Re: Parameter Setting

From: Herheim Aaste (
Date: Sun May 26 1996 - 15:46:14 BST

What is parameter setting"

In trying to explain the universality and rapidity of
language acquisition, the notion of parameter setting offers
one explanation to why we know how to generate grammatically
correct language in numerous different cases without having
had to memorise them or even heard them before. Parameters
corresponds to certain general features of languages and
have a wide effect on the grammatical climate. A classical
example is the pro-drop or null subject parameter that
determines whether it is correct to drop the subject in a


English: I love you (subject-verb-object)

Spanish: Te Quiero (object-(conjugated)verb)
(you love)

In Spanish, the verb is conjugated so that you know who
loves just by looking at the ending (the -o in present) ,
and this makes it perfectly sensible to omit the subject. So
the null-subject parameter is set to on in Spanish, and
off in English ( It would not be grammatically correct to
say love you or you love) Because grammatical rules in a
language interact so tightly, the null-subject parameter
implies a subset of other grammatical features or rules:


English: Who do you think phoned?

Spanish: Quien piensas QUE llamaba?
(Who (do you) think THAT phoned?)

Adding "that" to the sentence is incorrect in English
because the null-subject parameter does not allow dropping
the subject, whereas it makes the sentence correct in
Spanish. (I am not going to explain why, but this subset
rule interacts with the null-subject parameter.)
There are also other parameters like the word order
parameter that corresponds to how free the word-order is
allowed to be: German the verb usually comes last,
the Scandinavian languages have a less strict word order
than English, and in the Aborigine language Warlpiri, word
order within a clause is almost totally free (meaning there
are no or few rules for the order of subject, verbs and

The most important part of the parameter setting theory is
to understand how the very nature of our language
acquisition offers a lot of short-cuts. When learning
languages, we dont need to know every grammatical rule
because we assume that a language takes a certain subset
of grammatical rules once we have the parameters sorted out:
When I learned Spanish, it seemed natural to me to add the
that to the sentence in the example (above) , even though it
is ungrammatical in my own language (which is not a
pro-drop language).
Thinking about the vast number of possible combinations of
words and tenses, it seems impossible to acquire language by
memorising input alone. The parameter setting theory lends
an explanation to this.

Aaste Herheim

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