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The Nature of Universal Grammar

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This course of lectures aims to look into the structure of the simple finite sentence, namely sentences that contain one single predication relation, the verb of which overtly carries a Tense marker. The theoretical perspective is the one offered by the Theory of Government and Binding, first synthesized by Chomsky in "Lectures on Government and Binding" (1981).

UG was defined by Chomsky (1976) as follows: "the system of principles, conditions and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages.... the essence of human language." The goal of UG is to provide a theory of grammar that should be able to offer a number of principles, a number of generalized statements which are valid cross-linguistically. The differences between languages are accounted for in terms of parameters, namely the different values that the principles have in different languages.


The Principle of Structure Dependency

Definition: language relies on structural relationships rather than on the linear sequence of items. Operations on sentences such as movement require knowledge of the structural relationships of the words rather than their linear sequence.

Evidence : Question formation

1. The letter will arrive tomorrow. Will the letter arrive tomorrow?

2. This is a dagger which I see before me. *A this a dagger which I see before me?

3. The man who is tall is John. *Is the man who tall is John?

Is the man who is tall John?

What moves in order to form a question in English is not the third or the fourth word in a sentence, but the auxiliary in the main clause, irrespective of whether it comes first or second in the sentence. Movement of the auxiliary depends on the knowledge of the structure of the language. English, like all human languages is structure-dependent.

The Projection Principle

The theory emphasizes the Lexicon and the fact that speakers know what each word in the language means, how it is pronounced and how it behaves syntactically. The syntactic description of the sentence and the lexical properties of each lexical item are integrated by the theory via the Projection Principle, which requires that syntax should accommodate the lexical specification of each lexical item.

4. Helen likes the French paintings.

*Helen likes.

5. Peter is working.

*Peter is working a chair.

Each lexical item has a lexical entry in the Lexicon which provides information about the phonological form of the item, its categorical status, and also about the theta roles (Agent, Patient, Theme, Experiencer) that item can assign.

6. like categorial information [+V, -N]

thematic structure [Experiencer, Theme]

[ ___NP]

7. work categorial information [+V, -N]

thematic structure [Agent]

[ ____ ]

Two types of selectional restrictions operate on the lexical item so as to define the subcategorization properties of the respective item - c-selection (categorial selection) and s-selection (semantic selection), which in fact are predictable from the thematic properties of the item. C-selection refers to the type of categorical phrase that is subcategorized by the item, while s-selection refers to the semantic properties of the phrase subcategorized by the respective item.

8. He brought a book to me. Bring [+V, -N]

thematic structure [Agent, Theme, Goal]

9. The earthquake brought disaster to Japan. Bring [+V, -N]

Thematic structure [Cause, Theme, Location]

So, the lexical entry is said to project onto syntax. The Projection Principle states that the lexical features of each item stored in the Lexicon are projected to the other levels. It is a universal of human language, as all languages integrate their syntactic features with their lexical entries.

The Principle of Endocentricity

One other important aspect of our study of the language is the way in which the elements are ordered in a language. The main assumption is that sentences may be broken up into constituent phrases that are in fact words grouped together round a head. The head is that word without which the respective phrase has no meaning. The phrase is in fact a projection round a head, it is endocentric. One important criterion to identify a phrase is the fact that the phrase and its head have the same distribution (appear in the same contexts).

10. [The London train NP] [arrived [at [platform five.NP]PP]VP]

One important parameter is the position occupied by the head in each language, because in all types of phrases in a language the head always occupies the same position, either on the left (first) or on the right (last). For instance, English is a head-left (head-initial) language, whereas Japanese is a head-right (head-last) language. The GB theory incorporates a particular theory of the structure of phrases, called X-bar syntax which expresses generalizations about the phrase structure of all human languages rather than features that are idiosyncratic to one language.

The Extended Projection Principle

It is another principle of UG that requires all sentences to have a subject. The problem is that the subject is not always overt even in the finite sentences. This is a variation between languages, a parameter called the Pro-drop Parameter. For instance, English is a non-pro-drop language, whereas Romanian is a pro-drop language.

11. pro este



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