- Emerging NPIs: The acquisition of Dutch hoeven ‘need’
- The Linguistic Review
- Volume | Issue number
- 32 | 2
- Pages (from-to)
- Document type
- Faculty of Humanities (FGw)
- Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication (ACLC)
Dutch modal verb hoeven ‘need’ is a Negative Polarity Item (NPI) because of its restricted distribution to certain negative contexts only. By investigating the distribution of this NPI in child Dutch, the paper explores a solution to a learnability problem raised by the existence of NPIs: how can a child acquire the limited distribution of an NPI in the absence of both direct and indirect negative evidence? Corpus data collected through CHILDES confirm children’s employment of a conservative widening learning strategy to solve the learnability problem. This strategy entails that children start out with the strictest assumption of hoeven, exhibiting a lexical dependency with the negative marker niet ‘not’, and weaken the assumption down to a less rigid reanalysis of this NPI, associated with an abstract negation in its underlying syntactic representation. The initial learning process turns out to be distribution-based only, i.e., without presuming any innate knowledge of NPIs and their restricted occurrences. However, distributional properties alone are not sufficient for children to reanalyze the NPI. Children’s linguistic knowledge of negative indefinites as exhibiting a decomposable negation plays a crucial role in the subsequent reanalyzing process. The reanalysis emerging shortly after age four signifies exactly how adult speakers analyze the NPI, also explaining hoeven’s strength as a polarity item.
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