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Syntax

Syntax seeks to characterize grammars of particular languages and how they differ, to describe the universal properties that human grammars have as a matter of biological design, and to explain why the universal properties we discover have the particular character they do.

Birds fly, fish swim, humans speak. We have a capacity to combine expressions into unboundedly large linguistic structures (sentences and phrases) that carry a specific form and a specific meaning. As the number of such structures is in principle infinite, there must be recursive procedures that define these complex objects. Syntax studies these rule systems — grammars — and does so in three ways. It seeks to characterize grammars of particular languages and how they differ (e.g. how questions are formed in English versus Chinese); to describe the universal properties that human grammars have as a matter of biological design (e.g. why no human grammars have mirror image rules); and, most recently, to explain why the universal properties we discover have the particular character they do.
 
The syntax group engages in all three kinds of research, with special emphasis on the third, typically minimalist question. Empirically, the syntax group has done extensive work on case, agreement, ellipsis, movement and islands, control, anaphoric binding, applicative constructions, morphosyntax, linearization, binding and quantifier scope, among others. Furthermore, while we aim to be at the forefront of syntactic theory (particularly within the minimalist program), we constantly aim, in our classes and in our research, to find insight from earlier generative models developed over the past 60 years.
 
The Syntax/Semantics Lab meets once or twice a month, bringing together students, faculty, postdocs and visitors to discuss works in progress.

Primary Faculty

Tonia Bleam

Senior Lecturer, Linguistics

1401 E Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4930

Norbert Hornstein

Professor Emeritus, Linguistics

3416 G Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4932

Howard Lasnik

Distinguished University Professor, Linguistics

1106 Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4929

Maria Polinsky

Professor, Linguistics

1417A Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

Omer Preminger

Associate Professor, Linguistics

1413 B Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

Juan Uriagereka

Professor, Linguistics
Director, School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures

Secondary Faculty

Valentine Hacquard

Professor, Linguistics
Affliliate Professor, Philosophy

1401 F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4935

Jeffrey Lidz

Professor, Linguistics

1413 Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-8220

Colin Phillips

Professor, Linguistics

1413F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-3082

Alexander Williams

Associate Professor, Linguistics
Associate Professor, Philosophy

1401 D Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-1607

Eighteen-month-old infants represent nonlocal syntactic dependencies

Evidence that 18-month olds already represent filler-gap dependencies.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Laurel Perkins *19 (UCLA)
Dates:

The human ability to produce and understand an indefinite number of sentences is driven by syntax, a cognitive system that can combine a finite number of primitive linguistic elements to build arbitrarily complex expressions. The expressive power of syntax comes in part from its ability to encode potentially unbounded dependencies over abstract structural configurations. How does such a system develop in human minds? We show that 18-mo-old infants are capable of representing abstract nonlocal dependencies, suggesting that a core property of syntax emerges early in development. Our test case is English wh-questions, in which a fronted wh-phrase can act as the argument of a verb at a distance (e.g., What did the chef burn?). Whereas prior work has focused on infants’ interpretations of these questions, we introduce a test to probe their underlying syntactic representations, independent of meaning. We ask when infants know that an object wh-phrase and a local object of a verb cannot co-occur because they both express the same argument relation (e.g., *What did the chef burn the pizza). We find that 1) 18 mo olds demonstrate awareness of this complementary distribution pattern and thus represent the nonlocal grammatical dependency between the wh-phrase and the verb, but 2) younger infants do not. These results suggest that the second year of life is a period of active syntactic development, during which the computational capacities for representing nonlocal syntactic dependencies become evident.

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Comment on “Nonadjacent dependency processing in monkeys, apes, and humans”

Auditory pattern recognition in nonhuman animals shares important characteristics with human phonology, but not human syntax.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): William Idsardi
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Jonathan Rawsi (Stony Brook), Jeffrey Heinz (Stony Brook)
Dates:

We comment on the technical interpretation of the study of Watson et al. and caution against their conclusion that the behavioral evidence in their experiments points to nonhuman animals’ ability to learn syntactic dependencies, because their results are also consistent with the learning of phonological dependencies in human languages.

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Japanese children's knowledge of the locality of "zibun" and "kare"

Initial errors in the acquisition of the Japanese local- or long-distance anaphor "zibun."

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz, Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Naho Orita *15, Hajime Ono *06
Dates:

Although the Japanese reflexive zibun can be bound both locally and across clause boundaries, the third-person pronoun kare cannot take a local antecedent. These are properties that children need to learn about their language, but we show that the direct evidence of the binding possibilities of zibun is sparse and the evidence of kare is absent in speech to children, leading us to ask about children’s knowledge. We show that children, unlike adults, incorrectly reject the long-distance antecedent for zibun, and while being able to access this antecedent for a non-local pronoun kare, they consistently reject the local antecedent for this pronoun. These results suggest that children’s lack of matrix readings for zibun is not due to their understanding of discourse context but the properties of their language understanding.

Read More about Japanese children's knowledge of the locality of "zibun" and "kare"