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In the language acquisition thread we talked about Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar. Here's an example that demonstrates the problem (from Lightbown and Spada's How Languages are Learned). In these sentences, italicized nouns refer to each other, and an asterisk represents an ungrammatical sentence.

a John saw himself.
b *Himself saw John.

Since b is ungrammatical, we conclude that the reflexive pronoun must follow its referent. But c disproves this:

c Looking after himself bores John.

We might conclude from these sentences that the noun closest to the reflexive pronoun is the antecedent:

d John said that Fred liked himself.
e *John said that Fred liked himself.
f John told Bill to wash himself.
g *John told Bill to wash himself.

But h disproves this:

h John promised Bill to wash himself.

And the reflexive pronoun does not have to be in the same clause, as shown in h. The reflexive can be in subject position in i but not in j:

i John believes himself to be intelligent.
j *John believes that himself is intelligent.

And the reflexive can refer to more than one antecedent:

k John showed Bill a picture of himself.

Generative grammarians use something called c-command to explain this data (assuming this data is accurate). I won't get into it but it involves nodes in the sentence diagram, and which nodes are commanding other nodes. The point is that this system is very complex.

The argument is that such a complicated system cannot be learned just by imitation and practice. Most school age children have mastered this system, and can distinguish between the grammatical and the ungrammatical sentences, even though no one has explained it to them. They might have heard ungrammatical sentences along with grammatical ones, or maybe they never hear certain sentences at all, but they somehow learn which is which. No one tells them "don't say 'John said that Fred liked himself' - reflexives must be c-commanded by their antecendents!"

Using examples like this, Chomsky argued that we are innately endowed with a template, called Universal Grammar, that prevents the child from pursuing wrong hypotheses about how the language works.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: goofy,
 
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