Foundational Issues Seminar (TT 24)

Foundational Issues Seminar (TT 24)

Undergraduate seminar on long-distance dependencies
Colin Phillips|
Trinity Term 2024
Tuesdays, 11:00 – 12:30, Weeks 1-3, 6-8, Clarendon Institute Lecture Theatre

This is an interactive undergraduate seminar that aims to explore links between different foundational topics in linguistics and language science, connecting them to recent research, especially in the light of the greatly expanded datasets and analyses now available to linguists. 

The seminar will pay particular attention to the role of long-distance relations in sentence structure (“long-distance” or “unbounded” dependencies). Discoveries about these phenomena played an important role in early modern linguistics (1960s-1980s), especially in motivating claims about human specialisation for language. These arguments are ripe for reevaluation, in light of new data (from many languages) and a wide array of new tools.

The seminar is listed under FHS Paper A (“General Linguistics”), which is primarily covered through tutorials rather than lectures. This is NOT a series of Paper A lectures. Rather, it aligns with Paper A goals of exploring foundational questions in linguistics, and integrating different perspectives and approaches. Key themes include constraints on language diversity, innateness and critical periods, levels of analysis, big data and large language models, and connections between speaking and understanding. The seminar will encourage active student participation via targeted readings and brief writing/reflection exercises. We aim to closely evaluate the relation between specific evidence and theories/models. By highlighting recent advances in data and tools the seminar may be of interest to students who are considering future research in linguistics.

Materials from the seminar will be shared here once they are available. Meetings will not be recorded, in order to facilitate discussion.


Week 1 – Scene Setting

Theme: setting the scene; why we care; early findings, especially from 60s-80s.

Why we care: island phenomena have played a (justifiably) prominent role in linguistic theories over the past 60 years. In the 1960s, linguists started discovering a goldmine of regularities in human language(s) that they hadn’t been aware of before. Educated people had been studying the details of languages for centuries, and yet here were these complex-yet-robust generalizations about languages that hadn’t been noticed until people started to construct explicit, generative grammars. Surely this must be telling us something important about human cognition.

Follow-up: thanks for coming along in Week 1. We had a useful discussion of some core island phenomena, and addressed the appeal of linking constraints on cross-language variation to constraints on learners. We also did some calibration around student backgrounds and relevant experience.

Recommended reading for Week 1: Phillips 2013. On the nature of island constraints. I: Language processing and reductionist accounts

The first half of this article gives a summary of basic island phenomena and variation across languages. We’ll be coming back to these and related examples repeatedly.

Slides: Foundations Week 1. Note: we did not cover all of this, and not in order. In particular, we skipped a section about the earliest attempts to classify and explain island effects, which is nicely summarised in the early sections of Haj Ross’s 1967 PhD dissertation. Worth a look!


Week 2 – Levels of analysis and reductionism

Theme: are island effects epiphenomena of human cognitive limitations?

Why we care: for as long as linguists have been studying island effects, there has been a debate about whether they should be understood as consequences of explicit grammatical rules/constraints or as consequences of more general cognitive limitations. This long-standing debate is a useful one for us to sink our teeth into, because it forces us to be as clear as possible about the link between specific cognitive hypotheses and their empirical consequences.

This debate is partly about figuring out what is the right level of analysis for explaining island effects. In this context, it’s useful to be familiar with vision scientist David Marr’s famous distinction between computational, algorithmic, and implementational levels of analysis for explaining neurocognitive phenomena (Marr 1980). 

Discussion note: Take a look at my summary of arguments for/against reductionist accounts of island phenomena in the second half of Phillips 2013. Also, feel very free to take a look at something very new on this topic, such as Jiayi Lu’s new synthesis of findings on syntactic satiation effects (Lu 2024). I also plan to look at a brand new piece by Giacomo Presotto that arrived in my mailbox this week. Question: what arguments/evidence do you take to be more or less compelling for or against a reductionist account of island phenomena? You don’t have to give a full ranking, but it will be very useful if you take a position. To be clear, you should feel no obligation to be persuaded by evidence that I or my collaborators introduced. We are fair game for criticism, and we always learn useful things when we are wrong. Please send me an email with your thoughts by 1 hour before the seminar time, i.e., 10am on Tuesday April 30th. This will give me a chance to read your thoughts before the seminar, and we’ll then have a better discussion among the group. If you have questions about something that you read that is unclear to you, please feel free to mention that. We will be reading and discussing some challenging material in the coming weeks (a good thing!).

One important early contribution in this debate is Janet Fodor’s 1978 paper Parsing strategies and constraints on transformations

Slides: Foundations Week 2 (to be added). 


Week 3 – Learning models and LLMs

Theme: what do recent computational models of learning island constraints tell us about innate learning biases? 


Week 4 – No meeting

CP presenting at a memorial event for Janet Fodor, an important figure in the literature on island phenomena (and a graduate from PPP, the precursor to the current PPL degree).

Week 5 – No meeting



Week 6 – Limits of variation



Week 7 – Comprehension-production relations



Week 8 – Critical periods and L1/L2 differences