The Acquisition of Syntactic Structure: Animacy and Thematic Alignment

The Acquisition of Syntactic StructurePost written by author Misha Becker discussing her recently published book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘.

Young children are fascinated by animals and captivated when inanimate things are made to come alive. Is there some way their understanding of the difference between “alive” and “not alive” can help them learn language?

In this book I explain a well-known puzzle in linguistic theory by arguing just that. Children expect the sentence subject (often the “do-er” of an action) to be animate, alive. So when they encounter a sentence where the subject is the rock or the house they are led to revise their understanding of the sentence to create a more complex underlying structure. This is what helps them understand the difference between a sentence like The house is easy to see, where the house is the thing being seen, and The girl is eager to see, where the girl is (or will be) doing the seeing. If you didn’t know the meaning of easy or eager, as very young children will not, how would you interpret these sentences? Imagine you hear a sentence like The girl/house is daxy to see. Does it matter whether the subject is girl or house in your guess about what daxy means, and in your interpretation of the seeing event?

I came to the idea for this book when I noticed how strongly adult speakers were influenced by animacy when I tried to make them think of certain abstract structures. When presented with “The girl ____ to be tall” people were more likely to write a verb like want or claim in the blank, but presented with “The mountain ____ to be tall” they were more likely to write seem or appear. Yet the underlying structure of the sentence differs, depending on whether the sentence contains want/claim or seem/appear. In linguistic parliance, the subject of seem/appear is “derived”–it doesn’t really belong, thematically, to the verb, and in this sense the structure is more abstract and complex. It occurred to me that if adults were so strongly influenced by animate vs. inanimate subjects, then children might be as well.

This book describes numerous studies with children showing how the fundamental distinction between alive and not-alive interacts with their understanding of language and the world around them. But it also examines other facets of the animacy distinction with regard to language: how languages around the world place restrictions on animate and inanimate sentence subjects, how adults use animacy in their understanding of sentence structure, how and when babies first begin to represent the concept of animacy, and how computational models can be developed to simulate the use of a distinction like animacy in language learning. The final chapter of the book address the timeless question of where this understanding comes from–is the concept of animacy innate or learned, or both?

Find out more on Misha Becker’s new book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘. published by Cambridge University Press.

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