The Comparative Method of Language Acquisition Research
by Clifton Pye
University of Chicago Press, 2017
Cloth: 978-0-226-48128-9 | Paper: 978-0-226-53961-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-48131-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The Mayan family of languages is ancient and unique. With their distinctive relational nouns, positionals, and complex grammatical voices, they are quite alien to English and have never been shown to be genetically related to other New World tongues. These qualities, Clifton Pye shows, afford a particular opportunity for linguistic insight. Both an overview of lessons Pye has gleaned from more than thirty years of studying how children learn Mayan languages as well as a strong case for a novel method of researching crosslinguistic language acquisition more broadly, this book demonstrates the value of a close, granular analysis of a small language lineage for untangling the complexities of first language acquisition.

Pye here applies the comparative method to three Mayan languages—K’iche’, Mam, and Ch’ol—showing how differences in the use of verbs are connected to differences in the subject markers and pronouns used by children and adults. His holistic approach allows him to observe how small differences between the languages lead to significant differences in the structure of the children’s lexicon and grammar, and to learn why that is so. More than this, he expects that such careful scrutiny of related languages’ variable solutions to specific problems will yield new insights into how children acquire complex grammars. Studying such an array of related languages, he argues, is a necessary condition for understanding how any particular language is used; studying languages in isolation, comparing them only to one’s native tongue, is merely collecting linguistic curiosities.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Clifton Pye is associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, where he studies the crosslinguistic language acquisition among indigenous languages of the Americas with a primary interest in the acquisition of the verb complex.

REVIEWS

“This is an important book, exemplifying a novel approach that Pye has been developing and refining for twenty years. Pye’s thesis is that if one wants to understand how children learn their first language, it is not sufficient to study the acquisition of just one language in isolation—the study needs to be comparative, and to show how children adapt their learning strategies in relation to the structure of the language being learned. And further, he argues that the best way of doing this is to study several related languages, so that it is possible to establish precise cross-language equivalences of the morphemes, words, and syntactic structures being compared. All scholars of child first language acquisition should find this book of interest, partly for the methodological challenges it poses, and partly also for Pye’s findings for three Mayan languages, which are of major theoretical significance. This is an original contribution that presents a strong challenge to the predominant paradigm for studying how children learn language.”
— Penelope Brown, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

“I cannot emphasize enough the uniqueness of this book. There is no one doing language acquisition analysis of this kind in any comparable context. No one has tackled language acquisition and reached a depth of understanding in an entire language family as Pye has. Mayan languages provide him typological characteristics distinctive from the classical languages of historical linguistics and properties not so easily captured by much of modern linguistic theory. Pye is very clear and diligent in his analyses, and his comparative method has the promise to provide a model for future research in a much wider range of language families. Nothing comparable to this book is likely to come along any time soon, if at all.”
— David Ingram, Arizona State University

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0001
[comparative method, language acquisition research, Mayan languages, K'iche', Mam, Ch'ol, monolingual approach, crosslinguistic research, usage-based approach, language acquisition]
This book discusses the comparative method of language acquisition research and its use in conducting a comprehensive crosslinguistic analysis that demonstrates how an analysis of one part of the grammar (lexical acquisition) informs the acquisition of verb inflection, which then informs the analysis of Mayan argument structure. The book focuses on how children acquire the Mayan languages K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol and compares these results with those from previous research on other Mayan languages in order to provide a broader picture of Mayan language acquisition. This chapter examines the monolingual approach to crosslinguistic research; the problem of finding a unit of comparison that is valid in all languages for crosslinguistic research on language acquisition; why a crosslinguistic study of language acquisition is needed; the comparative method of crosslinguistic research; and the comparative method as a natural extension to usage-based approaches to language acquisition. (pages 1 - 29)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0002
[crosslinguistic research, language acquisition, language universals, parameter theory, children, single languages, crosslinguistic surveys, polysynthesis]
This chapter discusses the history of crosslinguistic research on language acquisition as well as the limitations of the traditional concept of crosslinguistic research. It examines three phases of crosslinguistic research on language acquisition: the period of single language studies, the search for language universals, and the emergence of the parameter theory. The first phase began with researchers focusing on children acquiring single languages in order to identify a genetic basis for human language acquisition. The second phase started with the notion that children begin with a universal language acquisition device. The third phase began with the realization that children might begin acquiring language with different parameter settings and thus display early differences between languages. The chapter also considers crosslinguistic surveys as an important component of crosslinguistic research, how children acquire polysynthesis, and how the results of crosslinguistic studies can be used to build a comprehensive description of language acquisition. (pages 30 - 48)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0003
[comparative method, crosslinguistic research, language acquisition, historical linguistics, Mayan languages, negation, Germanic languages, verb inflection]
This chapter discusses the comparative method of crosslinguistic research on language acquisition. It first considers the comparative method of historical linguistics, which focuses on reconstructing the sounds, words, and grammar of an ancestral language from the linguistic features retained by the descendant languages. The chapter looks at a classic example of the comparative method using the words for house and one in the Mayan languages K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. It then examines the acquisition of negation in the Germanic languages to demonstrate the comparative method, again using examples from the three Mayan languages. It also describes the application of the comparative method to the analysis of verb inflection in the Germanic languages. (pages 49 - 71)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0004
[grammar, Mayan languages, comparative method, lexicon, verb complex, stative predicate, syntax, verb nominalization]
This chapter discusses the structure of the three Mayan languages K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. It begins with an overview of the Mayan language family, which contains approximately thirty separate languages spoken by more than seven million people. The Mayan language family can be grouped into five main historical subdivisions: Wastekan, Yucatecan, Greater Q'anjob'alan, Greater Tzeltalan, and Eastern Mayan. K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol demonstrate how the comparative method can be used with divergent languages without overwhelming readers with too many different features. After describing the synthetic structure of Mayan languages, the chapter considers the central features of Mayan grammars and how these features vary among K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. It examines the Mayan lexicon, verb complex, nonverbal or stative predicates, syntax, and verb nominalization. It also provides a background on the Mayan communities where the language samples were collected before concluding with an assessment of the acquisition database for the Mayan languages. (pages 72 - 100)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0005
[children, lexicon, Mayan languages, noun, adjective, transitive verb, intransitive verb, particle, pronoun, comparative method]
This chapter uses the comparative method to discuss how children acquire the Mayan lexicon. Mayan languages have six classes of inflectional stems: noun, adjective, transitive verb, intransitive verb, positional, and particle. With the exception of the particles, each stem class has its own set of inflections and contains both root forms of that class as well as forms derived from other stem classes. Children must acquire these language-specific lexical categories in order to become fluent speakers of each language. The chapter first provides an overview of these Mayan lexical categories before analyzing the production of lexical categories in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. It then compares lexical production in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol and goes on to consider Mayan pronouns and how they are acquired by Mayan children. (pages 101 - 132)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0006
[children, intransitive verb complex, K'iche', Mam, Ch'ol, status suffix, verb root, mood, comparative method, language acquisition]
This chapter considers how children acquire the intransitive verb complex in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. The intransitive verb complex has four parts: the tense/aspect marker, the subject marker, the status suffix, and the verb root. The first three are interdependent and together indicate transitivity and mood. The Mayan intransitive verb complex is polysynthetic in the sense that it denotes a complete proposition by itself. The verb forms in the indicative and nominalized moods are the most similar across the three languages, except that Mam lacks the status suffixes seen on the Ch'ol and K'iche' verbs. The chapter discusses the Mayan children's production of the intransitive verb complexes in three moods (indicative, imperative, nominalized) in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. It uses the comparative method to examine how certain pan-Mayan generalizations affect children's language acquisition with respect to K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. (pages 133 - 161)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0007
[children, transitive verb complex, aspect prefix, verb root, object marker, status suffix, mood, Mayan languages, comparative method, language acquisition]
This chapter shows how children acquire the transitive verb complex in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. The structure of the transitive verb complex differs significantly from that of the intransitive verb complex. The transitive verb complex has five parts: the aspect prefix, the subject marker, the verb root, the object marker, and the status suffix. The subject marker and status suffix differ from those in the intransitive verb complex. The aspect marker, subject marker, and status suffix are interdependent and together denote mood. In all three Mayan languages, the transitive verb complexes are more distinct than their intransitive counterparts. The chapter discusses the Mayan children's production of the transitive verb complexes in three moods (indicative, imperative, nominalized) in each of the three languages. It uses the comparative method to examine how certain pan-Mayan generalizations affect children's language acquisition with respect to K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. (pages 162 - 184)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0008
[children, verb complex, pronoun, absolutive person marker, intransitive verb, transitive verb, ergative person marker, K'iche', Mam, Ch'ol]
This chapter shows how children acquire the ergative person marking system in the Mayan verb complex. English pronouns have different forms that distinguish between the nominative, accusative, and genitive cases. The nominative case applies to pronouns when they occur in the context of sentence subjects, whereas the accusative case applies when the pronouns occur in the context of verb objects. In the case of K'iche', the absolutive person markers apply in the context of the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb. The ergative person markers occur in the context of the subject of transitive verbs (and nominal possessors). The chapter compares children's acquisition of ergative person markers on transitive and intransitive verbs in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol as well as their acquisition of absolutive person markers on intransitive verbs. (pages 185 - 205)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0009
[children, argument structure, Mayan languages, transitive verb, intransitive verb, ergative agreement, absolutive agreement, argument omission, relational noun phrase]
This chapter examines how children acquire argument structures in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol. Mayan languages differ from pro-drop languages in that they use ergative markers to cross-reference the subject of transitive verbs and absolutive markers to cross-reference the subject of intransitive verbs. The contrast between ergative and absolutive agreement implies that subject drop in Mayan languages results from two distinct agreement mechanisms. Subject drop with transitive verbs is licensed by ergative agreement, whereas subject drop with intransitive verbs is licensed by absolutive agreement. The conditions for argument omission vary from one Mayan language to another. The chapter compares children's argument omission in K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol and shows that they produce relational noun phrases at very different frequencies in the three languages. (pages 206 - 234)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0010
[children, argument realization, Mayan languages, pronoun, noun phrase, nominal classifier, agent, theme, verb argument, polysynthesis]
This chapter examines how children develop the specific means of argument realization that distinguish K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol from one another. Mayan languages have different means of realizing the semantic roles of agents and themes. K'iche' speakers use pronouns or noun phrases to express both agents and themes, whereas Mam speakers use nominal classifiers or noun phrases. However, Mam speakers also express both agents and themes in relational noun phrases. Ch'ol has no nominal classifers and uses pronouns to focus on an agent or theme. The chapter first considers the types of overt arguments that children produce for the individual languages before comparing their use of verb arguments. It shows that Mayan children demonstrate an early awareness of polysynthesis in their target languages. (pages 235 - 260)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Clifton Pye
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481319.003.0011
[comparative method, historical linguistics, language acquisition research, children, verb complex, verb argument, Mayan languages, language development, language acquisition]
This book has shown how the comparative method derived from historical linguistics can be applied to language acquisition research. While the comparative method in historical linguistics aims to reconstruct the history of genetically related languages, the comparative method can redirect the focus of language acquisition research away from forms and functions to contexts of use. As such, the comparative method controls the problem that nonequivalent units create for crosslinguistic comparisons. The book has also investigated how children acquire the many common features for K'iche', Mam, and Ch'ol, including lexical categories, intransitive and transitive verbs, ergative and absolutive agreement markers in the verb complex, and verb arguments relative to the development of agreement marking. One important finding is that common features of Mayan languages do not predict language development in children. (pages 261 - 276)
This chapter is available at:
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Acknowledgments

Abbreviations

References

Index