Journal of Child Language

Learning a morphological system without a default: the Polish genitive 1

a1 University of Sheffield


The acquisition of the English past tense inflection is the paradigm example of rule learning in the child language literature and has become something of a test case for theories of language development. This is unfortunate, as the idiosyncratic properties of the English system of marking tense make it a rather unrepresentative example of morphological development. In this paper, I contrast this familiar inflection with a much more complex morphological subsystem, the Polish genitive. The genitive case has three different markers, each restricted to a different subset of nouns, in both the singular and the plural. Analysis of the spontanous speech of three children between the ages of 1;4 and 4;11 showed that they generalized, and overgeneralized, all three singular endings. However, error rates were extremely low and there is no evidence that they treated any one ending as the ‘default’. The genitive plural, on the other hand, showed a strikingly different pattern of acquisition, similar to that seen in English-speaking children learning the past tense. It is argued that in the latter two cases, the default-like character of one of the affixes is attributable to the properties of the relevant inflectional subsystems, not to the predispositions that children bring to the language-learning task.

(Received November 4 1999)
(Revised September 28 2000)

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr. Ewa Dabrowska, Department of English Language and Linguistics, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK.


1 I would like to thank Magdalena Smoczynska for undertaking the Herculean task of tagging the Polish corpus and for making the data available to me, and Ann Peters and two anonymous referees from JCL for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.