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Linguistic Inquiry

Spring 2011, Vol. 42, No. 2, Pages 225-266
(doi: 10.1162/LING_a_00041)
© 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Grounding Systematic Syncretism in Learning
Article PDF (2.26 MB)

It is commonly assumed that patterns of syncretism in inflectional paradigms are restricted in some way. In this article, I show how such restrictions can reflect cognitive constraints on language learning. Namely, I construct a learning algorithm that is biased toward certain types of affix distributions in paradigms, thereby rendering them systematic. In developing this algorithm, I rely on the traditional notions of underspecification and blocking, but recast them in terms of learners' biases toward generalization strategies based on cross-situational intersections and default reasoning. This algorithm allows us to test claims about systematicity of syncretism using typological data and language acquisition studies. In the last part of the article, I present a crosslinguistic survey of verbal agreement paradigms that supports the algorithm's predictions.