LINGUIST List 12.3020

Tue Dec 4 2001

Books: Acquisition

Editor for this issue: Richard John Harvey <>

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  1. Ora Matushansky, Acquisition: Word Order Variation and Acquisition in ASL

Message 1: Acquisition: Word Order Variation and Acquisition in ASL

Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2001 22:07:39 -0500
From: Ora Matushansky <matushanMIT.EDU>
Subject: Acquisition: Word Order Variation and Acquisition in ASL

UConn PhD thesis 2001

Deborah Pichler; Word Order Variation and Acquisition in American
Sign Language;
$14. For ordering information, visit our Web page:


This study examines two crosslinguistic generalizations generated by
previous studies of word order: (1) that the word order parameters
(i.e. the spec-head and head-complement parameters) are universally
set early, and (2) that word order variation in languages with rich
and regular inflection is acquired earlier than in languages with poor
or irregular inflection. These generalizations are evaluated using
spontaneous production data of four deaf children between the ages of
~20-30 months, acquiring ASL as their first language.

Both noncanonical and canonical word order are attested during this
period. I argue that instances of early noncanonical order are not
necessarily errors, since many exhibit properties of grammatical adult
word order variation from underlying/canonical SVO. The relevant
movement operations are subject-pronoun copy, yielding noncanonical VS
order, and rightward verb raising licensed by handling, spatial and
aspectual inflection, which I group together as reordering morphology,
resulting in noncanonical OV order. I argue that the occurrence of
grammatical word order variation side by side with canonically ordered
sentences is evidence that the word order parameters are set early in
ASL, consistent with the first crosslinguistic generalization.

ASL has a relatively rich but irregular verbal inflection system. The
fact that children acquire word order variation early despite the
irregular inflectional system of ASL supports a modified version of
the second crosslinguistic generalization: Early acquisition of order
variation depends on early acquisition of the morphological cues
associated with noncanonical order. Alternatively, noncanonical orders
with no morphological cue are also acquired early, provided there are
no syntactic restrictions on their application.

Finally, this thesis challenges previous claims that topicalization is
acquired late (not before 3;0) in ASL. Examination of one child's OV
combinations not accounted for by reordering morphology reveals that
roughly half feature a simple prosodic break between the object and
verb. These breaks are reminiscent of those used to mark topics in
Israeli Sign Language, and I propose that they serve the same function
in early ASL. This analysis puts acquisition of topicalization
movement at as early as 24 months, although other aspects of ASL
topicalization (i.e. adult nonmanual marking and pragmatic
appropriateness) have yet to be mastered.

Ora Matushansky
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Monday, July 23, 2001