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Friday, November 14, 2014 - 12:00pm

IRCS Conference Room

Ann Senghas
Language Acquisition and Development Research Lab
Department of Psychology
Columbia University

The emergence of argument structure and verb classes in Nicaraguan Sign Language

How is a language created? What propels a new language to develop, and what can the patterns of change tell us about the nature of language acquisition? Nicaraguan Sign Language is a young, urban sign language that emerged from within a community of deaf children and adolescents initially brought together in an educational setting in the 1970s. Members of different age cohorts today represent a living “fossil record” of the language as it developed over the following four decades. In this talk, I will trace the development of basic argument structure, and the structure of the verb phrase, in order to uncover effects of language acquisition processes on language emergence. For a new language to emerge and develop, sequential generations of learners must fail to faithfully match their “target” linguistic input. For the youngest learners, these differences do not represent random variation from the target, nor are they simple accumulating additions. Changes in the basic word order over the language’s first two decades interact with an emerging spatial morphology. Nevertheless, evidence from symmetrical and reciprocal predicates suggests that distinctions between fundamental verb classes have been present from the first cohort of signers. These changes reveal an interplay of syntactic and morphological processes, through which multiple cohorts of individual learners drive changes across the community.