This article investigates how children learn an infinitely expanding ‘universal’ system of classificatory kinship terms. We report on a series of experiments designed to elicit acquisitional data on (i) nominal kinterms and (ii) sibling-inflected polysynthetic morphology in the Australian language Murrinhpatha. Photographs of the participants’ own relatives are used as stimuli to assess knowledge of kinterms, kin-based grammatical contrasts, and kinship principles, across different age groups. The results show that genealogically distant kin are more difficult to classify than close kin, that children’s comprehension and production of kinterms are streamlined by abstract merging principles, and that sibling-inflection is learned in tandem with number and person marking in the verbal morphology, although it is not fully mastered until mid to late childhood. We discuss how the unlimited nature of Australian kinship systems presents unusual challenges to the language learner, but suggest that, as everywhere, patterns of language acquisition are closely intertwined with children’s experience of their sociocultural environment.


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pp. 661-695
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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