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  • The comparative method of language acquisition research by Clifton Pye
  • Katherine Demuth
The comparative method of language acquisition research. By Clifton Pye. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780226481289 (Hb). $150.

This book is a welcome addition to the literature on language acquisition and a testament to Clifton Pye’s life’s work on the acquisition of Mayan languages. It comes at a timely juncture, after a flurry of crosslinguistic studies of language acquisition during the 1980s and 1990s (cf. Slobin 1985, 1992). Researchers are now again reawakening to the fact that, to make theoretical progress in the field, we need to understand how languages with very different typological structures are acquired.

As P notes, comparing the acquisition of closely related languages is also extremely valuable and can tell us much about both the course of language acquisition and why it proceeds as it does. Thus, just as comparative/historical linguistics provides a framework for refining theories of linguistic structure, comparing the acquisition of closely related languages provides an ideal laboratory from which to understand the ‘universals’ of language acquisition.

One of the challenges, however, is translating this comparative understanding to languages that are typologically very different. As P notes, this raises the question of what the units of comparison are. Even the notion of a ‘word’ is not always straightforward in morphologically rich or polysynthetic languages. Calculating mean length of utterance (MLU) can thus be a challenge for making comparisons across typologically different languages (though see suggestions for how to do this in other polysynthetic languages in Allen & Dench 2015).

The author then puts research on the acquisition of Mayan languages into a larger context, illustrating how the comparative method (henceforth CM) helps us understand why children produce the early forms of language that they do. P’s finding that children learning Mayan languages [End Page 814] tend to produce the stressed syllable of the verb complex, which may or may not land on the verb stem, is extremely revealing of the much more ‘universal’ processes found across typologically different languages (cf. Swedish; Peters & Strömqvist 1996).

P then goes into detail regarding the CM, how it has been applied in historical linguistics, and the acquisition implications for Mayan and other language families. He suggests that much comparative acquisition research involving European languages has been conducted in the context of testing different theories of syntax and/or acquisition, whereas the CM can also be used with a more theory-neutral goal of describing how children acquire a linguistic system more generally. He then presents an overview of the structure of Mayan languages, outlining the general synthetic structure of these languages, providing details about the form of the lexicon, the structure of the Mayan verb (including person-marking and verb suffixes), the realization of stative predicates and verb nominalization processes, and syntactic processes more generally. This is then followed by a description of acquisition data from three Mayan languages. Two of these data sets P collected himself (K’iche: six children, Mam: eleven children), while the third (Ch’oi: five children) was collected by members of the community (for more detail, see pp. 98–100). P provides comparative examples of each.

P then discusses the Mayan lexicon (nouns, relational nouns, adjectives, transitive and intransitive verbs, positionals, particles, pronouns) and how these categories are acquired across the three different Mayan languages. P notes that these categories are put to different uses across languages, resulting in different acquisition patterns. However, all of these languages exhibit cross-reference marking on nouns and verbs, licensing the omission of lexical arguments. This results in the verb playing a more important role in the Mayan grammar than in a language like English, as it does in many morphologically rich languages. The summary in this chapter includes a brief mention of how the acquisition of related Greater Tzeltalan languages differs from that of the Mayan languages (cf. Pye, Pfeiler, & Mateo Pedro 2017), some of this having to do with focus and person marking.

He then examines the acquisition of Mayan intransitive and transitive verb complexes, respectively. The templatic structure of the morphologically complex verb, including the verb root and...


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