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Academic Paper


Title: Myths and the prehistory of grammars
Author: David W Lightfoot
Email: click here TO access email
Institution: Georgetown University
Linguistic Field: Syntax
Abstract: Only a small number of the world's languages have any kind of recorded
history over more than a few generations, and in no case do records go back
more than a few thousand years. From some perspectives, this doesn't
matter. There are plenty of grammars to write and plenty of changes to
describe accurately and then to explain in these recorded histories.
Explanations for structural changes may be grounded in grammatical theory,
and careful examination of historical changes, where the goal is explanation
for how and why they happened, sometimes leads to innovations in
grammatical theory, illuminating the nature of grammatical categories or the
conditions for movement operations, for example. That has been the focus
of some work on language change and data from changes have been used to
argue for claims not only about grammatical theory but also about language
acquisition, that children learn only from simple structures (DEGREE-0
COMPLEX) and that acquisition is cue-based (Lightfoot 1991, 1999). That is
not to say, of course, that these propositions could not have been based on
other kinds of data, but the fact is that they were based on analyses of
historical change. From analyses of historical changes, we have learned
things about the nature of the language faculty and about how it develops in
children, unhampered by the limited inventory of changes.

CUP AT LINGUIST

This article appears IN Journal of Linguistics Vol. 38, Issue 1, which you can READ on Cambridge's site .



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