Rules, representations, and the English past tense

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Abstract

The significance of the English past tense in current cognitive science is that it offers a clear contrast between a potentially rule-based system - the procedures for forming the regular past tense - and an unpredictable and idiosyncratic set of irregular forms. This contrast has become a focus for a wide-ranging debate about whether mental computation requires the use of symbols. Highly regular combinatorial phenomena, such as the regular past tense, are prime candidates for rule-based symbolic computation. Earlier research concentrated on the evidence for this during language acquisition, looking at how children learned the English regular and irregular verb systems. Over the last five years attention has shifted towards the properties of the adult system, and we review here some recent research into the neural correlates of the two types of procedure. The evidence suggests that there are divergences in the neural systems underlying the generation and perception of regular and irregular forms. Regular inflected forms seem to involve primarily combinatorial processes, while irregular forms appear to have a hybrid status, sharing their semantic properties with the regular forms but diverging in the phonological domain, where their form representations are stored as complete units. This indicates that the regular and irregular past tenses may not, after all, provide a clean contrast in the types of mental computation they implicate.

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Marslen-Wilson, W., & Tyler, L. K. (1998, November 1). Rules, representations, and the English past tense. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1364-6613(98)01239-X

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