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Reduced auxiliaries in early child language: Converging observational and experimental evidence from French1

  • CRISTINA D. DYE (a1)
Abstract

Since early studies in language development, scholars have noticed that function words, in particular auxiliaries, often appear to be missing in early speech, with the result that child utterances sometimes exhibit verbs with non-finite morphology in seemingly matrix clauses. This has led to the idea of a ‘deficit’ in the child's syntactic representations. In contrast with previous studies, this article explores the possibility that the child's phonology may considerably impact her overt realization of auxiliaries. Specifically, it examines the hypothesis that non-finite verbs in early speech are in fact attempted periphrastics (i.e. auxiliary/modal+non-finite verb) in which the auxiliaries are just reduced phonetically, often to the point where they remain unpronounced. We studied 28 normally developing French-speaking children aged between 23 and 37 months. New observational data uncovered a continuum in a given child's phonetic realizations of auxiliaries. Children showed various levels of auxiliary reduction, suggesting that their non-finite verbs are best analyzed as being part of periphrastics involving an auxiliary form that represents the endpoint on this continuum, i.e. is (completely) deleted. Further examination of these verbs revealed that their semantics corresponds to the semantics of adult periphrastics. Additionally, the results of an experiment where children imitated sentences with either periphrastic or synthetic verbs showed that responses with non-finite verbs were predominantly produced when the target sentence involved a periphrastic, rather than a synthetic verb.

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Author's address: Centre for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, University of Salford, Greater Manchester M5 4WT, UK & Department of Neuroscience, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057, USAcdye@salford.ac.uk
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I am deeply indebted to Barbara Lust, Yasuhiro Shirai, and especially John Whitman for significant contributions. My gratitude also goes to the following: Marc Brunelle, Allan Dye, Claire Foley, Ewa Jaworska, Yumiko Nishi, Carol Rosen, Nick Sobin, Michael Ullman, Lisa Zsiga, an anonymous JL referee, as well as the children, parents, and daycare staff. This research is based on data collected for my 2005 doctoral dissertation, which was supported by a Sicca Research Grant and a Cognitive Studies Fellowship from Cornell University. The speech samples are available through the Virtual Center for Language Acquisition (VCLA, http://vcla.clal.cornell.edu).

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Edith Bavin (ed.). 2009. The Cambridge handbook of child language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roger Brown . 1973. A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Barbara Lust . 2006. Child language: Acquisition and growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Lynn Santelmann . 1998. The acquisition of definite determiners in child Swedish: Metrical and discourse influences on functional morphology. In Annabel Greenhill , Mary Hughes , Heather Littlefield & Hugh Walsh (eds.), Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) 22, 651662. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

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Antonella Sorace , Ludovica Serratrice , Francesca Filiaci & Michela Baldo . 2009. Discourse conditions on subject pronoun realization: Testing the linguistic intuitions of older bilingual children. Lingua 119.3, 460477.

Virginia Valian . 2006. Young children's understanding of present and past tense. Language Learning and Development 2, 251276.

Christine Weber-Fox & Helen Neville . 2001. Sensitive periods differentiate processing of open- and closed-class words: An ERP study of bilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 44, 13381353.

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Journal of Linguistics
  • ISSN: 0022-2267
  • EISSN: 1469-7742
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-linguistics
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