Whamit!

The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Talk 3/16 - Robyn Orfitelli

Speaker: Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield)
Title: Middle Class Acquisition
Time: Thursday March 16, 12:30 – 2:30 pm
Room: 32-D461

Abstract:

One of the most discussed puzzles in language acquisition is that children learning English (and a typologically diverse array of other languages) are delayed in acquiring adult comprehension of verbal passives and subject-to-subject raising (1a-b), but show very early comprehension of numerous other forms of A-movement, including subject-to-object raising and unaccusatives (2a-b).

I have previously argued that the cause of this split is that the sentences in (1) violate locality restrictions on movement, making them impossible for young children to derive, while the sentences in (2) do not violate these restrictions. In this talk, I present data from three studies investigating the acquisition of the A-movement that derives the middle voice (3), and a related structure with similar properties (4). Both (3) and (4) are structurally ambiguous: the nominative subject may be interpreted as either the external argument (reading i) or internal argument (reading ii) of the predicate, making these ideal test cases for locality-based intervention accounts.

Collectively, the data from the three studies suggest that children have no difficulty representing internal arguments as subjects, despite their non-canonical alignment, and the extreme rarity of sentences like (3) and (4) in child-directed speech. I discuss the significance of these findings for both our understanding of A-movement acquisition, and for our understanding of implicitly represented arguments in syntactic/semantic structure.

  1. a. Amber was seen by Graham.
    b. Amber seems to Graham to be lying.
  2. a. Amber believes Graham to be lying.
    b. Amber arrived.
  3. Adorable kittens sell easily.
    i. Adorable kittens make particularly talented sales-cats.
    ii. Adorable kittens can easily be sold.
  4. Scientists make great parents.
    i. (Mad) scientists create great parents (a la Dr. Frankenstein).
    ii. Scientists are generally great parents.
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