Cornell Cognitive Studies Symposium

Statistical Learning across Cognition

The Case of Cases and Word Order: The Effects of Case Systems and Word Order Patterns on Language Learnability.

Gary Lupyan
Cornell University


Previous work has shown that some linguistic universals can be learned by sequential-learning devices with no language-specific biases (e.g., Ellefson & Christiansen, 2000; Christiansen & Devlin, 1997; Van Everbroeck, 1999). Here, we conduct a series of connectionist simulations to examine the ways in which case markings and word order may function as cues for a sequential learning device acquiring syntactic structures. Our results are consistent with the view of "language as an organism" (e.g. Christiansen 1994). On this account, language universals may reflect non-linguistic, cognitive constraints on learning and processing of sequential structure, rather than constraints prescribed by an innate universal grammar. Languages which are easy to learn would proliferate, while those that are difficult to learn would die out, or never come into existence.

We hypothesized that the precise nature of syntactic cues (cases or strict word order) is unimportant. What is important is that there exist some reliable cues to indicate syntactic relationships. This hypothesis contrasts with the view espoused by proponents of an innate language acquisition device. For instance, according to the Subset Principle of generative linguistics children default to strict word-order when acquiring a language (Pinker, 1995) and therefore FWO languages are predicted to be more difficult to learn. The alternative hypothesis that we are advocating argues that children need not have innate linguistic predispositions to aid them in acquiring this aspect of language--the "who did what to whom" information can be gathered from the statistical regularities of a language.

The results of the simulations confirm out hypotheses and are strongly consistent with typological data concerning the frequencies with which different type of word order patterns occur across the languages of the world. Our model also accommodates patterns of syntactic development across several different languages. We conclude that non-linguistic constraints on general sequential-learning devices may help explain the relationship between case, word order, and learnability of individual languages.

--This is collaborative work with Morten Christiansen


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