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The acquisition of polysynthesis*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009

Marianne Mithun
Affiliation:
University of California, Santa Barbara

Abstract

Polysynthetic languages can present special extraction puzzles to children, due to the length of their words. A number of hypotheses concerning children's strategies for acquiring morphology, originally proposed on the basis of their approaches to somewhat simpler systems, are confirmed by observations of five children acquiring Mohawk. Among the Mohawk children, the earliest segmentation of words was phonological rather than morphological: stressed syllables, usually penultimate or antepenultimate, were extracted first. Ultimate syllables were then added, confirming the salience of the ends of words. During this time, distinctions expressed by adults in affixes were either omitted or expressed analytically. Acquisition then moved leftward by syllables. When most utterances were long enough to include pronominal prefixes as well as roots, morphological structure was apparently discovered. It is not surprising that the pronouns should trigger this awareness, since they are frequent, appearing with every verb and most nouns, they are functional, and they are semantically transparent. From this point on, the children acquired affixes primarily according to their utility and semantic transparency rather than their phonological shape or position.

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Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1989

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Footnotes

*

I am especially grateful to Mary MacDonald of Akwesasne, New York, for her help in interviewing two of the children described here, and for her comments on the resulting Mohawk language data. I also appreciate the help and expertise provided by Hilda Gabriel, Madeleine Montour and Minnie Nelson of Oka, Quebec, Leatrice Beauvais, Mary Cross, Annie Deer, Georgina Jacobs and Verna Jacobs of Caughnawaga, Quebec, Helen Thomas, Marie Sunday and Mildred White of Akwesasne, who assisted in interviewing the other children and discussing their language. Finally, I much appreciate the comments made by Ann Peters on an earlier version of this paper.

References

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