Journal of Child Language

Early syntactic creativity: a usage-based approach 1

a1 Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Article author query
lieven e   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
behrens h   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
speares j   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
tomasello m   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


The aim of the current study was to determine the degree to which a sample of one child's creative utterances related to utterances that the child previously produced. The utterances to be accounted for were all of the intelligible, multi-word utterances produced by the child in a single hour of interaction with her mother early in her third year of life (at age 2;1.11). We used a high-density database consisting of 5 hours of recordings per week together with a maternal diary for the previous 6 weeks. Of the 295 multi-word utterances on tape, 37% were ‘novel’ in the sense that they had not been said in their entirety before. Using a morpheme-matching method, we identified the way(s) in which each novel utterance differed from its closest match in the preceding corpus. In 74% of the cases we required only one operation to match the previous utterance and the great majority of these consisted of the substitution of a word (usually a noun) into a previous utterance or schema. Almost all the other single-operation utterances involved adding a word onto the beginning or end of a previous utterance. 26% of the novel, multi-word utterances required more than one operation to match the closest previous utterance, although many of these only involved a combination of the two operations seen for the single-operation utterances. Some others were, however, more complex to match. The results suggest that the relatively high degree of creativity in early English child language could be at least partially based upon entrenched schemas and a small number of simple operations to modify them. We discuss the implications of these results for the interplay in language production between strings registered in memory and categorial knowledge.

(Received February 1 2000)
(Revised June 25 2002)

c1 Elena Lieven, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Inselstrasse 22, D-04103, Leipzig, Germany. e-mail:


1 Our thanks to the mother and child who made this study possible. We also thank Dimitra Doumpioti who served as research assistant on the project, Heike Forwergk who did much of the initial analysis, Anna Theakston for back-up support, and Elaine Cooper and Lorna Burke for their transcribing. For helpful comments on the manuscript we thank Nameera Akhtar, Shanley Allen, Ewa Dabrowska, Michael Israel, Kelly Jaakkola, Ann Peters, Julian Pine and two anonymous referees.