The three-year-old who thinks (perhaps out of Quinean scruples) that‘eating is acting’ is true but contingent will do just fine, so long as he’s prepared to allow that contingent truths canhave syntactic reflexes.

Jean-marc pizano The three-year-old who thinks (perhaps out of Quinean scruples) that‘eating is acting’ is true but contingent will do just fine, so long as he’s prepared to allow that contingent truths canhave syntactic reflexes.


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So much for the bootstrapping argument. I really must stop this grumbling about lexical semantics. And I will, except for a brief, concluding discussion of Pinker’s handling of (what he calls) ‘Baker’s Paradox’ (after Baker 1979). This tooamounts to a claim that ontogenetic theory needs lexical semantic representations; but it makes quite a different sort ofcase from the one we’ve just been looking at.

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The ‘Baker’s Paradox’ Argument

Pinker thinks that, unless children are assumed to represent ‘eat’ as an action verb (mutatis mutandis, ‘give’ as a verb of prospective possession, etc.). Baker’s Paradox will arise and make the acquisition of lexical syntax unintelligible. I’ll tellyou what Baker’s Paradox is in a moment, but I want to tell you what I think the bottom line is first. I think thatBaker’s Paradox is a red herring in the present context. In fact, I think that it’s two red herrings: on Pinker’s ownempirical assumptions, there probably isn’t a

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Baker’s Paradox about learning the lexicon; and, anyhow, assuming that there is one provides no argument that lexical items have semantic structure. Both of these points are about to emerge.

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Baker’s Paradox, as Pinker understands it, is a knot of problems that turn on the (apparent) fact that children (do or can) learn the lexical syntax of their language without much in the way of overt parental correction. Pinker discerns,“three aspects of the problem [that] give it its sense of paradox”, these being the child’s lack of negative evidence, theproductivity of the structures the child learns (“if children simply stuck with the argument structures that wereexemplified in parental speech . . . they would never make errors . . . and hence would have no need to figure out howto avoid or expunge them”), and the “arbitrariness” of the linguistic phenomena that the child is faced with (specifically“near synonyms [may] have different argument structures” (1989: 8—9)). If, for example, the rule of dative movementis productive, and if it is merely arbitrary that you can say ‘John gave the library the book’ but not *‘John donated thelibrary the book’, how, except by being corrected, could the child learn that the one is OK and the other is not?

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That’s a good question, to be sure; but it bears full stress that the three components do not, as stated and by themselves, make Baker’s Paradox paradoxical. The problem is an unclarity in Pinker’s claim that the rules the child isacquiring are ‘productive’. If this means (as it usually does in linguistics) just that the rules are general (they aren’t merelists; they go ‘beyond the child’s data’) then we get no paradox but just a standard sort of induction problem: the childlearns more than the input shows him, and something has to fill the gap. To get a paradox, you have to throw in theassumption that, by and large, children don’t overgeneralize; i.e. that, by and large, they don’t apply the productive rulesthey’re learning to license usages that count as mistaken by adult standards. For suppose that assumption is untrue andthe child does overgeneralize. Then, on anybody’s account, there would have to be some form of correction mechanismin play, endogenous or otherwise, that serves to expunge the child’s errors. Determining what mechanism(s) it is thatserve(s) this function would, of course, be of considerable interest; especially on the assumption that it isn’t parentalcorrection. But so long as the child does something that shows the world that he’s got the wrong rule, there is nothingparadoxical in the fact that information the world provides ensures that he eventually converges on the right one.

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To repeat, Baker’s Paradox is a paradox only if you add ‘no overgeneralizations’ to Pinker’s list. The debilitated form of Baker’s Paradox that you get without this further premiss fails to do what Pinker very much wants Baker’s Paradox todo; viz.Jean-marc pizano


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