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Article

Children’s Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge  

Rosalind Thornton

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.

Article

Variation in Phonology  

Arto Anttila

Language is a system that maps meanings to forms, but the mapping is not always one-to-one. Variation means that one meaning corresponds to multiple forms, for example faster ~ more fast. The choice is not uniquely determined by the rules of the language, but is made by the individual at the time of performance (speaking, writing). Such choices abound in human language. They are usually not just a matter of free will, but involve preferences that depend on the context, including the phonological context. Phonological variation is a situation where the choice among expressions is phonologically conditioned, sometimes statistically, sometimes categorically. In this overview, we take a look at three studies of variable vowel harmony in three languages (Finnish, Hungarian, and Tommo So) formulated in three frameworks (Partial Order Optimality Theory, Stochastic Optimality Theory, and Maximum Entropy Grammar). For example, both Finnish and Hungarian have Backness Harmony: vowels must be all [+back] or all [−back] within a single word, with the exception of neutral vowels that are compatible with either. Surprisingly, some stems allow both [+back] and [−back] suffixes in free variation, for example, analyysi-na ~ analyysi-nä ‘analysis-ess’ (Finnish) and arzén-nak ~ arzén-nek ‘arsenic-dat’ (Hungarian). Several questions arise. Is the variation random or in some way systematic? Where is the variation possible? Is it limited to specific lexical items? Is the choice predictable to some extent? Are the observed statistical patterns dictated by universal constraints or learned from the ambient data? The analyses illustrate the usefulness of recent advances in the technological infrastructure of linguistics, in particular the constantly improving computational tools.