A Connectionist Simulation of the Empirical Acquisition of Grammatical Relations

  • William C. Morris
  • Garrison W. Cottrell
  • Jeffrey Elman
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 1778)


This paper proposes an account of the acquisition of grammatical relations using the basic concepts of connectionism and a construction-based theory of grammar. Many previous accounts of first-language acquisition assume that grammatical relations (e.g., the grammatical subject and object of a sentence) and linking rules are universal and innate; this is necessary to provide a first set of assumptions in the target language to allow deductive processes to test hypotheses and/or set parameters.

In contrast to this approach, we propose that grammatical relations emerge rather late in the language-learning process. Our theoretical proposal is based on two observations. First, early production of childhood speech is formulaic and becomes systematic in a progressive fashion. Second, grammatical relations themselves are family-resemblance categories that cannot be described by a single parameter. This leads to the notion that grammatical relations are learned in a bottom up fashion. Combining this theoretical position with the notion that the main purpose of language is communication, we demonstrate the emergence of the notion of “subject” in a simple recurrent network that learns to map from sentences to semantic roles. We analyze the hidden layer representations of the emergent subject, and demonstrate that these representations correspond to a radially-structured category. We also claim that the pattern of generalization and undergeneralization demonstrated by the network conforms to what we expect from the data on children’s generalizations.


Argument Structure Experiential Verb Semantic Role Embed Clause Passive Voice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • William C. Morris
    • 1
  • Garrison W. Cottrell
    • 1
  • Jeffrey Elman
    • 2
  1. 1.Computer Science and Engineering DepartmentUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Center for Research in Language, Department of Cognitive ScienceUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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