Little kids, big verbs: the acquisition of Murrinhpatha bipartite stem verbs
AffiliationSchool of Languages and Linguistics
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2016 Dr. William Forshaw
This thesis examines the acquisition of Murrinhpatha, a polysynthetic language of northern Australia, based on semi-naturalistic data from 5 children (1;9-6;1) over a two-year period. It represents the first detailed acquisition study of an Australian non-Pama Nyungan language and thus contributes to a growing crosslinguistic and typological understanding of the process of language acquisition. In particular it focuses on the acquisition of Murrinhpatha bipartite stem verbs and the acquisition of complex inflectional verbal paradigms. These structures pose a number of challenges to the language learner, which raise questions for current theories of morphological acquisition. The structure of this thesis is built around three major research questions. The first aims to describe the characteristics of early verb use in Murrinhpatha both with regard to their structure and their semantics and pragmatics. I describe the development of verb structures in Murrinhpatha finding that these are sensitive to phonological/prosodic factors and not truncated according to morphosyntactic factors. The semantics and pragmatics of early verbs show similarities to English-acquiring children despite the great typological differences of these languages. Secondly I examine the acquisition of the complex inflectional paradigms of Murrinhpatha classifier stems. This system appears to be too complex to allow for abstract rule-based morphological acquisition but also too large to rely on rote learning of individual inflected forms. I find that children begin by using a small core of rote learned inflected forms and gradually expand verb paradigms along predictable pathways relying on low level analogy and semi-regular patterns of inflection. Finally I consider the acquisition of Murrinhpatha bipartite stem verb morphology. These verbs are constructed of two stem elements, a classifier stem and a lexical stem, which co-vary to encode verbal semantics and argument structure. Such a system has not previously been explored from an acquisition perspective, and thus I investigate how children acquire the underlying compositional principles of the system. While children do use bipartite stem morphology contrastively, they are found not to acquire the compositional principles underlying the system in the age range considered. This suggests that the Murrinhpatha bipartite stem verb system is not regular or transparent enough to allow for the acquisition of the principles of compositionality during the earlier stages of development.
Keywordsfirst language acquisition; Murrinhpatha; morphology; Australian languages; polysynthesis; bipartite stem verbs
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