child language

Tom Givon tgivon at
Wed Feb 16 03:13:23 UTC 2011

Dead FUNK people,

In 2002 I accepted for publication, in a TSL volume I edited, an article 
by my good friend Dan Slobin. I disagreed strongly with what he had to 
say, but felt that one might as well have a vigorous discussion. In that 
article, Dan challenged the meaningfulness of a whole research 
programme, that of seeking similarities between early child language 
(1-2 yrs) and other developmental ('emergent') processes such as 
language diachrony, SLA-pidginization and language evolution. A week or 
so ago, Dan cited that article, once again implying that it was the last 
word on the subject, and thus that the discussion should be closed.

In 2009 I published a whole book ("The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity", 
Amsterdam: Benjamins) suggesting, and trying to show, that the 
discussion was far from closed, and that seeking similarities between 
the four developmental trends of language is both theoretically sound 
and empirically feasible. At the time, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I said 
I was sorely tempted to dedicate the book to my old teacher Noam 
Chomsky, given his infuriating treatment of the subject in a 2002 
article (Hauser et al. 2002). In retrospect, I see that I should have 
dedicated the book to Dan Slobin, since both he and Chomsky were the 
proximate catalysts for writing the book; and unlike Chomsky Dan is 
still my good friend.

In his recent FUNK contribution, Dan leveled his guns most specifically 
at the pernicious suggestion (Givon 1979; Bickerton 1981) that the 
similarities between early child language and SLA pidgin could be 
legitimate and revealing. I would like to briefly sketch out the 
beginning of an answer, and also give a promisory note for a more 
extensive, quantified, text-based study that will back up my claims--tho 
of course I don't intend to close the discussion once and for all even 
then. My investigation of this topic started in 1979, in ch. 5, 7 of "On 
Understanding Grammar" ( NY:Academic Press). I set up there a comparison 
between some of the main structural and communicative properties of 
pre-gram,matical vs. grammatical communication. After 30 years of 
tinkering, that comparison may be summarized as follows:

1. *Lexicon over grammar*: Pre-grammatical communication relies 
maximally on the lexicon, leaving communicative intent largely un-coded 
and thus heavily dependent on contextual inferences. In contrast, 
grammatical communication codes much more of the communicative intent 
via grammar.
2. *Coherence scope*: The thematic and/or topical coherence units of 
pre-grammatical communication are much shorter. In early child language, 
for example (ca. Lois Bloom's 1970/1973 1-word stage, ca. 1 yr old), it 
approximates 1-clause, thus "mono-propositional coherence". It gradually 
gets longer, and is clearly multi-propositional by the so-called 2-word 
stage (Bowerman 1973, ca. 2-yr).
3. *Dependence on care-taker turns*: In early child language (Ochs et 
al. 1979) the one-word contributions of the child are 
complemented/supplemented, both syntactically and communicatively, by 
the adult interlocutor's contributions.
4. *Context dependency*: Early child communication is, therefore, much 
more heavily context-dependent.
6. *Speech acts*: The ratio of manipulative vs. informative 
(declarative, question) speech acts will be highest in early child 
language, and will decrease over acquisition.

6.*Noun/verb coding ratio*:  The ration of N/V in early child 
comminication (e.g. Lois Blooms 1970/1973 transcipts) is highest, and 
decreases during acquisition.
7. *Grammatical morphology*: The use of productive (as against frozen) 
grammatical morphology is minimal in early child language, and increases 
during acquisition.
8. *Grammatical constructions*: In early child language, in part due the 
7. above, syntactic constructions (speech acts, voice, subordination, 
etc.) show low differentiation. They emerge and differentiate gradually 
during acquisition.
9. *Syntactic complexity*: Overall, early child language shows minimal 
syntactic complexity, which then increases gradually during acquisition.

All these properties can be studied empirically in a quantified 
manner--in transcripts of natural oral communication. The relevant 
comparison with the adult grammatical register should obviously involve 
informal oral communication. None of these properties are absolute 
either/or; rather, they are all a matter of degree. They must be studied 
language by language, and one would predict that in languages with 
more-regular morphology the acquisition of productive (as against 
frozen) morphology would come earlier. But one would still predict the 
gradient suggested in 7 above. Further, one could predict that in 
languages where the adult input of verbs obligatorily comes with some 
morphology (Hebrew, Spanish, Navajo), lexical verbs will be acquired 
initially with some frozen morphology; but that morphology would not be 
productive at the earliest stages. Likewise, one could predict that in 
languages where the adult input of nouns obligatorily comes with some 
morphology (Bantu), nouns will be acquired early with frozen morphology; 
but that the richness of Bantu nominal-class morphology, and in 
particular its extensive ramifications into the grammar of both NPs and 
VPs, will be acquired later and gradually.

So, I hereby promise to find the time to do this kind of  quantified 
comparative study, and present the result for y'all to inspect & decide. 
I promise to include at least 4 languages (Hebrew, Spanish, English, 
Swahili), as well as English-based SLA-pidgin. While this is obviously 
an impoverished typological sample, it does include some of the major 
relevant typological parameters. And one needs to know the languages in 
order to do the study (the CHILDES transcripts, alas, come without 
inter-lineal glosses). I can only hope that other people may want to 
pick up the gauntlet and extend this study to other languages.  As in 
other sciences, theoretical arguments can only be resolved by 
well-design empirical investigation. The worst thing one would want to 
see in child language studies is a premature closure.

Best,  TG

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