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Learning a morphological system without a default: the Polish genitive

By E. Dabrowska


The acquisition of the English past tense inflection is the paradigm example of rule learning in the child language literature and has become something of a test case for theories of language development. This is unfortunate, as the idiosyncratic properties of the English system of marking tense make it a rather unrepresentative example of morphological development. In this paper, I contrast this familiar inflection with a much more complex morphological subsystem, the Polish genitive. The genitive case has three different markers, each restricted to a different subset of nouns, in both the singular and the plural.\ud \ud Analysis of the spontanous speech of three children between the ages of 1;4 and 4;11 showed that they generalized, and overgeneralized, all three singular endings. However, error rates were extremely low and there is no evidence that they treated any one ending as the ‘default’. The genitive plural, on the other hand, showed a strikingly different pattern of acquisition, similar to that seen in English-speaking children learning the past tense. It is argued that in the latter two cases, the default-like character of one of the affixes is attributable to the properties of the relevant inflectional subsystems, not to the predispositions that children bring to the language-learning task

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 2001
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