Syntactic Nuts: Hard Cases, Syntactic Theory, and Language Acquisition

Syntactic Nuts: Hard Cases, Syntactic Theory, and Language Acquisition

Syntactic Nuts: Hard Cases, Syntactic Theory, and Language Acquisition

Syntactic Nuts: Hard Cases, Syntactic Theory, and Language Acquisition

Synopsis

This book investigates the architecture of the language faculty by considering what the properties of language reveal about the mental abilities and processes involved in language acquisition. The language faculty, the author argues, must be able not only to accommodate what is general, exceptionless, and universal in language, but must also be capable of dealing with what is irregular, exceptional, and idiosyncratic. In Syntactic Nuts Peter Culicover shows that this is true not only of the lexicon, but for syntax. Marginal and exceptional cases, where there is no straightforward form-meaning correspondence, are dealt with by the language faculty easily and precisely as the general cases. In considering how and why this should be the author argues against the prevailing trend in generative grammar, which takes the learner as either incorporating maximally global generalisations as part of its innate capacity for language, or projecting global generalisations from a very limited input on the basis of innate mechanisms. He suggests that the learning mechanism does not generalize significantly beyond the evidence presented to it, and further that it seeks to form generalizations based on all and only the evidence presented to it. Syntactic Nuts makes a fundamental contribution to generative grammar and syntactic theory. It situates syntactic theory within cognitive science in a novel way. It contributes to an alternative, and yet in many ways traditional, perspective on the manner in which knowledge is represented and processed in the mind.

Excerpt

The current work grew out of a larger project seeking to integrate syntactic theory into cognitive science. It was originally stimulated by two articles, Jackendoff (1988) and Anderson (1989), which addressed the fact that many non-linguists do not believe that much of linguistic theory and in particular syntactic theory has anything to do with the study of the human mind. At first blush it may seem strange that the status of linguistics in cognitive science is an issue at all: linguistics has been central to the development of cognitive science as a field ever since its inception, and syntactic theory is one of the key components of linguistic theory. If we accept that cognitive science is concerned with the nature of knowledge and that linguistics is the study of the knowledge of language, the relationship between the two should be straightforward.

But there are several reasons why it is productive to explore this relationship in some depth. First, the claim that syntactic theory is not about the human mind is a serious one, if it is understood as a claim about the structure of the mind. It is always possible, in contrast, to understand syntactic theory as an approach to the description of the behavior of human beings without attributing to the theory any status with regard to the actual mental apparatus itself. Second, the actual interactions between theoretical linguistics and other areas of cognitive science have been less than robust, for reasons that are important to understand. And third, understanding the status of syntactic theory within cognitive science may give us some insight into the more substantive scientific questions about how theories of knowledge interact with theories of how knowledge is represented and processed in the mind.

My exploration of the status of syntactic theory in a more comprehensive theory of the mind has led me to develop a collaboration with Andrzej Nowak of the University of Warsaw. We have been pursuing the hypothesis that the actual realization of grammar in the mind/brain takes the form of a dynamical system, the behavior of which can be more or less effectively described using the devices of syntactic theory. The current work was originally intended to address the empirical evidence in support of this view, as part of a comprehensive work on the dynamical systems approach . . .

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