Generative tradition, as far as I (an amateur) understand, revolves around the 'poverty of the stimulus' argument.

So I can understand why I clearly get the meaning 'she shelved her books' or at least the grammatical soundness of it. But I see no reason to believe the structure in (2) of [1], pg. 2 (image uploaded in [2] for quick view) where the NP 'her books' is assigned(i know assigned is not the correct term) 'on the shelf' in the structure.

Assuming the verb 'shelve' is derived from the noun shelf with its idiosyncratic meaning of 'putting an item on the shelf'. It might as well had been something absolutely arbitrary, like, 'taking an item off the shelf', or 'creating a shelf'. I guess this is a neat argument. In the article, it's taken that the sentence has an internal syntax that somehow assigns the structure (2) to it. Now yes, we have a very specific usage of the verb shelve in English and so on, but let's just suppose so I can come to a point.

In the same vein, in this same article [1], another sentence "it cowed a calf" goes through the same operation. "the cow had a calf" it says. I just wonder WHY? I understand cowed is some 'verb in past tense' with the 'colorless green...' argument, but why should cowed = gave birth to a calf? and why should the syntax have anything to do with it? Isn't it in the realm of semantics/meaning which is just arbitrary(like that of shelve)? UG alone is just not enough to account for such bizarre etymologies, not at least without context.

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.sci-hub.bz/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0017.1995.tb00016.x/pdf

[2] https://goo.gl/photos/yQCfX4ZdgehLxynZ6

I hope the above description places my doubt clearly, even if the doubt itself is wrong(due to ignorance). I request some readings if possible. The way I've found the literature, it's a big fat mess and(without any formal linguistics training) nothing even came close to a neat sourcebook-style treatment of this tradition. The book itself of which [1] is a review is unavailable on the web, so there are other things I've been reading (like chomsky's mildly inaccessible papers and Adger 2003, Carnie 2012). At least trying.

  • What exactly are you asking? Is it about "poverty of the stimulus"? Is it about the semantic interpolation that relates "shelf" and "shelve", "cow (N)" and "cow (V)" (btw that is silly, as a verb it means "intimidate", and the examples of "metal" and "church" are way out in left field, data-wise). Is it about why one might want to relate shelf and shelve? Is it about the decades-later re-discovery of Generative Semantics? Or is this a request for a reasonable introduction to Minimalist syntax?
    – user6726
    Apr 24, 2017 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


It's not about "poverty of the stimulus". It's about the creativity of human language. Humans have both an evolved grammatical mechanism and an intellectual capacity which they bring to language communication. These are separate. In acquiring the capacity for language, people don't use their intellects to figure out a grammatical system -- that's just not possible (the "poverty of stimulus" argument establishes this). But they do use their intellects and knowledge of the world to fit what they need to say into the grammatical system they have inherited. And to understand what others' communicative intentions are.

Your examples about the interpretation of the verbs "cow" or "shelve", in my opinion, have to do with using the intellect to arrive at some creative solution to solve the problems of interpreting verbs meaning "perform some action centrally connected with nouns "cow" or "shelve"". I see no reason to think that this is otherwise dictated by the grammatical system of one's language. This is the creative part of language use.

  • makes sense. the review was I think arguing for the same, the creative usage. But the way it was put up, it made me think it's some innate syntactic analysis.
    – aksci
    May 28, 2017 at 13:52

I don't think I've clearly understood what your question really is, but I'll assume it has to do with how new verbs (and, sometimes, terms) are born and acquire a meaning that derive from their root-word.

I'm not an expert but I think it's because languages always tend to become more flexible and to adjust to the speakers' needs (I would not say they get simpler with time, but the grammar surely becomes less complex). That's why intransitive verbs tend to become transitive, and words give birth to new verbs with a (slightly) new meaning (which often only make sense when used in a certain context; e.g. "She shelved her books" or "it cowed a calf") and sentences in general adapt to the minimalist program, which (as far as I understood by the research paper you published the link to) is based on the simplification of a sentence to nothing more than a subject, a verb and an object.

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