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Eighteen-month-old infants represent nonlocal syntactic dependencies.

Abstract

The human ability to produce and understand an indefinite number of sentences is driven by syntax, a cognitive system that can combine a finite number of primitive linguistic elements to build arbitrarily complex expressions. The expressive power of syntax comes in part from its ability to encode potentially unbounded dependencies over abstract structural configurations. How does such a system develop in human minds? We show that 18-mo-old infants are capable of representing abstract nonlocal dependencies, suggesting that a core property of syntax emerges early in development. Our test case is English wh-questions, in which a fronted wh-phrase can act as the argument of a verb at a distance (e.g., What did the chef burn?). Whereas prior work has focused on infants interpretations of these questions, we introduce a test to probe their underlying syntactic representations, independent of meaning. We ask when infants know that an object wh-phrase and a local object of a verb cannot co-occur because they both express the same argument relation (e.g., * What did the chef burn the pizza ). We find that 1) 18 mo olds demonstrate awareness of this complementary distribution pattern and thus represent the nonlocal grammatical dependency between the wh-phrase and the verb, but 2) younger infants do not. These results suggest that the second year of life is a period of active syntactic development, during which the computational capacities for representing nonlocal syntactic dependencies become evident.

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