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Whatever Happened to the Past Tense Debate?

  • Author(s): Pinker, Steven
  • et al.
Abstract

Twenty years ago, I began a collaboration with Alan Prince that has dominated the course of my research ever since. Alan sent me a list of comments on a paper by James McClelland and David Rumelhart. Not only had Alan identified some important flaws in their model, but pinpointed the rationale for the mechanisms that linguists and cognitive scientists had always taken for granted and that McClelland and Rumelhart were challenging -- the armamentarium of lexical entries, structured representations, grammatical categories, symbol-manipulating rules, and modular organization that defined the symbol-manipulation approach to language and cognition. By pointing out the work that each of these assumptions did in explaining aspects of a single construction of language -- the English past tense -- Alan outlined a research program that could test the foundational assumptions of the dominant paradigm in cognitive science. My graduate advisor Roger Brown once decried the lack of progress in much of psychology owing to the phenomenon in which "a large quantity of frequently conflicting theory and data can become cognitively ugly and so repellent as to be swiftly deserted, its issues unresolved." I like to think that the past-tense debate, now in its third decade, is a more hopeful case, despite the impression in some observers that it has reached a stalemate. In this paper I summarize my view of the current state of the art.

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