Early Tzeltal verbs: Argument structure and argument representation

The surge of research activity focussing on children's acquisition of verbs (e.g., Tomasello and Merriman 1996) addresses some fundamental questions: Just how variable across languages, and across individual children, is the process of verb learning? How specific are arguments to particular verbs in early child language? How does the grammatical category 'Verb' develop? The position of Universal Grammar, that a verb category is early, contrasts with that of Tomasello (1992), Pine and Lieven and their colleagues (1996, in press), and many others, that children develop a verb category slowly, gradually building up subcategorizations of verbs around pragmatic, syntactic, and semantic properties of the language they are exposed to. On this latter view, one would expect the language which the child is learning, the cultural milieu and the nature of the interactions in which the child is engaged, to influence the process of acquiring verb argument structures. This paper explores these issues by examining the development of argument representation in the Mayan language Tzeltal, in both its lexical and verbal cross-referencing forms, and analyzing the semantic and pragmatic factors influencing the form argument representation takes. Certain facts about Tzeltal (the ergative/ absolutive marking, the semantic specificity of transitive and positional verbs) are proposed to affect the representation of arguments. The first 500 multimorpheme combinations of 3 children (aged between 1;8 and 2;4) are examined. It is argued that there is no evidence of semantically light 'pathbreaking' verbs (Ninio 1996) leading the way into word combinations. There is early productivity of cross-referencing affixes marking A, S, and O arguments (although there are systematic omissions). The paper assesses the respective contributions of three kinds of factors to these results - structural (regular morphology), semantic (verb specificity) and pragmatic (the nature of Tzeltal conversational interaction).
Publication type
Book chapter
Publication date
1998

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