Little Words: Their History, Phonology, Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics, and Acquisition

By Ronald P. Leow; Héctor Campos et al. | Go to book overview

20
A Continuum in French Children's Surface
Realization of Auxiliaries

CRISTINA D. DYE

Georgetown University

A CENTRAL FOCUS of research in child language has been the acquisition of functional elements such as determiners and auxiliaries (see, e.g., Lust 2006, chap. 9, for a recent review). Early studies proposed that child speech is “telegraphic,” that is, it consists mostly of content words such as verbs and nouns, which are essential to communication, while usually lacking function words (e.g., Brown 1973). The following two examples from child English illustrate what is usually referred to as telegraphic speech; in parentheses are possible functional elements that would render these utterances targetlike.

(1)(does) papa have it?(Eve I, Brown 1973, 207)
(2)Adam (will) put it (in) (the) box.(Adam I, Brown 1973, 205)

Telegraphic speech, or the ostensible absence of functional elements, has been widely discussed in the first language acquisition literature and has been claimed to be universal across languages (e.g., Brown 1973 and references therein). Specifically, the functional elements that are the focus of this chapter, that is, auxiliaries and modals (henceforth referred to as “auxiliaries”), have been claimed to be absent across child languages, for example, in early child English (e.g., Radford 1990), Dutch (e.g., Wijnen 1996/1997), or French (e.g., Schlyter 2003).

Numerous proposals have been offered to account for the ostensible absence of functional elements from early productions. Two major attempts to explain child “telegraphy” have consisted of proposing perceptual threshold limitations or deficient grammatical representations. The perceptual limitations view is based on the fact that, in contrast with content words, function words usually have shorter vowel duration and lower amplitude, fewer syllables, and simpler syllabic structure (e.g., Shi, Morgan, and Allopena 1998), and thus are less salient. Given this reduced acoustic phonetic salience, it has been proposed that children might simply fail to perceive or represent functional items in the speech they are exposed to (e.g., Gleitman and Wanner 1982; Echols 1993). Another attempted explanation is that the apparent absence of function words from early productions reflects a deficit in syntactic representations.

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