Home > Events > Dissertation defense: Nick Huang (LING)
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Dissertation defense: Nick Huang (LING)

Time: 
Friday, June 07, 2019 - 10:00 AM
Location: 
1108B Marie Mount Hall

 

Variation and learnability in constraints on wh-movement

Abstract: A classic problem in linguistics is explaining how learners come to know so much about their native languages, despite receiving limited and noisy input. This learning problem becomes especially acute when the linguistic properties in question are obscure and show subtle variation across languages. Cross-linguistic variation means that learners must identify the appropriate points of variation for their language, even though the direct evidence that they need is often hard to detect or even non-existent.

This dissertation presents two case studies on constraints in wh-movement. Because constraints are by nature abstract and difficult to observe directly, a classic solution to the learning problem posed by constraints claims that knowledge of these abstract or negative linguistic properties is innate. However, a number of these constraints appear to vary in subtle ways cross-linguistically, raising questions about learnability and how linguistic experience might (or might not) shape linguistic knowledge.

The first case study, discussed in chapters 2 and 3, involves cross-linguistic variation in the constraint that governs wh-movement from relative clauses: some, but not all, languages allow wh-movement from relative clauses under exceptional circumstances. I show that this particular variation presents a learnability problem: in some of these languages, learners have little direct positive evidence that such wh-movement is possible. I propose an indirect learning account to explain how they might circumvent this absence of direct positive evidence.

The second case study, discussed in chapter 4, involves bridge verbs: within a language, some verbs allow wh-movement and others do not; in addition, the set of verbs that allow wh-movement vary across languages. I present an acceptability judgment experiment that is aimed at clarifying existing generalizations about bridge verbs in English. With more secure generalizations in hand, I discuss the learning problems bridge verbs might present, and suggest that in some cases, learners might have some access to positive evidence. I discuss the learning biases that a learner might need to draw the language-appropriate conclusions based on limited positive evidence.

Chapter 5 discusses the consequences these case studies have for our formal accounts of these constraints. I evaluate existing proposals, and argue that the range of variation observed require more flexibility than what many existing proposals can offer. I suggest how existing devices, such as parameters and subcategorization restrictions, can be used to model the range of variation in constraints.

Chapter 6 concludes.