The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 11/16 - Tom Roeper (UMass-Amherst)

Speaker: Tom Roeper (UMass-Amherst)
Title: Strict Syntax/Semantic Interfaces and Ellipsis: an explanatory role for acquisition theory
Date and time: Thursday November 16, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

It has often been said that linguistic theory should account for acquisition. Modern work extends this claim to the more important goal: account for steps on the acquisition path itself, where micro-operations are often visible. The abstract claim has particular relevance when it can resolve long-standing questions in theory. We show that the acquisition path for ellipsis must entail a shift from an Open Interface, dependent upon inference, to a Strict Syntax/semantic Interface which involves a perfect correspondence of syntax and semantics and minimizes pragmatics:

Strict Interface Hypothesis: The acquisition device assumes that there should be an isomorphic connection between LF-semantics, syntax, and phonology.

This is based upon an acquisition principle:

Minimization Goal: Minimize pragmatic inference and maximize the information determined by explicit grammar.

One tradition, epitomized in the work of Hardt (1999), claims that a broad empty category like pro and general cognitive biases toward parallelism (Jackendoff and Culicover (2005)) are needed to account for ellipsis. Another tradition is captured in Kennedy’s (2008) Syntax-Semantics Identity Hypothesis:

A recovered syntactic representation generates an LF form with variables that allow sloppy readings.

Merchant (2015, to appear) and Craenenburg (2014) argue for a “hybrid” account which is theoretically unsatisfying. They claim the system is strict, but then the system assumes pronominal forms (or just do that) when necessary. The literature has also shown an ongoing debate about less than full reconstruction in syntactic representations, given various deviations known as “mismatches”. The acquisition path perspective makes this outcome natural.

The empirical basis of this argument works with evidence about VP ellipsis, NP-ellipsis, and Partitive interpretation. Children overgenerate possible reconstructions beyond sloppy identity and then must somehow retreat. eg. They allow John patted his dog and so did his grandfather to mean grandfather pats an uncle’s dog. This creates a learnability problem since interpretations both include and exceed the adult grammar. Evidence on early VP-ellipsis from Santos, and Wijnen and Roeper (2003) on NP-ellipsis and Hulk and Schleeman (2014) on partitives, and Perez et al (to appear) on empty pro objects support this account.

The acquisition path claim is: Children will step by step, following Minimize Pragmatics, replace a pronominal representation with an explicit syntactic representation and a fixed link to semantic representations.

This Strict Interface perspective is deliberately much more stringent than a claim that interfaces involve “Third Factor” effects (Chomsky (2005) which weakens learnability. A big challenge is to develop a notation that makes the connection transparent and simple for the child and natural within UG.