Journal of Child Language

Pathbreaking verbs in syntactic development and the question of prototypical transitivity 1

a1 The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


The first verbs to participate in VO and SVO combinations, and the temporal parameters of the spread of these combinatory patterns over different verbs were investigated. The longitudinal language observations of 16 children, one acquiring English, the others Hebrew, were examined. The children were observed once a week for 3–12 months, the observations starting when the children were still in the single-word stage (1;1–2;1) and ending when they were well into multiword speech (1;8–2;7). The results indicate that the more verbs children already know to combine in a certain pattern, the faster they learn new ones. Apparently children induce from individual word-combinations some general principles that facilitate further learning. The ‘pathbreaking verbs’ that begin the acquisition of a novel syntactic rule tend to be generic verbs expressing the relevant combinatorial property in a relatively pure fashion: the same verbs that children first combine with direct objects, are typical grammaticalized markers of transitivity in many languages. These verbs do not have HIGH TRANSITIVITY as defined by Hopper & Thompson (1980). Rather, they express fundamental ‘object relations’ of incorporation into, and ejection from the personal. Crosslinguistic evidence indicates that this may be the basic transitivity construct in languages. The results raise the possibility that lexical-specific learning of positional patterns is sufficient to account for the formation of syntactic abstractions.

(Received April 23 1998)
(Revised April 20 1999)

c1 Address for correspondence: Department of Psychology, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem 91905, Israel. e-mail:


1 Portions of the research reported here were presented at the Seventh International Congress for the Study of Child Language, Istanbul, Turkey, July, 1996. Thanks are due to Mike Tomasello for his helpfulness and patience in elucidating various complications of the Travis corpus; to Moti Rimor for permission to use his observations of Ruti; to Naomi Bacon, Adi Brill, Sarit Dag, Rachel Hadani, Tamar Keren-Portnoy, Chagit Magen, Liat Malhi, Sharon Marbach, Noga Meir, Ariel Wasserteil, Gary Weinstein, Chamutal Yakir and Osnat Yogev who collected the longitudinal language corpora; to Nurit Rinot who made the cross-sectional observations; and to Neta Ofer for analyses of the Rimor and Rinot corpora. My student Tamar Keren-Portnoy has been a partner to the development of many of the ideas reported in this paper, in the context of her work on her Ph.D. thesis on the formation of the verb category. The research reported in this paper was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. The data presented, the statements made and the views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.