Verbal Behavior and Learning: Problems and Processes: Proceedings

By Charles N. Cofer; Barbara S. Musgrave | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5
THE ACQUISITION OF SYNTAX1

Roger Brown and Colin Fraser

HARVARD UNIVERSITY

What is done in a developmental study of behavior depends upon the investigators' conception of the terminal state, the outcome of the development. Normal adults speaking their native language seem to us to possess a set of rules of word construction and sentence construction which enables them to go beyond the speech they have actually heard and practiced to the creation of lawful novelties. If new monosyllables are created, speakers of English will agree that stug is "better English" than ftug. Probably this is because they have shared implicit knowledge of the initial consonant clusters that are acceptable in English. If this new word is to be pluralized, they will agree that stug/-z/is better than stug/-s/. Probably this is because they have shared knowledge of a rule of regular English inflection. If the new word is first heard in the sentence, "Here is some stug," they will agree that a second sentence, "The stug is there," is more likely to be grammatical than a second sentence, "A stug is there." Probably this is because they have shared knowledge of the syntactic rules for the employment of mass nouns.

The construction rules of which speakers have implicit knowledge are, in their explicit form, the grammar of a language. As these rules have been written down in traditional grammars, they constitute a collection of largely unrelated statements about such matters as the parts of speech, paradigms of conjugation and declension, the marking of gender, and the agreement of adjectives and nouns. Chomsky ( 1957) has shown that it may be possible to systematize traditional grammar into a mechanism for the generation of all the sentences of a language that are grammatical and none that are ungrammatical. Grammar becomes a theory for a range of phenomena--the sentences of a language--and also a program for generating sentences--a program that might be followed by an electronic

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1
The work described in this paper was supported by the National Science Foundation by a grant administered through the Center for Communication Sciences, M.I.T.

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