- On the mass/count distinction in Hebrew: Language acquisition and language change
- Journal of Child Language Acquisition and Development
- Volume | Issue number
- 4 | 2
- Pages (from-to)
- Document type
- Faculty of Humanities (FGw)
- Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication (ACLC)
This study reports experimental results on the mass/count distinction in adult and child Hebrew (aged 4;0-17;11). A surprising acquisition pattern revealed no sensitivity to the mass/count distinction before age 7;2. Near-convergence was later reached, only to disappear again for teenagers. We argue that these data reflect the growing unimportance of the grammatical mass/count distinction in Hebrew.
Using an adaptation of Barner and Snedeker’s (2005) Quantity-Judgment Task, we examined five different noun types, corresponding to five experimental conditions: substance-mass (kemax 'flour'), count (efronot 'pencils'), flexible-mass (niyar 'paper'), flexible-count (niyarot 'papers'), and object-mass (rihut 'furniture').
Our data show that Hebrew-speaking adults are essentially identical to the English-speaking adults in Barner and Snedeker's study. In contrast, Hebrew-speaking children evince a dramatically different behavioral pattern from both Hebrew-speaking adults and English-acquiring children. English-acquiring children show sensitivity to the mass/count distinction at age 4, whereas Hebrew-speaking children are not yet adultlike even at 17 years old. Furthermore, our data uncovered a surprising developmental trajectory, with children aged 10-11;6 behaving more adultlike than teenage participants.
We suggest that these results may reflect a process of language change currently taking place in Hebrew. We further propose two possible sources for this change. The first involves the fact that the grammaticization of mass/count in Hebrew is rather marginal, as indicated by the relative paucity of syntactic structures that encode the distinction. Alternatively, our data may reflect a change process involving a relaxation of obligatory number-marking in cardinality contexts.
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