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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Ken Arneson

It's interesting to note that there are often relics of evolution in the stages of child development (e.g. human embryos have gills and tails at an early point). These three stages--a one-word stage, a two-word stage, and then a sudden leap into full adult syntax--also appear in human child development. It seems reasonable to speculate that we each develop through those particular stages in order, because we evolved through those stages in order.
BLOGGER: Although this is a reasonable speculation, we will need careful empirical data before embracing it. But at least now we have a good question to ask.


While I don't think it is consensus that all sentences start with a small clause, most syntacticians would not consider it an outrageous assumption. There is good evidence that many sentences begin with small clauses; they are certainly accepted as one of the species in our linguistic kingdom.

But there is little here to support a gradual evolution of the properties of syntax other than the three stages you note: no syntax, two-word syntax, and full-fledged syntax. The gap between the second two still looks huge.

What Chomsky and others have suggested is that we get from stage two to three with one simple adaptation: recursion. We go from being able to merge two elements (two-word stage) to be able to merge two elements and then merge the object formed of those two elements to a third element (and so on). It is a plausible scenario that the other properties we get: syntactic case, movement, agreement, etc. could be the result of this one adaptation. Take movement, e.g., Chomsky has argued that if you have a productive operation of merging objects together, you can also merge an object that has already been merged (what he called 'internal merge'). So you could merge a wh-phrase like 'why' at the front of the clause even after it has been merged down at the base of the clause. This yields the property of movement and it comes 'for free' with the adaptation of productive merging. Case and agreement systems might then have emerged (perhaps very quickly) as a response to the presence of movement in syntax. After all, if you can move things out of where they should be, you need a way of tracking their movements. This is one of the things that case and agreement do.

Nice post.


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