P7 Description

The prosody-syntax interface of polar questions: Evidence from German and English first language acquisition

P-7 focuses on the interaction of syntax and prosody in English and German polar questions and on the interplay of these modules in children’s developing grammars. In both languages, canonical polar questions are characterized by question intonation and word order. Previous studies suggest a principal role of prosody in children’s processing of interrogatives, but insights into the exact mechanisms at play is lacking. Word order takes longer to acquire than intonation contours. No studies are available yet which reveal how children’s increase of syntactic complexity in interrogatives in production is related to comprehension, and how syntactic complexity is conditioned by intonation or vice versa. We aim to fill this gap taking into account the consideration that the study of the acquisition of polar questions is essential for our understanding of interface issues. The complexity of prosodic cues and syntactic rules marking declaratives and polar questions means that a better understanding of how children learn these aspects will help us to unravel the interaction of semantics, prosody and syntax in general. By comparing learners from structurally related though in many aspects essentially different languages, it will be possible to develop a more profound knowledge of how closely prosody and syntax are related.Main questions addressed are (i) when do children become aware of verb position as a cue for coding polar questions and (ii) how does this newly acquired knowledge interact with the intonation cue? The focus is on monolingual children aged 2 to 4 and their capacity to deal with sentences with a main verb and without a modal verb and sentences with copula be plus a predicate noun without a modal verb.

In addition to replicating experiments for English, we will collect data for German. This allows us to draw conclusions about the acquisition of inversion of the main verb/copula be, a phenomenon that is present in both languages but which has a different status (default syntactic marker for polar questions in German, more exceptional in English, where main verbs require do-support). The focus on prosody will help to gain a better understanding of the prosody-syntax interface and the relative weight of the two components in the course of development. As the studies focus on production and interpretation of syntax-prosody combinations, the data will also shed light on the question whether coding by multiple grammar modules is redundant or not. We will collect production and comprehension data based on closely matched stimulus material to directly compare receptive and productive development. The interplay of syntactic and prosodic structures in the stimulus material and the different options for combination result in both canonical and non-canonical utterance types. This will provide an extra layer to the investigation for canonical and non-canonical meanings of the sentence types under investigation for such an early age.