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On the nature of syntactic variation

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Diarmuid Ó Séaghdha.

At this session of the NLIP Reading Group we’ll be discussing the following paper:

William Snyder. 2001. On the Nature of Syntactic Variation: Evidence from Complex Predicates and Complex Word-Formation. Language 77(2):324-342.

As this paper is slightly atypical for the reading group in both topic and length, Lu has provided some pointers:

Focus on the section called “Children’s acquisition of English”. The section called Cross-linguistic Survey and the Discussion section can be omitted. Specifically, I’m thinking about these three questions: Are the statistical methods used in the “Children’s acquisition of English” section valid? Is there a way, we can automate the search for structures such as verb-particle constructions and endocentric root compounds using the RASP -parses of corpus data? And finally, is there an alternative explanation for how children learn verb-particle constructions and endocentric root compounds other than parameter setting?

Further, note that in the linguistics literature, the word ‘parameter’ is much more specific than in mathematics. In mathematics it is just an index of a function. However, in linguistics it is almost always used in the Chomskyan sense of an innate, mostly binary switch that determines linguistic structure – in generative linguistics, the infant brain is supposed to be a switch-box and language acquisition consists of setting these switches. So people are supposed to be innately born with a set of linguistic PRINCIPLES , i.e. constraints, and a set of linguistic PARAMETERS , i.e. points of variation. For example, in English, sentences require a subject so we say “it rains” whereas in Chinese, they do not, so one can say “xia yu”, which means approximately, “rains”. One proposed explanation is the fact that people are innately born with a “null-subject”-parameter, which is set to “true” in the brains of Chinese children and “false” in the brains of English children. This framework is THE FOUNDATION of all work in contemporary generative linguistics, so it’s very important to understand this in order to understand the paper. What Snyder is proposing here is that children are BORN with the knowledge of verb-particle constructions and endocentric root compounds and the ONLY thing they have to learn as they grow up is whether or not these constructions exist in the language they are exposed to.

This talk is part of the Natural Language Processing Reading Group series.

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