The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 12/8 - Ian Roberts

Speaker: Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge)
Title: Parametric Hierarchies
Date/Time: Thursday, Dec 8, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

This work presents a new approach to comparative syntax, developing the notion of parameter hierarchy originated in Baker (2001). Hierarchies define the ways in which properties of individually variant categories may act in concert; this creates macroparametric effects from the combined action of many microparameters. The highest position in a hierarchy defines a macroparameter, a major typological property, lower positions define successively more local properties. Parameter-setting in language acquisition starts at the highest position as this is the simplest choice; acquirers will “move down the hierarchy” when confronted with primary linguistic data incompatible with a higher setting. In this way, the hierarchies simultaneously learning paths and typological variation.

The idea will be illustrated by five hierarchies: those determining word-order, null arguments, word structure, discourse-configurationality and case/agreement alignment. These five hierarchies, although not exhaustive, combine to give a typological footprint of many languages, as well as providing the basis for the study of the interaction of micro- and macroparameters. In this way, the criticism that formal comparative syntax has little to offer typological studies can potentially be answered. Finally, we show that the nature of the hierarchies is determined, not directly by UG, but by UG interacting with domain-general principles of learning and optimisation: parametric variation is an emergent property of the learning device, UG and primary linguistic data, reflecting the three factors in language design.