David W. Lightfoot

David W. Lightfoot is Professor of Linguistics, Director of the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, and Codirector of the Interdisciplinary PhD Concentration in Cognitive Science at Georgetown University.

  • Born to Parse

    Born to Parse

    How Children Select Their Languages

    David W. Lightfoot

    An argument that children are born to assign structures to their ambient language, yielding a view of language variation not based on parameters defined at UG.

    The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

    In this book, David Lightfoot argues that just as some birds are born to chirp, humans are born to parse—predisposed to assign linguistic structures to their ambient external language. This approach to language acquisition makes two contributions to the development of Minimalist thinking. First, it minimizes grammatical theory, dispensing with three major entities: parameters; an evaluation metric for the selection of grammars; and any independent parsing mechanism. Instead, Lightfoot argues, children parse their ambient external language using their internal language. Universal Grammar is “open,” consistent with what children learn through parsing with their internal language system. Second, this understanding of language acquisition yields a new view of variable properties in language—properties that occur only in certain languages. Under the open UG vision, very specific language particularities arise in response to new parses. Both external and internal languages play crucial, interacting roles: unstructured, amorphous external language is parsed and an internal language system results.

    Lightfoot explores case studies that show such innovative parses of external language in the history of English: development of modal verbs, loss of verb movement, and nineteenth-century changes in the syntax of the verb to be. He then discusses how children learn through parsing; the role of parsing at the syntactic structure's interface with the externalization system and logical form; language change; and variable properties seen through the lens of an open UG.

    • Hardcover $30.00
  • How to Set Parameters

    How to Set Parameters

    Arguments From Language Change

    David W. Lightfoot

    Over the past decade, generative grammarians have viewed language acquisition as a process of fixing option points or parameters defined in Universal Grammar. Here David Lightfoot addresses the crucial question of what it takes to set a parameter - of what kind of experience is needed to trigger the emergence of a natural kind of grammar. Lightfoot asserts that parameter setting is not sensitive to embedded material, and that it is triggered only by robust elements that are structurally simple. He observes that morphological properties play a significant role in setting parameters which have widespread syntactic effects. Using evidence from data on diachronic changes and from current work in syntactic theory, Lightfoot makes precise claims about the triggering experience that can explain a number of historical puzzles. He argues that the changes could have taken place in the way they did only if language acquisition proceeds on the basis of simple, unembedded experiences.

    • Hardcover $35.00
    • Paperback $25.00
  • The Language Lottery

    The Language Lottery

    Toward a Biology of Grammar

    David W. Lightfoot

    One of life's mysteries is how all normal children come to understand and speak their native language as quickly, easily, and spontaneously as they routinely do. The Language Lottery theorizes that linguistic competence is innate, that the mystery is akin to the budding and unfolding of a flower, the natural consequence of a genetically encoded program. It develops the concept that language structure is internally prescribed from the insights of generative grammar, which largely grew out of the work of Noam Chomsky. A major feature of the book is that the author explains in some depth for readers without training in linguistics what generative grammar is all about, covering the basic features of the theory and outlining the current open questions at the vanguard of research.

    Since the principles of generative grammar underlie the particular structure that may occur in any natural, human language, a theory based on them can apply equally to the acquisition of Japanese, English, Arabic, or any other tongue a child might draw in the "language lottery." From this central theoretical base, the book ranges far afield in demonstrating the genetic nature of language development. Among the topics discussed are the results of experiments in animal communication, the genetically determined maturation of human cognition and perception, and the brain as the seat of language structure.

    The Language Lottery covers all the major dimensions of language: syntax, logical form, the lexicon, word meaning, the sound of speech and phonological features, and continuous language processing. Child grammars and the historical evolution of language are also taken up.

    • Hardcover
    • Paperback $30.00