Easy Way to Language Acquisition: Diminutives in Lithuanian Child Language

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Easy Way to Language Acquisition: Diminutives in Lithuanian Child Language

Introduction In most languages diminutive formation is the first pattern of word formation to emerge. The main reason for this seems to be the pragmatic functions of endearment, empathy, and sympathy, which make diminutives particularly appropriate for child-centered communication. This is especially true for things belonging to the child's world, which the caretakers tend to refer to using diminutives. The frequency of diminutives in the input as well as in the output of children clearly depends on the pragmatic role of diminutives in the respective language. In addition, their greater degree of morphological productivity and transparency, as well as their phonological saliency, favors the use of diminutives (Savickienė & Dressler 2007). Research of the languages where an extensive use of diminutives was noted induced some scholars to advance the hypothesis to the effect that the use of diminutives simplifies the acquisition of nominal declension (Olmsted 1994; Savickienė 2001; Kempe et al. 2001).

Aim of the study This paper explores the hypothesis that diminutives in child-directed speech provide multiple cues for language acquisition. Diminutives in Lithuanian present an interesting case not only in terms of pragmatics and semantics (a feature which is shared by Lithuanian as well as other languages), but also from a language-specific point of view.

Materials and methods The following discussion is based on analysis of data from a longitudinal corpus of a Lithuanian girl. For the present study we have chosen to analyze the girl's speech covering the period from 1;7 to 2;6. The corpus consists of almost 35 hours of recordings. The choice of the period was influenced by the fact that the child's onset of morphological development can be dated approximately around the age of 1;7 and continues until the age of 2;6, which marks the phase of morphology proper (Savickienė 2003). The recorded speech was transcribed according to the requirements of CHILDES (MacWhinney 2000).

Results and conclusions The study suggests that the early and frequent use of diminutives by the Lithuanian child is due to the fact that it not only decreases word-ending variance (restricting the number of paradigm patterns to 3 instead of 12 declension classes), regularize stress patterns, but also facilitates the acquisition of case inflections.

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