Post written by Dr. Cristina D. Dye based on an article in Journal of Linguistics
Since the early studies in language acquisition, scholars have noted that certain grammatical elements, among which auxiliaries and verb inflections, often appear to be missing in early child speech, with the result that child utterances sometimes exhibit verb forms with non-finite morphology in seemingly matrix clauses. This observation has led to a deprivationalist conception of child syntax.
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.
This study involved 28 normally-developing French-speaking children aged between 23 and 37 months. New observational data revealed 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 verb forms showed 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 verb forms were predominantly produced when the target sentence involved a periphrastic, rather than a synthetic verb.
These findings open the door to investigation of other factors that might affect auxiliary reduction (e.g., memory, sentential complexity, fine-grained syntax problems), other populations (bilingual children, SLI), and other grammatical elements (e.g., determiners, complementizers). They also invite new research into the specific aspect(s) of phonology that might account for child reduced/deleted auxiliaries (e.g., phonological realization processes, phonological representations, prosodic representations, production/articulation difficulties).
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