The Child's Learning of English Morphology by Jean Berko

Topics: English plural, Past tense, English language Pages: 30 (10631 words) Published: February 27, 2013

In this study1 we set out to discover what is learned by children exposed to English morphology. To test for knowledge of morphological rules, we use nonsense materials. We know that if the subject can supply the correct plural ending, for instance, to a noun we have made up, he has internalized a working system of the plural allomorphs in English, and is able to generalize to new cases and select the right form. If a child knows that the plural of witch is witches, he may simply have memorized the plural form. If, however, he tells us that the plural of * gutch is * gutches, we have evidence that he actually knows, albeit unconsciously, one of those rules which the descriptive linguist, too, would set forth in his grammar. And if children do have knowledge of morphological rules, how does this knowledge evolve? Is there a progression from simple, regular rules to the more irregular and qualified rules that are adequate fully to describe English? In very general terms, we undertake to discover the psychological status of a certain kind of linguistic description. It is evident that the acquisition of language is more than the storing up of rehearsed utterances, since we are all able to say what we have not practiced and what we have never before heard. In bringing descriptive linguistics to the study of language acquisition, we hope to gain knowledge of the systems and patterns used by the speaker. In order to test for children's knowledge of this sort, it was necessary to begin with an examination of their actual vocabulary. Accordingly, the 1000 most frequent words in the first-grader's vocabulary were selected from Rinsland's listing. 2 This listing 1 This investigation was supported in part by a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. During the academic year 1957-58 the writer completed the research while holding an AAUW National Fellowship. A dissertation on this subject was presented by the writer to Radcliffe College in April, 1958. I am. indebted to Professor Roger W. Brown for his inspiration and his help in the conduct of this study. 2

H. D. Rinsland, A Basic Vocabulary of Elementary School Children, New York,

MacMillan, 1945.



contains the most common words in the elementary school child's vocabulary, as taken from actual conversations, compositions, letters, and similar documents. This list was then examined to see what features of English morphology seem to be most commonly represented in the vocabulary of the first-grade child. From this we could decide what kind of extensions we might expect the child to be able to make. All of the English inflectional morphemes were present. The areas that seemed to be most promising from this examination were the plural and the two possessives of the noun, the third person singular of the verb, the progressive and the past tense, and the comparative and superlative of the adjective. The pronouns were avoided both because of the difficulty involved in making up a nonsense pronoun, and because the pronouns are so few in number and so irregular that we would hardly expect even adults to have any generalized rules for the handling of new pronouns. Moreover, we do not encounter new pronouns, whereas new verbs, adjectives, and nouns constantly appear in our vocabularies, so that the essential problem is not the same. The past participle of regular or weak verbs in English is identical with the past tense, and since the regular forms were our primary interest, no attempt was made to test for the past participle. A number of forms that might suggest irregular plurals and past tenses were included among the nouns and verbs. The productive allomorphs of the plural, the possessive, and the third person singular of the verb are phonologically conditioned and identical with one another. These forms are /-s –z -əz/, with the following distribution: /-əz/...
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