Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure


When children learn a language, they soon are able to make surprisingly subtle distinctions: 'donate them a book' sounds odd, for example, even though 'give them a book' is perfectly natural. How can this happen, given that children do not confine themselves to the sentence types they hear and that they are seldom corrected when they speak ungrammatically? Steven Pinker resolves the paradox in this book, presenting detailed theory of how children acquire argument structure. ...
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Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure

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When children learn a language, they soon are able to make surprisingly subtle distinctions: 'donate them a book' sounds odd, for example, even though 'give them a book' is perfectly natural. How can this happen, given that children do not confine themselves to the sentence types they hear and that they are seldom corrected when they speak ungrammatically? Steven Pinker resolves the paradox in this book, presenting detailed theory of how children acquire argument structure.
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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
"A monumental study that sets a new standard for work on learnability." —Ray Jackendoff, Tufts University

"The author's arguments are never less than impressive, and sometimes irresistible, such is the force and panache with which they are deployed." — PaulFletcher, Times Higher Education Supplement

" Learnability and Cognition is theoretically a big advance,beautifully reasoned, and a goldmine of information." — Lila Gleitman,University of Pennsylvania

Lila Gleitman

Learnability and Cognition is theoretically a big advance,
beautifully reasoned, and a goldmine of information.

Ray Jackendoff

A monumental study that sets a new standard for work on learnability.

Paul Fletcher, Times Higher Education Supplement

The author's arguments are never less than impressive, and sometimes irresistible,
such is the force and panache with which they are deployed.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard
University. His books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate,
and The Better Angels of Our Nature have won numerous prizes.


"When a gifted scientist and a gifted writer are all in one, you have Steven Pinker," writes fellow cognitive scientist Michael S. Gazzaniga. With his crisp prose style and zany, pop culture-inflected sense of humor, the MIT psychology professor has become famed for his ability to turn something like a discussion of regular and irregular verb forms into a rollicking good read.

As a psychology student at McGill University in Montreal, Pinker was drawn to the emergent field of cognitive science: "I found alluring the combination of psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence, the philosophy of mind, and linguistics," he said in a Scientific American interview. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, where his mentor was the psychology professor Roger Brown, who was a pioneer in the study of language acquisition and one of the first to apply Noam Chomsky's theories of language to field research. After accepting a post at MIT in 1982, Pinker began studying language acquisition in children, amassing enough data to demonstrate that children have an inborn facility for language.

Pinker's academic works on language development were admired by many of his peers, but in 1994 he sought—and gained—a broader audience with The Language Instinct, which suggests that human language is a biological adaptation, like web-spinning in spiders, rather than (as it is sometimes seen) a cultural invention, like the wheel. Pinker's lively and engaging treatise held tremendous appeal for a popular audience. Michael Coe, writing in The New York Times, called The Language Instinct "A brilliant, witty and altogether satisfying book."

But if humans have an instinct for language, how was that instinct acquired? That question led Pinker to the field of evolutionary psychology, and to the writing of his next book, How the Mind Works. If a particular behavior is common among humans, evolutionary psychologists reason, that behavior probably contributed to the ability of earlier humans to survive and pass along their genes. How the Mind Works, which uses this approach to examine behaviors from music-making to murder, was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Following its release, Pinker publicly tangled with Stephen Jay Gould over the scientific legitimacy of evolutionary psychology. Although the two scientists clashed on some issues, Pinker admired Gould's ability to write entertaining explications of complex ideas—"profundity with a light touch," as Pinker wrote in his Time magazine eulogy for Gould.

Pinker's next book, Words and Rules, returned to the subject of language; specifically, it explores the different mechanisms involved in learning regular and irregular verb forms. In a recent book The Blank Slate, Pinker tackled the objections some people have to a biological view of human nature. "There are fears that if you acknowledge that people are born with anything, it implies that some people have more of it than others, and therefore it would open the door to political inequality or oppression, for example," he explained in a New York Times interview. The Blank Slate is Pinker's attempt to demonstrate that there's no inherent contradiction between evolutionary psychology and the concepts of free will and moral behavior. "It's a fallacy to think that hunger and thirst and a sex drive are biological but that reasoning and decision making and learning are something else, something non-biological," he said. "They're just a different kind of biology."

Good To Know

Journalists often comment on Pinker's rock-star mane of curls, and indeed Pinker once flirted with the idea of becoming a rock musician: "I have to confess that watching rock 'n' roll concerts, I did fantasize about being up on stage," he told The Guardian. "Not in the lead. I never wanted to be Mick Jagger. Maybe the bass-player or the drummer. But I never, ever played air guitar."

Research at Pinker's lab, in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, focuses on the different mental processes involved in using grammatical rules (e.g., an English plural can be formed by adding –s to the end of a noun) and using exceptions to the rules (e.g., the plural of mouse is not mouses but mice). The lab has undertaken magnetoencephalographic (MEG) studies to identify "the time course of the processing of words and rules in the brain."

Pinker was named among Newsweek's "100 Americans for the Next Century" and included in Esquire's "Register of Outstanding Men and Women."

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    1. Hometown:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 18, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Montreal, Canada
    1. Education:
      B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

Series Foreword
A Learnability Paradox
1.1 Argument Structure and the Lexicon
1.2 The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition
1.3 Baker's Paradox
1.4 Attempted Solutions to Baker's Paradox
1.4.1 Components of the Paradox
1.4.2 Solution #0: Nonsolutions
1.4.3 Solution #1: Variants of Negative Evidence Subtle Negative Evidence Nonoccurrence: A Surrogate for Negative Evidence? Uniqueness: Another Surrogate for Negative Evidence?
1.4.4 Solution #2: Strict Lexical Conservatism Evidence Against Strict Lexical Conservatism in Children: Spontaneous Speech Evidence Against Strict Lexical Conservatism in Children: Experiments
1.4.5 Solution #3: Syntactic Representations as Criteria for the Application of Lexical Rules Representations for Argument Structures Using Properties of Syntactic Representations to Solve the Learning Problem Obligatory Versus Optional Arguments Arguments Versus Nonarguments Unaccusativity Other Proposals
Constraints on Lexical Rules
2.1 Morphological and Phonological Constraints
2.2 Semantic Constraints
2.2.1 Dative
2.2.2 Causative
2.2.3 Locative
2.2.4 Passive
2.3 How Semantic and Morphological Constraints Might Resolve Baker's Paradox
2.4 Evidence for Criteria-Governed Productivity
2.5 Problems for the Criteria-Governed Productivity Theory
Constraints and the Nature of Argument Structure
3.1 Overview: Why Lexical Rules Carry Semantic Constraints
3.2 Constraints on Lexical Rules as Manifestations of More General Phenomena
3.2.1 Constraints on Argument Structures ThatAre Independent of Lexical Rules
3.2.2 Constraints on Grammatical Functions That Are Independent of Particular Argument Structures
3.2.3 Constraints on Verb Choice Are Also Constraints on Interpretation
3.3 A Theory of Argument Structure
3.3.1 Background Assumptions
3.3.2 Semantic Conflation Classes as Thematic Cores of Argument Structures
3.3.3 Linking Rules
3.3.4 Lexical Rules The Locative Alternation The Dative Alternation The Causative Alternation The Active-Passive Relation
3.4 On Universality
Possible and Actual Forms
4.1 The Problem of Negative Exceptions
4.1.1 Why the Negative Exceptions Exist
4.2 Transitive Action Verbs as Evidence for Narrow Subclasses
4.3 The Nature of Narrow Conflation Classes
4.4 Defining and Motivating Subclasses of Verbs Licensing the Four Alternations
4.4.1 Dativizable Verbs The Morphological Constraint on the Dative
4.4.2 Locativizable Verbs
4.4.3 Causativizable Verbs
4.4.4 Passivizable Verbs Passivizable Action Verbs The Thematic Relations Hypothesis Extended to Agent-Patient Relations Passivizable Abstract and Stative Verbs Other Passivizable Verbs Lacking Concrete Agents and Patients What Makes the Passive Different from Other Alternations?
4.5 The Relation Between Narrow-Range and Broad-Range Rules
4.5.1 Ungrammatical Uses of Lexical Rules in Adult Language
4.5.2 Property-Predicting Versus Existence-Predicting Rules
4.5.3 Why Are Only Narrow-Range Rules Existence-Predicting?
5.1 The Need for a Theory of Lexicosemantic Representation
5.2 Is a Theory of Lexical Semantics Feasible?
5.2.1 Skepticism About Decompositional Theories of Word Meaning
5.3 Evidence for a Semantic Subsystem Underlying Verb Meanings
5.4 A Cross-linguistic Inventory of Components of Verb Meaning
5.5 A Theory of the Representation of Grammatically Relevant Semantic Structures
5.5.1 Conceptual Constituents and Functions for Motion Events
5.5.2 Interfacing Semantic Structures with Syntax
5.5.3 Manner of Motion
5.5.4 States
5.5.5 Properties
5.5.6 Extension to Nonlocational Semantic Fields
5.5.7 Actions, Agents, and Patients
5.5.8 A Possible Featural Representation for Basic Predicates
5.5.9 Interevent Relations: Effects, Means, and Coreference
5.5.10 Linking Oblique Arguments
5.5.11 A Family of Causal Relations
5.5.12 Nonphysical Semantic Fields for Acts
5.5.13 Temporal Information
5.5.14 A Remark on Redundancy, Constraints, and Decomposition
5.5.15 Summary of Semantic Machinery
5.6 Explicit Representations of Lexical Rules and Lexicosemantic Structures
5.6.1 Representations for the Dative
5.6.2 Representations for the Causative
5.6.3 Representations for the Locative
5.6.4 Representations for the Passive
5.7 Summary
6.1 Linking Rules
6.1.1 Problems with Using Innate Linking Rules Can Linking Rules Form Vicious Circles in Acquisition? Syntactic Ergativity
6.2 Lexical Semantic Structures
6.2.1 Event-Category Labeling
6.2.2 Semantic Structure Hypothesis Testing
6.2.3 Syntactic Cueing of Semantic Structures
6.3 Broad Conflation Classes (Thematic Cores) and Broad-Range Lexical Rules
6.4 Narrow Conflation Classes and Narrow-Range Lexical Rules
6.4.1 Why Lexical Abstraction Doesn't Work
6.4.2 Clustering Algorithms and Classwise Indirect Negative Evidence: Would They Work?
6.4.3 Parameterization of Idiosyncratic Lexical Information Key Facts About Narrow Classes and Rules A Strong Hypothesis for Narrow-Range Rule Formation Learning the Variable Ranges of Rules by Focusing on the Changing Arguments Other Ways of Preventing the Rules from Being Too Narrow
6.5 Summary of Learning Mechanisms
7.1 Developmental Sequence for Argument Structure Alternations
7.1.1 Early Conservative Usage Preceding Onset of Errors
7.1.2 Overapplication of Argument Structure Alternations
7.1.3 Progression Toward the Adult State
7.2 The Unlearning Problem
7.2.1 A Simple Solution to the Unlearning Problem Why Children Would Sound Different from Adults Even If the Minimalist Solution Is Correct
7.3 Children's Argument Structure Changing Rules Are Always Semantically Conditioned
7.3.1 Semantic Constraints on Children's Causatives Experimental Evidence Are Productive Transitives in Spontaneous Speech Necessarily Causative? Choice of Causativized Predicates and Arguments in Causative Errors Causativization of Transitive Verbs
7.3.2 Semantic Constraints on Children's Datives Experimental Evidence Spontaneous Speech
7.3.3 Semantic Constraints on Children's Locatives Experimental Evidence Spontaneous Speech
7.3.4 Semantic Constraints on Children's Passives Experimental Evidence Spontaneous Speech
7.3.5 Summary of Semantic Constraints on Children's Lexical Rules
7.4 Do Children's Errors Have the Same Cause as Adults'?
7.4.1 Overall Tendency Toward Conservativism Experimental Evidence for Conservative Tendencies Conservative Tendencies in Spontaneous Speech
7.4.2 Evidence That Children Are Ambivalent About Their Own Errors
7.4.3 Summary of Differences Between Children's Errors and Adults'
7.5 Acquisition of Verb Meaning and Errors in Argument Structure
7.5.1 The Development of Verb Meaning Later Onset and Slower Rate Underspecified meanings Overspecified meanings Biases in Semantic Development Substitution Errors
7.5.2 Relations Between the Development of Verb Meaning and the Development of Argument Structure Onset of Errors Argument Structures in Verb Substitution Errors Relations Between Biases in Acquiring Verb Semantics and Recurring Errors in Argument Struct...
7.5.3 Experimental Evidence Showing That Semantic Biases Affect Argument Structures Errors in Understanding Fill-type Verbs Semantic and Syntactic Errors with Fill-type Verbs in the Same Children Effects of the Semantics of Newly Learned Verbs
7.6 Some Predictions About the Acquisition of Narrow-Range Rules
7.6.1 A Speculation About the Role of Maturation
7.7 Summary of Development
8.1 A Brief Summary of the Resolution of the Paradox
8.2 Argument Structure as a Pointer Between Syntactic Structure and Propositions: A Brief Comparison...
8.3 The Autonomy of Semantic Representation
8.4 Implications for the Semantic Bootstrapping Hypothesis
8.5 Conservatism, Listedness, and the Lexicon
8.6 Spatial Schemas and Abstract Thought
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