The mosaic acquisition of grammatical relations

Matthew Rispoli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The view that grammatical relations have substantial essence, designated as ‘subject’ or ‘object’ has difficulty in accounting for the variety of naturally acquirable grammatical relations. The acquisition of grammatical relations is examined from a theoretical framework, role and reference grammar, in which grammatical relations are decomposed into two separate types of structure: logical (semantic) structure and information (pragmatic) structure. The acquisition of grammatical relations from four languages is compared: (i) the definite accusative suffix and pragmatically motivated word order of Turkish; (2) Kaluli verb agreement, case and focus marking postpositions, and pragmatically motivated word order; (3) Hungarian definite and indefinite verb conjunction; and (4) Italian participial agreement and anaphoric, accusative case pronouns. Two conditions on structures are found to cause difficulty: the neutralization of a semantic or pragmatic distinction by interfering structures (e.g. Kaluli and Italian), and global case marking which forces the child to discover relevant semantic characteristics of both the actor and the undergoer (e.g. Hungarian and Kaluli). Structures that encode semantic or pragmatic distinctions independently are more easily acquired (e.g. Turkish). Piecing together discrete structures in a mosaic fashion, the child can acquire the great variety of grammatical relations that exist in human languages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)517-551
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of Child Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1991
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Psychology(all)


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