Learning Argument Structure Generalizations

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Learning Argument Structure Generalizations*

Adele E. Goldberg

University of Illinois

Nitya Sethuraman

University of California, San Diego

Devin M. Casenhiser

University of Illinois

August 1, 2018

General correlations between form and meaning at the level of argument structure patterns have often been assumed to be innate. Claims of innateness typically rest on the idea that the input is not rich enough for general learning strategies to yield the required representations. The present work demonstrates that the semantics associated with argument structure generalizations can indeed be learned, given the nature of the input and an understanding of general categorization strategies. It is well-established that (non-linguistic) categorization is driven by a functional demand for prediction and is sensitive to frequency and order of acquisition effects. The same elements are argued to account for how semantic generalizations about argument structure constructions can be learned from the input. Furthermore, one particular verb is found to account for the lion’s share of instances of each argument frame considered in an extensive corpus study of children’s and mothers’ speech, and it is suggested that this high frequency aids learners in initially determining the meaning associated with argument structure patterns.

  1. Introduction

For some time, linguists have observed that within a given langauge, there exist certain formal patterns that correlate strongly with the meaning of the utterance in which they appear. Such correlations between form and meaning have been variously described as linking rules projected from the main verb’s specifications (e.g.,Bresnan & Kanerva, 1989; Davis, 1996; Dowty, 1991; Grimshaw, 1990; Jackendoff, 1983), as lexical templates overlain on specific verbs (Hovav & Levin, 1998), or as phrasal form and meaning correspondences ( constructions) that exist independently of particular verbs (Goldberg, 1995; Jackendoff, to appear). The present paper adopts constructional terminology, but the ideas within this paper are not exclusive to a constructionist account. Those who favor one of the other terminologies mentioned need only construe this account as a proposal as to how children can learn linking rules or learn the semantics associated with various lexical templates on the basis of the input. A partial list of correlations that exist between form and meaning (lexical templates, combination of linking rules, constructions) is provided in Table :

Construction Label/Example



1. Intr. motion (VL)

X moves to Y

Subj V Oblique

The fly buzzed into the room.

2. Caused-Motion (VOL)

X causes Y to move Z

Subj V Obj Obl

Pat sneezed the foam off the cappuccino.

3. Resultative (VOR)

X causes Y to move Z

Subj V Obj Obl

She kissed him unconscious.

4. Double Object (VOO)

X causes Y to become Z

Subj V Obj XComp

Pat faxed Bill the letter.

Table . Examples of Correlations Between Form and Meaning

We argue that the input provides more than adequate means by which learners can induce the association of meaning with argument structure patterns. In particular, well-established categorization strategies apply straightforwardly to this domain. We observe that categorization is known to be driven by a functional demand for prediction and that it is sensitive to frequency and order of acquisition effects. We discuss how these same elements can be used to explain how the constructional association of meaning with particular patterns is learned. The present work contributes to the growing literature that indicates that the nature and properties of categories of language are the outcome of general categorization strategies {see also e.g.,\Taylor, 1995 #134; Bybee, 1983 #32; Bybee, 1982 #31; Jackendoff, to appear #78; Lakoff, 1987 #83}.

A different way to account for the association of meanings with particular forms would be to claim that the association is innate (Gleitman, 1994; Grimshaw, 1990, ; Pinker, 1984, 1989, 1994). This claim generally rests on the idea that the input is not rich enough for the relevant generalizations to be learned (Chomsky, 1980, 1988; Pinker, 1994). This view of learning a grammar can be likened to customizing a software package: everything is there, and the learner simply selects the parameters that are appropriate for his environment (Jackendoff, to appear, Chapter 7). Many have criticized this approach for its biological implausability (Bates & Goodman, 1998; Deacon, 1997; Elman et al., 1996; Sampson, 1997). Moreoever, there have been virtually no successful proposals for what any specific aspect of the parameters might look like (Ackerman & Webelhuth, 1988; Culicover, 1999; Jackendoff, to appear; Newmeyer, 1998).

Before we discuss our corpus findings, we review evidence that children learn the associations of meanings with forms on two levels. The first involves the acquisition of verb-centered categories whereby children conservatively produce syntactic patterns on a verb-by-verb basis (Akhtar & Tomasello, 1997; Baker, 1979; Bates & MacWhinney, 1987; Bowerman, 1982; Braine, 1976; Brooks & Tomasello, 1999; Gropen, Pinker, Hollander, Goldberg, & Wilson, 1989; Ingram & Thompson, 1996; Lieven, Pine, & Baldwin, 1997; MacWhinney, 1982; Olguin & Tomasello, 1993; Schlesinger, 1982; Tomasello, 1992). Ultimately, however, generalizations over specific verbs are made, forming speakers’ knowledge of argument structure patterns (Akhtar, 1999; Bowerman, 1982; Brooks & Tomasello, 1999). We aim to account for the existence of these two levels by addressing the questions of how and why learners make the generalizations they do. But before learners are able to form any type of semantic generalization about argument structure, either at the level of the verb or at the level of the construction, they need to have some rough understanding of individual sentence-level utterances. We speculate in the following section that general Gricean principles and non-linguistic context play a critical role. In subsequent sections we return to the main questions this paper aims to address: why should verbs so often be the basis of initial clause-level categorization? and, why and how are children ultimately led to generalize to the level of the construction?

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