In the original P&P model, we had a nice story in which there was supposed to be some finite list of principles and some finite list of parameters, the former constraining hypotheses and the latter driving what kinds of things kids should be looking for. So, wh-islands and Binding theory are principles, and head-directionality parameter and wh-in-situ vs. wh-movement examples of parameters.

However, I think in the theoretical literature (specifically in Minimalism, and earlier in other lexicalist approaches) the "toolkit" model of variation has more or less become the standard -- UG provides the tools and format for creating languages, and there are any number of ways they can be used. There is a theory of variation, the "Chomsky-Borer Conjecture" (Borer 1984, Chomsky 1995) in which the variation between languages is restricted to what functional elements look like, which can be thought to be a flavor of this.

However, I'm wondering what people think from the acquisition side of things. The idea that languages could vary in any number of ways consistent with principles – and parameters provide no delineation – basically says that we can't really learn anything about acquisition from typology, and that every aspect of variation is something the child has to learn ex nihilo.

Do kids usually assume that their language will be typologically "unmarked" until they receive evidence to the contrary? To kids seem to lump together properties (do head-final kids like scrambling more often than head-initial kids?) Is the notion of "parameter" still useful in generative approaches to language acquisition?

  • Where you wrote "To kids seem to lump", in the last paragraph – second question, did you mean "Do kids seem to lump" instead?
    – Alenanno
    Nov 8, 2011 at 18:40

1 Answer 1


In current mainstream generative L2 acquisition research, there are no parameters per se anymore (because there are no parameters in the MP). So, crosslinguistic variation is explained by the following factors:

  1. different languages may select different features;
  2. a feature may or may not project a functional category;
  3. the same functional category may have a set of different features;
  4. how features are realized/expressed, lexically or morphophonologically.
  5. feature strength;
  6. feature interpretability;

Thus, generative L2 acquisition research deals with:

  1. ability/inability to select features;
  2. feature reassembly;
  3. accessibility of features;

For further discussion, see Lydia White (2003), Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar, and an excellent collection of articles, The Role of Formal Features in Second Language Acquisition (2010), eds. Liceras, Zobl, and Goodluck.

As for L1 acquisition, what you mentioned in your question (Hyams' markedness, head-initial parameter etc.) was relevant in the good olde GB days but, I'm afraid, is no longer valid in the MP. A popular view was that children set ("switched on/off") UG parameters on the basis of PLD (primary linguistic data). With features in the MP, there is no consensus what causes crosslinguistic variation (interfaces? lexicon? etc.). However, points 1-6 I mentioned above still hold for L1-acquiring children.

cf. "In the absence of a coherent minimalist theory of this type, it is not in fact possible to meaningfully evaluate the success of the P&P enterprise to date." (Biberauer 2008, Introduction, In The Limits of Syntactic Variation)

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