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The development of complex verb constructions in British Sign Language


This study focuses on the mapping of events onto verb-argument structures in British Sign Language (BSL). The development of complex sentences in BSL is described in a group of 30 children, aged 3;2–12;0, using data from comprehension measures and elicited sentence production. The findings support two interpretations: firstly, in the mapping of concepts onto language, children acquiring BSL overgeneralize the use of argument structure related to perspective shifting;secondly, these overgeneralizations are predicted by the typological characteristics of the language and modality. Children under age 6;0, in attempting to produce sentences encoded through a perspective shift, begin by breaking down double-verb constructions (AB verbs) into components, producing only the part of the verb phrase which describes the perspective of the patient. There is also a prolonged period of development of non-manual features, with the full structure not seen in its adult form until after 9;0. The errors in the use of AB verbs and the subsequent protracted development of correct usage are explained in terms of the conceptual–linguistic interface.

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Address for correspondence: Gary Morgan, Dept. of Language & Communication Science, City University, London, EC1V 0HB, UK. e-mail:
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Aspects of the reported work were presented at a workshop organised by Nini Hoiting and Dan Slobin entitled ‘Signed languages: developmental and cross-linguistic issues’ at the VIIIth International Congress for the Study of Child Language, July 1999, Donostia, The Basque Country. We are grateful to the workshop organisers, participants and audience for their comments. We especially thank the children and adults who gave up their time to participate in this study. We are also indebted to Sallie Holmes for collecting the data on the Herman, Holmes and Woll assessment project as well as to Graham Welton for help in coding and transcription of the verb sentences. The authors would like to thank Neil Smith, Isabelle Barrière, Shula Chiat, Dick Hudson, Judy Kegl, Penny Roy, Dan Slobin and two anonymous reviewers for essential comments on earlier versions of this paper. The subsequent interpretation of these comments is the sole responsibility of the authors.
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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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