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.
Displacement is a ubiquitous phenomenon in natural languages. Grammarians often speak of displacement in cases where the rules for the canonical word order of a language lead to the expectation of finding a word or phrase in a particular position in the sentence whereas it surfaces instead in a different position and the canonical position remains empty: ‘Which book did you buy?’ is an example of displacement because the noun phrase ‘which book’, which acts as the grammatical object in the question, does not occur in the canonical object position, which in English is after the verb. Instead, it surfaces at the beginning of the sentence and the object position remains empty. Displacement is often used as a diagnostic for constituent structure because it affects only (but not all) constituents. In the clear cases, displaced constituents show properties associated with two distinct linear and hierarchical positions. Typically, one of these two positions c-commands the other and the displaced element is pronounced in the c-commanding position. Displacement also shows strong interactions with the path between the empty canonical position and the position where the element is pronounced: one often encounters morphological changes along this path and evidence for structural placement of the displaced constituent, as well as constraints on displacement induced by the path. The exact scope of displacement as an analytically unified phenomenon varies from theory to theory. If more then one type of syntactic displacement is recognized, the question of the interaction between movement types arises. Displacement phenomena are extensively studied by syntacticians. Their enduring interest derives from the fact that the complex interactions between displacement and other aspects of syntax offer a powerful probe into the inner workings and architecture of the human syntactic faculty.
Malka Rappaport Hovav
Words are sensitive to syntactic context. Argument realization is the study of the relation between argument-taking words, the syntactic contexts they appear in and the interpretive properties that constrain the relation between them.