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"Is there a Device for
Language Acquisition?"
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
May 1972
(page updated 5 July 2002)


The following paper discusses the theory of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) -- a theory attempting to explain first-language acquisition by children.  The discussion draws upon, inter alia, the studies of the celebrated Soviet psychologist-anthropologist Aleksej Nikolaevich Leont'ev (1903-1979) on the development of thought in the human species.

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"Is there a Device for
Language Acquisition?"

John Woodsworth

[For footnotes please click on corresponding underlined links]

The aim of this paper is to question some of the assumptions underlying recent psycholinguistic thought about first-language acquisition, as exemplified in David McNeill's paper "Developmental psycholinguistics"1 presented at a conference in the United States in 1966 on "Language development in children".  We also intend to examine some other ideas on language structure with a view to presenting some alternative proposals to those of McNeill.  We shall begin with a brief summary of McNeill's position.

Summary of McNeill's paper

Acknowledging the now generally held view that children's language reflects the development of their own grammatical system rather than a poor imitation of adult grammar (cf. also Smith 1971: 51-55), McNeill categorises the components of infants' first two-word utterances as members of a pivot and open class respectively, and cites sample utterance-components recorded in three studies (Braine, Brown, Ervin) to illustrate his proposed classification.  According to another study (Brown & Bellugi) cited by McNeill, the 'pivot' class (which, unlike the 'open' class, could not alone comprise an utterance) is subsequently differentiated -- first to distinguish articles and demonstratives, then adjectives and possessive pronouns.

In the absence of any other satisfactory explanation, McNeill takes the pivot/open class distinction as the child's attempt at a "generic classification of adult grammatical categories" (1966: 31), and relates it to the notion of 'semi-grammaticality' described by Noam Chomsky (see McNeill 1966: 32-35) in terms of category hierarchy.  Proceeding to the analysis of three-word utterances, he formulates two hierarchical rules, which, while they "do not generate well-formed sentences according to adult grammar" (1966: 44), at least generate the major constituents of such sentences ('NP' and 'PredP').

McNeill rejects the notion that these rules, categories and hierarchy could be derived through imitation of or inference from adult speech, or even on the basis of distributional evidence in adult speech (in which the hierarchy is completely unmarked), and feels obliged to work from the hypothesis that the 'basic grammatical relations' manifest in the child's initial structures "are part of the innate linguistic capacity" (1966: 45).2  He further represents them as "substantive universals", part of the 'Language Acquisition Device' proposed by Chomsky and Katz as the mechanism innate in every human being for developing linguistic competence (see, for example, Chomsky 1965: 52-58).

McNeill: discussion & criticism

It is worth noting that these 'basic grammatical relations', allocated by Chomskyan transformational theory to the level of 'deep structure' (or semantic interpretation -- cf. Chomsky 1965: 136), are still derived from surface structure and continue to owe their existence as relations to the external structure of human language.  They are linguistic, and not psychological concepts.  (What could be the meaning of main verb, for example, outside the context of actual language?)  Yet the implication of McNeill's theory is that children begin constructing utterances from these innate 'basic grammatical relations', with meaning somehow being plugged into them along the way.

Frank Smith's recently published study on the reading process (1971) includes some useful insights on the nature of language development in children.  The following paragaph gives an interesting contrast to the order of learning implied by McNeill (Smith 1971: 52): "Contrary to popular ... belief, the child is not learning words and then finding meanings for them.  Instead he is acquiring or inventing words ... to meet his own particular requirements and represent meanings which he needs to express."3  Would not this relative order of learning extend to all aspects of surface structure, including the 'basic grammatical relations'?

Charles Fillmore apparently thinks so.  In his discussion and rejection of "earlier approaches to the study of [grammatical] case" he criticises Redden's analysis of Walapai on the grounds that the meaning or 'functions' of cases "are not taken as primary terms in the description" but merely fitted into the framework of already identified surface-structure forms (Fillmore 1968: 9).  He further finds "reasons for questioning the deep-structure validity of the traditional division between subject and predicate, a division which is assumed by some to underlie the basic form of all sentences in all languages" (1968: 17).4

Another attack on the use of surface structure as a starting-point for probing the language-thought relationship has come from psychologist Norman Segalowitz, who argues as follows (1970: 14):

The error which I think linguists have made is this.  They have focussed on the wrong property of language to base their theory on.  So far, the main concern of linguistics has been to show how sentences are related to each other through their internal structures.  The structures which emerged in these theories are always subordinated to the task of relating one type of surface structure to another.  The psychologist on the other hand is interested not so much how surface structures are related ... but in the very nature of the internal structure itself.

It is our view that any serious consideration of the acquisition of language in the young child, inasmuch as it parallels the development of the child's thinking processes, cannot afford to neglect the nature of this 'internal structure' -- the thought component in the language-thought relationship.  And yet the answer cannot lie entirely in the realm of psychology either, for the language component is equally important.  What is needed is a theory of linguistic development that will take fuller account of the link between the two.

Some other ideas on language structure

We believe that the basis of such a theory is to be found in Fillmore's own approach to transformational grammar, as set forth in his 1968 article "The case for case".  While it is true that his study deals largely with what has been termed "case grammar" and is applied primarily to adult language, the fact that his whole treatment of grammatical theory (and case in particular5) is rooted in his concept of a fundamental relationship between language and thought -- an "underlying syntactic-semantic relationship" as he puts it (21) -- makes his model a most interesting source of enlightenment on the subject of child-language acquisition.

On the language side, Fillmore sees basic sentence structure as consisting "of a verb and one or more noun phrases, each associated with the verb in a particular case relationship"; the sum of these constitutes the proposition of the sentence as distinct from the modality (features affecting the sentence as a whole -- negation, tense etc.).  These 'case categories', however, in contrast to the Walapai study mentioned above, are not treated as the primary units of analysis but are related to a 'conceptual framework' of relationship categories which are presumably non-linguistic in origin and form part of one's innate cognitive structure.6  As examples of these categories he lists Agentive, Instrumental, Dative, Factitive, Locative and Objective -- the latter "not to be confused with the notion of direct object, nor with the name of the surface case synonymous with accusative" (1968: 25).

Fillmore then proceeds to classify sentences according to which of these conceptual categories they express, illustrating his classification with a 'case frame': e.g., the verb run could take the frame [___A], give [___ O + D + A] etc. (initial letters refer to the case categories given above).  Another point of departure from Chomskyan theory is that adjectives are treated as verbs, e.g., sad [___ D].

While all case categories (including the Agentive) are given following the verb, Fillmore has stated that no linear ordering of deep structure is implied.  In surface structure, however, one of the categories is 'subjectivalised' and moved to the beginning of the sentence.  For example, the sentence John opened the door has as its underlying proposition the structure V + O + A, with A becoming the subject in surface structure.  The proposition underlying The door opened, on the other hand, is V + O, and O becomes the subject.7  This supports Fillmore's basic assumption that the notion of 'subject' and other components of syntactic relations are aspects of surface structure, not deep structure (see p. 17).

Fillmore: discussion & criticism

It is interesting to note that Segalowitz also sees in Fillmore's grammar the possibility of a closer union between linguistics and psychology in regard to the understanding of the language-thought relationship.  His criticism of Fillmore's approach is that, radical though it is in using "explicitly psychological aspects of language", it doesn't go far enough -- it is "still subordinated to the task of relating surface structures to each other (Segalowitz 1970: 15).

Indeed, Fillmore devotes comparatively little attention to the non-linguistic analysis of his case categories, concentrating rather on their relationship to surface structure.  Even the definitions of these categories are all predicated on something called the verb, which for some reason is left undefined in terms of cognitive structure.  The definitions, moreover, leave something to be desired in terms of their relationship to the overall cognitive structure.  One category that appears to be missing entirely is that expressed in the initial component of 'copula' sentences (John is a teacher, That is my brother) -- a category that might possibly be termed, for want of a better expression, the Referential.  Another discrepancy is that determiners are introduced into the deep-structure phrase markers without any statement as to their origin or semantic correspondence.  All of which means in effect that Fillmore's theory as stated is not fully satisfactory as a model for language acquisition.

Segalowitz (ibid.) focuses on the concept of action-object relationship inherent in Fillmore's grammar as a "specific property of language" that could be significant to the relation of language to thought.  In the matter of action-object relationships, an interesting comparison may be found in a discussion of primordial development of thought and language in the human species by the Russian psychologist-anthropologist A. A. Leont'ev (1963).  In Leont'ev's view, the very first step in the development of thought beyond the level of the pre-human ape was the "separation of action from object" [otdelenie dejstvija ot ob"ekta] (1963: 50).  We might also speak of the separation of the object from the situation.  Another major step in this development described by Leont'ev was the subsequent separation of a generalised concept of an object from its individual manifestation (1963: 119-21).  We believe that these two primary mental processes Leont'ev proposes may contribute toward an alternative theory to McNeill's regarding language acquisition in the young child.

Toward an alternative theory of language acquisition

Let us look for a moment at McNeill's analysis of the two-word utterances which he divides into pivot- and open-class components (1966: 22).  Braine's study is especially interesting, since his list, unlike the other two, reportedly represents the very first two-word combinations ever produced by his subjects.

We may first of all note that the second component of each utterance (ascribed by Braine and McNeill to the 'open' class) is a noun denoting some object,8 while first-component 'pivot'-class words, none of them nouns, comprise adjectives, verbs and other expressions relating to the following noun: big, pretty, more, my, see, allgone, byebye, nightnight, hi.  Remembering Fillmore's treatment of adjectival expressions as verbs, we might classify these initial constructions as V + O -- i.e., a verb followed by a noun in the Objective case category.

The only difficulty in this manner of approach is that we are still talking about language-bound concepts.  Fillmore's Objective category, it will be recalled, was predicated on the 'verb', and just what this 'verb' might mean to an adult, let alone a child, is as yet unexplained.  We still need something to tie in Fillmore's categories more closely with the child's basic cognitive structure.

Let us look at Braine's list in a different way.  We have said that all the second-component words denote objects, whereas none of the first-component words do.  The latter, however, all may be considered to have a strong semantic correspondence with situations relating to the objects denoted by the second component -- situations which, like the objects, form part of the child's non-linguistic cognitive experience -- e.g., disappearance of an object (allgone, byebye), its physical features (pretty, big), a desire for an object (more) etc.  Seen in this light, do not these first combinations point to what might be a prior or simultaneous first step in the development of the child's thinking processes, a first step not unlike the one proposed by Leont'ev for the original evolution of human thought?  Do not utterances like allgone shoe, big boat, more milk etc. express the first mental separation of an object from the situation in which the object appears?9  Therefore, instead of introducing language-bound, psychologically meaningless classifications such as 'pivot' and 'open' classes -- or even psychologically vague ones such as 'verb' and an 'Objective' predicated on the verb, could we not rather formulate the child's first grammatical rule in terms of the cognitive dichotomy of object and situation, possibly: Utt > (Sit) + Obj ?10

Looking at the list compiled from Brown's study (McNeill 1966: 22), however, we find a couple of items which do not appear to have any semantic correspondence at all, let alone a correspondence to a 'situation' -- namely, the articles a and the.  How are these to be accounted for in terms of our postulated rule?

The answer appears to lie in the fact that the children in Brown's study were somewhat older (in terms of linguistic development) than those examined by Braine; it is reported (1966: 20), in fact, that they were already producing three- and four-word utterances even before the study began.  If Brown & Fraser's study (1964: 63) may serve as an analogy, these children were probably producing utterances such as See a boot, There the man, in which the above-formulated rule could very well have given see, there, as situations and a boot, the man, as objects.  The latter expression could have been obtained alone simply through the non-inclusion of the optional situation component (as provided for in the rule); they almost certainly represent a very different grammatical structure.  Such is the danger of treating all two-word utterances alike at a time when their utterers have progressed beyond the two-word stage and must of necessity have expanded their hierarchy of rules.

How then might their hierarchy have been expanded to account for constructions with a or the as first component?  They appear to be very similar to the determiner-plus-noun constructions of adult grammar, which Fillmore introduces as a sub-classification of his case categories, but even he is unable to provide any psychological correspondence for them; they simply appear in his deep-structure phrase-markers without explanation.

Again we turn to Leont'ev's analysis of thought-development in the human species.  It will be recalled that a second major development was cited -- that of separation of a generalised concept of an object from its individual manifestation.  Now, could not the articles, both definite and indefinite, be taken to mark (at least at this stage of the child's linguistic development) recognition of an individual manifestation of a particular object in contrast to the generalised concept of it?  This distinction might give rise to the following rule: Obj > (Ind) + Obj -- where Ind would signify individualisation).

The fact that Ervin's list includes adjectives and verbs as second components of two-word utterances suggests (a) that her subjects were even more linguistically advanced than those studied by Brown, and (b) that more information about their longer utterances is needed before an attempt is made at analysis on the basis of the rules given above.

Further implications

The two grammatical rules we have now formulated on the basis of presumed mental processes have, in our view, definite implications for the subsequent development of language acquisition all the way into adult speech.  We can already foresee specific expansions of the rule hierarchy to account for the three-word utterances analysed by McNeill (1966: 40ff), as well as for those studied by Brown & Fraser (1964: 62ff).  We believe we are also capable at this point of explaining the initial negations and questions dicussed by McNeill (54ff).

As to a model for still later linguistic development, we are not absolutely convinced as to the greater validity of Fillmore's grammar over Chomsky's, although at this point it has the advantage of being an attempted closer approximation to the non-linguistic cognitive structure in which human language is rooted.11  We certainly do not see the involvement, however, of anything like a 'Language Acquisition Device' containing innate 'basic grammatical relations'.  Rather, we see the above-formulated rules as pointing the way toward a more mentally-oriented theory of grammatical structure which might supply the missing psychological relationship for either Chomsky's or Fillmore's grammar, or suggest the development of an entirely new grammatical system.

For example, we might explore the relationship of the concept of situation suggested by Leont'ev's study to Fillmore's 'verb' (or even some of his case categories), or alternatively to Chomsky's notion of 'predicate'.  Does Leont'ev's 'object' develop into Fillmore's 'Objective' or any of his other categories, or is it the forerunner of Chomsky's 'NP'?  Could it be that the process of individualisation mentioned above underlies the whole concept of determiner in linguistic structure?  The exact nature of these relationships is beyond the scope of the present paper but is definitely recommended for future explanation.


The major thrust of our present paper, as we see it, has been to examine what we might call the whole 'surface-structure approach' to language acquisition, as seen in the McNeill presentation discussed above.  Specifically, we have questioned these two basic assumptions: (1) the validity of the 'pivot-open' classification of children's first two-word utterances; (2) the existence of a 'Language Acquisition Device' separate from the rest of one's cognitive structure and the correlative hypothesis that 'basic grammatical relations' are to be treated as innate universals.

Two points have been made in regard to the first assumption: (a) the classification has been erroneously applied to utterances of children who have already progressed beyond two-word utterances and beyond a single grammatical rule; (b) the classification is meaningless as a description of the real 'deep structure' -- the mental processes -- underlying these initial two-word utterances.  Instead, an alternative formulation has been proposed which attempts to take account of this internal structure.

In regard to the second assumption, it has been shown that no separate device is necessary.  Language acquisiton can be handled by the same processes that govern the non-linguistic aspects of cognitive structure, and the same rules can, at least in the initial stages of acquisition, account for the development of both thought and language.

© John Woodsworth, 1972.





"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you... 
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

-- John 14:27


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