This chapter outlines the theory (first explicitly defended by Pinker and Bloom 1990), that the human language faculty is a complex biological adaptation that evolved by natural selection for communication in a knowledge- using, socially interdependent lifestyle. This claim might seem to be any- one’s first guess about the evolutionary status of language, and the default prediction from a Darwinian perspective on human psychological abilities. But the theory has proved to be controversial, as shown by the commentaries in Pinker and Bloom (1990) and the numerous debates on language evolution since then (Fitch 2002; Hurford et al. 1998). In the chapter I will discuss the design of the language faculty, the theory that language is an adaptation, alternatives to the theory, an examination of what language might an adaptation for, and how the theory is being tested by new kinds of analyses and evidence.
Most evidence for the role of regular inflection as a default operation comes from languages that confound the morphological properties of regular and irregular forms with their phonological characteristics. For instance, regular plurals tend to faithfully preserve the base’s phonology (e.g., rat-rats), whereas irregular nouns tend to alter it (e.g., mouse- mice). The distinction between regular and irregular inflection may thus be an epiphenomenon of phonological faithfulness. In Hebrew noun inflection, however, morphological regularity and phonological faithfulness can be distinguished: Nouns whose stems change in the plural may take either a regular or an irregular suffix, and nouns whose stems are preserved in the plural may take either a regular or an irregular suffix. We use this dissociation to examine two hallmarks of default inflection: its lack of dependence on analogies from similar regular nouns, and its application to nonroots such as names. We show that these hallmarks of regularity may be found whether or not the plural form preserves the stem faithfully: People apply the regular suffix to novel nouns that don’t resemble existing nouns, and to names that sound like irregular nouns, regardless of whether the stem is ordinarily preserved in the plural of that family of nouns. Moreover, when they pluralize names (e.g., the Barak-Barakim), they do not apply the stem changes that are found in their homophonous nouns (e.g., barak-brakim “lightning”), replicating an effect found in English and German. These findings show that the distinction between regular and irregular phenomena cannot be reduced to differences in the kinds of phonological changes associated with those phenomena in English. Instead, regularity and irregularity must be distinguished in terms of the kinds of mental computations that effect them: symbolic operations versus memorized idiosyncrasies. A corollary is that complex words are not generally dichotomizable as “regular” or “irregular”; different aspects of a word may be regular or irregular depending on whether they violate the rule for that aspect and hence must be stored in memory.
What is the interaction between storage and computation in language processing? What is the psychological status of grammatical rules? What are the relative strengths of connectionist and symbolic models of cognition? How are the components of language implemented in the brain? The English past tense has served as an arena for debates on these issues. We defend the theory that irregular past-tense forms are stored in the lexicon, a division of declarative memory, whereas regular forms can be computed by a concatenation rule, which requires the procedural system. Irregulars have the psychological, linguistic and neuropsychological signatures of lexical memory, whereas regulars often have the signatures of grammatical processing. Furthermore, because regular inflection is rule-driven, speakers can apply it whenever memory fails.
According to the ‘word/rule’ account, regular inflection is computed by a default, symbolic process, whereas irregular inflection is achieved by associative memory. Conversely, pattern- associator accounts attribute both regular and irregular inflection to an associative process. The acquisition of the default is ascribed to the asymmetry in the distribution of regular and irregular tokens. Irregular tokens tend to form tight, well-defined phonological clusters (e.g. sing-sang, ring-rang), whereas regular forms are diffusely distributed throughout the phono- logical space. This distributional asymmetry is necessary and sufficient for the acquisition of a regular default. Hebrew nominal inflection challenges this account. We demonstrate that Hebrew speakers use the regular masculine inflection as a default despite the overlap in the distribution of regular and irregular Hebrew masculine nouns. Specifically, Experiment 1 demonstrates that regular inflection is productively applied to novel nouns regardless of their similarity to existing regular nouns. In contrast, the inflection of irregular sounding nouns is strongly sensitive to their similarity to stored irregular tokens. Experiment 2 estab- lishes the generality of the regular default for novel words that are phonologically idiosyn- cratic. Experiment 3 demonstrates that Hebrew speakers assign the default regular inflection to borrowings and names that are identical to existing irregular nouns. The existence of default inflection in Hebrew is incompatible with the distributional asymmetry hypothesis. Our find- ings also lend no support for a type-frequency account. The convergence of the circumstances triggering default inflection in Hebrew, German and English suggests that the capacity for default inflection may be general.