one can observe blocking among productive patterns. Dutch has three suffixes for deriving agent nouns from verbal bases, -er, -der, and -aar. Of these three suffixes, the first one is the default choice, while -der and -aar are chosen in very specific phonological environments: as Geert Booij describes in The Morphology of Dutch (2002), “the suffix -aar occurs after stems ending in a coronal sonorant consonant preceded by schwa, and -der occurs after stems ending in /r/” (p. 122). Contrary to lexical blocking, the effect of this kind of pattern blocking does not depend on words stored in the mental lexicon and their token frequency but on abstract features (in the case at hand, phonological features). Blocking was first recognized by the Indian grammarian Pāṇini in the 5th or 4th century bc, when he stated that of two competing rules, the more restricted one had precedence. In the 1960s, this insight was revived by generative grammarians under the name “Elsewhere Principle,” which is still used in several grammatical theories (Distributed Morphology and Paradigm Function Morphology, among others). Alternatively, other theories, which go back to the German linguist Hermann Paul, have tackled the phenomenon on the basis of the mental lexicon. The great advantage of this latter approach is that it can account, in a natural way, for the crucial role played by frequency. Frequency is also crucial in the most promising theory, so-called statistical pre-emption, of how blocking can be learned.
Children’s acquisition of language is an amazing feat. Children master the syntax, the sentence structure of their language, through exposure and interaction with caregivers and others but, notably, with no formal tuition. How children come to be in command of the syntax of their language has been a topic of vigorous debate since Chomsky argued against Skinner’s claim that language is ‘verbal behavior.’ Chomsky argued that knowledge of language cannot be learned through experience alone but is guided by a genetic component. This language component, known as ‘Universal Grammar,’ is composed of abstract linguistic knowledge and a computational system that is special to language. The computational mechanisms of Universal Grammar give even young children the capacity to form hierarchical syntactic representations for the sentences they hear and produce. The abstract knowledge of language guides children’s hypotheses as they interact with the language input in their environment, ensuring they progress toward the adult grammar. An alternative school of thought denies the existence of a dedicated language component, arguing that knowledge of syntax is learned entirely through interactions with speakers of the language. Such ‘usage-based’ linguistic theories assume that language learning employs the same learning mechanisms that are used by other cognitive systems. Usage-based accounts of language development view children’s earliest productions as rote-learned phrases that lack internal structure. Knowledge of linguistic structure emerges gradually and in a piecemeal fashion, with frequency playing a large role in the order of emergence for different syntactic structures.
Jane Chandlee and Jeffrey Heinz
Computational phonology studies the nature of the computations necessary and sufficient for characterizing phonological knowledge. As a field it is informed by the theories of computation and phonology. The computational nature of phonological knowledge is important because at a fundamental level it is about the psychological nature of memory as it pertains to phonological knowledge. Different types of phonological knowledge can be characterized as computational problems, and the solutions to these problems reveal their computational nature. In contrast to syntactic knowledge, there is clear evidence that phonological knowledge is computationally bounded to the so-called regular classes of sets and relations. These classes have multiple mathematical characterizations in terms of logic, automata, and algebra with significant implications for the nature of memory. In fact, there is evidence that phonological knowledge is bounded by particular subregular classes, with more restrictive logical, automata-theoretic, and algebraic characterizations, and thus by weaker models of memory.
Connectionism is an important theoretical framework for the study of human cognition and behavior. Also known as Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) or Artificial Neural Networks (ANN), connectionism advocates that learning, representation, and processing of information in mind are parallel, distributed, and interactive in nature. It argues for the emergence of human cognition as the outcome of large networks of interactive processing units operating simultaneously. Inspired by findings from neural science and artificial intelligence, connectionism is a powerful computational tool, and it has had profound impact on many areas of research, including linguistics. Since the beginning of connectionism, many connectionist models have been developed to account for a wide range of important linguistic phenomena observed in monolingual research, such as speech perception, speech production, semantic representation, and early lexical development in children. Recently, the application of connectionism to bilingual research has also gathered momentum. Connectionist models are often precise in the specification of modeling parameters and flexible in the manipulation of relevant variables in the model to address relevant theoretical questions, therefore they can provide significant advantages in testing mechanisms underlying language processes.
David R. Mortensen
Hmong-Mien (also known as Miao-Yao) is a bipartite family of minority languages spoken primarily in China and mainland Southeast Asia. The two branches, called Hmongic and Mienic by most Western linguists and Miao and Yao by Chinese linguists, are both compact groups (phylogenetically if not geographically). Although they are uncontroversially distinct from one another, they bear a strong mutual affinity. But while their internal relationships are reasonably well established, there is no unanimity regarding their wider genetic affiliations, with many Chinese scholars insisting on Hmong-Mien membership in the Sino-Tibetan superfamily, some Western scholars suggesting a relationship to Austronesian and/or Tai-Kradai, and still others suggesting a relationship to Mon-Khmer. A plurality view appears to be that Hmong-Mien bears no special relationship to any surviving language family. Hmong-Mien languages are typical—in many respects—of the non-Sino-Tibetan languages of Southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. However, they possess a number of properties that make them stand out. Many neighboring languages are tonal, but Hmong-Mien languages are, on average, more so (in terms of the number of tones). While some other languages in the area have small-to-medium consonant inventories, Hmong-Mien languages (and especially Hmongic languages) often have very large consonant inventories with rare classes of sounds like uvulars and voiceless sonorants. Furthermore, while many of their neighbors are morphologically isolating, few language groups display as little affixation as Hmong-Mien languages. They are largely head-initial, but they deviate from this generalization in their genitive-noun constructions and their relative clauses (which vary in position and structure, sometimes even within the same language).
Phenomena involving the displacement of syntactic units are widespread in human languages. The term displacement refers here to a dependency relation whereby a given syntactic constituent is interpreted simultaneously in two different positions. Only one position is pronounced, in general the hierarchically higher one in the syntactic structure. Consider a wh-question like (1) in English: (1) Whom did you give the book to
The phrase containing the interrogative wh-word is located at the beginning of the clause, and this guarantees that the clause is interpreted as a question about this phrase; at the same time, whom is interpreted as part of the argument structure of the verb give (the copy, in <> brackets). In current terms, inspired by minimalist developments in generative syntax, the phrase whom is first merged as (one of) the complement(s) of give (External Merge) and then re-merged (Internal Merge, i.e., movement) in the appropriate position in the left periphery of the clause. This peripheral area of the clause hosts operator-type constituents, among which interrogative ones (yielding the relevant interpretation: for which x, you gave a book to x, for sentence 1). Scope-discourse phenomena—such as, e.g., the raising of a question as in (1), the focalization of one constituent as in TO JOHN I gave the book (not to Mary)—have the effect that an argument of the verb is fronted in the left periphery of the clause rather than filling its clause internal complement position, whence the term displacement. Displacement can be to a position relatively close to the one of first merge (the copy), or else it can be to a position farther away. In the latter case, the relevant dependency becomes more long-distance than in (1), as in (2)a and even more so (2)b:
a Whom did Mary expect [that you would give the book to ]
b Whom do you think [that Mary expected [that you would give the book to ]]
50 years or so of investigation on locality in formal generative syntax have shown that, despite its potentially very distant realization, syntactic displacement is in fact a local process. The audible position in which a moved constituent is pronounced and the position of its copy inside the clause can be far from each other. However, the long-distance dependency is split into steps through iterated applications of short movements, so that any dependency holding between two occurrences of the same constituent is in fact very local. Furthermore, there are syntactic domains that resist movement out of them, traditionally referred to as islands. Locality is a core concept of syntactic computations. Syntactic locality requires that syntactic computations apply within small domains (cyclic
domains), possibly in the mentioned iterated way (successive cyclicity), currently rethought of in terms of Phase theory. Furthermore, in the Relativized Minimality tradition, syntactic locality requires that, given X . . . Z . . . Y, the dependency between the relevant constituent in its target position X and its first merge position Y should not be interrupted by any constituent Z which is similar to X in relevant formal features and thus intervenes, blocking the relation between X and Y. Intervention locality has also been shown to allow for an explicit characterization of aspects of children’s linguistic development in their capacity to compute complex object dependencies (also relevant in different impaired populations).
Number is the category through which languages express information about the individuality, numerosity, and part structure of what we speak about. As a linguistic category it has a morphological, a morphosyntactic, and a semantic dimension, which are variously interrelated across language systems. Number marking can apply to a more or less restricted part of the lexicon of a language, being most likely on personal pronouns and human/animate nouns, and least on inanimate nouns. In the core contrast, number allows languages to refer to ‘many’ through the description of ‘one’; the sets referred to consist of tokens of the same type, but also of similar types, or of elements pragmatically associated with one named individual. In other cases, number opposes a reading of ‘one’ to a reading as ‘not one,’ which includes masses; when the ‘one’ reading is morphologically derived from the ‘not one,’ it is called a singulative. It is rare for a language to have no linguistic number at all, since a ‘one–many’ opposition is typically implied at least in pronouns, where the category of person discriminates the speaker as ‘one.’ Beyond pronouns, number is typically a property of nouns and/or determiners, although it can appear on other word classes by agreement. Verbs can also express part-structural properties of events, but this ‘verbal number’ is not isomorphic to nominal number marking. Many languages allow a variable proportion of their nominals to appear in a ‘general’ form, which expresses no number information. The main values of number-marked elements are singular and plural; dual and a much rarer trial also exist. Many languages also distinguish forms interpreted as paucals or as greater plurals, respectively, for small and usually cohesive groups and for generically large ones. A broad range of exponence patterns can express these contrasts, depending on the morphological profile of a language, from word inflections to freestanding or clitic forms; certain choices of classifiers also express readings that can be described as ‘plural,’ at least in certain interpretations. Classifiers can co-occur with other plurality markers, but not when these are obligatory as expressions of an inflectional paradigm, although this is debated, partly because the notion of classifier itself subsumes distinct phenomena. Many languages, especially those with classifiers, encode number not as an inflectional category, but through word-formation operations that express readings associated with plurality, including large size. Current research on number concerns all its morphological, morphosyntactic, and semantic dimensions, in particular the interrelations of them as part of the study of natural language typology and of the formal analysis of nominal phrases. The grammatical and semantic function of number and plurality are particularly prominent in formal semantics and in syntactic theory.
Throughout the 20th century, structuralist and generative linguists have argued that the study of the language system (langue, competence) must be separated from the study of language use (parole, performance), but this view of language has been called into question by usage-based linguists who have argued that the structure and organization of a speaker’s linguistic knowledge is the product of language use or performance. On this account, language is seen as a dynamic system of fluid categories and flexible constraints that are constantly restructured and reorganized under the pressure of domain-general cognitive processes that are not only involved in the use of language but also in other cognitive phenomena such as vision and (joint) attention. The general goal of usage-based linguistics is to develop a framework for the analysis of the emergence of linguistic structure and meaning. In order to understand the dynamics of the language system, usage-based linguists study how languages evolve, both in history and language acquisition. One aspect that plays an important role in this approach is frequency of occurrence. As frequency strengthens the representation of linguistic elements in memory, it facilitates the activation and processing of words, categories, and constructions, which in turn can have long-lasting effects on the development and organization of the linguistic system. A second aspect that has been very prominent in the usage-based study of grammar concerns the relationship between lexical and structural knowledge. Since abstract representations of linguistic structure are derived from language users’ experience with concrete linguistic tokens, grammatical patterns are generally associated with particular lexical expressions.