Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 360-366
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
The Morphosyntactic Interface of Determiner Phrases
Gabrielle Klassen1, John W. Schwieter2
1Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
2Department of Languages and Literatures, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada
Received July 10th, 2013; revised August 9th, 2013; accepted August 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Gabrielle Klassen, John W. Schwieter. This is an open access article distributed under the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The functional category of determiners has undergone a number of representational changes in the last
half century. Beginning with Abney in 1987 and as early as work by Brame (1981, 1982) and Postal
(1966), linguists began to adapt the notion that determiners were a type of functional category with
phrasal structure, and not specifiers of noun phrases. The flexibility allotted to this category to hold a sig-
nificant role in syntactic structure has led to theories of feature and feature strength and the development
of these features in first and second language acquisition. This paper seeks to review the current theories
of syntactic structure of determiner phrases in English and universally. In particular, it examines one area
of controversy regarding this category, namely nominal gender agreement, and how this affects applied
areas of linguistics. Recent studies seem to favor specific transfer theories, however the default hypothesis
that arises leaves much to be considered. From the discussion, we argue that gender feature agreement in
L1 and L2 acquisition is distinct and merits further investigation, perhaps benefiting from the recent de-
velopments in the area of psycholinguistics.
Keywords: Morphosyntax; Determiner Phrases; Transfer Theories; Gender Agreement
Contrasting theories in the area of the syntactic functional
category of determiner phrases (DPs) continues to be a contro-
versial area of theoretical linguistics. Following work done by
Abney (1987), or as Chomsky (1995) argues as early as works
by Brame (1981, 1982) and Postal (1966), linguists have begun
to adapt the theory that determiners are a type of functional
category with phrasal structure, and not specifiers of noun
phrases. This train of thought has led to an entirely new inter-
pretation of determiners and the implications that this has on
syntactic theory are just beginning to be investigated. This pa-
per seeks to review such theories, universal features, and fea-
ture options, and to provide an overview of the English DP
parameters, and some cross-linguistic variability (using Spanish
as one particular example). It will then focus on nominal gender
agreement and the issues that arise in other areas of applied
linguistics, such as first (L1) and second language (L2) acquisi-
tion, and psycholinguistics, as an illustration of the importance
and far-reaching implications of this area of syntactic theory.
The latter section will examine two key areas of debate con-
cerning gender agreement; transfer theories (Epstein, Flynn, &
Martohardjono, 1996; Schwartz & Sprouse, 1996; White, 1985;
Prévost & White, 2000), and the Default Hypothesis (Bruhn de
Garavito & White, 2002). This overview of current theories and
conflicts, as well as some suggested solutions, is intended to
spark future research in this area and to add clarity and cohe-
sion to the studies recently put forth.
Syntactic Category: Determiners in English
Beginning with an overview of how to interpret a determiner
syntactically, it is important to define what is meant by “deter-
miner”. Besides the traditionally thought of articles the and a,
several other very similar types of words can be represented in
the same syntactic position (i.e., directly preceding nouns).
These include personal pronouns (my, his, her etc.), demonstra-
tives (this, that), and numerals. There is, therefore, a dissocia-
tion between determiners and the position that they typically
occupy. The functional category of determiners will contain a
variety of word classes, including determiners, demonstratives,
possessive pronouns, among others. In this paper, we will use
determiner to refer to the syntactic category, including the
above mentioned word classes as well.
The determiner position also has several binary feature op-
tions. However, these features may not always be lexically
associated with a particular word. Korzen (2008) argues that the
most inherent feature of any determiner is [+/ identifiable]
which marks specificity. It has also come to be known as [+/
definite], a feature that is often falsely automatically associated
with all determiners. Korzen considers the relationship between
definite and specificity features in Italian, among other areas.
Since words typically have features associated with them in the
lexicon, there is now the option that these features are assigned
syntactically by the position itself and have no necessary rela-
tionship to the meaning of the word. They are then in theory
produced in Surface Structure and “spelled-out” at the Phonetic
Form (PF) interface with the presence (or absence) of a word
(Chomsky, 1995).
If determiners, then, are merely a collection of features, then
universally we would expect to find the same features, or at
least feature options, across languages. In other words, we
Open Access 361
would expect determiners to have matching equivalents across
languages to function in the same necessary ways. These fea-
tures play a significant role in syntactic structure and semantic
Within the minimalist program it is assumed that syntactic
operations are essentially feature driven: features are
standardly assumed to undergo and thus trigger movement
and/or agreement (Wiltschko, 2009: p. 64).
We will consider in further detail later on some of these pos-
sible features. With a basic understanding of what a determiner
is, we must first consider how to syntactically represent this
information. The traditional view of the relationship of deter-
miners and nouns seems similar to that of degree words and
adjectives, or that of qualifiers and verbs. This would indicate a
specifier-head relationship. However, it is generally accepted in
modern syntactic analysis that the relationship of determiners to
noun phrases is more like that of I (inflection) to verb phrases.
It is the head of the noun phrase, and dominates it syntactically1.
There is now the issue of how to represent the DP. We will
adopt Abney’s (1987) theory, and so the DP will have a com-
plement NP instead of being the specifier of the NP.
From a minimalist point of view, these DPs must exist only
as long as they serve a vital purpose (referring to the concept of
economy, or the use of putting forth the minimal effort possi-
ble). They will, therefore, have a D’ level, to accommodate a
noun phrase that they will dominate and a D head level, for a
possible overt determiner. The first potential problem that
arises with this theory is that determiners are not always overtly
present. In many cases, they can be left out. Consider the fol-
lowing sentence taken from Zamparelli (2008):
(1) He sees dogs in the street.
The dogs are non-specific, and therefore do not require a de-
terminer to mark [+ identifiable]. However, it is syntactically
plausible for one to exist, changing the meaning of dogs to be a
specific set of dogs. From a minimalist point of view, it would
at first glance seem acceptable to eliminate the DP in this case,
if specificity is always marked by an overt determiner. How-
ever, there are other factors to consider before one can elimi-
nate the DP altogether. We have already established that deter-
miners and the D position do not always go hand in hand in
everyday understanding, as other categories often fall under this
position as well, such as these, my, some. If the DP has the
same relationship as an inflective phrase (IP) does with a verb
phrase (VP), then we can assume that DPs would also contain
other features that may or may not be overtly expressed (e.g.,
the IP marks [+/ past], and cannot simply be removed if an
auxiliary is not present). This implies that there must be more
features to be checked under D than just those which may be
checked by the presence of the.
Similar assumptions have lead researchers to propose an
empty (null) category for the D position when a determiner is
not overtly present (Longobardi, 2008). This is not an unfamil-
iar concept, given that the empty category PRO has been pro-
posed to represent a non-specific pronoun in infinitive phrases
in the [Spec, IP] position, and an operator (Op) to represent the
direct object under C in a complement phrase in which the di-
rect object is overtly lacking (Chomsky, 1995). Both of these
are required to check the features of their respected categories.
Minimalist considerations would argue that this is a plausible
hypothesis. Where there is no overt determiner, such as in (1),
an empty category will hold its place.
By this logic, there is an assumed DP as the head of every
noun phrase, leaving the potential for a determiner to exist, and
checking the necessary features for proper interpretation. This
also accommodates the internal projection of functional catego-
ries of DP. Numbers, although not strictly determiners in the
lexical sense, have been proposed to occupy an internal projec-
tion or functional category number phrase (NumP), and the
indefinite determiner a will also occupy this position, since it
originally began as a singular marker (and always refers to only
one) (Muller & Klinge, 2008). Now that there is a null category
under the D head, the phrase is safe from having two determin-
ers, thus making it safe from becoming ungrammatical in Eng-
lish. Other functional words that precede nouns may fall under
D, such as demonstratives (this, those), whereas others with
more distinct features, like possessive pronouns (my, your, his),
will also have their own internal projection or functional cate-
gory to occupy (Demonstratives being determiners that contain
the feature [+/ location]: Wiltschko, 2009). Cowper and Cur-
rie Hall (2009) argue that there indeed is a difference between
[specific] and [definite], previously assumed to be the same.
Gillon (2009) argues that anything that occurs under D position
makes the phrase [+ definite] only when combined with a [+
unique] feature, but Cowper and Currie Hall modify this
slightly by positing that the D position being occupied will
“introduce a choice function” and it will only acquire the [+
definite] feature from the addition of other features (p. 101).
Another syntactic structure peculiarity to consider in English
is that of the genitive ’s. Although not all languages face this
complication in their morphology, the genitive ’s occurs in
complementary distribution with determiners. Take for example
the following sentences:
(2) The woman’s book.
(3) The book of the woman.
(4) *The woman’s the book.
(5) Her book.
As demonstrated by the ungrammatical nature of (4), the
genitive ’s marks the same syntactic features as the preposition
and determiner in (3). This would suggest that in a sentence like
(2), the ’s is the determiner head dominating the rest of the
phrase, leaving [DP The woman] as the specifier of [DP ’s
[NPbook]] (Carnie, 2002). Also consider sentence (5), showing
possession to be a determiner (or as mentioned above, at least
an internal projection of a determiner). Since ’s also marks
possession, it makes sense to treat it in the same manner.
So far we have established a basis for syntactically repre-
senting determiners in English, using a minimalist framework
and various features. We have included only what is necessary
for convergence at the Logical (interpreted) Form (LF). The
necessary features will vary according to the type of noun it
precedes. For example, Massam and Ghomeshi (2009) argue
that the null category preceding proper nouns will include
[proper], [singular], and [definite]. This is merely a list of pos-
sible options for determiners specific to English.
Bare Nouns
We begin our cross-linguistic analysis of English and other
languages in their treatment of bare nominals (nouns that never
occur with overt determiners). For example, proper names like
James do not typically occur with a determiner when referring
to a specific person (e.g., *The James). In other languages, like
1We refer here to the syntactic DP category, not to the strictly lexically-
defined determiners.
Open Access
Italian, this is not the case. In Italian proper names can occur
after both an overt determiner and a possessive pronoun in the
same phrase, or before a possessive pronoun or even on its own.
Consider the following phrases in Italian:
(6) La mia Maria.
Lit.: The-(Det.) my Maria
(7) Maria mia.
Lit.: Maria my.
(8) *Mia Maria.
Lit.: My Maria.
Using similar phrases, Longobardi (1994) argues that proper
names appear to raise to the D position, to check features of
definiteness or specificity, and leave a trace if an overt deter-
miner is not already present. This explains the grammaticality
of (7) and the ungrammaticality of (8).
Longobardi (2008) provides another interesting example with
the treatment of adjective phrase modifiers and noun phrases.
Consider the following examples of nouns in subject position (p.
(9) L’antica Roma.
Lit.: Det.-The ancient Rome.
(10) *Antica Roma.
Lit.: Ancient Rome.
(11) Roma Antica.
Lit.: Rome Ancient.
Here again the only acceptable word order in English is the
only unacceptable word order in Italian. It seems reasonable to
posit that the raising of proper nouns to D position is possible
in Italian but not in English.
Massam and Ghomeshi (2009) provide evidence that “[…]
proper names can appear with determiners or their functional
equivalents” (p. 70). Here again, there is evidence that proper
names may be treated differently in other languages. The pro-
posed difference here is the distinction between “proper” and
“common” nouns, where each would contain a contrastive fea-
ture, [proper] and [common] respectively. Massam and Gho-
meshi argue that N-D movement is triggered by this semantic
feature difference. So to make this parameter more specific, it
would appear that nouns with the semantic feature [proper], in a
language with the parameter of N-D movement allowed, will
raise to D position to check this feature, instead of using an
overt determiner.
Consider the somewhat unusual phrases:
(12) ?My Maria.
(13) ?The Maria.
(14) *The my Maria.
(15) *Rome Ancient.
Examples (12) and (13) are not strictly ungrammatical. Con-
sider the contexts: Not that Maria, my Maria and The Maria in
red, not the one in yellow. However, they are certainly awk-
ward, while (14) and (15) are undeniably ungrammatical. It
seems that in English the necessary features of the D position
are able to be checked without overt movement of the proper
name. Under the economy condition of procrastinate (Chom-
sky, 2005), this movement should only happen if absolutely
necessary for convergence at PF. Otherwise it can be delayed
until LF. This also supports the idea that the possessive pro-
noun must be an internal projection or functional category of
the DP, and must not occupy the D position (refer back to
Longobardi, 2008). This difference of parameter settings ac-
counts for the raising in Italian to check features that are nor-
mally checked by a null category in English. In English, the
raising of N-D will procrastinate until LF, where it is not re-
quired for PF. Thus we can define the parameter of Universal
Grammar, allowing for variation within the general framework
already established. Within this parameter, Italian would allow
D-N movement where an overt determiner is not already pre-
sent under D, and English would not allow D-N raising at all
until LF.
Gender Agreement
Another research area that is hotly being debated in the field
is the case of nominal gender agreement in English (e.g.
Wilschko, 2009). It is often assumed that the noun phrase is
assigning gender features to the determiner—at least that would
be the implication of the traditional pedagogy of languages that
morphologically mark gender. Wilschko (2009) argues that
these determiner features (d-features) are selected (as a pa-
rameter) for a specific language. If this is a linguistic universal,
it may be assumed that a language would set its parameters to
include any combination of [+/ masculine, feminine] or sim-
ply [unmarked] for gender, as appears to be the case in English,
with the exception of personal pronouns, but these are marked
to assign the gender of the third person (e.g., his, her) and does
not have a gender agreement relationship with the noun in
question. Wiltschko explores these options in German, Halko-
melem, and Blackfoot along with several other features, in-
cluding number, case and location. She found that in all three
languages there are separate morphemes for gender marked
determiners. One would then expect that each language treats
this agreement in a syntactically similar way, according to its
parameters. However, Wiltschko’s study revealed an anomaly
in the feminine morphological marker of determiners in
Halkomelem. The results showed that the apparent [+ masc]
determiner may be freely applied to a feminine noun; however
the feminine marked determiner, or [ masc] cannot ever be
applied to a masculine noun. Moreover, there was no apparent
difference in meaning between the masculine or feminine
marked determiner with a feminine noun. This was accounted
for by the idea that, since there is no neuter form, that which
was assumed to be [+ masc] is actually completely unmarked.
The parameters would then only include an unmarked deter-
miner and a [+ fem] one, and the [+ fem] would occur only to
specify the “femininity” of the noun, whereas otherwise it
would be unimportant. Another complication is that the inflec-
tional morphemes of nouns in some languages will “match”
their respective determiners (be phonologically identical).
Wiltschko appeals to the minimalist theory of agree (Chomsky,
1998) to account for these variations, claiming that those pre-
viously mentioned are produced or “spelled-out” earlier than
those that are not similar in their morphemes.
The last phenomenon that we will consider is that of option-
ality. As we have seen, in English the use of an overt deter-
miner may be optional, and its use will change the semantic
interpretation but not the grammaticality (e.g., dogs vs. the
dogs). In all languages, this difference is not as apparent, as is
the case for nominal syntagmatic compounds in Spanish. This
is the structure of noun phrases that include prepositional com-
plements with their respective noun phrase complements, which
may or may not be headed by an overt DP. Compare the two
Open Access 363
structures as represented by Hǿeg Müller (2009: p. 163):
(16) Crisis de la energía. [N1 prep. def. N2]
Lit.: Crisis of the energy.
(17) Fuente de energía. [N1 prep. N2]
Lit.: Fountain of energy.
To native speakers, the difference is subtle. However, since
both examples exist, it is not likely that the meanings are iden-
tical as language in general avoids such ambiguity. It cannot
simply be a matter of specificity, as is the largely assumed fea-
ture for all definite articles, since there are examples of generic
meaning within the structure of (16) as well. Hǿeg Müller
(2009) posits that the features checked with an overt determiner
will semantically agree in referentiality, or a prototype meaning,
whereas the lack of an overt determiner will assign either a
mass reading or a concept. Referentiality will make a prototype
reference, whereas specificity will denote a general or mass
concept representation. This notion is consistent with the theo-
ries posited above. As for the first structure, the idea that a de-
terminer checks a [+/- identifiable] feature is a common phe-
nomenon. The subtle difference is then of the prototype to mass
reading. A prototype is still, in semantic definition, a specific
reference. Consider the following examples from Hǿeg Müller:
(18) Pulpo del melón.
Lit.: Pulp of the melon.
(19) Pulpo de melón.
Lit.: Pulp of melon (Melon pulp.)
In (18), the meaning is that of prototypical melon pulp.
However, the relationship of melón in (19) to pulpo is that of a
mass reading. It refers to melon pulp in general. In this case, the
null or overt determiners and the noun melón would need to
“share” syntactic features, as mentioned above. Therefore, the
difference in their distribution must be inherently semantic.
Another area of concern about optionality can be seen in Old
French and its seemingly random use of determiners. Bare
nominals can occur as arguments, and so the determiner is not
needed. Also, there are examples of bare noun arguments that
can be interpreted as definite, even without a definite marker.
Mattieu (2009) cites La Cantilene de Sainte Eulalie as including
examples of free alteration between inclusion or exclusion of a
determiner. This freedom of optionality is problematic for the
theory of economy. Under the assumptions put forth by mini-
malism, if the determiner can be avoided, it should be. Lan-
guage is efficient in this way: unnecessary elements tend to be
eliminated. Mathieu argues that in this case there is “no evi-
dence for a null determiner, since bare nouns in subject and
object position does not show an asymmetry in their distribu-
tion” (p. 135). However, this is not evidence that a null cate-
gory does not exist. It is merely evidence that the study of this
particular language would cause a linguist to miss the necessity
of the null category for a universally inclusive theory. It has
been proposed that this apparent discrepancy between the ab-
sence or presence of a determiner is that the language is simply
in the process of change (Carlier & Goyens, 1998). This is true
of any language given that it is constantly changing and thus,
this is not a complete explanation. Mathieu also disagrees with
this approach, and instead suggests that the including of a syn-
tactically unwarranted determiner is marking focus or emphasis,
which is a discourse function, or to mark a metric requirement,
which is a PF function. The latter will no doubt include the
internal projection or functional category NumP, where the
determiner will be overtly placed. Mathieu bases his findings
on the theory that Old French is a [+ arg, + pred] language,
following the Nominal Mapping Parameter of Chiercha (1998),
a classification of languages according to their allowance of
bare nominals as arguments. As we have seen, it is possible in
Old French to use a bare nominal as both an argument and a
predicate, whereas in Italian this is not the case. So, we have
added this parameter to our understanding of determiners: if the
language is set to include overt determiners to mark argumenta-
tion or predication it will do so, if not, it will use determiners
for some other function (e.g., “focus” as described above).
Modern French, of course, has lost this [focus] feature in de-
terminers. Mathieu claims that this is because the overt plural
and case marking disappeared and so the determiner was forced
to carry more functional features to make up for this loss.
Focus on Gender Agreement
Gender agreement, which we have briefly touched on above,
between nouns and determiners is a sharing or feature percola-
tion process. The noun has an inherent gender, and where the
morphology of the determiner in a given language distinguishes
between grammatical gender the noun will share this feature
with the determiner, resulting in a grammatical utterance. In the
next few sections we will consider in further detail this particu-
lar feature of DPs to provide comparable examples of work
being done in this research area.
Applied Linguistics: L1 Acquisition
and Gender Agreement
According to nativist theories, children acquire language in
such a way that it has been compared to other aspects of life
that must be learned, such as learning to walk or brushing one’s
teeth (Clark, 2003). When one considers the intricate aspects of
language learning in general this is a remarkable feat. In fact,
many adults could not overtly explain how their native lan-
guage works in some aspects. Uninterpretable features (or φ
features, Chomsky, 1995), including nominal gender, are
somewhat extraordinary to acquire, since they are not easy to
explain and their overt phonological representation does not
always follow a concrete rule. For example, in Spanish (which
will be the source of all comparisons here for the sake of clarity
and simplicity) the gender of the noun might be recognizable
(-o would indicate [+ masculine], -a would indicate [ mascu-
line]) (Bull, 1965). This is not a well-defined rule, but rather a
generalization. It is also rare that a parent would take the time
to formally instruct an infant about these rules and even rarer
yet that any small child would understand them. However,
somehow children do acquire this feature in Spanish and in fact,
they develop accuracy in this area very early in life (Liceras,
Diaz, & Monegon, 2000). In this way, the feature agreement of
DPs holds interesting implications for nativist and behavourist
theories (Chomsky, 1965; Skinner, 1957). For if language is
entirely learned through a stimulus-response mechanism the
acquisition of uninterpretable features seems unlikely. In this
way, the uninterpretable features of determiners seem to favour
a nativist theory in which these features and the appropriate
parameters for these features would be set by the language fac-
ulty at work, as with every other aspect of language, by sorting
through the input.
Applied Linguistics: Child L2 Acquisition
and Gender Agreement
The area of L2 acquisition is where the question of gender
Open Access
agreement really begins to spark controversy. Gender agree-
ment with determiners is a well-known hurdle for L2 learners
(Montrul, Foote, & Perpiñán, 2008; White, Valenzuela,
Kozlowska-Macgregor, & Leung, 2004). Liceras et al. (2000)
sought to explore child L1 and L2 acquisition by comparing
longitudinal data elicited from two sets of children: two L1
Spanish-speaking children (López Ornat, 1994) and two L2
Spanish-speaking children (Aguirre, 1995). The researchers
analyzed gender and number agreement errors between deter-
miners, nouns and adjectives, as well as gender agreement in
occurrences of n-drop. N-drop or null nouns refer to the phe-
nomena of dropping the noun in a determiner-noun phrase con-
struction, and referring to the noun by only the determiner and
an adjective, preposition, or complement phrase (e.g., La roja
—the red (one), los del comité—the (ones) from the committee,
la que viene—the (one) that is coming). In this way, the gender
of the noun is integral to the semantic interpretation. To exem-
plify this, imagine that two friends are visiting a clothing store
and one friend wants to know which piece of clothing the other
friend likes. While standing at a rack of clothing containing a
red shirt (camisa roja-fem.) and a red dress (vestido rojo-masc.),
one friend asks the other friend, “cuál te gusta más?”—which
(one) do you like better?” When the friend who answers replies,
“la roja” (the-fem. red-fem (one)), this can only refer to the
camisa because it is the feminine noun and thus cannot refer to
a vestido (i.e., this would posit the LF “*la-fem. vestido-masc.
rojas-fem.”). Even if the reader does not speak Spanish, this is
an obvious error. The determiner and adjective must agree with
the gender and number of the noun, even if that noun is implied.
These examples demonstrate that the gender of the determiner
plays a semantic role that otherwise would have been arbitrary.
In Liceras et al. (2000), which examines gender agreement in
nominal phrases produced by L1 and L2 children speakers of
Spanish, the results suggested that the native Spanish speaking
children acquired n-drop agreement long before acquiring overt
noun agreement (gender and number errors seem to disappear
around the age of 2;5, and n-drop is produced accurately at ages
1;10 and 1;11). Although this is a syntactic anomaly, assuming
that the syntactic determiner feature agreement assigns the
morphology in both n-drop and overt noun expressions, it could
be proposed that a semantic licencing condition is at work in
this instance to merit the extra attention to null noun agreement.
Gender and number agreement are accurate only when it is
essential for comprehension.
Applied Linguistics: Adult L2 Acquisition
and Gender Agreement
In considering adults in L2 acquisition of gender, one won-
ders whether or not this feature parameter is even acquirable?
Or is there evidence that this is not a universal feature, but a
particular setting specific to every language, even languages
that have the concept of nominal gender in common?
Bruhn de Garavito and White (2002) looked at a group of
French L2 learners of Spanish (low proficiency and low-inter-
mediate proficiency) participated in an elicited responses task
(Lightbown, 1983) in which they were required to describe
pictures to an experimenter. A series of three picture options
were presented, and the participants, who were university be-
ginner Spanish students and native speakers of French, chose
one picture to describe. The noun phrases produced were ana-
lysed for gender and number accuracy. These results were
compared to those of Lightbrown (1983), which examined stu-
dents with a first language that does not have a nominal gender
feature (specifically English L2 learners of French). Their hy-
pothesis was that if gender if transferable as a syntactic feature,
the French L1 speakers should be able to transfer this feature
over to their L2 (Spanish). However, the results of the two
groups were comparable, indicating that gender is at least not a
transferable feature, even if activated in the L1 (French learners
of Spanish). This begs the question, is it acquirable? A moun-
tain of proficient L2 learners would suggest that it is, but some
linguists continue to argue that it is not (e.g. Franceschina,
Lingering Question 1: Transfer Hypothesis
Upon careful observation of Liceras et al. (2000) and Bruhn
de Garavito and White (2002), two major issues still remain.
One is that they provide evidence for transfer theories. Three
main theories that are affected by this area of research are the
Full Access Hypothesis (Epstein, Flynn, & Martohardjono,
1996), the Full Transfer/Full Access Hypothesis (Schwartz &
Sprouse, 1996; White, 1985), and the Missing Surface Inflec-
tion Hypothesis (Prévost & White, 2000), and each theory in its
own right has compelling evidence in different fields of study.
The evidence of gender agreement in determiner-noun con-
structions seems to provide support for the Missing Surface
Inflection Hypothesis. This is, however, not definitive evidence
for one theory as a whole over another, but provides evidence
that at least in this aspect, nominal gender agreement seems to
favour a theory that allows for acquisition of proper features
and features strength (as supported in Liceras et al. in which L2
child learners of Spanish developed n-drop agreement before
overt noun agreement), but where “learners sometimes have a
problem with realization of surface morphology” (Prévost &
White, 2000: p. 110).
Lingering Question 2: Default Hypothesis
The second major question concerns the notion that the
masculine determiner is almost always used as a “default” in L2
learners (or their respective interlanguage). This means that
almost all errors that occur will be a masculine determiner with
a feminine noun, and not likely a feminine determiner with a
masculine noun. This had lead researchers to propose that the
masculine determiner acts as a “default” until the features are
fully acquired. However, White et al. (2004) point out the error
in simply accepting this phenomenon without question:
This preference for one gender over another clearly requires
explanation. […] If there is a breakdown in feature checking
but no loss of gender on nouns, one would anticipate problems
in both directions (p. 128).
Remarkably, this controversy has provided evidence for a
more lexical approach to syntax, namely distributed morphol-
ogy (Halle & Marantz, 2003). In this theory, there is only one
feature, that of [+ fem], and the masculine determiner is un-
marked or underspecified for gender (Prévost & White, 2000).
Under this assumption, using a masculine determiner with a
feminine noun is not a feature clash, but rather a noun with
gender features and a determiner without. The default deter-
miner wins a sort of competition between morphology options,
and although it is not the best option available, it appears to be
the easiest in some sense.
Open Access 365
Applied Linguistics: Psycholinguistics and
Gender Agreement
Psycholinguistics has recently provided affective and fruitful
results in areas of research that have strong implications for
theoretical linguistics. Mental representations of words and how
these words are processed in the context of cross-linguistic
competition caused by bilingualism have led to models of lexi-
cal access and inhibition (Green, 1986, 1998; Schwieter &
Sunderman, 2008, 2009). However, if the above questions are
to be answered, perhaps it would be more helpful to include
what we know from psycholinguistics. In terms of transfer
theories, evidence from studies concerning gender agreement
seem to lend support to a “partial/full access” theory, involving
access to a system of universal grammar (see “Applied Linguis-
tics: Adult L2 Acquisition and Gender Agreement” Section).
However, the default theories have yet to be explained, as this
phenomenon has only been noticed and hypothesised. The in-
hibition of the feminine determiner (which has theoretically
been acquired but perhaps is not being produced) would make
an interesting study, if applied to already well-known theories
of lexical inhibition. Schwieter and Sunderman’s (2008) Selec-
tion by Proficiency Model addresses the issue of language se-
lection and control in speakers of more than one language. It
essentially theoretically explains how the bilingual mind is able
to select the language in which to speak and choose the words
to verbalize. The connection that can be drawn to functional
morphology also involves the idea of inhibition. The overuse of
the masculine singular determiner in Spanish (el, un) in place of
the feminine (la, una), which is often dismissed as a default but
not explained, could be addressed with a similar theory of inhi-
bition. If both morphemes are acquired, and one is syntactically
superior to the other but inexplicably supressed to favor the
other, perhaps extending theories of inhibition to include func-
tional morphology within a single language in L2 learners could
help unravel the questions concerning why this pattern occurs?
The above evidence for DP structure in English and universal
syntactic theory opens a base for research in the acquisition of
this functional category. Some evidence from the study of Eng-
lish DPs has provided valuable insight into syntactic theory, but
a truly universal theory that has the ability to accommodate
every language is merited. To come to this, various aspects,
including feature parameters, must be adjusted. When these
theories are applied to real world languages, such as in L1 and
L2 acquisition, there has been some debate over how this cate-
gory actually performs. The errors that occur are particularly
interesting, and go far beyond the one common error in a single
language. The implication for how this area is acquired as an
L1 (behaviourist vs. nativist theories), as well as how it is ac-
quired as an L2 (transfer hypothesis and default hypothesis) is
enormous, and requires further investigation. These future
studies would additionally benefit greatly from the cooperation
of other areas of linguistics showing evidential progress, in-
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