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How Does a Child Discover Morphology?

Wolfgang U. Dressler (Vienna)

Goal of this paper is to shed some light on the transition from mere lexical processing to a coexistence of lexical and word-internal morphological processing in early first-language acquisition. Morphological processing presupposes that children have discovered (or started to construct) word-internal morphology. This accomplishment is related to lexical rather than syntactic development. Here I propose to apply new criteria (particularly lexical diversity and mini-paradigms) to the study of this relation, focusing on longitudinal child data from German and other languages investigated within the "Crosslinguistic Project on Pre- and Protomorphology in language acquisition" coordinated by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Cross-linguistic evidence shows that grammatical morphology emerges in several areas of morphology simultaneously, i.e. the emergence of morphological processing seems to represent a switch in the child's relation to morphological patterns in general. Typological differences between the target languages explain in which part of morphology children first discover morphology. For German, this is noun plural formation, noun compounding and verb inflection, for Lithuanian and Slavic languages typically verb inflection, plural and case formation in nouns and diminutive formation, for Russian also possessive adjective formation, for French verb inflection only. The theoretical framework of this contribution is in epistemology functional explanation, in linguistics Natural Morphology, and for acquisition constructivism. The project is devoted to comparative longitudinal case studies of children up to (at least) the age of 3.00. The data are collected and registered in parallel (1 to 4 sessions per month in everyday activities of the children), transcribed and morphologically coded according to CHILDES conventions [MacWhinney 2000]. The discovery of morphology takes place in the transition from pre- to protomorphology, which is also accompanied by a switch from extragrammatic to grammatic morphology (including the rise of autonomous function words). It remains an open question why this change is more abrupt for some children than for others (even of the same language), a question not yet discussed.


MacWhinney B. The CHILDES project. Tools for analyzing talk. 3rd ed. Hillsdale; New Jersey; Hove; London, 2000.