Early Syntactic Development

By | Januari 7, 2017

 Are syntactic categories innate?

One view is that the primary basis of syntax is innate. Pinker (1984, 1989) argued that knowledge about the basic syntactic categories is innate. Children know that nouns refer to objects and verbs refer to actions. Children start off with their innate knowledge of syntactic categories and a set of innate linking rules that relate them to the semantic categories of thematic roles. Thematic roles are a way of labelling who did what in a sentence. An innate linking rule relates the syntactic categories of subject and object to the semantic categories of agent and patient respectively. So on exposure to language, all the child has to do is to identify the agents in utterances, and this information then provides knowledge about the syntactic structure. This process is known as semantic bootstrapping. First, the theory depends on the child hearing plenty of utterances early on that contain easily identifiable agents and actions relating to what the child is looking at which can be mapped onto nouns and verbs. Second, Bowerman (1990) showed that there was little difference in the order of acquisition of verbs that the semantic bootstrapping account predicts should be easiest for children to map onto thematic roles, compared with those that should be more difficult. Third, Braine (1988a,b), in detailed reviews of Pinker’s theory, questioned the need for semantic bootstrapping, and examined the evidence against the existence of very early phrase structure rules. Finally, postulating the possession of specific innate knowledge is very powerful—perhaps too powerful.

Does semantics come first?

On  the  constructivist-semantic  or  meaning-first  view,  grammatical  classes  are  first  constructed  on  a semantic  basis. Maratsos (1982) proposed that early syntactic categories are formed on the basis of shared grammatical properties.

Distributional analysis

perform a distributional analysis on the input data (Gathercole, 1985; Levy & Schlesinger, 1988; Valian, 1986). This means that children essentially search for syntactic regularities with very little semantic information. The latest work in this vein uses the connectionist modelling of distributional analysis to show how categories can be acquired on a statistical basis alone (Elman, 1990; Finch & Chater, 1992; Redington & Chater, 1998). This approach shows how syntactic categories can be acquired without explicit knowledge of syntactic rules or semantic information.

Evaluation of work on learning syntactic categories

the relation between the development of syntax and the development of semantics is likely to be a complex one. Children probably learn syntactic categories through a distributional analysis of the language, and connectionist modelling has been very useful in understanding how this occurs.

Two-word grammars

Soon after the vocabulary explosion, the first two-word utterances appear. There is a gradation between one- word and two-word utterances in the form of two single words juxtaposed (Bloom, 1973). Children remain in the two-word phase for some time. Early multi-word speech is commonly said to be telegraphic in that it consists primarily of content words, with many of the function words absent (Brown & Bellugi, 1964; Brown & Fraser, 1963). pivot words. These were words that were used frequently and always occurred in the same fixed position in every sentence. Pivot words were not used alone and not found in conjunction with other pivot words.

Problems with the early grammar approaches

Bowerman (1973) discussed a number of problems with these early grammars. She reviewed language development across a number of cultures, particularly English and Finnish. She concluded that the rules of pivot grammar were far from universal. Indeed, they did not fully capture the speech of American children. She confirmed that young children use a small number of words in relatively fixed positions, but not the other properties ascribed to pivot words. it is difficult to uncover a simple grammar for early development that is based on syntactic factors alone. An additional problem is that the order of words in early utterances is not always consistent.

Semantic approaches to early syntactic development

The apparent failure of pure syntactic approaches to early development, and the emerging emphasis on the semantic richness of early utterances, led to an emphasis upon semantic accounts of early grammars (Schlesinger, 1971; Slobin, 1970).

Evaluation on work on early syntactic development

Mean length of utterance (MLU) and language development. Based on Brown (1973)

Stage I MLU < 2.25 many omissions, few grammatical words and inflections
Stage II 2.25–2.75 much variation
Stage III 2.75–3.5 (c 3 years) pluralization, most basic syntactic rules
Stage IV 3.5–4  –
Stage V 4+ imperatives, negatives, questions, reflexives, passives (5–7 years), in that order

Language development suggests that there is no straightforward way of separating grammatical and lexical development (Bates & Goodman, 1997, 1999): the two are intertwinedFurthermore, there is no evidence for a dissociation between grammatical and vocabulary development in either early or late talkers: we cannot identify children with normal grammatical development but with very low or high vocabulary scores for their age. recent  work  tends  to  downplay  the  role  of  an  innate  grammatical  module  and  the attribution of adult-like grammatical competence to young children.

Later syntactic development

that the mean length of utterance (MLU) is a useful way of charting the progress of syntactic development. Brown divided early development into five stages based on MLU.

Verb inflections: Acquiring the past tense

Brown (1973) argued that children seem to be aware of the meaning of the different syntactic roles before they could use the inflections. That is, the youngest children use the simplest form to convey all of the syntactic roles. They learn to use the appropriate inflections very quickly: past tenses to convey the sense of time (usually marked by adding “-ed”), the use of the “-ing” ending, number modification, and modification by combination with auxiliaries.

Cross-linguistic differences

Languages differ in their syntactic complexity. For example, English is relatively constrained in its use of word order, whereas other languages (such as Russian) are more highly inflected and have freer word order. Not surprisingly, these differences lead to differences in the detail of language development.

The development of syntactic comprehension

More complicated syntactic constructions naturally provide the child with a number of challenges. The youngest children have difficulties with passives because they are inappropriately applying the standard canonical order strategy. Older children (around 3 years old) start to map the roles of passives as adults do, but they make mistakes depending on the semantic context of the utterance. Children have particular difficulty with reversible passives, when the subject and object can be reversed and the sentence still makes sense.


Harley, Trevor A. (2001). The Psychology of Language From Data to Theory. USA and Canada: Psychology Press Ltd

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