Subject use and the acquisition of verbal agreement in Hebrew

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This paper presents an analysis of the early use of verbal morphology and overt subjects in Hebrew before the age of two, and the way in which the two processes interact, leading to some agreement mismatches. In Hebrew (Armon-Lotem 1996a), the acquisition of aspect and tense morphology is interrelated with the acquisition of agreement morphology, in a way that supports proposals for a bottom-up acquisition of phrase markers (Vainikka and Young- Scholten 1996). Specifically, children’s use of verbs in an aspectually limited manner (e.g., telic verbs only with past tense morphology and atelic verbs only with present tense morphology) is followed by the use of agreement markers for gender and number, then by the appropriate use of tense morphology and finally by the use of agreement markers for person. In subject position, children use bare nouns and proper names as overt subjects only after they use aspect, but before they have subject verb agreement in gender and number. Similarly, they use pronouns after they use tense and before they use person agreement. This order results in agreement mismatches. In a framework where heads are obligatory, specifiers are optional, and agreement is not a head but rather the mere syntactic relation between the two (Chomsky 1995), this head > spec > agreement > head > spec > agreement order is predicted. Specifically, assuming that there are no Agr nodes, Asp is specified with gender and number spec-features and T is specified with person spec-features. The paper addresses the question which bootstrapping strategies children use in acquiring these features. Children first use the Aspect head, next the appropriate specifier, and then apply the syntactic operation of spec-head agreement resulting in agreement in gender and number. Later, when the semantically motivated functional head T is acquired, pronouns emerge in its specifier, and spec-head agreement in person applies. Thus, the interaction between the early use of verbal morphology and the early use of subjects can be accounted for by the “no Agr nodes” approach.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStudies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages23
StatePublished - 2008

Publication series

NameStudies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics
ISSN (Print)1873-0043
ISSN (Electronic)2215-1788

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2008, Springer.


* This paper incorporates part of Armon-Lotem (1996a) and elaborates on earlier version of Armon-Lotem (1999). Research was supported by the Humboldt Foundation through an award to Ruth Berman (Tel-Aviv University) and Juergen Weissenborn (University of Potsdam). The Hebrew longitudinal data used in this paper were collected by the Tel-Aviv University Language Acquisition Project, as part of a crosslinguistic study of early word order directed by Ruth Berman and Juergen Weissenborn, supported by German-Israel Foundation grant no. I-11-070.4/87, by fundings from the DFG, and from the Child Language Data Exchange System at Carnegie-Mellon University, and from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Holland. 1 Both AgrPrt and AgrS check agreement with the subject. Historically, it was done only by AgrS, but in the model presented here the burden is shared by the two nodes.

FundersFunder number
Child Language Data Exchange System
German–Israel FoundationI-11-070.4/87
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Holland
Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
Universität Potsdam
Tel Aviv University


    • Bare Noun
    • Functional Head
    • Morphosyntactic Feature
    • Nominal Phrase
    • Verbal Morphology


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