What is syntax?

Maggie Tallerman

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 What is syntax?

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Grammar, Syntax and Morphology


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This article discusses the kinds of universal syntactic capacities that prompt many linguists to postulate that syntax is a separate, biologically determined entity. Lexical items are stored in the “mental lexicon”, an inventory of arbitrary form-meaning associations. These include single words and morphemes smaller than words (such as affixes), multi-word idioms, set phrases, and constructions of various kinds. Vocabulary learning in humans is sophisticated, involving a complex mix of grammatical properties, phonology, semantics, and cultural knowledge. Some aspects are universal, others language-specific. Vocabulary items belong to complex, structured semantic categories. Universally, verbs fit into one or more “subcategorization frames”, which specify the number and type of obligatory dependents of the verb. The human lexicon displays at least three further unique characteristics. First, the speakers probably store at least 50,000 entries for each of their native languages. Second, though the learning of syntax, phonology, and morphology is subject to critical period effects, new lexical items are learned throughout life and there is no critical period for vocabulary acquisition. Third, the human lexicon crucially contains two major classes of items that include content words, known as lexical categories, and grammatical elements, or functional categories. The lexical/functional division occurs in all languages, including simple languages, such as Riau Indonesian, although functional categories in particular vary greatly cross-linguistically.

Keywords: syntactic capacities; morphemes; vocabulary learning; subcategorization frames; phonology

Article.  5559 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Grammar, Syntax and Morphology

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