Skip to main content

Comprehension asymmetries in language acquisition: a test for Relativized Minimality*


Cross-linguistic studies have shown that typically developing children have difficulties comprehending non-canonical structures. These findings have been interpreted within the Relativized Minimality (RM) approach, according to which local relations cannot be established between two terms of a dependency if an intervening element possesses similar morphosyntactic features. In an extension of RM, Friedmann, Belletti, and Rizzi (2009) suggested that lexical NP restriction is the source of minimality effects in non-canonical sentences. The present study aimed at investigating whether the predictions of their account can be confirmed in Greek. Our results indicate that although lexical NP restriction is a crucial factor in generating minimality effects, it is not always sufficient to account for the comprehension difficulties that young children face with non-canonical sentences, since the internal structure (i.e. the feature specification) of the moved element and of the intervener affects their performance, as well.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Spyridoula Varlokosta, Department of Linguistics, School of Philology, University of Athens, Panepistimioupoli Zografou, 15784 Athens, Greece. tel: +30 2107277642; fax: +30 2107277855; e-mail:
Hide All

We would like to thank Elena Anagnostopoulou, Nino Grillo, and Napoleon Katsos for discussions we had on some theoretical issues examined in the paper, as well as Anastasia Giannakidou and Winnie Lechner for their comments on a preliminary draft of the paper. Also, we are grateful to three anonymous reviewers and to the Associate Editor of the Journal of Child Language for their constructive comments, which helped us improve the quality of the paper. Last, we thank the children and the teachers of the kindergartens for their willingness to participate in our study. Permission to assess the children at the kindergartens was granted to the first author by the Hellenic Ministry of Education.

Hide All
Adani F., van der Lely H. K. J., Forgiarini M. & Guasti M. T. (2010). Grammatical feature dissimilarities make relative clauses easier: a comprehension study with Italian children. Lingua 120, 2148–66.
Alexiadou A. & Varlokosta S. (2007). On the structure and matching effects of free relatives in Greek. In Alexiadou A. (ed.), Studies in the morpho-syntax of Greek, 222–48. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Alexopoulou Th. & Keller F. (2014). What vs. who and which: kind-denoting fillers and the complexity of whether-islands. In Hornstein N. & Sprouse J. (eds), Experimental syntax and island effects, 310–40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anagnostopoulou E. (1994). Clitic dependencies in Modern Greek. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Salzburg.
Arosio F., Guasti M. T. & Stucchi N. (2011). Disambiguating information and memory resources in children's processing of Italian relative clauses. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 40, 137–54.
Avrutin S. (2000). Comprehension of wh-questions by children and Broca's aphasic patients. In Grodzinsky Y., Shapiro L. P. & Swinney D. A. (eds), Language and the brain: representation and processing, 295312. San Diego: Academic Press.
Bates E., Devescovi A. & D'Amico S. (1999). Processing complex sentences: a cross-linguistic study. Language and Cognitive Processes 14, 69123.
Belletti A., Friedmann N., Brunato D. & Rizzi L. (2012). Does gender make a difference? Comparing the effect of gender on children's comprehension of relative clauses in Hebrew and Italian. Lingua 122, 1053–69.
Brown H. (1972). Children's comprehension of relativized English sentences. Child Development 42, 1923–36.
Caramazza A. & Zurif E. (1976). Dissociation of algorithmic and heuristic processes in language comprehension: evidence from aphasia. Brain and Language 3, 572–82.
Chomsky N. (2001). Derivation by phase. In Kenstowicz M. (ed.), Ken Hale: a life in language, 152. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Contemori C. & Belletti A. (2013). Relatives and passive object relatives in Italian-speaking children and adults: intervention in production and comprehension. Applied Psycholinguistics 133.
Contemori C. & Garraffa M. (2010). Comparison of modalities in SLI: a study on the comprehension and production of non-canonical sentences. Lingua 120, 1940–55.
Corrêa L. M. S. (1995). An alternative assessment of children's comprehension of relative clauses. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 24, 183203.
Costa J., Grillo N. & Lobo M. (2012). Minimality beyond lexical restrictions: processing and acquisition of free wh-dependencies in European Portuguese. Revue Roumaine de Linguistique LVII(2), 143–60.
Deevy P. & Leonard L. B. (2004). The comprehension of wh-questions in children with specific language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research 47, 802–15.
De Vincenzi M. (1991). Syntactic parsing strategies in Italian. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
De Vincenzi M., Arduino L. S., Ciccarelli L. & Job R. (1999). Parsing strategies in children's comprehension of interrogative sentences. In Bagnara S. (ed.), Proceedings of ECCS ‘99 – European Conference on Cognitive Science, 301–8. Rome: Istituto di Psicologia del CNR.
Frazier L. & Flores d'Arcais G. B. (1989). Filler driven parsing: a study of gap filling in Dutch. Journal of Memory & Language 28, 331–44.
Friedmann N., Belletti A. & Rizzi L. (2009). Relativized relatives: types of intervention in the acquisition of A-bar dependencies. Lingua 119, 6788.
Friedmann N. & Costa J. (2010). The child heard a coordinated sentence and wondered: on children's difficulty in understanding coordination and relative clauses with crossing dependencies. Lingua 120(6), 1502–15.
Friedmann N. & Novogrodsky R. (2004). The acquisition of relative clause comprehension in Hebrew: a study of SLI and normal development. Journal of Child Language 31, 661–81.
Friedmann N. & Novogrodsky R. (2011). Which questions are most difficult to understand? The comprehension of wh-questions in three subtypes of SLI. Lingua 121, 367–82.
Garraffa M. & Grillo N. (2008). Canonicity effects as a grammatical phenomenon. Journal of Neurolinguistics 21, 177–97.
Giannakidou A., Papadopoulou D. & Stavrou M. (2012). Epistemic judgment, anti-specificity marking, and scope differentiation: an experimental study of two Greek indefinites. Proceedings of the Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS) 2011.
Giannakidou A. & Quer J. (2013). Exhaustive and non-exhaustive variation with free choice and referential vagueness: evidence from Greek, Catalan, and Spanish. Lingua 176, 120–49.
Grillo N. (2005). Minimality effects in agrammatic comprehension. In Blaho S., Schoorlemmer E. & Vicente L. (eds), Proceedings of ConSOLE XIII, 107–20. Online: <>.
Grillo N. (2008). Generalized Minimality. Doctoral dissertation, Utrecht, Institute of Linguistics OTS.
Grillo N. (2009). Generalized minimality: feature impoverishment and comprehension deficits in agrammatism. Lingua 119, 1426–43.
Grodzinsky Y. (1989). Agrammatic comprehension of relative clauses. Brain and Language 37, 480–99.
Gordon P. C., Hendrick R. & Johnson M. (2001). Memory interference during language processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition 27, 1411–23.
Gordon P., Hendrick R. & Johnson M. (2004). Effects of noun phrase type on sentence complexity. Journal of Memory and Language 51, 97114.
Guasti M. T., Branchini C. & Arosio F. (2012). Interference in the production of Italian subject and object wh-questions. Applied Psycholinguistics 33, 185223.
Guasti M. T., Branchini C., Arosio F. & Vernice M. (2012). A developmental study of subject and object relative clauses in Italian. Revue Roumaine de Linguistique 78(2), 105–16.
Hanlon C. (1988). The emergence of set-relational quantifiers in early childhood. In Kessel F. S. (ed.), The development of language and language researchers: essays in honor of Roger Brown, 6578. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Harley H. B. (1995). Subjects, events and licensing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, MIT.
Kidd E. & Bavin E. L. (2002). English-speaking children's understanding of relative clauses: evidence for general-cognitive and language-specific constraints on development. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 31, 599617.
Kotzoglou G. (2006). Subject-verb inversion in Greek: implications for head movement and typology. Journal of Universal Language 7, 91137.
Marantz A. (1991). Case and licensing. In ESCOL -91: Proceedings of the 8th Eastern State Conference on Linguistics, 234–53. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University.
Marinis T. & van der Lely H. (2007). On-line processing of wh-questions in children with G-SLI and typically developing children. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 42(5), 557–82.
Nerantzini M., Varlokosta S., Papadopoulou D. & Bastiaanse R. (2014). Wh-questions and relative clauses in Greek aphasia: evidence from comprehension and production. Aphasiology 28(4), 490514.
Neuhaus E. & Penke M. (2008). Production and comprehension of wh-questions in German Broca's aphasia. Journal of Neurolinguistics 21(2), 150–76.
Noveck I. (2001). When children are more logical than adults: experimental investigations of scalar implicature. Cognition 78, 165–88.
Papafragou A. & Musolino J. (2003). Scalar implicatures: experiments at the semantics/pragmatics interface. Cognition 86, 253–82.
Philippaki-Warburton I. & Stavrou M. (1986). Free relatives in Modern Greek. Studies in Greek Linguistics 7, 117–34.
Pouscoulous N., Noveck I., Politzer G. & Bastide A. (2007). A developmental investigation of processing costs in implicature production. Language Acquisition 14, 347–76.
Rizzi L. (1990). Relatived Minimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rizzi L. (2004). Locality and the left periphery. In Belletti A. (ed.), Structure and beyond, 223–51. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shlonsky U. (1997). Clause structure and word order in Hebrew and Arabic. New York: Oxford University Press.
Starke M. (2001). Move dissolves into Merge: a theory of locality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Geneva.
Stavrakaki S. (2001a). Specific Language Impairment in Greek: aspects of syntactic production and comprehension. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Stavrakaki S. (2001b). Comprehension of reversible relative clauses in specifically language impaired and normally developing Greek children. Brain and Language 77, 419–31.
Stromswold K. (1995). The acquisition of subject and object wh-questions. Language Acquisition 4, 548.
Tsimpli I. M. (1995). Focusing in Modern Greek. In Kiss K. E. (ed.), Discourse configurational languages (Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax), 176206. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tyack D. & Ingram D. (1977). Children's production and comprehension of questions. Journal of Child Language 4, 211–24.
Veloudis I. (1982). Negation in Modern Greek. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Reading.
Wilhelm A. & Hanna K. (1992). On the acquisition of wh-questions. Calgary Working Papers in Linguistics 15, 8998.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 5
Total number of PDF views: 56 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 348 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.