Children and transitivity

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Many experiments on several languages have shown that children tend to interpret indefinite objects nonreferentially, while they tend to interpret indefinite subjects referentially. This is in accordance with Comrie’s (1989) generalization that subjects of transitive clauses are usually highly prominent while objects are lower in prominence. In this paper, we examine by means of a corpus study whether children also conform to this subject-object asymmetry in their natural production of transitive sentences. We show that in the majority of the sentences produced by children the subject outranks the object with respect to two important determinants of prominence: animacy and definiteness. We furthermore find that children typically talk about referents that are physically present in the immediate surroundings while referents that are not present in the local context are practically always encoded as objects.


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