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Journal Article

Helping a crocodile to learn German plurals: Children’s online judgment of actual, potential and illegal plural forms


Reinisch,  Eva
Adaptive Listening, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language Comprehension Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Korecky-Kröll, K., Libben, G., Stempfer, N., Wiesinger, J., Reinisch, E., Bertl, J., et al. (2012). Helping a crocodile to learn German plurals: Children’s online judgment of actual, potential and illegal plural forms. Morphology, 22, 35-65. doi:10.1007/s11525-011-9191-8.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-000F-4688-8
A substantial tradition of linguistic inquiry has framed the knowledge of native speakers in terms of their ability to determine the grammatical acceptability of language forms that they encounter for the first time. In the domain of morphology, the productivity framework of Dressler (CLASNET Working papers 7, 1997) has emphasized the importance of this ability in terms of the graded potentiality of non-existing multimorphemic forms. The goal of this study was to investigate what role the notion of potentiality plays in online lexical well-formedness judgment among children who are native speakers of Austrian German. A total of 114 children between the ages of six and ten and a total of 40 adults between the ages of 18 and 30 (as a comparison group) participated in an online well-formedness judgment task which focused on pluralized German nouns. Concrete, picturable, high frequency German nouns were presented in three pluralized forms: (a) actual existing plural form, (b) morphologically illegal plural form, (c) potential (but not existing) plural form. Participants were shown pictures of the nouns (as a set of three identical items) and simultaneously heard one of three pluralized forms for each noun. Response latency and judgment type served as dependent variables. Results indicate that both children and adults are sensitive to the distinction between illegal and potential forms (neither of which they would have encountered). For all participants, plural frequency (rather than frequency of the singular form) affected responses for both existing and non-existing words. Other factors increasing acceptability were the presence of supplementary umlaut in addition to suffixation and homophony with existing words or word forms.