Tag Archives: Verb

Primitive Modals in Child Language (Hafta, Wanna, Gonna) As Functionally Equivalent to Auxiliary Modals

Modals represent a perspective of force in relation to the participatory elements of a construction.  In fact, they represent an encoding of force in the relation between subject, verb, and object.

Children acquire modals by way of constructions that employ notions of speaker attitudes like intention, volition, and compulsion (245, Tomasello: 2003), and the constructions that they use are form-meaning pairings of these attitudes to a class of non-modal verbs including: want, have, need, among others.  Through use of these constructions, children begin to use reduced forms to communicate their understanding of internal volition (wanna), external compulsion (hafta), internal compulsion (needta) where the verb is coupled with a reduced form of “to” (indicating direction toward) (246, Tomasello: 2003).

These quasi-modal constructions are aligned functionally with auxiliary modals which direct degrees of compulsion and force of purpose.  This is seen in the deontic modal function of hafta which equates with must (Tomasello, 262).  In a way, these can both be understood to represent a requirement on the part of the grammatical subject.


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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

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Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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How Novel Constructions Emerge Over Time

Reading Michael Israel’s The Way Constructions Grow taught me some things about how novel constructions actually emerge in a language.  I encourage you to check out this classic article.

The -Way construction in present usage has undertaken a sort of functional compression since its earliest usages in the 1300s.  Three main functions have been historically tracked in the -way construction usage: motion, path creation, and possession.  Motion has been functionally understood in the manner sense

Path creation has been functionally understood as the means sense.  Possession is not dealt with in an in depth manner, and Israel focuses on analyzing the convergence of Motion and Path Creation into the modern -way construction.

Here are two examples:

  • He chewed his way out of that mess (path creation)
  • The dog crawled his way home after getting hit by the truck (motion)

In the beginning the -way construction needed verbs that were related to motion and path creation, but as time went on it began to incorporate verbs that are “marginally or incidentally related to the actual expressed motion.”

The idea is that over time something I call “functional compression” occurred as the generic construction was expanded to include the different functional senses (Motion, Path Creation, Possession), which resulted in an increase in the construction’s productivity.  This process was enabled by the use of analogical extensions

Analogical usage and schema abstraction both provide important implications of CogLing approaches.  Analogical usage corresponds to the Production Principle which states that utterances should sound like things the speaker has heard before.  This is a form of conservatism in the theoretical framework.  Schema abstraction corresponds to the Comprehension Principles which states that representations should capture similarities across experienced usages, and assists innovation and novel extension.  This idea of compression is important for dealing with a vast exposure to similar tokens of a construction.

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Constructional Islands and the Organization of Language in Child Language Acquisition

Wake Island is a volcanic island that has beco...

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When a child’s multi-word utterances are formed around a particular and limited set of linguistic items (either Nouns or Verbs), Tomasello (2003) terms them “Islands” to emphasize how their structured form clustered around a particular Noun or Verb.  Picture the Noun or Verb at the center of the island.  This is not evident in their other forms which might not be organized around a central lexical item.  So Tomasello claims that the Islands are the beginning elements of organization in an “otherwise unorganized language system” [117].  This reflects how children rely on instances and instance-specific manifestations (tokens) to begin forming the basis for mature adult constructions.  Since children are less able to generalize (as adults do when accessing construction types), they must begin to use specific instances, and upon collecting sufficient instances, begin to expand the territory of their constructional islands into full-on adult constructions.  This reflects the child’s ability to maximize frequency in a usage-based approach.  Their exposure to the centers of their constructional islands is not preprogrammed (as is claimed in a UG framework), but emerges from usage.

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