Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lack of data vs. Poverty of the stimulus

NewScientist recently published an article about the subconscious that included the following claim:
"Infants do not need tutoring to acquire their native language; they pick it up subconsciously. What's more they do this with remarkably little linguistic data - what the Harvard University linguist Noam Chomsky has called the "poverty of stimulus" - suggesting that this subconscious learning allows youngsters to use information very efficiently."

The nativist language acquisition argument from the "poverty of the stimulus" seems as though it may have been misconstrued. It is not a quantitative argument but a qualitative one. Miller and Chomsky claimed in 1963 that children's input included many grammatical errors and disfluencies. How were children to discover which input to attend to and which input to ignore?

More recent arguments suggest that, errors aside, given the lack of negative evidence, it is hard to see how children could learn what is ungrammatical. We have evidence for children overapplying rules such as regular past tense endings. Given that, it would be logical to assume they would overapply other patterns such as the following:

  • She sent a letter to him. / she sent him a letter.
  • She explained the letter to him. / *She explained him the letter.

Without evidence that this last construction is not possible, the 'poverty of the stimulus' argument goes, how are children to know that they merely have not yet heard it?

The idea that children simply don't get enough input, however, is odd. Research suggests that average North American children get somewhere in the range of 26 million (plus or minus many million) words of input in their first four years of life. It's hard to see how this can be called "remarkably little linguistic data."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

(det) hijab

What with the tragic filicide of Aqsa Parvezes, the word hijab has been much in the news. What I noticed that I had not before is that it is almost always the hijab, as in "she was killed over her refusal to wear the hijab." The OED cites the following instances:
"1980 Associated Press Newswire (Nexis) 15 July, She said the wearing of the hijab, or veil, is a matter of choice. 1985 Times 5 Jan. 8/3 Every woman on the street wears either the traditional chador..or the more practical hijab, a dark scarf pulled over the forehead. 1994 J. I. SMITH in A. Sharma Today's Woman in World Relig. 306 Many Egyptians who do not adopt the higab are deeply respectful of those who do. 1995 New Yorker 30 Jan. 60/3 A young girl..who was dressed in a black djellabah and wearing the traditional head scarf, or hijab. 2005 Asiana Spring 278/1 (heading) Wearing a hijab is no barrier to success."

Notice that only the last one makes the unmarked choice of a instead of the. This suggests that it is a symbol rather than merely a piece of clothing. Other somewhat analogous items include: veil, burka, turban, kirpan, cross, and robes of office.

Unfortunately, none of these is entirely satisfactory. For a nun, taking up the veil, entails more than simply wearing it. To a certain extent, the same could be said for hijab, but once a nun takes up the veil, it doesn't matter whether or not she is actually wearing it at a given time. As this story shows, the same is not true of hijab. Also, burka and hijab should, theoretically, pattern identically, but they don't. Although the OED has examples such as, "1929 Daily Express 15 Jan. 1/1 The Queen [of Afghanistan] is wearing the boorka--a heavy shapeless garment which effectually hides her beauty," current usage seems to favour "a burka". Here are the counts from the Google news archive:




With turban, we find 4,540 for the vs. 12,800 for a. And kirpan is almost in a dead heat.

Clearly this data is very muddy, but I think it is at least suggestive that there is something different going on with hijab.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Past tense cut in US schools. Is Canada next?

With American schools cutting the past tense from the language curricula, it can't be long before Conservative provinces in Canada follow suit.