Syntactic theory and first language acquisition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Essay 1:

2. Essay 2:

3. Essay 3:

4. Bibliography

1. Essay 1

Heather’s (26 months old) speech shows that she has already entered the later multi-word stage. She makes use of the three primary functional category systems (the D-system, the I-system and the C-system), which are projections of the corresponding functional categories (D, I and C).The core assumption of the X-bar model is that any word category X can function as the head of a phrase and can be projected into the corresponding phrasal category XP by addition of up to three different kinds of modifiers which are full phrasal constituents: complement, adjunct and specifier. Therefore, phrases in English have the schematic structure below:

[x’’ specifier [x’ adjunct [x’ [x head] complement/s]]]

Functional category systems, in contrast to lexical category systems, lack semantic content, but have grammatical meaning. Furthermore, functional elements permit only one complement. All of these functional category systems consist of a head, a complement and a nonthematic specifier position and so have a symmetrical structure. The following essay will describe these systems of English and the use of nonthematic specifier positions in adult grammar.

A determiner (D) is the head of a determiner phrase (DP). There are different kinds of determiners: personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, me, him, her etc.) , articles (the indefinite article a(n) and the definite article the), demonstratives (this/these, that/those), and quantifiers (some, any, four etc.). Some of the determiners can be used either prenominally or pronominally (cf. the two uses of this in You hate this song and You hate this). A determiner is a functional category with only grammatical meaning and it projects to a functional phrase, a DP. Determiners take noun phrases as their complements and have the function of specifying the noun phrases’ referential or quantificational properties. If a determiner takes a complement it has to be a noun phrase (NP), but it can also be null:

[DP [D’ [D you ] [NP old men ]]]

[DP [D’ [D you ] [ 0 ]]].

The specifier of a DP is also optional:

[DP such [D’ [D a] book ]]

[DP 0 [D’ [D a] book ]].

If phrases contain bare noun expressions these are headed by a null determiner (0 students or 0 Bill).

Another functional category is the category of inflection (I) which projects to an inflection phrase (IP). There are two different types of I constituents: finite Is contain an inflected modal auxiliary like must, can/could, will/would, shall/should, may/might or a non-modal auxiliary (have, be do) and they carry tense and agreement properties whereas non-finite Is contain the infinitival particle to which is not inflected for either tense or agreement. Both finite and non-finite Is occupy the head position within the clause:

It’s important [ that you will read the book ]

It’s important [ for you to read the book ].

Is select a verb phrase (VP) as their complement. The specifier position of an IP is filled by a DP:

[IP [DP You ] [I will ] [VP read the book ]].

The category of complementizers (C) is another functional category and it can be expanded into a complementizer phrase (CP). A CP is headed by a complementizer, an auxiliary or a verb which have been moved into the complementizer position (COMP). Complementizers (that, if, for) are particles which introduce an embedded clause which serves as their complement, an IP. The specifier position is not filled:

[CP [C that ] [IP he will be right ]].

All elements belonging to functional categories are nonthematic. Functional items do not assign theta-roles to their specifiers and so both the head position and the specifier position in a functional category system may be filled transformationally, i.e. the relevant position is filled by a constituent which moves out of some other position where it has been theta-marked. Therefore, a nonthematic specifier position can serve as the landing-site for moved constituents.

Considering DPs, the nonthematic specifier position serves as the landing-site for a moved possessor phrase. Take the boy’s slice of pizza as an example: The genitive ‘s morpheme functions as a head determiner constituent in English. The possessor phrase the boy is a DP which functions as the specifier of ‘s. As the boy cannot be assigned a theta-role by the determiner genitive ‘s – since functional categories do not theta-mark – it has to be theta-marked by the N-bar slice of pizza. Since theta-marking has to occur within the projection of the theta-marking head, the DP the boy has to originate within the immediate maximal projection of the head noun slice. The subject the boy originates as the specifier of slice, but moves from this specifier position within NP into the empty specifier position within DP:

[DP the boy [D ‘s ] [NP t [N’ slice (of) pizza ]]]

(t (=trace) marks the empty specifier position within NP which results from movement of the possessor phrase into the specifier position within DP).

This movement is caused by the requirement that DPs must be assigned case and hence can only occur in case-marked positions. Since functional categories, in contrast to lexical categories, can assign case to their specifiers, the DP the boy can only receive case by moving out of the specifier position within NP into the specifier position within DP. There it will be assigned genitive case by the determiner ‘s. A further reason for the movement of the DP may be the need to provide a suitable host where the clitic determiner ‘s can be attached. Since nouns cannot directly case-mark their complements either, the dummy preposition of must be used to introduce the complement (therefore slice of pizza). Pronominal possessives like my, your, his, her etc. are pronominal DPs. They function as the specifier for an empty allomorph of the genitive ‘s:

[DP his [D e ] [NP computer ]].

As there is complete cross-categorial symmetry in the three primary functional category systems, the C-system and the I-system may also contain a nonthematic specifier position. For IPs the nonthematic specifier position serves as the landing-site for a moved subject whereas for CPs it serves as the landing-site for a moved wh-phrase. The complement of a C is always an IP and so the possibility of transformationally filling the head and/or specifier positions within I- and C-system can be described together.

Let us consider the following example:

He shouldn’t let [VP the boys [V play ] the piano ].

The DP the boys in the specifier position of VP functions as the subject of the verb play and is assigned the thematic role of AGENT by the V-bar play the piano. If this VP is projected into an IP, it looks like this:

[IP the boys [I will ] [VP t [V play ] the piano ]].

(t = trace of the moved DP the boys).According to the VP-internal subject hypothesis, the superficial subject of IP the boys originates as the underlying subject of VP in order to be theta-marked, but it is subsequently raised to become the superficial subject of IP where it is then in a nonthematic specifier position. This movement is motivated by case-considerations: in the specifier within VP, the subject will be in a position where it cannot be case-marked, but if the DP the boys moves into the specifier position within IP, then it will receive nominative case by the auxiliary will. Furthermore, according to the predication principle, syntactic predicates need to have subjects. As a result of this movement the specifier position within VP becomes empty.

Imagining the head and specifier positions within CP to be underlyingly empty this phrase could also have the following structure:

[CP e [C e ] [IP the boys [I will ] [VP t [V play ] the piano ]]].


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Syntactic theory and first language acquisition
University of Cologne  (English Seminar)
Hauptseminar Syntactic theory and first language acquisition
1,3 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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406 KB
Syntactic, Hauptseminar, Syntactic
Quote paper
Michaela Müller (Author), 2002, Syntactic theory and first language acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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