Principles, parameters and probabilities

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter discusses three kinds of linguistic knowledge that pose a challenge to experience-based accounts of language development. The examples are based on the principles and Parameters framework of generative-transformational grammar. We discuss relevant findings on child language reported in the literature. First, it has been found that children converge on linguistic principles which prevent errors from occurring that would otherwise be expected if children were basing their hypotheses on the probabilistic nature of the input (e.g., the constraint prohibiting contraction across a wh-trace). Second, children sometimes adopt parameter values for which there is no decisive input (e.g., the medial-wh phenomenon and inversion in why-questions). Third, children’s recovery from such ‘incorrect’ parameter settings (for which there had been no decisive input) is sometimes too sudden to be accounted for by statistically-based learning mechanisms; an example is a parameter that dictates the placement of negation in combination with verbal morphology. These findings suggest that at least some aspects of children’s emerging linguistic competence resist explanation on experience-based accounts of language learning.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrequency effects in language acquisition
Subtitle of host publicationdefining the limits of frequency as an explanatory concept
EditorsInsa Gülzow, Natalia Gagarina
Place of PublicationBerlin ; New York
PublisherDe Gruyter
ISBN (Print)9783110196719
Publication statusPublished - 2007

Publication series

NameStudies on language acquisition
PublisherMouton de Gruyter
ISSN (Print)1861-4284

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    Thornton, R., Crain, S., & Tesan, G. (2007). Principles, parameters and probabilities. In I. Gülzow, & N. Gagarina (Eds.), Frequency effects in language acquisition: defining the limits of frequency as an explanatory concept (pp. 359-379). (Studies on language acquisition; Vol. 32). Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.