Isolating the CVC root in Tzeltal Mayan: A study of children's first verbs

Brown, P. (1997). Isolating the CVC root in Tzeltal Mayan: A study of children's first verbs. In E. V. Clark (Ed.), Proceedings of the 28th Annual Child Language Research Forum (pp. 41-52). Stanford, CA: CSLI/University of Chicago Press.
How do children isolate the semantic package contained in verb roots in the Mayan language Tzeltal? One might imagine that the canonical CVC shape of roots characteristic of Mayan languages would make the job simple, but the root is normally preceded and followed by affixes which mask its identity. Pye (1983) demonstrated that, in Kiche' Mayan, prosodic salience overrides semantic salience, and children's first words in Kiche' are often composed of only the final (stressed) syllable constituted by the final consonant of the CVC root and a 'meaningless' termination suffix. Intonation thus plays a crucial role in early Kiche' morphological development. Tzeltal presents a rather different picture: The first words of children around the age of 1;6 are bare roots, children strip off all prefixes and suffixes which are obligatory in adult speech. They gradually add them, starting with the suffixes (which receive the main stress), but person prefixes are omitted in some contexts past a child's third birthday, and one obligatory aspectual prefix (x-) is systematically omitted by the four children in my longitudinal study even after they are four years old. Tzeltal children's first verbs generally show faultless isolation of the root. An account in terms of intonation or stress cannot explain this ability (the prefixes are not all syllables; the roots are not always stressed). This paper suggests that probable clues include the fact that the CVC root stays constant across contexts (with some exceptions) whereas the affixes vary, that there are some linguistic contexts where the root occurs without any prefixes (relatively frequent in the input), and that the Tzeltal discourse convention of responding by repeating with appropriate deictic alternation (e.g., "I see it." "Oh, you see it.") highlights the root.
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