University Distinguished Lecture
Grammar and Complexity:
Language at the Intersection of Competence and Performance
Peter W. Culicover
Humanities Distinguished Professor in Linguistics
Department of Linguistics
Human languages show very robust and regular patterns, which typically are described in terms of very general grammatical rules. Some grammatical patterns are found in language after language, and it is widely believed that they reflect the universal human cognitive capacity for language. At the same time, there is considerable variability across languages, and considerable idiosyncrasy, consisting of sub-regularities, exceptions and specialized constructions within any individual language.
This talk focuses on two questions:
- How is it that languages show such regular patterns, given that there is so much idiosyncrasy?
- How is it that languages show so much idiosyncrasy and variability, given that there is such regularity?
The beginnings of answers to these questions can be found if we go beyond the conventional idealization of grammar, which abstracts away from the fact that language is acquired by learners in the course of time, that it occurs within the social context in which people interact and communicate, and that it is processed in real time by people in the course of speaking and understanding. I suggest that there are many natural language phenomena whose properties can be understood best in terms of two domains of complexity: (i) linguistic competence, in which the regularity and the idiosyncrasy are part of the basic architecture, and (ii) constraints on linguistic processing, which yield patterns that appear to have to do with the grammar, but, I argue, do not. To illustrate, I discuss the idiosyncrasies of an English focus construction, the complexity of competence as a factor in grammatical change, and the complexity of processing certain well-studied grammatical dependencies involving interrogative expressions.