German inflection: The exception that proves the rule

Gary F. Marcus, Ursula Brinkmann, Harald Clahsen, Richard Wiese, Steven Pinker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Language is often explained as the productof generative rules and a memorized lexicon. For example, most English verbs take a regular past tensesuffix (ask-asked), which is applied to new verbs (faxed, wugged), suggesting the mental rule “add - ed to a Verb.” Irregular verbs (break-broke, go-went) would be listed in memory. Alternatively, a pattern associator memory (such as a connectionist network) might record all past tense formsand generalize to new ones by similarity; irregularand regular patterns would differ only because of their different numbers of verbs. We present evidence that mental rules are indispensible. A rule concatenates a suffix to a symbol for verbs, so it does not require access to memorized verbs on their sound patterns, but applies as the “default,” whenever memory access fails. We find 21 such circumstances for regular past tense formation, including novel, unusual-sounding, and rootless andheadless derived words; in every case, people inflect them regularly (explaining quirks like flied out, sabre-tooths, walk-mans). Contrary to the connectionist account, these effects are not due to regular words constituting a large majority of vocabulary. The German participle -t applies to a much smaller percentage of verbs than its English counterpart, andthe German plural -s applies to a small minority ofnouns. But the affixes behave in the language like their English counterparts, as defaults. We corroborate this effect in two experiments eliciting ratings of participle and plural forms of novel German words. Thus default suffixation is not due to numerous regular words reinforcing a pattern in associative memory. Because default cases do not occupya cohesive similarity space, but do correspond to the range of a symbol, they are evidence for a memory-independent, symbol-concatenating mental operation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-256
Number of pages68
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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