Discussion: Chomsky 1957 on the English past tense

From Joe Pater

I was reading Syntactic Structures recently for a non-phonological project, and I was surprised to come across in a footnote an analysis of an irregular past tense alternation that looked a lot more like Albright and Hayes (2003) (and maybe Rumelhart and McClelland 1986) than Pinker and Prince (1988) (the footnote is on pp. 58-59 – see also the citation of Hockett in the full footnote):

Has anyone seen this mentioned anywhere else? Albright and Hayes and Pinker and Prince don’t talk about it, and I assume Rumelhart and McClelland don’t either. Other discussion is of course welcome…


10 thoughts on “Discussion: Chomsky 1957 on the English past tense

  1. Ariel Goldberg

    Great catch! I indeed had not seen that before. I find it interesting though that as stated, that rule would not apply to all of the examples that he lists (shake doesn’t meet the structural description for the rule). Does he go on to state a more general version?

  2. Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero

    Chomsky and Halle have never endorsed dual-route models of morphology in the style of Pinker. The analysis of strong verbs in Syntactic Structures is a direct precursor of SPE’s readjustment rules: in SPE, a readjustment rule maps [[sing]PAST] onto /s*ng/, where /*/ stands for an /ɪ/ annotated with a diacritic feature that triggers a rule of ablaut converting /ɪ/ into /æ/ (p. 11). Halle & Mohanan (1985: 104ff) continue to assume essentially the same approach, positing synchronic rules of ablaut for English strong verbs (which then feed Vowel Shift). Currently, the notion of readjustment rule plays a key role in mainstream versions of Distributed Morphology (e.g. Embick & Halle 2005), where it underpins programmatic assumptions of suppletion minimization and full decomposition. For discussion of the division of labour between storage and computation in SPE, see e.g. Bermúdez-Otero (2012: 21ff). For criticism of readjustment rules within Distributed Morphology, see Haugen (2016).

    Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo. 2012. The architecture of grammar and the division of labour in exponence. In Jochen Trommer (ed.), The morphology and phonology of exponence (Oxford Studies in Theoretical Linguistics 41), 8-83. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Embick, David & Morris Halle. 2005. On the status of stems in morphological theory. In Twan Geerts, Ivo van Ginneken & Haike Jacobs (eds.), Romance languages and linguistic theory 2003: selected papers from ‘Going Romance’ 2003, Nijmegen, 20–22 November (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 270), 37-62. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Halle, Morris & K. P. Mohanan. 1985. Segmental phonology of Modern English. Linguistic Inquiry 16, 57-116.

    Haugen, Jason D. 2016. Readjustment: rejected? In Daniel Siddiqi & Heidi Harley (eds.), Morphological metatheory (Linguistics Today 229), 303-42. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    1. Joe Pater Post author

      Thanks Ricardo! I should have been clearer that I was mostly surprised to find a discussion of the past tense at all – I wasn’t that surprised to see that kind of rule. I had been thinking of taking a look at SPE and Halle and Mohanan to accompany such a clarification, so am very glad to see you already have those references, and some other very useful ones. More broadly, it’s always struck me that Pinker’s model does not correspond to standard practice in generative phonology (says a phonologist who’s spent much of his career giving grammatical analyses of “exceptions”).

  3. Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero

    Yes, I definitely see what you mean. In some respects, Pinker’s model seems closer in spirit to Jackendoff’s (1975) ideas about lexical redundancy rules. This is work that I’m in great sympathy with.

    Jackendoff, Ray. 1975. Morphological and semantic regularities in the lexicon. Language 51 (3), 639-71.

  4. Joe Pater Post author

    I’ve just noticed that Pinker 2006: 222 cites Chomsky and Halle as using minor rules for irregulars, and Seidenberg and Plaut (2014: 1197) cite Halle and Mohanan (1985). I also just found a nice related post by Mark Liberman categorizing Pinker as a neo-structuralist. He concludes the post with the following: “…if Pinker is right, most phonologists working today need to repudiate most of their own work. Maybe he’s right, and they should — but I don’t see how they can applaud politely for his side of the debate, and then go on doing their own stuff as if he were wrong.”

  5. Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero

    Liberman’s conclusion is rhetorically impressive but logically flawed. One can reject the existence of morphophonological readjustments without in any way embracing Structuralist bi-uniqueness: there is a vastly large class of theories that have neither. Similarly, nothing in Pinker’s characterization of regularity requires phonological rules to be surface-true. Thus, equating Pinker with Bloch or with the practitioners of Natural Phonology is a caricature.


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