Journal of Child Language


Continuity in lexical and morphological development: a test of the critical mass hypothesis*

Virginia A. Marchmana1 c1 and Elizabeth Batesa2

a1 University of Wisconsin, Madison

a2 University of California, San Diego


Several recent studies have demonstrated strong relationships between lexical acquisition and subsequent developments within the domain of morphosyntax. A connectionist model of the acquisition of a morphological System analogous to that of the English past tense (Plunkett & Marchman, 1993) suggests that growth in vocabulary size may relate to the onset of over-regularization errors. However, this model suggests that the relationships between vocabulary size and morphosyntactic development are non-linear. Incremental increases in the number of verbs to be learned result in qualitative shifts in the treatment of both previously learned and novel forms, but only after the size of the lexicon exceeds a particular level (i.e. reaches a ‘critical mass’). In this paper we present parental report data from an extensive study of English-speaking children aged 1;4 to 2;6 using the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory: Toddler form (N = 1130). These data corroborate several findings from previous studies, including the early usage of unmarked verb stems and the correct production of irregular past tense forms. Further, we demonstrate support for the ‘critical mass’ view of the onset of over-regularization errors, focusing on continuity among lexical and morphological developments. In our view, these data suggest that these linguistic milestones may be paced by similar, if not identical mechanisms.

(Received July 18 1991)

(Revised November 05 1992)


c1 Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1202 W. Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA.


[*] This research was conducted, in part, while the first author was a postdoctoral fellow at the McDonnell-Pew Foundation for Cognitive Neuroscience, San Diego, California and the Center for Research in Language (UCSD). Additional support was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on the Transitions from Infancy to Childhood (Elizabeth Bates, Principal Investigator). The paper is based on a presentation at the Twenty-third Annual Child Language Research Forum, Stanford, CA (1991). Earlier versions appeared in Papers and Reports on Child Language Development 30 (1991) and as Center for Research in Language Technical Report No. 9103 (July 1991) with the title ‘Vocabulary size and composition as predictors of morphological development’. We would like to thank Philip Dale, Kim Plunkett and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions, Larry Fenson for his co-operation, and Stephen Pethick for providing many useful numbers.