Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure

Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure


View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Thursday, October 18  Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.


Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure by Steven Pinker

A classic book about language acquisition and conceptual structure, with a new preface by the author, "The Secret Life of Verbs."

Before Steven Pinker wrote bestsellers on language and human nature, he wrote several technical monographs on language acquisition that have become classics in cognitive science. Learnability and Cognition, first published in 1989, brought together two big topics: how do children learn their mother tongue, and how does the mind represent basic categories of meaning such as space, time, causality, agency, and goals? The stage for this synthesis was set by the fact that when children learn a language, they come to make surprisingly subtle distinctions: pour water into the glass and fill the glass with water sound natural, but pour the glass with water and fill water into the glass sound odd. How can this happen, given that children are not reliably corrected for uttering odd sentences, and they don't just parrot back the correct ones they hear from their parents? Pinker resolves this paradox with a theory of how children acquire the meaning and uses of verbs, and explores that theory's implications for language, thought, and the relationship between them.

As Pinker writes in a new preface, "The Secret Life of Verbs," the phenomena and ideas he explored in this book inspired his 2007 bestseller The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. These technical discussions, he notes, provide insight not just into language acquisition but into literary metaphor, scientific understanding, political discourse, and even the conceptions of sexuality that go into obscenity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262518406
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 05/24/2013
Series: Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 1,216,008
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Jeffrey Rosenschein is the Sam and Will Strauss Professor of Computer Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

September 18, 1954

Place of Birth:

Montreal, Canada


B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979

Table of Contents

Series Foreword xi

The Secret Life of Verbs: A Preface to the New Edition xiii

Acknowledgments xix

1 A Learnability Paradox 1

1.1 Argument Structure and the Lexicon 4

1.2 The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition 5

1.3 Baker's Paradox 8

1.4 Attempted Solutions to Baker's Paradox 10

2 Constraints on Lexical Rules 53

2.1 Morphological and Phonological Constraints 53

2.2 Semantic Constraints 56

2.3 How Semantic and Morphological Constraints Might Resolve Baker's Paradox 60

2.4 Evidence for Criteria-Governed Productivity 61

2.5 Problems for the Criteria-Governed Productivity Theory 66

3 Constraints and the Nature of Argument Structure 73

3.1 Overview: Why Lexical Rules Carry Semantic Constraints 73

3.2 Constraints on Lexical Rules as Manifestations of More General Phenomena 77

3.3 A Theory of Argument Structure 83

3.4 On Universality 110

4 Possible and Actual Forms 115

4.1 The Problem of Negative Exceptions 115

4.2 Transitive Action Verbs as Evidence for Narrow Subclasses 122

4.3 The Nature of Narrow Conflation Classes 125

4.4 Defining and Motivating Subclasses of Verbs Licensing the Four Alternations 128

4.5 The Relation between Narrow-Range and Broad-Range Rules 177

5 Representation 193

5.1 The Need for a Theory of Lexicosemantic Representation 193

5.2 Is a Theory of Lexical Semantics Feasible? 195

5.3 Evidence for a Semantic Subsystem Underlying Verb Meanings 198

5.4 A Cross-linguistic Inventory of Components of Verb Meaning 202

5.5 A Theory of the Representation of Grammatically Relevant Semantic Structures 205

5.6 Explicit Representations of Lexical Rules and Lexicosemantic Structures 245

5.7 Summary 288

6 Learning 291

6.1 Linking Rules 292

6.2 Lexical Semantic Structures 298

6.3 Broad Conflation Classes (Thematic Cores) and Broad-Range Lexical Rules 311

6.4 Narrow Conflation Classes and Narrow-Range Lexical Rules 317

6.5 Summary of Learning Mechanisms 330

7 Development 333

7.1 Developmental Sequence for Argument Structure Alternations 334

7.2 The Unlearning Problem 342

7.3 Children's Argument Structure Changing Rules Are Always Semantically Conditioned 349

7.4 Do Children's Errors Have the Same Cause as Adults'? 374

7.5 Acquisition of Verb Meaning and Errors in Argument Structure 383

7.6 Some Predictions about the Acquisition of Narrow-Range Rules 408

7.7 Summary of Development 412

8 Conclusions 415

8.1 A Brief Summary of the Resolution of the Paradox 415

8.2 Argument Structure as a Pointer between Syntactic Structure and Propositions: A Brief Comparison with a "Connectionist" Alternative 416

8.3 The Autonomy of Semantic Representation 420

8.4 Implications for the Semantic Bootstrapping Hypothesis 424

8.5 Conservatism, Listedness, and the Lexicon 429

8.6 Spatial Schemas and Abstract Thought 436

Notes 441

References 455

Index 475

What People are Saying About This

Times Higher Education Supplement - Paul Fletcher

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

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.


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

Lila Gleitman, University of Pennsylvania

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

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews