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The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

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Include historic titles Search products. Register Sign in Wishlist. Unlocking potential with the best learning and research solutions. Home Academic Languages and linguistics Grammar and syntax. Add to cart Add to wishlist Other available formats: It refers, rather, to the fact that various aspects of linguistic knowledge are logically and functionally independent of one another, yielding the full complexity of human language through the interaction of individually rather simple systems. To see the kind of compositionality involved, consider how words combine.

If two words combine, then the grammatical properties of the resulting phrase are determined by one of the two words, which we call the head: If we combine the verb visit with the noun Chicago, the resulting phrase visit Chicago has verbal and not nominal 24 2 Language as a mental organ properties. It occurs where verbs occur and not where nouns occur: This can be represented as a labeled bracketing 2.

The verb is the head of the VP and the noun is the complement. This means that visit Chicago is a unit VP , which acts as the complement of will it completes the meaning of will and is structurally the sister of will , but will visit is not a unit; that is, there is no single node which dominates will visit and nothing else in this example. The unit consisting of will and its complement can, in turn, be the basis of yet more structure in merging with a subject phrase e. The student will visit Chicago. Non-units are not available to these operations.

One of the computational operations involved is that of copying an element already present and merging it with the tree. This accounts for the fact that in the surface forms of many sentences, elements occur in positions other than those with which their syntactic function is naturally assigned, i. For example, an expression like What city will the student visit? We take phrases like what city and the student to be determiner phrases DP , where what and the are determiners projecting as DPs; more on this in chapter 3 see note 1 there.

Other aspects of a full grammar provide explicit accounts of the relation between this kind of syntactic organization and the way the words of sentences are constructed and pronounced. We will have more to say about these various areas of grammar in later chapters. Poets make linguistic jokes from these phenomena. The Gershwins were famous for contraction jokes: One potential difference emerges if we consider the structures of the sentences in 2.

In particular, if we take into account the notion that the element who has been displaced from its natural position in the sentence, we see that the position from which this movement takes place differs in the two cases: We can notice that in example 2. The correct generalization seems to be that reduced forms of auxiliary elements cannot immediately precede empty elements, such as the trace of displacement in these cases. This does indeed describe many of the relevant circumstances under which reduced auxiliaries are impossible, but it is too narrow to be satisfying.

We might attempt to improve on this hypothesis as follows. The identical subscripts attached to the copied element and its trace indicate that both have the same reference. Syntactic units that do not contain enough phonetic material to make up a whole word by themselves, such as the reduced auxiliaries in English, are referred to as simple c l i t i c s.

Clitics are little words which occur in many, perhaps all languages, and have the property of not being able to stand alone. This is a property of particular languages that is plausibly learned from overt data: What is consistently the case, however, is that syntactic elements that do not constitute words in their own right must attach to some other word as clitics in order to be pronounced at all.

The phonological evidence clearly supports the claim that in English, clitics attach to their left, not their right. Similarly, while the third person singular present ending of verbs is always spelled -s, it shows the same variation in pronunciation 2. This latter element is also a verb that serves as the head of a phrase, though what it is followed by within that phrase is something which is understood but not pronounced.

Syntactically, the phrase has the structure [IP is e], where the unpronounced element e is understood as happy. Now recall that our problem is to account for the fact that not only are sentences like 2. What differentiates the bad sentence 2. A rather natural part of the theory of sound structure is the p r o s o d i c h i e r a r c h y see Nespor and Vogel for basic discussion of this notion , according to which utterances are composed of phrases, phrases of words, words of smaller units called feet, which are themselves composed of syllables.

We might, then, attribute the ill-formedness of 2. In a sentence like This is the cat, that chased the rat, that ate the cheese,. As a result, that chased the rat is a phonological phrase here, but not a syntactic phrase: As we will see below in chapter 9, children are sensitive at a very early age around eight to ten months to the phonological organization of utterances into phrases, and there is no doubt that they use this structure as a crucial key to discovering the syntactic organization of sentences and phrases.

In order to do this, however, they must assume that in general a syntactic phrase will correspond to a phonological phrase. If this is the case, things that are true of phonological phrases will tend also to be true of syntactic ones; and we have seen that a phonological phrase consisting of some phonetic material, but not enough to make up even a single well-formed word, is itself ill-formed. From this property of the Prosodic Hierarchy, together with an assumption that syntactic and phonological phrases will in general correspond, we can arrive at the following principle: The principle in 2.

The problem is not with the empty element itself, but rather with the fact that where a phrase consists of an auxiliary verb together with a following element such as an adjective, and that following element is unpronounced, the use of a full rather than clitic form of the auxiliary is necessary to provide the phrase with enough phonetic substance to satisfy 2.

Sentence-internal understood elements can have similar effects, as in I wonder wherex the concert [IP [IP is ex ] on Wednesday]. Here wherex has moved from the position indicated as ex , but is still understood there. This phrase is subject to 2. On Wednesday is not the complement of is in this example: In chapter 3, we argue that this kind of deletion results from incorporation of a copied word into an adjacent word.

How do these facts interact with the observation we made above that clitic elements are in fact attached to material on their left, forming part of a phrase with that material in actual pronunciation? However, Tim is not the complement of the underlined is in 2. As a result, the underlined is is the only overt representative of its phrase, and cannot be reduced. But while the principle in 2. Consider the following examples: In all of these cases, the reduced auxiliary is impossible in circumstances where the syntactic phrase it heads contains other material that ought to satisfy 2.

There is, however, a property that characterizes the sentences in 2. At this point, we know enough to provide an account of the circumstances under which reduced auxiliaries are impossible. Suppose that we start with the syntactic structure of the sentence, and then identify the corresponding pronunciation, in terms of phonological phrases.

Simplifying somewhat, we can say that the most natural phrasing is one that mirrors the syntax: Some constructions, however, are exceptions to this in that they enforce a phonological phrase boundary in a place where one might not be motivated syntactically. These include the various parenthetical insertions, emphases, and ellipses illustrated in 2.

Once phonological phrases have been delimited, we can say that any such phrase that 2. Since clitics do not qualify as full phonological words, any phrase consisting of a clitic alone will suffer such a fate. Though fairly intricate, this account provides an answer to the problem sketched at the outset: In order to achieve this, the child needs to learn that in English a the elements am, is, has, etc. This predetermined knowledge — the nature of clitics and the fact that they cannot by themselves satisfy the requirement that phrases be represented by at least one phonological word — is contributed by the linguistic genotype and is part of what the child brings to language acquisition.

This variation is quite systematic, and, as noted, follows the same principles as those that determine the form of the plural ending in cats, knobs, palaces among other endings in English. This is the answer that we provide to our initial problem, and it is an 32 2 Language as a mental organ answer of the right shape. The analysis that the child arrives at predicts no reduction for the underlined is in Kim is happier than Tim is, I wonder who the professor is here, and countless other cases, and the child needs no correction in arriving at this system.

Consider now the second problem, the reference of pronouns. It is too strong because, as we saw, in 2. The best account of this complex phenomenon seems to be to invoke a native principle which says, approximately 2. Again we see the constituent structure illustrated earlier playing a central role in the way in which the indexing computations are carried out. Jay and he may thus refer either to the same person or to different people.

We could have illustrated these points equally well with data from French or from Dutch, or from many other languages, because the principles apply quite generally, to pronouns in all languages. Rather, the child raised in an English-speaking setting has only to learn that he, his, him are pronouns, i. This can be learned by exposure to a simple sentence like 2. Taken together, these have consequences, such as the principle in 2. Meanwhile, there are also options: These are parameters of variation and the child sets these parameters one way or another on exposure to particular linguistic experience.

As a result a grammar emerges in the child — a language organ, part of the linguistic 6 7 The principle alluded to in the last paragraph, that pronouns may not be locally coindexed, is Principle B of the binding theory; 2. Here we allude to Principle C, that names may not be coindexed with a higher DP anywhere. In chapter 9 we discuss the acquisition of Principle C. Anaphors are elements that are locally coindexed, according to Principle A of the binding theory, while names, by Principle C, are never coindexed with a higher DP.

Now let us stand back and think about these matters more abstractly. Children are not exposed to pseudo-sentences like this or informed systematically that they are not to be produced. It is not enough to say that people do not utter such forms because they never hear them: Language is not learned simply by imitating or repeating what has been heard.

These people deny the poverty-ofstimulus problems, claiming that children may derive all relevant information 2. After all, children learn to speak one way when surrounded by speakers of French and another when surrounded by speakers of Italian. Our point is that there is more to language acquisition than this. The problem demanding explanation is compounded by other factors.

In each language community the non-adult sentences formed by very young children seem to be few in number and quite uniform from one child to another, which falls well short of random see chapter 9. In this regard, language is no different from, say, vision, except that vision is taken for granted and ordinary people give more conscious thought to language.

These, then, are the salient facts about language acquisition, or more properly, language growth. The main question is how children acquire so much more than they experience and how the growth takes place. A grammar, the language organ, represents what a speaker comes to know, subconsciously for the most part, about his or her native language. The grammar may be used for various purposes, from everyday events like expressing ideas, communicating, or listening to other people, to more contrived functions like writing elegant prose or lyric poetry, or compiling and solving crossword puzzles, or writing a book about the language organ.

We do not want to give the impression that all linguists adopt this view of things. However, the research paradigm we sketch, which construes a grammar as a biological object, the language organ, has been the focus of much activity since the late s and it seems to us to provide the most satisfying approach to the attempt to understand the fundamental nature of language. For any aspect of linguistic knowledge, three intimately related items are included in a full account of this state.

The third item is the trigger experience, which varies from person to person and consists of an unorganized and fairly haphazard set of utterances, of the kind that any child hears. The triggering experience causes the genotype to develop into a phenotype; exposure to a range of utterances from, say, English allows the UG capacity to develop into a particular mature grammar.

One may think of the theory of grammar as making available a set of choices; the choices are taken in the light of the trigger experience or the primary linguistic data PLD , and a grammar emerges when the relevant options are resolved. A child develops a grammar by setting the open parameters of UG in the light of her particular experience. A description always involves these three items and they are closely related; changing a claim about one of the items usually involves changing claims about the other two. The grammar is one subcomponent of the mind, a mental organ which interacts with other cognitive capacities or organs.

Like the grammar, each of the other organs is likely to develop in time and to have distinct initial and mature states. They found that particular nerve cells were set within a few hours of birth to react only to certain visual stimuli, and, furthermore, that if a nerve cell is not stimulated within a few hours, it becomes totally inert in later life.

We see learning as a similarly selective process: A certain mature cognitive structure emerges at the expense of other possible structures which are lost irretrievably as the inactive synapses degenerate. These genetic prescriptions may be extremely specialized, as 38 2 Language as a mental organ Hubel and Wiesel showed for the visual system. They assign some order to our experience. This kind of modularity is very different from the view that the cognitive faculties are homogeneous and undifferentiated, that the faculties develop through general problem-solving techniques.

In physical domains, nobody would suggest that the visual system and the system governing the circulation of the blood are determined by the same genetic regulatory mechanisms. Of course, the possibility should not be excluded that the linguistic principles postulated here may eventually turn out to be special instances of principles holding over domains other than language, but before that can be established, much more must be known about what kinds of principles are needed for language acquisition to take place under normal conditions and about how other cognitive capacities work.

The same is of course true for other aspects of cognitive development. Only on such a basis can meaningful analogies be detected. Meanwhile, we are led to expect that each region of the central nervous system has its own special problems that require different solutions. In vision we are concerned with contours and directions and depth.

Experimenters have constructed situations in which the over-riding temptation for children would be to violate the relevant constraints. The fact that children conform to the hypothesized constraints, resisting preferences they show in other contexts, shows that the constraints under investigation are active for them, and that this is true at the earliest stage at which they might be manifested Crain Comparing the frequency of the reduced forms in the contexts where 2.

The target productions were evoked by the following protocols, in which Thornton and Crain provided children with a context designed to elicit questions. Ask Ratty if he knows what that is doing up there. It seems to be sleeping.


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Ask Ratty if he knows what that is up there. Do you know what that is up there? Do you know whatx that is doing ex up there? Do you know whatx that is ex up there? That is a bottle up there. Here a deletion site is the only other component of the phrase headed by is. As a result, that phrase [IP is ex ] only corresponds to a phonological word to the extent that is itself is a word — and not merely a clitic.

Crain and Thornton found that young children behaved just like adults, manifesting the hypothetical genetic constraint. The children tested ranged in age from 2 years, 11 months, to 4 years, 5 months, with an average age of 3 years, 8 months. In the elicited questions there was not a single instance of the reduced form where it is impossible in adult speech. Children produced elaborate forms like those of 2. Squeaky, what do think that is? Do you know what that is, Squeaky?

Linguists can now formulate interesting hypotheses and account for broad ranges of facts in many languages with elegant abstract principles, as we shall see.

They understand certain aspects of language acquisition in young children and can model some aspects of speech comprehension. In fact, language and vision are the areas of cognition that we know most about. Much remains to be done, but we can show how children attain certain elements of their language organs by exposure to only an unorganized and haphazard set of simple utterances; for these elements we have a theory which meets basic requirements. Eventually, the growth of language in a child will be viewed as similar to the growth of hair: From the perspective sketched here, our focus is on grammars, not on the properties of a particular language or even of general properties of many or all languages.

A grammar is of clearer status: Just as it is unimportant for most work in molecular biology whether two creatures are members of the same species as emphasized, for example, by Dawkins , so too the notion of a language is not likely to have much importance if our biological perspective is taken and if we explore individual language organs, as in the research program we have sketched here and which we elaborate in later chapters.

Meanwhile, what went by that name was largely a kind of applied morphology: There he has some observations about word order and agreement phenomena, and then a discussion of the uses of cases, tenses, and moods. These works are entirely typical. One could think of languages as made up from a small inventory of sounds, a larger inventory of morphemes, and a lexicon containing the words. Those inventories might be transmitted from one generation of speakers to another and language acquisition could be seen as a process of children acquiring the relevant inventories.

That is not implausible for these small units, although the view turns out to be inadequate for reasons that we shall discuss in the next few chapters; and there was no productive way to think of syntax or of larger units in that fashion. Certainly children do not just acquire a set of 41 42 3 Syntax sentences as they become mature speakers. Perhaps they acquire some set of basic structures and construction-types, which may then be elaborated into some open-ended set, and there were efforts to build models along those lines.

But that involved positing some kind of system, an open-ended, recursive system, and the available models did not have that capacity. There has been a tremendous amount of work over the last forty years, yielding discoveries in language after language and theories which apply productively to wide ranges of phenomena in many languages. Since pregenerative work on syntax was so scant, there is little to be learned from a comparison. The details are fascinating in themselves; they represent distinctions which are not reported in standard language textbooks, they are not taught to secondlanguage learners, and, indeed, for the most part they were not known until rather recently, when they were discovered by theoreticians.

There is no way that these distinctions could be communicated directly to young children as they develop their language capacity. However, the distinctions we shall discuss are not the object of our inquiry, but data which provide evidence about the inner mechanisms of the mind. Our problem is to pick one or two more or less self-contained illustrations of those mechanisms, parts of the internal systems represented in individual brains and acquired under normal childhood conditions.

The earliest attempts to carry out the program of generative grammar quickly revealed that even in the best studied languages, elementary properties had passed unrecognized, that the most comprehensive traditional grammars and dictionaries only skim the surface. The basic properties of languages are presupposed throughout, unrecognized and unexpressed. To adjust our earlier example: The structures may be represented as a labeled bracketing 3.

The units are the items manipulated by the computational mechanisms; they are the items which may be copied, deleted or indexed in ways that we shall explore in a moment. All languages may draw on three kinds of recursive devices which enable one to take any sentence and make it longer: In an expression What did you see in Berlin? We saw the Reichstag in Berlin , but it has been displaced. It is pronounced at the front of the sentence but understood in the position of a direct object, to the right of the verb.

Englishspeaking children hear sentences like these and consequently the displacement operation is learnable; children learn from experience that a wh-phrase typically occurs at the front of its clause, even though it is understood elsewhere. Chinese children have no such experiences and their grammars have no comparable displacement. Displacement can be viewed as a special case of merger: There are other ways of viewing the displacement effect, of course, but let us pursue this account. For an example, let us continue with the structure of 3. The I element will, which is already present in the structure, might now be copied and merged with 3.

This does not compromise the point that in these languages, too, sentences can be arbitrarily extended by the introduction of the functional equivalents of English relative clauses. We shall postulate a Universal Grammar UG condition on deletion, which will interact with what children learn about English to distinguish the kinds of sentences that one might hear from those which do not occur.

Let us be clear on the logic of the enterprise here. We want an analysis which entails that that is all they need to learn from the environment in this regard.

Noam Chomsky on Language Aquisition

In fact, there are many interesting distinctions involving wh-expressions, as we are about to see. Rather, these aspects of the knowledge that develops — the language organ — follow from such relatively simple, directly attested facts as the clause-initial position of English wh-expressions in combination with what is contributed by general genotypic properties, or UG. This operation does not apply in languages like Dutch and French, where the complementizers dat and que are invariably present. This is a standard poverty-of-stimulus problem. The fact that that is deletable can be derived directly from experience, since children hear sentences in both forms with and without a sentence-introducing that, but the fact that that may not be deleted in the structures of 3.

All of this represents subconscious knowledge that every speaker of English has. To know English is to know where that may, may not, or must appear: No one taught us these things, and the distinctions we have just noted will come as news to nearly all of our readers who have not studied syntax. Some of this knowledge is learnable in the sense that it can be derived from normal childhood experience, but much is simply not accessible in this way. The difference between 3. A complement is something which completes the meaning of a word, and the CP is the complement of apparent in 3.

In no case is the CP the complement of the adjacent word in 3. Somehow this limitation must be derived from intrinsic, native properties; it cannot be a direct consequence of environmental information, because children are not informed about what does not occur. Let us formulate the principle in question as 3. These are the structures for the well-formed sentences Who did Jay see?

Whoi did Jay see ei? Whoi did Jay say [CP ei that Fay saw ei ]? Our UG condition on deletion 3. Therefore we need to formulate an appropriate internal condition which interacts with the learned generalizations so that the system does not over-generate to produce the non-occurring 3. From there it may move on to the front of the next clause up.

Here the second verb may be unpronounced, as we see from 3. Jay gave his favorite racket to Ray and Jim gap his favorite plant to Tim. The fact that verbs may be gapped in this way in all as far as we know forms of English is readily learnable: This is not a universal fact and we are told that such gapping does not occur in Chinese; children in Beijing do not have the requisite experiences. The system as we have it now predicts as a result of 3. Sentences corresponding to these structures fail to occur: Similarly with the non-wh-words displaced in 3.

This principle is learnable on exposure to sentences like Jay admired greatly his uncle from Paramus, Jay introduced to Fay all the students from Los Angeles. Our condition on deletion prevents this learned generalization from over-generating to yield 3. For example, while the sentence corresponding to 3. We have no intention of providing a comprehensive account of ellipsis operations here. Our goal is rather to illustrate 3. Our UG condition 3. Children learn from their environment that a sentence-introducing that may be deleted, that a copied wh-phrase may be deleted, that verbs may be omitted in conjoined sentences, that large DPs may be displaced to the far right of their clause.

Our internal UG condition 3. There are more subtleties holding of the speech of every mature speaker of English, which follow from this particular condition of UG, making deletion possible only in certain structures. Again, these are distinctions known subconsciously to every speaker of English: Jay might be the owner or the painter of the picture, or the person portrayed, i.

The Language Organ | Stephen R. Anderson

Jay is copied from the complement position, where it is understood, to the possessive position, where it is pronounced. Its copy is deleted in the usual fashion, where it is adjacent to and the complement of the noun picture. Here the ambiguity is different and the phrase is only two ways ambiguous.

It means that Jay is the owner or the some poverty-of-stimulus problems and the kind of reasoning that is involved in solutions to them. This is something that most adults are not aware of: Again, a condition of UG must be involved and it is our condition on deletion 3. If nothing is pronounced, then the noun heading the NP must be null e. For a further illustration of the utility of our UG condition 3. Because the verb is a gap, deletion of he i there the top-most element of the complement is illicit, as is now familiar.

That is the only relevant difference from 3. Before we change gear, consider one last distinction. The sentence corresponding to structure 3. Whati is the crowdj too angry [CP ei [ej to organize ei ]]? The ambiguity corresponds to an ambiguity of structure: Take this on faith we cannot argue it here and see what follows. The interrogative sentence corresponding to 3. Two instances of what must be deleted, in the positions indicated. The fact that what is deleted at the front of the embedded clause indicates that the clause is the complement of angry and not an adjunct: As a result the understood subject must be anaphoric, ej.

It is inconceivable that children learn from experience that structures like 3. This can only be a function of the general properties of the language organ, as on our analysis. Our UG condition on deletion does a lot of work; it enables us to distinguish many well-formed and deviant structures, and to do so in such a way that we can offer plausible stories about what is learned and what is not learned by children who will become speakers of some form of English. Children learn that there is deletion of sentence-introducing thats, displacement of wh-phrases, copied objective genitives, and right-moved large DPs; our UG condition on deletion 3.

Notice, by the way, that we have been focusing on a property of our model, deletion, and not on phenomena from some language; in fact, the deletion cuts across many sentence types and constructions. One way of thinking of deletion in the light of our discussion so far would be to take the structural position left empty by a deleted item to be incorporated, clitic-like, into an adjacent phonological host of which it is the complement. We will pursue this in a moment. We can now unify these phenomena by saying that the reduced is is not an appropriate host for a deletion site: Note that the total picture involving the reduced auxiliaries is not provided by either part of our account alone.

Thus, at least some examples of the types 6 Here is a nice distinction: Max is dancing in London and Mary is in New York is ambiguous: Mary might be dancing in New York or perhaps running a restaurant. However, the same sentence with a reduced is is unambiguous: If Mary were dancing in New York, the structure would be. On the other hand, some examples involving displacements and thus deletion would not fall under 2. In many examples involving deletion affecting the entire complement of an auxiliary, the two conditions converge to rule out the reduction of auxiliaries, but each has a separate role to play in other examples.

If we adopt this view, then the notion of a host for a deletion site illuminates more distinctions, which have to do with the extractability of subjects of embedded clauses. Now we can dispense with a distinct Fixed Subject Constraint and relate the cases it was intended to account for to what we have discussed in this section, explaining them through our UG condition on deletion. We noted that English embedded clauses are introduced by a complementizer which may or may not be pronounced; so, sentences corresponding to 3.

This is also true if a wh-item is copied from the embedded object position 3.


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The deleted complementizer in 3. Similarly the deleted wh-word at the front of the embedded clause in 3. The same goes for the deleted wh-word which is the complement of saw in 3. That cannot host the deleted item: It cannot be the case that complementizers like that and how are not appropriate hosts for deletion sites because they are not full, phonological words in some sense, because apart from the phonologically unmotivated nature of this move the same is also true for expressions like what time in indirect questions like 3.

In these cases, what blocks the incorporation of the deletion site into the preceding word is the requirement in 3.

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We leave this open here. This is the sweater which I wonder who bought. The sentence corresponding to 3. This is the sweater whichi I wonder [CP who bought ej ]. Now consider another limitation on the deletion of subjects, but here in a simple, unembedded clause. As we mentioned in connection with 3. However, the generalization breaks down at a certain point: Want to Read Currently Reading Read.

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