Mapping thematic roles onto syntactic functions: Are children helped by innate linking rules?
Mapping thematic roles onto syntactic functions: Are children helped by innate linking rules? Linguistics, 28
, 1253-1290. doi:10.1515/ling.19188.8.131.523.
In recent theorizing about language acquisition, children have often been
credited with innate knowledge of rules that link thematic roles such as
agent and patient to syntactic functions such as subject and direct object.
These rules form the basis for the hypothesis that phrase-structure rules are
established through 'semantic bootstrapping', and they are also invoked to
explain the acquisition of verb subcategorization frames (for example,
Pinker 1984). This study examines two versions of the hypothesis that
linking rules are innate, pitting them against the alternative hypothesis that
linking patterns are learned (as proposed, for example, by Foley and Van
Valin 1984). The first version specifies linking rules through paired thematicsyntactic
role hierarchies, and the second characterizes them as a function
of verb semantic structure. When predictions of the two approaches are
drawn out and tested against longitudinal spontaneous speech data from
two children learning English, no support is found for the hypothesis that
knowledge of linking is innate; ironically, in fact, the children had more
trouble with verbs that should be easy to link than with those that should
be more difficult. In contrast, the hypothesis that linking rules are learned
is supported: at a relatively advanced age, the children began to produce
errors that are best interpreted as overregularizations of a statistically
predominant linking pattern to which they had become sensitive through