Why all John’s friends are Dutch, not German

all john's friendsBlog post based on an article in Journal of Germanic Linguistics, written by Robert Cirillo

A genitive construction involving the universal quantifier all, such as All John’s friends, is very natural and commonplace in English. The same can be said of the equivalent construction in Dutch, which would be Al Jans vrienden.

Until now, it has totally escaped the attention of linguists that the same construction is not possible in German, despite the close genetic and geographical relationship that German has with Dutch and English. The German phrase All(e) Johanns Freunde is simply not possible. The correct word order is Alle Freunde Johanns.

The purpose of this article is to offer an explanation for this discrepancy between German and its sister languages. It is argued that there are three principal factors that combine to cause German to behave differently from Dutch and German.

The first of these has to do with the nature of the Saxon genitive in the three languages. In German, it is a true case. It is different from the standard (non-Saxon) genitive, but it is nonetheless a true genitive case that is assigned in Spec, NP just like the standard genitive.

In Dutch and English the Saxon genitive is not a case but a determiner-like element that originates as the head of a Possessive Phrase in the same way as a possessive adjective such as my or his or our.  Furthermore, unlike German, Dutch and English do not allow the assignment of genitive case in Spec, NP (without preposition insertion), which under some circumstances may necessitate the movement of a possessor to a higher position for case assignment.

The second factor that plays a role in causing the difference between German and the other West Germanic languages is the fact that in all the Germanic languages if a DP is definite either D or Spec, DP must be overtly occupied.  If one of these positions is overtly occupied, and if genitive case has already been assigned in Spec, NP, the movement of a genitive phrase to D or Spec, DP is unmotivated and causes ungrammaticality.

The third factor is that the -e ending on the universal quantifier alle behaves like a D-element in German and Dutch. It is very possibly the phonetic realization of the definiteness feature on D.

This article shows how these three factors come together to create the discrepancy between German and Dutch/English in how a universal quantifier can combine with a genitive.

View and download Why all John’s Friends are Dutch, Not German: On the Determiner-Like Characteristics of the Inflection on the Universal Quantifier in West Germanic, by Robert Cirillo, for free during the month of August.

When is bacon not bacon?

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a surprise.

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a (delicious) surprise, and vice versa.

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by M. Lynne Murphy

In the most recent issue of English Today, I discuss some words of general English whose apparent similarities hide some subtle differences in meaning. Words like sandwich, soup and bacon might have similar dictionary definitions in the UK and US, but Britons and Americans have different expectations when they order these things in a restaurant.

The ‘prototype approach’ to meaning helps us to describe and explain these differences. According to that approach, meanings are organized around some idealized view of a ‘typical’ example of the category (a prototype).

So, for example, whether something is called a cup depends on the degree to which it matches the ideal of ‘cup-ness’ and whether it echoes ‘ideal cup-ness’ better than it echoes ‘glass-ness’ or the ‘bowl-ness’ ideals.

This is in contrast to a ‘classical’ view of meaning where something would be called a cup if it had all the properties that all cups have, and if those properties together are sufficient to distinguish cups from glasses, mugs or bowls. (That approach doesn’t work because there may be no properties (a) that all cups have and (b) that are collectively sufficient to distinguish cups from other vessels.)

This means that the things we call cups can be very different from one another (china teacups, disposable foam coffee cups, plastic beer cups, medicine cups), and that some things are more likely to be called cup than others.

When we look at cross-dialectal differences, as in the meaning of soup, the word initially looks like it has the same meaning across dialects because there are a lot of things that all English speakers would call soup. But at the boundaries of the category, there are things that Americans would call soup that Britons would call stew – because the prototype for soup in British English is ‘smoother’ than the prototype for soup in American English.

In the article, I mention the word boot, which Willett Kempton investigated in Texas and Britain. He showed that the two groups varied in their ideas of what constituted a typical boot, with the Texan prototype extending further above the ankle than the British one. The Texan prototype fits better with cowboy boots, the British one with walking boots or army boots.

This means that, say, if asked to draw a boot, the Texans would draw taller ones than the Britons would. But still, Texans and Britons still use the word boot to refer to ankle boots, riding boots, combat boots—mostly the same things, because they’re all ‘close enough’ to the boot ideal—which includes other properties like being closed (as opposed to gladiator sandals), sturdy (as opposed to slippers), weather-proof, etc.

Since writing the article, though, I’ve been struck by a particularly British use of boot: to refer to a certain style of Converse-brand footwear. The ‘Chuck Taylor’ or ‘All-Star’ shoe comes in an above-the-ankle style or the ‘low-cut’ or ‘Oxford’ style. In American English, when you need to distinguish between the two, the taller ones are high-tops. But in Britain, I’ve often heard them called Converse boots. Indeed, as I write this (28 July 2016), the News on the Web corpus (2010-yesterday) has 12 instances of Converse boots: 10 from Britain, 2 from Ireland. To an American ear, using the word boots for canvas high-top sneakers seems just weird. Converse high-tops comes into the corpus 7 times: 4 from the US, 3 from Canada.

The difference between my aversion to calling the ankle-high version boots and my English spouse’s everyday “Have you seen my grey Converse boots?” can be explained by our differing prototypes for boot. In neither dialect are Converses at the centre of the ‘boot’ category. If I asked the spouse to grab some boots for me to pack for a trip, he’d go for leather knee-high things before he’d go for the Converses, because the leather ones satisfy more ‘typical’ properties of boots: they’re sturdy, weatherproof, reach above the ankle, etc.

But when we get to a kind of footwear for which British English lacks the vocabulary, the Converses come close enough to the ideal category to be allowed into the category of “things that can be called boots”. It works for British because even though canvas shoes aren’t sturdy or waterproof or anything else that ‘typical’ boots are, they do reach the place on the leg the British ‘typical boots’ reach. For Americans, they’re just not booty enough to be called boots because, in addition to their non-sturdiness, they’re not particularly high.

And so Americans had to come up with a new word for shoe styles that are not-quite boots: high-tops. (This happened at least 20 years before the Converse started making shoes, because other shoemakers had ‘high-top’ and ‘Oxford’ styles.) Converse does make a version of the All-Star that comes all the way up to the knees. In my American idiom, I’d have no problem calling those boots because they better match the American idea of bootiness.

The more I think about names for human-made things, the more I find British/American prototype differences. They rarely cause interruptions to communication, but they do make one wonder: how often do we not-quite-communicate without noticing?

For more information, and to delve into detail on the differences between British and American bacon, read The differences behind the similarities, or: why Americans and Britons don’t know what the other is talking about from the latest issue of English Today. View and download the article for free through 31st August.

Phonology: A Coursebook

Blog post written by Robbert Kennedy, University of California, Santa Barbra

Phonology A Coursebook by Robert Kennedy I am excited to share Phonology: A Coursebook with instructors everywhere. This textbook represents the culmination of many years of thinking about how to make the content of phonology courses more accessible and engaging to students, and I can share a few examples of what is new about it here.

I have always believed phonological analysis to be an important skill for linguists of any stripe, so I think it’s crucial that students establish a solid understanding of its central concepts. But Linguistics is growing as an academic field, with its traditions of structural analysis and documentation joined by those interested in the study of language through the lens of identity, technology, and many other angles. The growth in size and range of our undergraduate population (at my home institution, and surely many others) reflects this. My personal motivation for writing a phonology textbook thus comes from my classroom observation of the varying interests and learning styles among students, not just in phonology courses but in other linguistics courses as well – so that even if the student is not planning on specializing in phonology, they can still experience the course as a practicum in the procedures of the scientific method.

With this in mind, I have structured this book around a mindset of the primacy of data: its chapters are organized around types of phonological processes and patterns, with assimilation, deletion, insertion, harmony, syllabification, stress, and tonal phenomenal all highlighted as objects of phonological analysis. While I have included familiar classic problem sets, including data from languages such as Yokuts, Turkish, Hungarian, Japanese, Kongo, and Polish, I have enriched them with many others that are either less canonical or newly developed, with notable exercises on syllabification, tone, and prosodic morpho-phonology. Moreover, I have used the data to guide the use of formalisms like features, or rules, or tiered representations.

Meanwhile, I have observed in the past that some students have difficulty seeing phonology and the input-output relationship when following the standard teaching practice of introducing them with distributional facts and phonemic analysis. To address this, I introduce the concepts of underlying representations and processes that operate on them with more concretely observable examples of morphophonemic alternation before exploring phonemic analysis and complementary distribution.

 This gives students something more tangible to grasp early on – the idea that a single underlying phoneme could have multiple surface allophones is more plainly obvious when the forms of specific morphemes alternate by their phonological context. In practice, teaching about phonemes by using complementary distribution and mutual exclusivity, which are more circumstantial in their evidentiality, risks a level of abstractness that is perhaps best left until later in the term. There is a parallel to be drawn with calculus, where the instructor may teach either integrals or derivatives first. Teaching derivatives first is more intuitive to many learners, but in phonology it is as if we have been teaching integrals first.

I believe this approach dovetails well with the spirit of Cambridge’s Coursebook series, in which the reader is presented with datasets and exercises, but the analytical steps are narrated procedurally to illustrate the links between detecting patterns and accounting for their nuances and complexity.

The second novel component is a deeper integration of typological generalizations as an element of phonological argumentation. In class when leading students on how to decide among competing analyses, I often find myself turning to typological evidence, yet note that this information is not readily at the hands of undergrads. The organization of the book by processes clarifies that there are certain types of phenomena that are typologically prevalent, and I use this to argue for the student that the formal tools should reflect these trends.

Another deliberate aspect of this textbook is how it treats the role of features and representations. Feature charts and derivational conventions are so rich with detail and precision that students can get lost trying to remember them all, especially if they think of the best analysis as one that uses the correct features.  I often see students struggling to memorize feature charts for IPA symbols rather than thinking of natural classes in more concrete terms. Thus I emphasize in the text that the features are valuable analytical tools, but what a student employs in a given analysis must primarily distinguish groups of sounds that behave differently.

This textbook is aimed at introductory phonology classes, particularly for students who have completed an introductory course in linguistics and/or phonetics and have working knowledge of IPA transcription and some basics of morphological analysis. Nevertheless the datasets are numerous and rich enough to be useful for more advanced students of phonology as well.

I look forward to using this textbook in the classroom and sincerely hope other phonology instructors will find it both useful and engaging as a resource for their students.


Teaching a course on this topic?

EMEA lecturers may request a copy of this title for inspection here

US instructors may request a copy of this title for examination here

Visit the book’s page for more information here

The influence of German on the English language

'Pils' is one German word that has become a part of the English lexicon

‘Pils’ is one German word that has become a part of the English lexicon

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by Julia Schultz

While there is a multitude of studies on the influence English has exerted on German, the converse language contact scenario has been comparatively neglected. German borrowings which have recently been assumed into English have as yet received little attention in current research. The present paper intends to shed light on the impact of German on the English vocabulary in the 20th century, filling an essential gap in the literature of borrowings and constituting an important update to previous investigations of the German-English language contact situation.

Dictionaries available in electronic form have become valuable sources for linguistic research. For example, the digitalized form of the Oxford English Dictionary Online makes it possible to carry out a precise count of all the lexical items which show a German origin in their etymologies. The findings presented in this paper are based on the analysis of a comprehensive lexicographical corpus of 1958 German borrowings retrieved from the OED Online.

The German borrowings taken over into English in the last few decades have been grouped into manifold domains with their different subcategories in order to give a rounded picture of the different subject areas and spheres of life enriched by German in the recent past. These include, for instance, the fine arts, cooking, wine, beer, politics, war and the military, language and linguistics, entertainment and leisure activities, sports, people and everyday life, electronics, telecommunication and computing, mathematics and the humanities, the natural sciences, and others.

Vocabulary adopted from German into English in recent times is characterized by its great variety. It encompasses a considerable number of specialized terms, such as Waldrapp (specifying a variety of bird) and inselberg (a technical term in geomorphology for a type of mountain or hill), which are borrowings only known to the specialist, as well as words which have made it into common usage and relate to everyday matters. Some illustrative examples of 20th century German borrowings which appear to be on everyone’s lips are rollmop, bratwurst, Pils, angst, dirndl, autobahn, blitzkrieg, Third Reich, to abseil, Bauhaus and pH.

For more information, view and download the article from English Today with complimentary access (not even a single Deutsche Mark) through 31st August.

New words show how our world is changing

LanguageHow do new words reveal the intricacies of our world?

Blends are combinations of two – or, more rarely, three – source words into one through concatenation of clipped morphological material and/or phonological overlap as in smog (< smoke + fog). Even though lexical blending is not a recent word-formation mechanism whatsoever, in the article entitled ‘‘Blended’ Cyber-Neologisms’ Amanda Roig-Marín argues that the coinage of blends in the semantic field of technologies uniquely responds to the speaker’s need to convey the blended realities that have begun to characterise present-day technological devices and related phenomena (e.g. Dronestagram (< drone + Instagram) ‘posts of aerial pictures’ or twimmolation (< Twitter + immolation) ‘the ruin of a person’s reputation because of insensitive Twitter posts’).

This study examines data collected over the period of fifteen years (2000-2015). Since dictionaries cannot keep up with the constantly increasing number of lexical items coined, the author made use of two online neologisms databases, namely Word Spy and The Rice University Neologisms Database, to retrieve truly novel blends. She firstly contextualises this type of cyber-blended words and explains why lexical blending is preferred over simple clipping or compounding. Subsequently, she offers a taxonomy of cyber blends according to the morpho-semantic patterns of these new words.

Likewise, she forecasts the formation of a paradigm akin to what Frath (2005) calls “hamburger type”, that is to say, that some word components such as those based on blog and twitter/tweet (as in vlog (< video + blog) ‘a blog in which the posting takes the form of videos’ or twitchfork (< Twitter + pitchfork) ‘an organised campaign on Twitter to express discontent or attack targets’) can achieve autonomy and thus start to be used productively, as it also happened with the sequel series (e.g. interquel and prequel) or the literati series (digerati, glitterati, etc.).

Access the full article for free through 31st August.

Did you know that Swedish and Norwegian have word melodies similar to Chinese?

NJL coverBlog post based on an article in Nordic Journal of Linguistics written by Mikael Roll

Did you know that Swedish and Norwegian have word melodies similar to Chinese? The article ‘A neurolinguistic study of South Swedish word accents: Electrical brain potentials in nouns and verbs‘ reports on previously unexplored brain responses to word tones in South Swedish.

The study adds strong support to the hypothesis that listeners use Swedish word stem tones to preactivate upcoming suffixes. Previous research had consistently found an increase in electrical brain response for one of the Swedish stem tones – accent 1 – as compared to the other tone – accent 2.

This increase in electrical brain response is thought to index preactivation of upcoming language, such as a suffix. Accent 1 stems are associated with fewer possible outcomes, and are therefore thought to increase the certainty of how a word might end. However, previously only the Central Swedish dialect had been investigated, and therefore it was uncertain whether the effect found was really due to the difference in possibilities associated with accent 1 and 2, or rather the acoustic difference between the tones.

In South Swedish, accent tones 1 and 2 are acoustically the mirror image of those in Central Swedish. Still, accent 1 produced a reaction indicating that the electrical brain response seems to reflect preactivation of upcoming suffixes, rather than a difference in acoustic processing.

Access the full article for free until 31st July.

Dialect Matters – Respecting Vernacular Language

Blog post written by Peter Trudgill author of Dialect Matters – Respecting Vernacular Language

Dialect Matters

Academic linguists are often asked questions like: Is it really bad form to sometimes split your infinitives? What exactly is wrong with saying “I done it”? Why is the pronunciation of younger people these days so irritating? Why is it OK to drop the k in know but not the h in house? Why do railway companies prefer to have customers alighting from trains rather than passengers getting off them? And what is so important about sentences not starting with a conjunction?

This book argues in favour of the language of ordinary people. It champions everyday vocabulary, such as passenger, as opposed to business-school jargon like customer. Its supports nonstandard dialects, including forms such as I done it, in the face of the tyranny of the view that the standard dialect is the only “correct” and “grammatical” version of the language. It cherishes the English used by native speakers in their everyday lives, not least where they appear to defy the views of pedants who attempt to impose “rules” on us – for example about split infinitives – which have been invented for no good reason. It makes the case for vernacular usage as opposed to politically correct language. It demands respect for local ways of pronouncing local place-names. It asserts the primacy of spoken language and explains the importance of discourse markeres like “like”. And it defends minority languages like Welsh and Navajo, where these are threatened by majority languages like English.

The book is a collection of my weekly columns on accent and dialect from the Eastern Daily Press newspaper, revised and annotated for a wider audience. Many of these essays deal with the history of the English language. Others explain the origins of place-names. Some discuss the ways in which languages change while dismissing the loaded notions of deterioration and progress. Several of the columns look at political problems brought about by language issues; and stress the tragedy of language death. The coverage ranges from England to New England and Moldova; from the languages of indigenous Australians and Americans to the Old Norse tongue of the Vikings; and from vocabulary to phonetics and grammar. One of the pieces even boasts what is quite possibly the first ever usage in a regional British newspaper of the word phonotactics.

One of the main purposes of these columns is to broadcast a message of anti-prescriptivism, anti-linguicism, and respect for demotic linguistic practices. Prescriptivism is a form of prejudice which is so widely accepted in the English-speaking world that it is taken by many people to be axiomatic. Prescriptivists believe that there is only one way in which English “ought” to be spoken and written, and that any deviation from this is “ignorant” or “wrong”. If you ask them their justification for claiming that the sentence I done it is wrong, they may well answer that “everybody knows” it is. In this book, I try to show that this is not so. And I oppose negative attitudes like this – which are sadly held even by many highly educated and otherwise thoughtful people – by proposing that we should cultivate a positive stance towards all the different ways in which English is spoken around the world.

By the term “linguicism” I refer to a phenomenon which is, in its way, every bit as pernicious as racism and sexism, and which these days is more publicly and shamelessly displayed than those other evil phenomena. Linguicism involves being negative towards and discriminating against people because of their accent, dialect or native language. The totally false idea that some dialects of English are – in some mysterious and never specified way –“better” than others has many unfortunate consequences, not least the denigration of whole groups of our fellow human beings.

But I also attempt to convey the message that language is a mysterious, fascinating and enjoyable phenomenon which not enough people know enough about. I have attempted to use my columns as an opportunity to show that language is an extraordinarily interesting phenomenon, especially when we do our best to think about it analytically and positively, without preconceptions and prejudice. Nothing is more important to human beings than language; and I hope that in this book I have succeeded in illustrating the degree to which all languages and dialects are not only worthy of respect and preservation but, as complex creations of human societies and of the human mind, are also highly rewarding and pleasing to discover more about.

All the 150 or so columns in the book are about language in some shape or form, and contain linguistic information with insights which will be of interest to university students and teachers of linguistics, as well as to high-school English Language teachers and their classes: indeed they have already been used to stimulate discussion in classrooms from New Zealand and the USA to the British Isles. For the benefit of this type of reader, most of the pieces in this book are accompanied by brief Linguistic Notes of a technical nature which general readers need not bother with unless they want to achieve a more academic understanding of the issues involved. Local background notes are also provided where necessary for readers not familiar with East-of-England background of a number of the columns.



Uptalk: The Phenomenon of Rising Intonation: an interview with author Paul Warren

Paul Warren author of Uptalk 1. Can you define uptalk very briefly for those who don’t know?

Uptalk is the use of rising intonation (voice pitch) at the ends of statements or parts of statements. It is sometimes referred to as the use of question intonation on statements, but this is misleading, because not all questions have rising intonation (indeed there are many question types that tend to have falling intonation, such as those which have a wh-word at the beginning, like who, what, where), and there are rises on statements that are different from uptalk rises (such as on non-final items in a list like apples, oranges, bananas and pears, or the ‘continuation rise’ that you are likely to hear at the comma in Although this has a rise, it is not a question). Typically uptalk, which is also known as upspeak and high rising terminal (amongst other terms), is used to keep an interaction going, inviting the listener into the conversation. This is a specific instance of a more general property of high pitch to show openness, while lower pitch tends to mark finality or closure. However, because rising intonation is frequently associated with questions, many lay observers criticise ‘uptalkers’ for being uncertain about what they are saying. Interestingly, though, studies have shown that uptalk is highly likely in narrative contexts, such as when people are recounting something they have witnessed or experienced firsthand. These are unlikely to be situations where the speaker is uncertain.

   2. What inspired you to write Uptalk?

As a psycholinguist, I devote a lot of my research time to looking at how we produce and understand language, especially spoken language. I have for a long time had a particular interest in how listeners interpret the intonation in utterances that they hear, and when I moved to New Zealand, a country where uptalk has a longer history than in most of the world, I was intrigued by how this particular form of intonation was interpreted. It was clear to me that non-uptalkers frequently arrived at a different interpretation from that intended by the speaker. This interest resulted in a series of research studies, during which I learned more about uptalk in different varieties of English and in other languages too. It seemed a natural next step to put what I had learned into a book where others – whether or not they are linguistics researchers – could have ready access to the wealth of information that is out there concerning the history, spread, and use of uptalk around the world.

   3. How much does it vary according to the speaker’s age, gender and regional dialect?

There are certain parts of the world where uptalk has been a feature of spoken English for quite a long time: New Zealand, Australia and parts of Canada and the United States (particularly California). But it has been reported in many other English-speaking countries, as well as in other languages, particularly either there is where contact with English-speaking communities or a clear influence of the English language on youth culture. Typically, it is associated with young women, but it is by no means exclusively used by females, nor just by the young. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that people of the generation who were young uptalkers in the 1980s have continued to use uptalk as they have grown older. There may be some historical basis for saying that uptalk is a feature of young female speech, since linguists have shown that it is often young women who initiate a change in patterns of language use. Now, however, the claim that young women are the main users of uptalk is probably more a stereotype than a reality. In fact, uptalk is so common in some parts of the English-speaking world that subtle distinctions are developing in what uptalk rises and true question rises sound like, as part of making the difference clearer.

4. What are the key features and benefits that readers will take away from Uptalk ?

What I have tried to do in this book is provide a comprehensive overview of what uptalk is like, including how it differs from other forms of rising intonation; what its many functions and meanings are; how it is distributed and used across the many varieties of English (and other languages) in which it is found; which speaker groups are more likely to use it; and how it is perceived and interpreted by listeners. For those interested in how researchers have investigated uptalk, there is also a chapter on methodology. Because there has been so much discussion of uptalk in newspapers and self-help books, as well as on the radio and television, I also wanted to provide an exploration of the media response to uptalk, including some discussion of the types of statements often used in support of the largely negative claims made by journalists and others. So Uptalk covers a lot of ground, and should be of interest to both linguists and non-linguists alike.

Find out more about Uptalk: The Phenomenon of Rising Intonation


The child’s journey into language: Some frequently asked questions…

First Language Acquisition Eve ClarkBlog Post written by Eve V. Clark (Stanford University), author of the recently published First Language Acquisition (3rd Edition)

 How early do infants start in on language?

Even before birth, babies recognize intonation contours they hear in utero, and after birth, they prefer listening to a familiar language over an unfamiliar one.  And in their first few months, they can already discriminate between speech sounds that are the same or different.

 How early do infants understand their first words, word-endings, phrases, utterances? 

Children learn meanings in context, both from hearing repeated uses of words in relation to their referents, and from feedback from adults when they use a word correctly or incorrectly.  When a child is holding a ball, the mother might say “Ball.  That’s a ball”, and the child could decide that “ball” picks out round objects of that type. Still, it may take many examples to establish the link between a word-form  (“ball”) and a word-meaning (round objects of a particular type) and to relate the word “ball” to neighbouring words (throw, catch, pick up, hold).  It takes even longer for the child’s meaning of a word to fully match the adult’s.

When do infants produce their first words and truly begin to talk?  

Infants babble from 5-10 months on, giving them practice on simple syllables, but most try their first true words at some time between age 1 and age 2 (a broad range).  They find certain sounds harder to pronounce than others, and certain combinations (e.g., clusters of consonants) even harder.  It therefore takes practice to arrive at the adult pronunciations of words –– to go from “ba” to “bottle”, or from “ga” to “squirrel”.   Like adults, though, children understand much more than they can say.

 What’s the relation between what children are able to understand and what they are able to say?  

Representing the sound and meaning of a word in memory is essential for recognizing it from other speakers.  Because children are able to understand words before they produce them, they can make use of the representations of words they already understand as models to aim for when they try to pronounce those same words.

 How early do children begin to communicate with others?   

A few months after birth, infants follow adult gaze, and they respond to adult gaze and to adult speech face-to-face, with cooing and arm-waving.  As they get a little older, they attend to the motion in adult hand-gestures.  By 8 months or so, they recognize a small number of words, and by 10 months, they can also attend to the target of an adult’s pointing gestures.  They themselves point to elicit speech from caregivers, and they use gestures to make requests – e.g., pointing at a cup as a request for juice.  They seem eager to communicate very early.

 How do young children learn their first language?  

Parents check up on what their children mean, and offer standard ways to say what the children seem to be aiming for.  Children use this adult feedback to check on whether or not they have been understood as they intended.

Do all children follow the same path in acquisition? 

No, and the reason for this depends in part on the language being learnt.  English, for example, tends to have fixed word order and relatively few word endings, while Turkish has much freer word order and a large number of different word-endings.  Languages differ in their sound systems, their grammar, and their vocabulary, all of which has an impact on early acquisition.

These and many other questions about first language acquisition are explored in the new edition of First Language Acquisition.  In essence, children learn language in interaction with others: adults talk with them about their daily activities – eating, sleeping, bathing, dressing, playing; they expose them to language and to how it’s used, offer feedback when they make mistakes, and provide myriad opportunities for practice.  This book reviews findings from many languages as it follows the trajectories children trace during their acquisition of a first language and of the many skills language use depends on.

First Language Acquisition (third edition), Cambridge University Press 2016



Entrainment of prosody in the interaction of mothers with their young children

JCL blog post - Mar 16Blog post based on an article in Journal of Child Language 

Written by Written by Melanie Soderstrom in consultation with article co-authors Eon-Suk Ko, Amanda Seidl, and Alejandrina Crista

It has long been known that adults’ speech patterns unconsciously become more similar over the course of a conversation, but do children converge in this way with their caregivers? Across many areas of child development, children’s imitation of caregivers has long been understood to be an important component of the developmental process. These concepts are similar, but we tend to think of imitation as one-sided and static, while convergence is more dynamic and involves both interlocutors influencing each other. In our study, we set out to examine how duration and pitch characteristics of vocalizations by 1- and 2-year-olds and their caregivers dynamically influence each other in real-world conversational interactions.

We recorded 13 mothers and their children using LENA, a system for gathering full-day recordings, which also provides an automated tagging of the audio stream into speakers. We analyzed pitch and duration characteristics of these segments both within and across conversational exchanges between the mother and child to see whether mothers and children modulated the characteristics of their speech based on each other’s speech. Instead of examining mother-child correlations across mother-child dyads, as previous studies have done, we examined correlations within a given dyad, across conversations. We found small, but significant correlations, particularly in pitch measures, suggesting that mothers and children are dynamically influencing each other’s speech characteristics.

We also looked at who started the conversation, and measured mother and child utterance durations and response latencies (i.e., how quickly mothers responded to their child’s utterance and vice versa). Overall, unsurprisingly, mothers produced longer utterances and shorter responses latencies (faster responding) than their children. However, both the mothers and the children produced longer utterances and shorter response latencies in conversations that they themselves initiated. This finding is exploratory, but suggests that providing children with the conversational “space” to initiate conversations may lead to more mature vocalization, and may therefore be beneficial for the language-learning process.

Read the full article ‘Entrainment of prosody in the interaction of mothers with their young children’ here