Journal of Child Language

Research Article

The acquisition of German relative clauses: A case study*


a1 Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

a2 University of Jena

a3 Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


This paper investigates the development of relative clauses in the speech of one German-speaking child aged 2 ; 0 to 5 ; 0. The earliest relative clauses we found in the data occur in topicalization constructions that are only a little different from simple sentences: they contain a single proposition, express the actor prior to other participants, assert new information and often occur with main-clause word order. In the course of the development, more complex relative constructions emerge, in which the relative clause is embedded in a fully-fledged main clause. We argue that German relative clauses develop in an incremental fashion from simple non-embedded sentences that gradually evolve into complex sentence constructions.

(Received December 18 2005)

(Revised January 16 2007)


c1 Addresses for correspondence: Silke Brandt & Michael Tomasello, Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany. Email:,

c2 Holger Diessel, University of Jena, Ernst-Abbe-Platz 8, 07743 Jena, Germany.