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From maps to principles: Syntactic cartography and locality in adult grammars and language acquisition

Final Report Summary - SYNCART (From maps to principles: Syntactic cartography and locality in adult grammars and language acquisition.)

The cartography of syntactic structures is the line of research which aims at drawing structural maps of sentences as precise and detailed as possible, in view of studying how words (and smaller component of words) get organized into complex configurations. The SynCart project aimed at developing and integrating two lines of current research in formal linguistics: cartographic research, and the study of locality, in particular the study of intervention effects, whereby the establishment of relations between different positions in a structure is hampered by intervening elements with certain characteristics. The cartography of syntactic structures and the theory of locality were studied both in the adult grammatical systems, and in language acquisition. The main focus was on the initial part of the clause (the “left periphery”, or the complementizer system), a zone of the clausal structure which presents a rich functional sequence, is a major target of syntactic operations (hence a privileged domain to test locality), plays a crucial role at the interfaces with sound and meaning, and may raise significant difficulties for the language learner.

The first part of the SynCart project focused primarily on the theoretical foundations of cartography and locality. We worked out a detailed systematic map of the left periphery of
the clause to be used as a reference point for the successive work on specific aspects of cartography and locality, as well as for the study of the acquisition of left-peripheral constructions. This research is presented in Rizzi and Bocci (2017) and, in a more general setting also assessing cartographic research on other zones of the clause, in Rizzi and Cinque (2016), where detailed maps of the major zones of the syntactic tree are presented. The issue of “further explanation” of cartographic properties progressively acquired a high prominence in the project: is it possible to deductively connect the discovered empirical properties of cartographic maps to fundamental mechanisms and principles of linguistic computations, as they emerge, e.g. in minimalist approaches? In this context, our research led to elaborating a novel theory of freezing effects, whereby elements moved to certain types of positions (“criterial” positions) become inaccessible to further movement. A key ingredient of the new line of analysis is the labeling algorithm (Rizzi 2014, 2015a-b, 2016a and, for applications to the analysis of different constructions across languages, Shlonsky & Rizzi 2018, Belletti 2017).

The study of the interfaces between cartographic structures and the systems of sound and meaning led to introducing finer typologies of left-peripheral positions, e.g. with the distinction between corrective and mirative focus in the left periphery (Bianchi, Bocci, Cruschina 2016). The language acquisition dimension was the main focus of the second part of the project. The group addressed the acquisition of complex syntactic constructions by integrating a formal linguistic theory of syntactic locality (the Relativized Minimality approach in its featural definition) with the experimental methodology of developmental psycholinguistics. This interdisciplinary approach was detailed in Belletti and Guasti (2015) on the acquisition of questions and relatives, and was then extended to the acquisition of other left-peripheral constructions, such as topic and focus. A major empirical finding of this line of research was the observation that children systematically use grammatical devices that are not found (or rarely used) in the adult target system. For instance, in elicited production experiments, learners of Italian systematically used non-target consistent special morphological markers for topics (a-topics), and systematically produced causative and reflexive passives as substitutes of regular passives (Belletti & Manetti 2018; Belletti 2017a, b, 2018, 2019a). These cases offer important examples of “grammatical creativity”, showing that the child, confronted with certain difficult structures, actively explores the possible grammatical space, well beyond the set of constructions attested in the input.

In addition to offering important results in the study of typical language development, the interdisciplinary methodology putting together formal linguistic locality and experimental
psycholinguistic testing proved effectively applicable to the study of language-related pathologies such as Developmental Language disorder, hearing impairment, and adult language impairments linked to brain damage, with promising implications for developing diagnostic and rehabilitation techniques inspired by the assumed grammar-based approach. Also, in perspective, for the design of innovative tools in view of pedagogical applications and screening/assessment techniques adapted to mono- and multilingual school environments.
The website ( ) specifies the research lines developed in the project and provides detailed bibliographies of studies of cartography and locality, and of related acquisition studies, with a repository of the papers emanating from the project.
The first half of the project was concluded by the “First SynCart Workshop” (July 11-15, 2016 see ), and the second half by the “Second SynCart Workshop" (May 10, 2019, see ), in which the research themes of the project were discussed with international experts and junior researchers.