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Language typology and the acquisition of bare noun/DP contrasts
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Language typology and the acquisition of bare noun/DP contrasts

1. Introduction

If compositionality (the assumption that the meaning of an utterance is determined by the meaning of its parts and the way they combine) is an inherent property of the human language, we expect children to attribute meaning to even small differences in sentence form. The input contains minimal contrasts as in (1), whose interpretation may not be easy to disambiguate in a given discourse context. Our goal is examine how children acquire these minimal distinctions.

  1. 1.

    1. a. Someone is wearing gloves.

    2. b. Someone is wearing the gloves.

Formally, these cases differ in the presence of a determiner in contrast with a bare form. Referentially, (1a) includes (1b), so for every context where (1b) is true (1a) is also true. The definite DP has a distinct signature in the input, as it is more frequent at second mention of a referent (Sneed 2008). The bare noun is less specified, and thus less falsifiable. We propose to explore the acquisition of nominal mapping in terms of the semantic competition between bare nouns and DPs. We present a comparative study of two languages: Catalan, where these nominal contrasts occur in restricted positions, and English, where the contrast is instantiated in both subject and object position. To this purpose, we replicated in English Gavarró et al.'s (2006) study on the acquisition of bare/DP objects in Catalan.

2. DP/Bare Noun Contrasts

The now-familiar typology in Chierchia (1998) states that languages vary according to how nominal categories are mapped into semantic types. In his Nominal Mapping Parameter (NMP), nouns are associated with two independent features that determine their denotation. The feature [+arg(ument)] indicates N is kind-denoting and has a mass syntax; the feature [+pred(icate)] determines that a N is predicate-denoting and has a countable syntax. In Chinese, and other classifier languages, Ns are mapped as [+arg, -pred] and thus can be arguments in their own right. In Romance languages, Ns are mapped as [-arg, +pred] and need a determiner to function as arguments. In Germanic languages, Ns are mapped as [+arg, +pred]: when Ns are [+pred] they [End Page 413] require a D, as in Romance count nouns; when [+arg] they act like mass nouns. In Romanian, Catalan, Spanish and Italian, bare objects appear in the immediate domain of a P or V head. This is productive for mass and plural count nouns, and lexically restricted for bare singular count nouns (Bosque 1996, Dobrovie-Sorin et al. 2006). Chierchia's approach analyzes the bare objects in (2) differently despite their comparable distribution and interpretation. Milk in (2a) is treated as a bare noun, while llet in (2b) is a DP with a null determiner head.

  1. 2.

    1. a. Children drink milk.

    2. b. Catalan:

      Els nens beuen llet.

      The-PL children drink milk.

3. Acquisition of Bare/DP Contrasts

Research on the acquisition of DPs has identified typological variation in the timing of the acquisition of determiners. Lleó and Demuth (1999) showed that young Spanish children achieved adult levels of article production earlier than German-speaking children and proposed that prosodic differences across languages determine children's rates of determiner insertion. Guasti, Gavarró, de Lange, and Caprin (2008) examined determiner production in Catalan, Italian, and Dutch children under the age of 3, divided in groups according to linguistic development rather than age. While articles or protoarticles emerged at the same age across languages, there was a clear contrast in the overall rates of use and the pace of development, following the predictions of the NMP. At the initial stage, Catalan and Italian children had article omissions in roughly half of the NPs produced, but dropped substantially under 16% by the second stage. In contrast, Dutch children started with higher omission rates (92%) in the first stage and retained substantial omission rates in the later stage (39%). Guasti and colleagues note that Dutch is statistically different from Catalan and Italian, and conclude that differences in acquisition rates for the various language types exist beyond the effect of prosodic factors. Bilingual children learning Germanic and Romance languages exhibit comparable...