Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview

18
LITTLE WORDS, BIG DEAL: THE DEVELOPMENT OF DISCOURSE AND SYNTAX IN CHILD LANGUAGE

Maria Pak
Richard Sprott
Elena Escalera
University of California, Berkeley


INTRODUCTION

Why should people pay attention to little words when exploring language acquisition? By "little words," we mean particles or morphemes which don't seem to have a central role in syntax or even have clear semantic content. What can these little words, like okay, yeah, right, and, well, and but tell us about the way in which children acquire their first language?

In this chapter we wish to illustrate an ongoing exploration into the connections between discourse and syntax which has been directly influenced and inspired by Susan Ervin-Tripp. Her life's work in examining both discourse and syntactic acquisition have set the stage and defined some of the theoretical questions which face the next generation of language acquisition explorers.


DISCOURSE AND SYNTAX

The answer to our question of "Why little words?" is found in the connection between syntax and discourse. Traditionally, theories of language, and linguistic structure in particular, have assumed an atomistic approach to discourse, with the belief that discourse is nothing but the building up of sets of syntactic and semantic entities which are primari-

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