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Culture-specific influences on semantic development Acquiring the Tzeltal 'benefactive' construction


Brown,  Penelope
Language Acquisition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Categories across Language and Cognition, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Brown, P. (2007). Culture-specific influences on semantic development Acquiring the Tzeltal 'benefactive' construction. In B. Pfeiler (Ed.), Learning indigenous languages: Child language acquisition in Mesoamerica (pp. 119-154). Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin.

Three-place predicates are an important locus for examining how children acquire argument structure and how this process is influenced by the typology of the language they are learning as well as by culturally-specific semantic categories. From a typological perspective, there is reason to expect children to have some trouble expressing three-participant events, given the considerable variation across languages in how these are linguistically coded. Verbs of transfer (‘give’, ‘receive’, etc.) are often considered to be the verbs which canonically appear with three arguments (e.g., Slobin 1985, Gleitman 1990). Yet in the Mayan language Tzeltal, verbs other than transfer verbs appear routinely in the ditransitive construction. Although the three participants are rarely all overtly expressed as NPs, this construction ensures that the ‘recipient’ or or ‘affectee’ participant is overtly marked on the verb. Tzeltal children’s early acquisition of this construction (well before the age of 3;0) shows that they are sensitive to its abstract constructional meaning of ‘affected’ third participant: they do not go initially for ‘transfer’ meanings but are attuned to benefactive or malefactive uses despite the predominance of the verb ‘give’ in the input with this construction. This poses a challenge to acquisition theories (Goldberg 2001, Ninio 1999) that see construction meaning arising from the meaning of the verb most frequently used in a construction.