LINGUIST List 25.264

Wed Jan 15 2014

Diss: Pragmatics, Semantics, Language Acquisition: Tieu: 'Logic and Grammar in Child Language ...'

Editor for this issue: Xiyan Wang <>

Date: 14-Jan-2014
From: Lyn Tieu <>
Subject: Logic and Grammar in Child Language: How children acquire the semantics of polarity sensitivity
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Institution: University of Connecticut
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2013

Author: Lyn Tieu

Dissertation Title: Logic and Grammar in Child Language: How children acquire the semantics of polarity sensitivity

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Dissertation Director:
Diane Lillo-Martin
Jon Gajewski
William Snyder

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation examines the acquisition of a phenomenon that lies at the
interface of logic and grammar. Polarity-sensitive items (PSIs), including
negative polarity items (NPIs) such as English 'any', are often
characterized by their restricted distribution, and analyzed in terms of
their licensing condition (compare 'John doesn’t have any books', where
'any' is licensed by negation, with the unlicensed *'John has any books').
'Any' moreover oscillates between NPI uses and so-called ‘free choice’ uses
('John may choose any book'). While a small handful of previous acquisition
studies on English 'any' have targeted children’s knowledge of the
licensing condition, no previous study has systematically investigated
children’s knowledge of the complex underlying semantics of PSIs like
'any', let alone the question of how children are to reconcile the dual
nature of 'any'. The series of studies in this dissertation presents novel
evidence from experiments and corpora demonstrating that children have
incredibly sophisticated semantic knowledge of 'any', which includes the
ability to generate subdomain alternatives, to (pre-)exhaustify these
alternatives, to perform domain widening, and to compute so-called free
choice inferences. Yet samples of parental spontaneous production reveal
very little evidence that could inform the learner as to how to carry out
the semantic operations required for adult-like interpretation of 'any'. I
propose that the solution to this learning problem lies in innately
constraining the hypothesis space of PSI types. Such a restricted
hypothesis space is available to us in the form of a generative typology
put forth in Chierchia (2013), an analysis that derives the possible
classes of PSIs on the basis of free variation along two dimensions: the
kind of alternatives that the target PSI activates, and the mode of
exhaustification that factors the alternatives into meaning. On the
assumption that these two dimensions are innately specified, only a finite
set of PSI types can be generated; I discuss how the learner might use
'any'’s unique distributional properties in the input to map the string
'any' to the target PSI within the typology of restricted options.

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