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Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness 1

University Press Scholarship Online

Oxford Scholarship Online

Language Down the Garden Path: The Cognitive and

Biological Basis for Linguistic Structures

Montserrat Sanz, Itziar Laka, and Michael K. Tanenhaus

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199677139

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199677139.001.0001

Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness 1

Virginia Valian DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199677139.003.0015 Abstract and Keywords This chapter proposes that determiners are the thin edge of the wedge in arguments for innateness of syntax. As soon as it is possible to measure children’s production of determiners, around age two, their speech meets a range of tests showing abstract knowledge of determiners. Before that time, a range of studies with infants shows that children have an equivalence class of determiners and represent determiners in an underspecified fashion. Only an abstract representation will provide for both those features. The innate abstract knowledge that children possess is that determiners head DPs and take NPs as complements. Learning consists of establishing the specific inventory of determiners in a child’s language. Thus, determiners are a candidate for narrow syntax and their acquisition is a top-down process.

Keywords: determiner category, universals, language acquisition, narrow syntax Page 1 of 8 PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2014.

All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: CUNY Graduate Center; date: 22 December 2014 Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness 1 14.1 Why determiners?

My aim in this paper is to outline an empirical argument for innate syntax, using determiners as a case study. There are four reasons for the choice of determiners.

(1) Every model of acquisition includes the eventual presence of syntactic categories, including determiners, in the child’s grammar. Agreement on the end point avoids the objection that a given linguistic principle or structure is never part of a speaker’s grammar and thus needs no explanation and, a fortiori, needs no innate structure to account for its acquisition. Arguments will be focused on how the child gets to the end point, not on what the end point consists of.

(2) Determiners, unlike nouns and verbs, are less directly tied to reference. Determiners have a semantics and a pragmatics, but full knowledge of the pragmatics seems to appear after, rather than before, the syntax of determiners(Modyanova and Wexler 2007).

More generally, Naigles (2002) has argued convincingly that experiments that appear to show lack of syntactic knowledge actually instead show difficulty with semantics.

(p.273) (3) Two-year-olds at the onset of combinatorial speech already have determiners in their grammar (Valian, Solt, and Stewart 2009).

(4) It is possible to trace the development of determiners from pre-verbal infancy through age two. That trajectory is not known for any other category.

14.2 What is innate and what is learned?

If determiners are innate, what exactly is innately specified? As a first approximation, I propose an abstract schematic representation, underspecified with respect to details: (1) determiners are heads of determiner phrases; (2) determiners take noun phrases as their complements. In addition, (3) determiners and nouns can be in an agreement relation. If a noun is singular, for example, the determiner used with it can be singular or unspecified with respect to number, but cannot only be plural. In English it is possible to say a ball or the ball, but not many ball. In some languages, determiners and nouns agree in gender; feminine nouns take the feminine form of a determiner.

As is evident from the schema, determiners are the thin edge of the wedge. To hypothesize even the bare minimum about determiners requires reference to other syntactic notions, such as “head,” “complement,” “agreement,” and reference to other syntactic categories. Because languages are described by an interlocking set of concepts, and because language represents an independent domain, no syntactic notion can be defined independently of other notions.

The determiner schema leaves many of the child’s learning problems untouched. For example, the child must learn what the specific determiners in her language are. In English, possessive pronouns, like my, act like determiners, but in Italian they act like adjectives. The child has to learn the contents of the equivalence class of determiners language by language.

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All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: CUNY Graduate Center; date: 22 December 2014 Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness 1 Another learning problem the child faces is figuring out in which contexts a determiner must be used, and, if one must be used, figuring out which one to use. In English, a shifts to the in certain contexts. In English, bare plural nouns are grammatical but bare singular count nouns are not; in other languages, even plural nouns require determiners;

semantics is no help here.

A third learning problem is figuring out the particular features that determiners have in a language. English does not mark gender, but French and Spanish, for example, do.

The crucial feature of this proposal is that the child starts off with an abstract concept and learns details. Contrasting theories propose that the child starts off with details and constructs an abstract concept (e.g., Pine and Lieven 1997; Abbott-Smith and Tomasello 2006).

(p.274) 14.3 When does the child’s grammar include determiners?

Using six different tests of knowledge, Valian, Solt, and Stewart (2009) conclude that children represent determiners in their grammar at the onset of combinatorial speech (roughly ages 1 year 10 months–1;10–2;2). The tests were adapted from previous studies arguing against (Eisenbeiss 2000; Pine and Lieven 1997; Pine and Martindale 1996) or in favor of early knowledge of determiners (Valian 1986), using a larger sample, improved methods, and a new way of stratifying the data.

The Valian corpus contains speech from 21 child–mother pairs. The children range in age from 1;10 (1 year 10 months) to 2;8 and their speech ranges in average utterance length from 1.53–4.58 morphemes. There are approximately 1.5 hours of speech per pair and 764 utterances per child. The size of the corpus, both in terms of number of children and in terms of number of utterances per child, makes it possible to separate issues of competence and performance and to show how researchers could draw misleading conclusions.

One important test was the extent to which the child used more than one determiner before a given noun type (Pine and Martindale 1996) and the degree of difference between the child and his or her parent. For example, did the child use the noun ball only with a (or only with the), or with both a and the? Did the child’s productivity in this sense differ from the parent’s? The short answer is that all children, even those at low MLUs, used a variety of determiners before their nouns, and did so to the same extent that their parents did, whether the test was confined to a and the or included all determiners, and whether the child and parent were matched on determiner–noun pairs or not.

The most important finding was a stratification analysis that showed how one could mistakenly think that very young children are not productive in their use of determiners.

Consider the case where a child uses a particular noun only once. By definition, it is impossible for the child to use more than one determiner with that noun. Only when a child uses a noun several times with a determiner will it be possible to see whether she uses more than one determiner with such a noun. Previous analyses did not stratify nouns for the number of times they occurred with a determiner. They thus ran the risk,

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2014.

All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: CUNY Graduate Center; date: 22 December 2014 Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness 1 especially with small numbers of utterances per child, of considering many nouns used only once or twice with a determiner and thus artifactually concluding that the child was not productive with her determiners.

As Figure 14.1 shows, how often a noun appears with a determiner is directly related to overlap―the extent to which a child uses more than one (p.275) FIGURE 14.1. Productivity (overlap) in determiner use as a function of opportunity to discover overlap determiner with a given noun. Failure to find overlap is the experimenter’s failure, not the child’s. One needs a large enough sample to separate how often a noun is used with a determiner. If there are too few cases where a noun is used frequently with a determiner, the opportunity to detect productivity is correspondingly low.

There was no evidence of development in the syntactic structure underlying children’s determiner usage. Once there is sufficient opportunity to detect productivity, the child’s MLU does not predict overlap.

Children also showed no evidence of early reliance on formulae, such as what’s the ___?

On the contrary, children used such phrasal formulae more with increasing MLU.

Finally, children made almost no errors in their use of determiners, verifying previous research (Abu-Akel, Bailey, and Thum 2004; Ihns and Leonard 1988; Valian 1986).

What did change as children’s MLU increased was the number of different determiners in their repertoire and how often they used them. There was no development in the nature of their determiner usage.

By age two, then, children show abstract knowledge of determiners. The development in productivity can be attributed to development in the number of known determiners and in the number of times a noun is used with a determiner. Children’s early uses show, if anything, fewer formulae than their (p.276) parents’ uses do. The children are faithful to distributional regularities. A linguist, faced with this unknown language, would conclude that it had determiners. Only the sparse data problem―small samples and, within each

Page 4 of 8

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2014.

All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: CUNY Graduate Center; date: 22 December 2014 Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness 1 sample, few nouns being used multiple times with a determiner―prevents that conclusion. When the sparse data problem is solved, children’s productivity is apparent.

Development occurs, but after age two it is limited to an increase in the number of determiner types and the frequency of determiner use.

14.4 Is the developmental trajectory continuous or discontinuous?

An account on which a schematic representation of determiners is innate predicts continuity. Development consists of fleshing out the schema, in two ways. First, the child learns what counts as a determiner. In English, for example, the child learns that a, the, and some are in the determiner class. Second, the child learns about the languagespecific particulars of each determiner’s behavior. In English, she learns that a is restricted to single count nouns, the can be used with any count or mass noun, and some can be used with plural count nouns and mass nouns. The model predicts continuity: the child’s grammar is commensurate with the adult’s; the child does not shift from one system of representation to another nor does she shift from no representation to representation.

One form of evidence for continuity is underspecification of the class of determiners.

That is, the child has not fully analyzed the specifics of the input, contrary to what a completely input-driven model would predict. Determiners, because of their high frequency, should be helpful to children in segmenting speech by acting as anchor points, as Valian and Coulson (1988) proposed. But in segmenting the speech stream, the child might treat the and the nonsense determiner kuh as equivalent because kuh retains the highly frequent schwa, even though the child has never heard kuh. Or, in French, the child might accept both le and la as interchangeable, failing to distinguish their gender. As long as highly frequent determiners have few sound-alike competitors, they should help infants to process speech.

An example of phonetic underspecification comes from a comparison of eight- and elevenmonth-olds’ ability to use real vs nonsense determiners to segment a nonsense noun from its preceding determiner (Shi, Cutler, Werker, and Cruickshank 2006). Infants heard determiner–noun pairs half the time with a high-frequency real determiner (e.g., the tink) and half the time with a phonologically similar nonsense determiner (e.g., kuh breek). Other infants heard low-frequency determiners, her vs ler.

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