LINGUIST List 9.844

Sat Jun 6 1998

Disc: Hypotaxis

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Marilyn Silva, Disc: Hypotaxis

Message 1: Disc: Hypotaxis

Date: Tue, 2 Jun 1998 12:25:28 -0700 (PDT)
From: Marilyn Silva <>
Subject: Disc: Hypotaxis

In the ongoing discussion on hypotaxis, Benji Wald introduces some
interesting material on the emergence of hypotaxis in child language
by referencing the 1976 debate between Piaget and Chomsky:

> The issue from which the discussion of 'hypotaxis' arises here
> emerges from Sampson's attempted criticism of one of Chomsky's
> 'innateness' arguments, in this case the innateness of certain
> processes in complex syntax. I remember that in his 1976 debate with
> Piaget, Chomsky used the sentence:
> is the man who is tall sad?
> as a crucial argument against a Piagetian or 'generalised
> intelligence' account of learning complex syntax. He insisted that
> on the basis of such examples as: 
> the man is tall -- is the man tall?
> the "simplest" hypothesis that a child could come up with to acquire
> question formation of
> the man who is tall is sad
> would be: move the *first* verb to the beginning of the sentence,
> hence,
> ****is the man who tall is sad?
> He crucially claimed that no child ever goes through such a stage in
> learning English, and therefore a child is 'innately' programmed to
> somehow recognise the proper analysis of the inversion underlying
> question formation (that its domain involves the 'highest' = largest
> NP, not the first NP).

Indeed, in my studies of subordination in child language development,
I have never found such errors made by children. But that alone does
not mean that children are making the kinds of analysis Chomsky
contends. As Wald points out a bit later in his posting, children have
not been observed to produce relative clauses within the subject
NP. That is, relative clauses, when they occur, typically occur at the
ends of sentences, with the result that early subordination is
actually more of a paratactic than hypotactic strategy. Thus, my
daughter produced her first relative clause at about 19 mos.: "That a
man that wear a hat." I should note that as was typical for her and
for others I have observed, studied, or read about, she did not
produce another such construction for many more months. You will also
notice that the copula is missing from her utterance, a fact that
could have been predicted from Roger Brown's (1973) study of the
acquisition of grammatical morphemes. Copulas are omitted until rather
late in acquisition, suggesting again that Chomsky's example is rather
worthless as evidence one way or the other because English-speaking
children don't produce them, at least at first.

Wald continues his points with the following: 

>(L2 learners also do this.) I omit the interplay of inflection with
>inversion as less relevant, though, of course, it is only because
>they have acquired inflection that we can see the pleonasm when there
>is a 'real' verb (cf. 'did he went there?'). So, I wonder, do we get
>intermediateexamples like:
> *is* the man who is tall *is* he (is) sad?
> *did* the man who is tall *did* he cry (+ed)?

Though young children typically do not produce the copula and
therefore do not prepose it, I did find that my daughter was able to
"prepose" the *do* auxiliary, but lest my statement lead you astray
into thinking that the relationship between her behavior and movement
was straightforward, let me state that she actually had two verbs
*do*--the auxiliary that was always sentence initial and the main verb
that was not. How do I know? She had two pronunciations: The
sentence-initial aux when produced in present tense, third person
singular, was always given its ordinary pronunciation [dz], which
happens to be one of three irregular 3rd sing present tense verbs in
the language. However, if *do* was used medially, which generally
means as a lexical verb (the evidence is that *don't*, which can of
course occur medially, is contracted and not recognized as two
morphemes, but as a variant of *not*), the 3rd sing present was
pronounced [duwz]. These data suggest a strategy in which
interrogative Y/N sentence types are largely formulaic, and not
derived from declaratives via movement. That is, because she
encountered *does* as sentence-intial in interrogatives, my daughter
learned the standard pronunciation for the word in initial position,
analgous perhaps to learning that wh- question words occur
initially. However, the lexical verb *do* was treated as an ordinary
verb, undergoing regular suffixation (though in the adult language it
is irregular).

So, in general, I'm suspicious of arguments about children preposing
the verb of the matrix clause and not the verb of the embedded
clause. The strategies that children use, it seems, bear little
resemblance to the hypotheses of formal linguistic theory.

> So, I'm asking those who study these things closely: How do these
> facets of complex syntax develop? And does that have a bearing on
> C's arguments? Did he pull a fast one on the non-linguists in his
> debate with Piaget (by implying that these things emerge immediately
> in their mature state rather than being built up from the
> acquisition of smaller pieces of grammar, something that might be
> more compatible with Piaget's graduality in "constructivism",
> leaving aside his specific proposals for stages in "generalised
> intelligence")? Or, does Chomsky's argument hold up no matter what
> the facts are? (As long as the facts are that they NEVER produce
> "is the man who tall is sad?" or "is the man who tall cried?") I
> oppose these considerations to both Chomsky's a priori innatism and
> Sampson's a priori empiricism.

I wouldn't go so far as to say "pull a fast one," but perhaps a
"facile" one. Not having studied language development, Chomsky was in
no position to make statements of the sort he did. However, given the
thrust of the theory at the time, Chomsky's rationalist approach
allowed no other explanations. The data he used were clear enough:
children don't make the sorts of errors that he said they didn't
make. But the question is: Is that enough to validate a position?

I suspect you know my answer to that question.

Marilyn Silva
California State University, Hayward
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