Searching for parallels between child language acquisition and historical change: What corpora can tell us about shared developmental pathways
María José López-Couso
University of Santiago de Compostela
Over the last few decades a number of similarities in developmental patterns between diachronic change and first language acquisition have been identified both for English and for other languages in different grammatical domains. Examples of such comparable developmental patterns can be found in the areas of modality (Stephany 1986 on deontic and epistemic meanings), tense and aspect (Slobin 1994 on the present perfect), and word order (van Kemenade and Westergaard 2012 on the variation between verb-second and non-verb second order in declarative clauses).
This presentation examines some attested cases of sequential isomorphism between historical development and L1 acquisition and explores the potential of corpus data to account for such parallels. In addition to a more theoretically oriented discussion of the controversial role of child language acquisition in diachronic change and of the existence of similar or different principles behind the parallels, the presentation focuses on the analysis of two selected shared developmental pathways: (i) existential there and (ii) the so-called ‘emerging modal’ want to/wanna.
In the first of these case studies, I compare the diachronic grammaticalization of existential there with the developmental relation between deictic and existential there identified by Johnson (2001) for Child English. Drawing on data from the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) (MacWhinney 2000), Johnson shows that children use occurrences of the deictic there as a model for the acquisition of the existential pattern, through ‘overlap utterances’ which exemplify both formal and semantic-pragmatic properties of both the source and the target constructions. Taking Johnson’s longitudinal evidence as a point of departure, I examine the prose texts of the Old and Middle English sections of the Helsinki Corpus, and show that, as is the case in ontogenetic development, in diachronic terms existential there also derives from locative there, via overlap (bridging) contexts, where there performs both a deictic and an existence-informing function (López-Couso 2011).
The second case study brings us to the domain of modality, which has been shown to constitute a particularly suitable testing ground for the identification of potential parallels between ontogeny and diachrony. The focus in this part of the presentation is on the ontogenetic and the diachronic development of the ‘emerging modal’ want to/wanna. Along the lines suggested by Schmidtke-Bode (2009) for going to/gonna (see also López-Couso 2017), I compare Krug’s (2000) account of the historical evolution of want to/wanna with the acquisition of this emerging modal by English-speaking children with data from the CHILDES archive. The results show that the overall developmental patterns in Child English seem to be consistent with the diachronic facts, with the full form want to being acquired earlier than the reduced form wanna, via an intermediate stage with the variant wan(t) (ta), which represents the beginnings of the process of erosion of want to.
Johnson, Christopher R. 2001. Constructional grounding: On the relation between deictic and existential there-constructions in acquisition. In Alan Cienki, Barbara J. Luka & Michael B. Smith (eds.), Conceptual and discourse factors in linguistic structure, 123-136. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Krug, Manfred. 2000. Emerging English modals: A corpus-based study of grammaticalization. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
López-Couso, María José. 2011. Developmental parallels in diachronic and ontogenetic grammaticalization: Existential there as a test case. Folia Linguistica 45 (1): 81-102.
López-Couso, María José. 2017. Transferring insights from child language acquisition to diachronic change (and vice versa). In Marianne Hundt, Sandra Mollin & Simone E. Pfenninger (eds.), The changing English language: Psycholinguistic perspectives, 332-347. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MacWhinney, Brian. 2000. The CHILDES project: Tools for analyzing talk. 3rd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schmidtke-Bode, Karsten. 2009. Going to-V and gonna-V in child language: A quantitative approach to constructional development. Cognitive Linguistics 20 (3): 509-538.
Slobin, Dan I. 1994. Talking perfectly. Discourse origins of the present perfect. In William Pagliuca (ed.), Perspectives on grammaticalization, 119-133. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Stephany, Ursula. 1986. Modality. In Paul Fletcher & Michael Garman (eds.), Language acquisition. Studies in first language development, 375-400. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
van Kemenade, Ans & Marit Westergaard. 2012. Syntax and information structure: V2 variation in Middle English. In Anneli Meurman-Solin, María José López-Couso & Bettelou Los (eds.), Information structure and syntactic change in the history of English, 87-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.