Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Virginia V. Valian

Subject Categories



Language Acquisition; Preposition; Syntax


In first language acquisition, what does it mean for a grammatical category to have been acquired, and what are the mechanisms by which children learn functional categories in general? In the context of prepositions (Ps), if the lexical/functional divide cuts through the P category, as has been suggested in the theoretical literature, then constructivist accounts of language acquisition would predict that children develop adult-like competence with the more abstract units, functional Ps, at a slower rate compared to their acquisition of lexical Ps. Nativists instead assume that the features of functional P are made available by Universal Grammar (UG), and are mapped as quickly, if not faster, than the semantic features of their lexical counterparts. Conversely, if Ps are either all lexical or all functional, on both accounts of acquisition we should observe few differences in learning.

Three empirical studies of the development of P were conducted via computer analysis of the English and Spanish sub-corpora of the CHILDES database. Study 1 analyzed errors in child usage of Ps, finding almost no errors in commission in either language, but that the English learners lag in their production of functional Ps relative to lexical Ps. That no such delay was found in the Spanish data suggests that the English pattern is not universal. Studies 2 and 3 applied novel measures of phrasal (P head + nominal complement) productivity to the data. Study 2 examined prepositional phrases (PPs) whose head-complement pairs appeared in both child and adult speech, while Study 3 considered PPs produced by children that never occurred in adult speech. In both studies the productivity of Ps for English children developed faster than that of lexical Ps. In Spanish there were few differences, suggesting that children had already mastered both orders of Ps early in acquisition. These empirical results suggest that at least in English P is indeed a split category, and that children acquire the syntax of the functional subset very quickly, committing almost no errors. The UG position is thus supported.

Next, the dissertation investigates a 'soft nativist' acquisition strategy that composes the distributional analysis of input, minimal a priori knowledge of the possible co-occurrence of morphosyntactic features associated with functional elements, and linguistic knowledge that is presumably acquired via the experience of pragmatic, communicative situations. The output of the analysis consists in a mapping of morphemes to the feature bundles of nominative pronouns for English and Spanish, plus specific claims about the sort of knowledge required from experience.

The acquisition model is then extended to adpositions, to examine what, if anything, distributional analysis can tell us about the functional sequences of PPs. The results confirm the theoretical position according to which spatiotemporal Ps are lexical in character, rooting their own extended projections, and that functional Ps express an aspectual sequence in the functional superstructure of the PP.

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