Children's first verbs in Tzeltal: Evidence for an early verb category

A major finding in studies of early vocabulary acquisition has been that children tend to learn a lot of nouns early but make do with relatively few verbs, among which semantically general-purpose verbs like do, make, get, have, give, come, go, and be play a prominent role. The preponderance of nouns is explained in terms of nouns labelling concrete objects beings “easier” to learn than verbs, which label relational categories. Nouns label “natural categories” observable in the world, verbs label more linguistically and culturally specific categories of events linking objects belonging to such natural categories (Gentner 1978, 1982; Clark 1993). This view has been challenged recently by data from children learning certain non-Indo-European languges like Korean, where children have an early verb explosion and verbs dominate in early child utterances. Children learning the Mayan language Tzeltal also acquire verbs early, prior to any noun explosion as measured by production. Verb types are roughly equivalent to noun types in children’s beginning production vocabulary and soon outnumber them. At the one-word stage children’s verbs mostly have the form of a root stripped of affixes, correctly segmented despite structural difficulties. Quite early (before the MLU 2.0 point) there is evidence of productivity of some grammatical markers (although they are not always present): the person-marking affixes cross-referencing core arguments, and the completive/incompletive aspectual distinctions. The Tzeltal facts argue against a natural-categories explanation for childre’s early vocabulary, in favor of a view emphasizing the early effects of language-specific properties of the input. They suggest that when and how a child acquires a “verb” category is centrally influenced by the structural properties of the input, and that the semantic structure of the language - where the referential load is concentrated - plays a fundamental role in addition to distributional facts.
Publication type
Journal article
Publication date
1998

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