Does Learnability Predict Syntactic Universals? An Investigation Using Artificial Languages
Fetch, Alix Baldwin
Newport, Elissa L
Universals in natural language have long been a focus of the generative syntactic and typological literature. However, the source of these universals is not clear. Within Chomskyan generative syntactic literature, it is assumed that children are endowed with innate knowledge of language structure (see for example, Lightfoot 1999). However, research on language acquisition has shown that learning biases may partially explain these universals (Newport 1981; Morgan, Meier & Newport, 1987; Culbertson et al., 2012; Culbertson & Newport, 2015; Culbertson & Newport, 2017). In a series of artificial language experiments, we have attempted to add further evidence to the hypothesis that biases in learning mechanisms give rise to language universals. In our first study, we ask whether children can use distributional information to acquire syntactic categories, phrases, and the sentence structure of a language. Our results show children are able to use statistical learning mechanisms to acquire syntax from distributional cues to phrase structure. We then ask whether the addition of local asymmetry in a phrase structure grammar results in enhanced learning of sentence structure. Our results show that participants exposed to the locally asymmetric grammar learned the sentence structure better than those exposed to the control grammar, providing evidence for our hypothesis that local asymmetries bolster learning of sentence structure. We follow up on this finding by asking whether other local asymmetries are equally learnable. Our results suggest that only head-initial patterning is of additional learning benefit. We argue this is due to native-language induced biases, in line with previous research by Onnis & Thiessen (2013). Finally, we attempt to address the question of whether the Final-Over-Final Constraint (Holmberg, 2000) (FOFC) is a result of a bias in learning mechanisms. Our results showed that while there was no significant difference between the four grammars, the disallowed grammar resulted in weaker learning when compared to the three allowed grammars. We argue that the work included in this dissertation presents a partial confirmation of our hypothesis. We conclude by discussing our findings and propose future work to build upon the foundation we present here.
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