The Verb Problem: About the Acquisition of Argument Structure

When:31 Oct 2017, 3pm - 4pm
Venue:Morven Brown 310
Who:Dr Loes Koring
Dr Loes Koring


Children need to work out that the class of intransitive verbs is partitioned into verbs for which the subject is an internal argument (unaccusatives (e.g., slip)) and verbs for which the subject is an external argument (unergatives (e.g., laugh, sparkle)) (Perlmutter 1978). Even though these verb types project different underlying structures, they give rise to the same surface N-V strings (in English for instance) (see (1)). As such, the set of intransitive verbs poses a learnability puzzle: how does the child figure out that the underlying structures for the surface strings in (1) are distinct (e.g. Reinhart 2000)? This is particularly pertinent in languages like English which lack morphological marking of unaccusativity and in which syntactic evidence for internal argument-hood is sparse.

(1a) the girl slipped (unaccusative)

(1b) the girl laughed (unergative)

(1c) the diamond sparkled (unergative)

In this talk, we will go over several experiments that show that children from the age of 2;6 already display subtle knowledge of verb classes. They differentiate between root types that take an internal argument and ones that do not, even when those roots are presented in the same (ungrammatical) functional (transitive) structure (e.g., I slipped a friend). This casts doubt on the view that verbs are stripped of all lexical content (e.g., Borer 2014). It rather seems that distinct root types exist in the lexicon (e.g., Reinhart 2016). In particular, minimally two different types: unaccusative roots that introduce an internal argument and unergative roots that do not.

About Dr Loes Koring

Dr Loes Koring is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Cognitive Science of Macquarie University. Prior to this appointment, she was a postdoctoral associate in the Linguistics and Philosophy Department of MIT. Her research is in language acquisition and language processing primarily. How are the computations we hypothesize reflected in processing and how can we best measure these reflexes? At the same time, she is interested in the question how these computations develop in the language-acquiring child. She uses both on-line (mainly eye-tracking) and off-line experimental methods to explore these questions. Her dissertation (April 2013, Utrecht University Linguistics) investigates processing of unaccusative vs. unergative verbs in adults and young children as well as the semantics, processing and acquisition of (evidential) raising constructions.

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