Re: Parameter Setting

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Thu May 16 1996 - 17:25:21 BST

> From: "Chalmers Jennifer" <>
> Date: Thu, 16 May 1996 13:37:19 GMT
> You spoke of parameter settings as being pro-drop (dropping the
> pronoun) as in Spanish and Italian. I understand that parameter
> settings can also include word order as in Finnish. Are there any
> others?

There are other parameters. For example, some languages ask questions
with the "Wh-" at the beginning: "Why did you want to know that?"
Others (like Chinese) say "*You want to know this why?"

But let me also add that Chomskyan Linguistics is in a very rapid period
of theory evolution right now. It has undergone 4 major revisions since
Chomsky's seminal work in the 50s, and each revolution has been largely
the work of Chomsky himself. (The original theory was
Generative/Transformational theory, then came Government/Binding,
Theory, then Principles/Parameters Theory, and now "Minimalism," in which
parameters are replaced by a somewhat different mechanism). UG remains
largely intact, though, and so does the "poverty of the stimulus," the
unlearnability of UG from the data the child gets, and that's the heart
of the theory.)

Steve Pinker's chapter does a beautiful job of explaining the basics.
Below is a sample. To read the rest, go to:

Pinker: Section 9.3 Parameter-Setting and the Subset Principle

    "A striking discovery of modern generative grammar is that natural
    languages seem to be built on the same basic plan. Many differences
    among languages represent not separate designs but different
    settings of a few "parameters" that allow languages to vary, or
    different choices of rule types from a fairly small inventory of
    possibilities. The notion of a "parameter" is borrowed from
    mathematics. For example, all of the equations of the form "y = 3x
    + b," when graphed, correspond to a family of parallel lines with a
    slope of 3; the parameter b takes on a different value for each
    line, and corresponds to how high or low it is on the graph.
    Similarly, languages may have parameters...

    "For example, all languages in some sense have subjects, but there
    is a parameter corresponding to whether a language allows the
    speaker to omit the subject in a tensed sentence with an inflected
    verb. This "null subject" parameter (sometimes called "PRO-drop")
    is set to "off" in English and "on" in Spanish and Italian
    (Chomsky, 1981). In English, one can't say Goes to the store, but
    in Spanish, one can say the equivalent. The reason this difference
    is a "parameter" rather than an isolated fact is that it predicts a
    variety of more subtle linguistic facts. For example, in null
    subject languages, one can also use sentences like Who do you think
    that left? and Ate John the apple, which are ungrammatical in
    English. This is because the rules of a grammar interact tightly;
    if one thing changes, it will have series of cascading effects
    throughout the grammar. (For example, Who do you think that left?
    is ungrammatical in English because the surface subject of left is
    an inaudible "trace" left behind when the underlying subject, who,
    was moved to the front of the sentence. For reasons we need not
    cover here, a trace cannot appear after a word like that, so its
    presence taints the sentence. Recall that in Spanish, one can
    delete subjects. Therefore, one can delete the trace subject of
    left, just like any other subject (yes, one can "delete" a mental
    symbol even it would have made no sound to begin with). The
    trace is no longer there, so the principle that disallows a trace in
    that position is no longer violated, and the sentence sounds fine
    in Spanish."

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