- Language acquisition and the form of the grammar by David Lebeaux
David Lebeaux’s 1988 University of Massachusetts dissertation is an exciting and widely cited dissertation that took a (surprisingly) long time to reach publication. Given the time that has passed, some of the issues may not be equally clear to all readers, and there have been some theoretical developments too.
Because of this, L begins the book with a detailed ‘Preface’ (xiii–xxix) in which he frames the questions he originally set out to investigate. The big picture pursues ‘real answers to the question of how to structure a grammar’ (xiii). Answers L offers come from two angles, the role of acquisition (where grammar is arranged in ‘subgrammars’ and is constructed via derivational endpoints) and architectural proposals about the syntax. L assumes that the acquisition sequence and syntax are not independent of each other, but rather are ‘tightly yoked[: t]he acquisition sequence can be seen as the result of derivational steps or subsequences’ (xiii).
On the ‘pure syntax’ side, he offers three main proposals: First, L does consider phrase structure to be composed, but through the intermingling of units (not strictly bottom), with grammatical licensing along the way (not simply geometrical), and to involve the operation Project-α. He further proposes two specific composition operations, Adjoin-α (which adds adjuncts to the structure) and the aforementioned Project-α, ‘an absolutely new operation in the field [that] projects open class structure into a closed class frame, and constitutes the single most radical syntactic proposal of this book’ (xiv). Importantly, [End Page 810] L was one of the first to locate parametric variation in functional material, linking both composition operations and variation in the grammar to closed class elements. The preface serves to briefly outline each of L’s proposals and also puts them, quite usefully, into a ‘historical perspective’—not only by tying them in with more recent developments in the field (namely the minimalist program, in whose development L’s dissertation ‘played a major role’, xiv), but also by pointing out that the ideas contained in this book ‘warrant a renewed look by researchers in the field, for they have provocative implications for the treatment of language acquisition and the composition of phrase structure’, independent from (but certainly compatible with) minimalism.
The ‘Introduction’ (1–5) provides an overview of the book’s three major themes: (i) ‘closed class elements and finiteness’, (ii) ‘the relation of stages in acquisition to levels of grammatical representation’ (2), and (iii) ‘levels or precedence relations in the grammar’ (4). Ch. 1 is ‘A re-definition of the problem’ (7–29) of how language acquisition and grammatical research ought to be connected. Chs. 2–4 deal with phrase structure issues: ‘Project-α, argument- linking, and telegraphic speech’ (31–90) are discussed in Ch. 2; Ch. 3 deals with ‘Adjoin-α and relative clauses’ (91–144); and a discussion of ‘Agreement and merger’ (145–82) constitutes Ch. 4. In the final chapter, L turns to ‘The abrogation of DS functions: Dislocated constituents and indexing relations’ (183–258); this part ‘deals with the interaction of indexing functions, control and binding theory, with levels of representation, particularly as it is displayed in the acquisition sequence’ (1).
Given the pole position (in both formal approaches to language acquisition and the refining of grammatical theory) that L’s dissertation has held since the late 1980s, this book is a welcome publication, finally making this fine piece of work easily accessible to a wider audience. As far as I know, this is the third volume of the World theses series originally conceived by the now defunct Holland Academic Graphics. One can only hope that John Benjamins either continues publishing the originally selected dissertations or starts a new series along these same lines, something I’m sure many of us would be very happy with.