December 01, 2003

Postcard from Vegas, 3: regularly-inflected plurals exclusion? I don't think so

One other piece of linguistic data gathered during my trip to Vegas and I think it will become clear to any tax inspector that the entire trip should be allowed as a tax deduction.

Peter Gordon has argued (in `Level ordering in lexical development', Cognition 21 [1986], 73-93 -- and at least one psycholinguistics course features a whole slide show on this paper) that children have an innate understanding of a key feature of how noun-noun compounds are formed in English: they know that regularly inflected plurals cannot occur as the first (non-head) component of a compound, though irregular plurals can. Thus a monster that eats mice may be called a mice eater, but a monster that eats rats cannot be referred to as a rats eater.

Well, there is doubtless much to be learned about how children learn compounds, but while looking around at the Fairfield Grand Desert Resort in Las Vegas I happened to pass a room full of young children doing educational things, and over the door it said ACTIVITIES CENTER. That's a compound with a regularly inflected plural as the first of its two elements, and it supports the position argued by me and Barbara Scholz in Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments (The Linguistic Review 19, 9-50): whatever the right answer may be, Gordon cannot explain children's language acquisition by reference to innate universal knowledge of his alleged principle, because it's not true.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 1, 2003 03:50 PM