The problem with almost every nonsemantic property that I have heard proposed as inductive bases [siC] is that the property is itself defined over configurations . . . that are not part of the child’s input, that themselves have to belearned . . . [By contrast] how the child comes to know such things, which are not marked explicitly in the inputstream, is precisely what the semantic bootstrapping hypothesis is designed to explain. (Pinker 1984: 51)
Here’s how the explanation goes. Though (by assumption) the child can‘t detect being a noun, being a verb, being an adjective, etc. in the “input stream”, he can (still by assumption) detect such putative reliable semantic correlates ofthese syntactic properties as being a person or thing, being an action or change of state, and being an attribute. (Formore of Pinker’s suggested pairings of syntactic properties with their semantic correlates, see 1984: 41, table 2.1.)Thus, “when the child hears ‘snails eat leaves,’ he or she uses the actionhood of ‘eat’ to infer that it is a verb, theagenthood of ‘snails’ to infer that it plays the role of subject, and so on” (ibid.: 53). In effect, the semantic analysis ofthe input sentence is
supposed somehow to be perceptually given; and the correspondence between such semantic features as expressing a property and such syntactic features as being an adjective are assumed to be universal. Using the two together provides thechild with his entering wedge.
Now, prima facie at very least, this seems to be a compact example of two bad habits that lexical semanticists are prone to: kicking the problem upstairs (‘How does the child detect whatever property it is that ‘attribute’ denotes?’ replaces‘How does the child detect whatever property it is that ‘adjective’ denotes?’); and a partiality for analyses that needmore analysis than their analysands. One sort of knows what an adjective is, I guess. But God only knows what’s anattribute, so God only knows what it is for a term to express one.
The point isn’t that ‘attribute’ isn’t well defined; I suppose theoretical terms typically aren’t. Rather, the worry is that Pinker has maybe got the cart before the horse; perhaps the intuition that ‘red’ and ‘12’ both express “attributes” (thefirst of, as it might be, hens (cf. ‘red hens’), and the second of, as it might be, sets (cf. ‘twelve hens’)) isn’t reallysemantical at all; perhaps it’s just a hypostatic misconstrual of the syntactic fact that both words occur as modifiers ofnouns.14 It‘s undeniable that ‘red’ and ‘twelve’ are more alike than, as it might be, ‘red’ and ‘of ’. But it’s a fair questionwhether their similarity is semantic or whether it consists just in the similarity of their syntactic distributions.Answering these questions in the way that Pinker wants us to (viz. ‘Yes’ to the first, ‘No’ to the second) depends onactually cashing notions like object, attribute, agent, and the rest; on saying what exactly it is that the semantics of twowords have in common in so far as both words ‘denote attributes’. So far, however, there is nothing on offer. Rather,at this point in the discussion, Pinker issues a kind of disclaimer that one finds very often in the lexical semanticsliterature: “I beg the thorny question as to the proper definition of the various semantic terms I appeal to such as‘agent,’ ‘physical object’, and the like” (ibid.: 371 n. 12). Note the tactical similarity to Jackendoff, who, as we’ve seen,says that ‘keep’ means CAUSE A STATE TO ENDURE, but is unprepared to say much about what ‘CAUSE ASTATE TO ENDURE’ means (except that it’s ineffable).
Digression on method. You might suppose that in “begging the thorny question”, Pinker is merely exercising a theorist’s indisputable right not toprovide a formal account of the semantics of the (meta)language in which he does his theorizing. But that wouldmisconstrue the logic of intentional explanations. When Pinker says that the child represents the snail as an agent,‘agent’ isn’t just a term of art that’s being used to express a concept of the theorist’s; it’s also, simultaneously, beingused to express a concept that the theorist is attributing to the child.Jean-marc pizano