Frequency effects in children’s syntactic and morphological development


Frequency effects in children’s syntactic and morphological development


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Book Chapter


Chapter 8 in Time and again: Theoretical perspectives on formal linguistics, edited by William D. Lewis, Simin Karimi, Heidi Harley, Scott O. Farrar.

Chapter abstract:

We have long loved Langendoen (1970) — a paper on the theoretical justification of “transformations, their effects on the structure of sentences, and the conditions under which they are optional or obligatory” (p. 102). In that paper, Langendoen argued that acceptability and grammaticality are “partially independent [and] partially dependent notions” (p. 103). We are struck by the implications of this contrast for language learning. If the learner’s grammar is a set of probabilistic patterns and not (also or instead) a set of grammatical rules, one might expect high frequency elements to be ‘grammatical’ and low frequency elements to be ‘ungrammatical.’ In other words, grammaticality and acceptability should be similar if frequency is the determining factor. But Langendoen (1970) hypothesized that grammatical competence contributes to grammaticality while processing factors contribute to acceptability. Our research shows clearer effects of frequency on the latter than the on former and thus relates to Langendoen’s observation.This chapter explores the role of frequency in children’s syntactic and morphophonological development. One study compares relative clauses involving different extraction sites, which constructions vary considerably in their frequency of occurrence. Children’s production of these relatives suggests that frequency affects sentence planning, but their judgments of the same relatives are out of synchrony with the frequency rates. The other study presented here concerns the a and an forms of the indefinite article, which distinction is acquired relatively late even though the forms occur frequently. These studies show that frequency cannot be the whole story. We conclude that children’s mastery of a system of rules proceeds — at least to some extent — independently of frequency patterns in the input.

Book description:

This volume is a collection of papers that highlights some recurring themes that have surfaced in the generative tradition in linguistics over the past 40 years. The volume is more than a historical take on a theoretical tradition; rather, it is also a "compass" pointing to exciting new empirical directions inspired by generative theory. In fact, the papers show a progression from core theoretical concerns to data-driven experimental investigation and can be divided roughly into two categories: those that follow a syntactic and theoretical course, and those that follow an experimental or applied path. Many of the papers revisit long-standing or recurring themes in the generative tradition, some of which seek experimental validation or refutation. The merger of theoretical and experimental concerns makes this volume stand out, but it is also forward looking in that it addresses the recent concerns of the creation and consumption of data across the discipline.



Publication Date



John Benjamins


In honor of D. Terence Langendoen.

Frequency effects in children’s syntactic and morphological development

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