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Use of Conlang to test Language Universals

From:John H. Chalmers <jhchalmers@...>
Date:Wednesday, February 4, 2009, 20:41
Lingua 91 (1993) 279-347. North-Holland 279
Learning the impossible :
The acquisition of possible and
impossible languages by a polyglot savant
Neil V. Smith,” Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli,b and Jamal Ouhalla”
’ Department of Phonetics and Linguistics. University College London,
Gower Street, London
b Department of English Language, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
’ Department of Hispanic Studies, Queen Mary & Westfield College, Mile
End Road, London El
Received March 1993

We report on the case of a polyglot savant (Christopher) who has a
remarkable talent for
learning and translating languages. Building on previous work which had
established both the
range of languages at Christopher’s command and the extent to which his
linguistic knowledge
was integrated into his cognitive ability, we taught him two new
languages for which we
controlled the input. We had two main aims: the first was to test the
hypothesis (within one
version of the Principles and Parameters framework) that parameter
resetting is not an option
available to the second language learner; the second was to accrue
further evidence for or against
Fodor’s modularity hypothesis and cast light on the possible range of
interactions between
linguistic and ‘central’ cognitive processes. The languages chosen were
Berber, an Afro-Asiatic
language spoken in North Africa, and Epun, an invented language
deliberately devised to contain
constructions which violated universal grammatical principles. In
Christopher’s acquisition of
Berber we gleaned evidence from a variety of phenomena, including word
order, null subjects,
f/rat-trace effects, wh-island violations and cliticisation, that his
learning was conditioned by a
combination of transfer effects from English and principles of UG,
rather than by the effect of
parameter resetting. In Christopher’s acquisition of Epun we began with
a core of ‘normal’
constructions, designed to make him feel at home in the new language,
and then proceeded to
investigate a range of impossible constructions, both
structure-dependent and structure-independent.
In the former case, we concentrated on negative sentences, constructed
with no overt
negative morpheme, and past-tense sentences which involve unattested and
putatively impossible
word-order differences, In the latter case, we concentrated on a rule of
emphasis that involved
counting words, and a form of agreement which again violated putatively
universal generahsations.
In each case we compared Christopher’s performance with that of a small
group of
controls. The results were complex, but we think we can justify an
interpretation which lends
support to both the main hypotheses being tested.


David J. Peterson <dedalvs@...>
And Rosta <and.rosta@...>