Argument structure and the acquisition of Sesotho applicatives

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Abstract

One of the long-standing issues in the study of language acquisition has concerned what is "innate" and what must be "learned." Much of this debate has focused on structures at the syntax/semantics interface, dealing specifically with how children acquire the argument structure of verbs. Bantu applicative constructions present an interesting arena for exploring these issues, where different verb classes take applicative objects with different thematic properties, only some of these patterning as true syntactic objects. Sesotho has an especially interesting system, where the syntax of applicative objects is further complicated by issues of animacy, raising questions regarding how this system is learned. This paper outlines the syntactic and semantic structure of Sesotho applicatives and then examines the spontaneous use of applicative constructions in the speech of two Sesotho-speaking children between the ages of two and three. It finds that these children use the applicative with a full range of verb classes, demonstrating appropriate semantic knowledge of the construction. However, the applicative structures they use exploit only a small portion of the available syntactic space. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of this study for learnability issues and outlines areas for further research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)781-806
Number of pages26
JournalLinguistics
Volume36
Issue number356
Publication statusPublished - 1998

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