Re: Parameter Setting

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Thu Jun 06 1996 - 21:52:47 BST

> Date: Sun, 26 May 1996 14:46:14 GMT
> From: "Herheim Aaste" <>
> 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
> sentence:

Correct, but remember that the parameters are like "dial settings" on a
much more complex structure, Universal Grammar (UG), which we all have
in our heads, it seems, at birth: we don't lear UG. We just learn which
particular parametric variant of UG we happen to be speaking: We don't
learn how the radio works; we just learn which station we happen to be
tuned to...

> Example:
> 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:
> Example:
> 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
> objects).
> 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:

But we DO need to "know" UG, otherwise the parameters would be no help;
indeed they are parameters OF UG.

> 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.

Good response, and nearly an A: For that you need to sort out the
relation of parameter setting to UG, the poverty of the stimulus, the
lack of negative evidence, hence the unlearnability of UG...

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