Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-pf4mj Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-31T10:41:33.451Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Definitions as a window to the acquisition of relative clauses

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2011

Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv University
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Naama Friedmann, Language and Brain Lab, School of Education, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel. E-mail:


Definitions that children provide can be a valuable measure of their syntax, and specifically, of their ability to produce relative clauses. This research explored the acquisition of subject, object, and indirect object relative clauses in 121 Hebrew-speaking children aged 3 years, 5 months to 8 years, 6 months (3;5–8;6). The children were asked to define 14 nouns, and their responses were collected and analyzed for various syntactic aspects. The main results were that children started using relative clauses in their definitions at age 3;8, and their use of relative clause increased consistently until they were 6 years old. Retesting 38 of the 6-year-olds at age 8;6 indicated no differences in several syntactic measures between their production of relative clauses at age 6 and 8;6, suggesting that the ability to produce relative clauses stabilizes around age 6. The participants made almost no grammatical errors at any of the ages, probably because they avoided the use of relative clauses when they had not mastered them yet. In the early stages participants produced mainly headless relatives, and with age the use of a relative head increased. The acquisition of relative clauses was not related to the ability to embed or to the ability to use pronouns: these abilities existed already in the youngest age group and remained constant throughout the age groups.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Aram, D. (2005). The continuity in children's literacy achievements: A longitudinal perspective from kindergarten to second grade. First Language, 25, 259289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Aram, D., & Levin, I. (2001). Mother–child joint writing in low SES: Socio-cultural factors, maternal mediation and emergent literacy. Cognitive Development, 16, 831852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Aram, D., & Levin, I. (2004). The role of maternal mediation of writing to kindergartners in promoting literacy achievements in second grade: A longitudinal perspective. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 17, 387409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Armon-Lotem, S. (2005). The acquisition of subordination: From preconjunctionals to later use. In Diskin Ravid, D. & Shyldkrot, H. B. (Eds.), Perspectives on language and language development: Essays in honor of Ruth Berman (pp. 192204). New York: Kluwer.Google Scholar
Armon-Lotem, S., Botwinik-Rotem, I., & Birka, S. (2006). The acquisition of relative clauses in Hebrew: Prepositions and resumptive pronouns. In Belletti, A., Bennati, E., Chesi, C., Di Domenico, E., & Ferrari, I. (Eds.), Language acquisition and development (pp. 114). Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press.Google Scholar
Belletti, A., & Rizzi, L. (1988). Psych-verbs and theta-theory. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 6, 291352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Benelli, B., Arcuri, L., & Marchesini, G. (1988). Cognitive and linguistic factors in the development of word definitions. Journal of Child Language, 15, 619635.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Berman, R. A. (1978). Comments on how and why a child acquires her first words. International Journal of Psycholinguistics, 5, 2139.Google Scholar
Berman, R. A. (1985). The acquisition of Hebrew. In Slobin, D. I. (Ed.), The crosslinguistic study of language acquisition (Vol. 1, pp. 255371). NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Berman, R. A. (1986). Relative clauses in Hebrew preschool usage. Unpublished manuscript, Tel Aviv University.Google Scholar
Berman, R. A. (1988). On the ability to relate events in narratives. Discourse Processes, 11, 469497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Berman, R. A. (1997). Early acquisition of syntax and discourse in Hebrew. In Shimron, Y. (Ed.), Psycholinguistic studies in Israel: Language acquisition, reading, and writing (pp. 57100). Jerusalem: Magnes Press (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
Berman, R. A., & Neeman, Y. (1994). Development of linguistic forms: Hebrew. In Berman, R. A. & Slobin, D. I. (Eds.), Relating events in narrative: A crosslinguistic developmental study (pp. 285328). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Bianchi, V. (1999). Consequences of antisymmetry: Headed relative clauses. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carlson, G. N. (1977). Amount relatives. Language, 58, 520542.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Central Bureau of Statistics. (1997). Characterization and classification of local authorities by the socio-economic level of the population 1995. Jerusalem, Israel: Author.Google Scholar
Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.Google Scholar
Chomsky, N. (1986). Barriers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Clark, E. V., & Berman, R. (1987). Types of linguistic knowledge: Interpretation and producing and producing compound nouns. Journal of Child language, 14, 547568.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Corrêa, L. M. (1982). Strategies in the acquisition of relative clauses. Working Papers of the London Psycholinguistic Research Group, 4, 3749.Google Scholar
Corrêa, L. M. S. (1995). An alternative assessment of children's comprehension of relative clauses. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 24, 183203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Crain, S., McKee, C., & Emiliani, M. (1990). Visiting relatives in Italy. In Frazier, L. & de Villiers, J. (Eds.), Language processing and language acquisition (pp. 335356). New York: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
de Villiers, P. A. (1988). Assessing English syntax in hearing-impaired children: Elicited production in pragmatically motivated situations. Journal of the Academy of Rehabilitative Audiology, 21 (Suppl.), 4171.Google Scholar
de Villiers, J., de Villiers, P., & Hoban, E. (1994). The central problem of functional categories in English syntax of oral deaf children. In Tager-Flusberg, H. (Ed.), Constraints on language acquisition: Studies of atypical children (pp. 947). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
de Villiers, J. G., Tager Flusberg, H. B., Hakuta, K., & Cohen, M. (1979). Children's comprehension of relative clauses. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 8, 499518.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Dickinson, D. K., & Tabors, P. O. (1991). Early literacy: Linkage between home, school and literacy achievement at age five. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6, 3046.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Diessel, H., & Tomasello, M. (2000). The development of relative constructions in early child speech. Cognitive Linguistics, 11, 131152.Google Scholar
Dromi, E., & Berman, R. A. (1986). Language-specific and language-general in developing syntax. Journal of Child Language, 13, 371381.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Fattal, I., Friedmann, N., & Fattal-Valevski, A. (in press). The crucial role of thiamine in the development of syntax and lexical retrieval: A study of infantile thiamine deficiency. Brain.Google Scholar
Ferreiro, E., Othenin-Girard, C., Chipman, H., & Sinclair, H. (1976). How do children handle relative clauses? A study in comparative developmental psycholinguistics. Archives de Psychologie, 45, 229266.Google Scholar
Friedemann, M. A., & Siloni, T. (1997). AGRobject is not AGRparticiple. Linguistic Review, 14, 6996.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Friedmann, N., Belletti, A., & Rizzi, L. (2009). Relativized relatives: Types of intervention in the acquisition of A-bar dependencies. Lingua, 119, 6788.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Friedmann, N., Belletti, A., Tuller, L., Costa, J., Guasti, M.-T., Lobo, M. et al. (2010). The production of relative clauses by 5 year olds across 16 languages: They prefer to be the children who do not produce object relatives. Paper presented at European COST Action A33: A European-Wide Initiative on Language Acquisition and Language Impairment, London.Google Scholar
Friedmann, N., & Costa, J. (2010). The child heard a coordinated sentence and wondered: On children's difficulty in understanding coordination and relative clauses with crossing dependencies. Lingua, 120, 15021515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Friedmann, N., & Costa, J. (2011). Last resort and no resort: Resumptive pronouns in Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic hearing impairment. In Rouveret, A. (Ed.), Resumptive pronouns at the interfaces. Language faculty and beyond series. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Friedmann, N., & Novogrodsky, R. (2004). The acquisition of relative clause comprehension in Hebrew: A study of SLI and normal development. Journal of Child Language, 31, 661681.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Friedmann, N., Novogrodsky, R., Szterman, R., & Preminger, O. (2008). Resumptive pronouns as last resort when movement is impaired: Relative clauses in hearing impairment. In Armon-Lotem, S., Danon, G., & Rothstein, S. (Eds.), Current issues in generative Hebrew linguistics: Vol. 134. Linguistics today series (pp. 276290). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Friedmann, N., Reznick, J., & Lavi, H. (in press). On the order of acquisition of various types of syntactic movement in Hebrew. Language and Brain, 10.Google Scholar
Friedmann, N., & Szterman, R. (2006). Syntactic movement in orally-trained children with hearing impairment. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11, 5675.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Geis, J. E. (1973). Creative errors in the writing of deaf children. Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics, 15, 5566.Google Scholar
Guasti, M. T., & Cardinaletti, A. (2003). Relative clause formation in Romance child's production. Probus, 15, 4788.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Guasti, M. T., & Shlonsky, U. (1995). The acquisition of French relative clauses reconsidered. Language Acquisition, 4, 257276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Günzberg-Kerbel, N., Shvimer, L., & Friedmann, N. (2008). “Take the hen that the cow kissed the hen”: The acquisition of comprehension and production of various relative clauses in Hebrew [in Hebrew]. Language and Brain, 7, 2343.Google Scholar
Haegeman, L. (1994). Introduction to government and binding theory (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Håkansson, G., & Hansson, K. (2000). Comprehension and production of relative clauses: A comparison between Swedish impaired and unimpaired children. Journal of Child Language, 27, 313333.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kayne, R. S. (1994). The antisymmetry of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Kidd, E., & Bavin, L. E. (2002). English-speaking children's comprehension of relative clauses: Evidence for general-cognitive and language-specific constraints on development. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 31, 599617.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Labelle, M. (1990). Predication, Wh-movement, and the development of relative clauses. Language Acquisition, 1, 95119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Labelle, M. (1996). The acquisition of relative clauses: Movement or no movement? Language Acquisition, 5, 6582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Litowitz, B. (1977). Learning to make definitions. Journal of Child Language, 4, 289304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Markowitz, J., & Franz, S. K. (1988). The development of defining style. International Journal of Lexicography, 1, 253267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Maschler, Y., & Shaer, S. (2011). On the emergence of adverbial connectives from Hebrew relative clause constructions. In Auer, P. & Pfänder, S. (Eds.), Constructions: Emerging and emergent. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar
McKee, C., & McDaniel, D. (2001). Resumptive pronouns in English relative clauses. Language Acquisition, 9, 113156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McKee, C., McDaniel, D., & Snedeker, J. (1998). Relative children say. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 27, 573596.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Novogrodsky, R., & Friedmann, N. (2006). The production of relative clauses in SLI: A window to the nature of the impairment. Advances in Speech–Language Pathology, 8, 364375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pérez-Leroux, A. T. (1995). Resumptives in the acquisition of relative clauses. Language Acquisition, 4, 105138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rom, A., & Dgani, R. (1985). Acquiring case-marked pronouns in Hebrew: The interaction of linguistic factors. Journal of Child Language, 12, 6177.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sauerland, U. (2000). Two structures for English restrictive relative clauses. In Saito, M., Abe, Y., Aoyagi, H., Arimoto, J., Murasugi, K., & Suzuki, T. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Nanzan GLOW (pp. 351366). Nagoya, Japan: Nanzan University.Google Scholar
Sheldon, A. (1974). The role of parallel function in the acquisition of relative clauses in English. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 272281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shlonsky, U. (1992). Resumptive pronouns as a last resort. Linguistic Inquiry, 23, 443468.Google Scholar
Shlonsky, U. (1997). Clause structure and word order in Hebrew and Arabic. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Siloni, T. (1994). Noun phrases and nominalizations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Geneva.Google Scholar
Siloni, T. (1997). Studies in natural language and linguistic theory: Vol. 40. Noun phrases and nominalizations: The syntax of DPs. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
Slobin, D. I. (1971). Developmental psycholinguistics, In Dingwall, W. O. (Ed.), A survey of linguistic science. College Park, MD: University of Maryland, Linguistics Program.Google Scholar
Snow, C. E. (1990). The development of definitional skill. Journal of Child Language, 17, 697710.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Snow, C. E. (1993). Families as social contexts for literacy development. In Daiute, C. (Ed.), The development of literacy through social interaction (pp. 1124). San Francisco, CA: Jossey–Bass.Google Scholar
Snow, C., Cancino, H., Gonzalez, P., & Shriberg, E. (1989). Giving formal definitions: An oral language correlate of school literacy. In Bloome, D. (Ed.), Classrooms and literacy (pp. 233249). Norwood, NJ: Albex.Google Scholar
Suñer, M. (1998). Resumptive restrictive relatives: A crosslinguistic perspective. Language, 74, 335364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tavakolian, S. L. (1981). The conjoined-clause analysis of relative clauses. In Tavakolian, S. L. (Ed.), Language acquisition and linguistic theory (pp. 167187). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Varlokosta, S., & Armon-Lotem, S. (1998). Resumptives and Wh-movement in the acquisition of relative clauses in Modern Greek and Hebrew. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 737746). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.Google Scholar
Varlokosta, S., & Crain, S. (1997, April). The acquisition of relative clauses in Modern Greek: Evidence for movement. Poster presented at GALA: Language Acquisition: Knowledge Representation and Processing, Edinburgh.Google Scholar
Vergnaud, J. R. (1974). French relative clauses. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, MIT.Google Scholar
Wechsler, D. (1974). The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (rev.). New York: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
Wehren, A., De Lisi, R., & Arnold, M. (1981). The development of noun definition. Journal of Child Language, 8, 165175.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Wolman, R. N., & Barker, E. N. (1965). A developmental study of word definitions. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 107, 159166.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed