Inf1 CogSci 2012: Lecture 8: The Broken Telephone

Mark McConville
Henry S. Thompson
2 February 2012
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1. Summary of English verb inflection

English inflection is very simple.

Therefore, we can posit just one rule capturing all English verb inflection:

The stems and suffixes themselves are stored in, and retrieved from, the mental lexicon.

2. Recap: Words and rules

Human language appears to involve two different kinds of "mental tissue":

Evidence for this dichotomy comes from the contrast between regular and irregular past tense formation in English:

These two methods of past tense formation work together to yield a system which is:

3. Recap: Dissection by linguistics

Language is modular:

lexicon/morphology/syntax/phonology/semantics diagram
Reproduced under fair use
Copyright © 1999 Stephen Pinker

There are (at least) three kinds of rule:

4. Irregular verbs and broken telephones

All irregular past tense verb forms used to be regular!

However: the process of language acquisition by children has slightly imperfect fidelity:

Hypothesis:For any irregular past tense form in Modern English, some past generation of English speakers must have failed to grasp the relevant rule

Once a past tense form has been stored as a word, it can subsequently pick up more and more idiosyncracies

5. Example from plural inflection

Why is the plural form of "foot" not "foots" but rather "feet"?

In Old English, this was a regular plural, formed using the suffix [i]

Like all Germanic languages, Old English had a phonological rule called Umlaut:

By Middle English, people had started to drop unstressed final syllables consisting of a solitary vowel:

I use ==> rather than => to denote diachronic change

Finally, the Great Vowel Shift changed all [o]'s into [u]'s and all [e]'s into [i]'s

6. Vowel shortening in irregular verb forms

Why is the past tense form of the verb "keep" not "keeped" but rather "kept"?

Similar examples:

Again, these verbs used to all be regular.

During the Middle English period, many stems containing long vowels were shortened when suffixes were added:

This also applied to many hitherto regular past tense verb forms, rendering them eventually irregular:

7. Strong verbs

All the irregular verbs discussed so far started out as regular verbs in Old English

The "strong" verbs are different:

But they were regular verbs in Proto-Indo-European!

8. Proto-Indo-European

PIE was probably spoken in southern Russia (or eastern Turkey?) over 6000 years ago.

The earliest known ancestral language of English

PIE has been reconstructed by historical linguists by means of the "comparative method"

9. Conclusion

All the verbs which are currently irregular in English used to be regular:

This explains why there appear to be patterns in irregular past tense inflections.

Irregular past tense forms are stored in the lexicon as words, independent of the verb's base form.

The longer a verb has been irregular in English, the more likely its past tense form will have picked up lexical idiosyncracies.

10. Recap: Words, rules and irregular verbs

We now have a very simple theory of English past tense verb inflection:

This theory has many advantages:

However, the simple theory also has important deficiencies.

11. Irregular inflection is semi-systematic

We have seen that English past tense inflection is shot through with patterns:

i.e. Suppletion (e.g. go-went) is the exception rather than the rule.

We have seen that these patterns are the fossils of rules that lived in the minds of Old English or PIE speakers, but are now extinct.

But: there is also evidence to suggest that these patterns are represented, in some way, in the minds of modern-day English speakers.

12. Diachronic evidence

Since Old English, some verbs have switched from being regular to being irregular:

Some verbs that entered the language after the time of Old English were seduced into strong verb classes, rather than receiving regular inflection:

Some verbs switched from one strong verb class to another:

Some verbs switched from being regular to being "weakly" irregular:

Moreover, some of these developments occurred relatively recently, i.e. in the 19th century:

13. Evidence from children

Young children occasionally over-generalise irregular past tense inflection:

In experimental recordings, 8 out of 9 children make at least one error of this kind.

Children make this kind of error well into their school-age years.

Children have never heard adults using past tense forms like "swang" or "shuck"

14. The moral

Irregular verbs cannot simply be memorised by rote

Thus, the distinction between regular and irregular inflection, and hence between words and rules, is not so clear anymore.

There are two obvious ways of resolving this paradox:

The first approach is associated with Chomsky and Halle's generative phonology.

The second with Rumelhart and McClelland's parallel distributed processing (or "connectionism").

15. Rationalism versus empiricism

The distinction between generative phonology and PDP is a recent development in a 500 year old philosophical debate about the nature of the human mind.

Rationalism - intelligence arises from the manipulation of symbols by rules

Empiricism - intelligence arises from the mind connecting together things that were experienced together or that look alike

Can the study of regular and irregular past tense inflection in English resolve one of the most important controversies in philosophy?

16. Admin

Chapters 3 and 4 of Pinker have a lot of detail on all of this: read them!