Acquisition at the Interfaces: A Case Study on Object Clitics in Early Italian

R. Tedeschi

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


    In my study, I investigate the optional omission functional elements in children’s early production. Several findings indicate that functional categories are present in child grammar in the early stages of language acquisition (Bottari, Cipriani and Chilosi 1993/4; Gerken and McIntosh 1993). However, initially functional categories are only optionally realized (Guasti 2002). In my study, I target the acquisition of a specific set of function words: object clitics. I provide an extensive investigation of object clitic omission in early Italian. Initially, clitics are optionally omitted in obligatory contexts. Object clitic omission raises a number of questions concerning the nature of null objects in early grammars, the relation between argument structure and referentiality, the acquisition of syntactic and pragmatic aspects of referentiality, and the mapping between syntactic and prosodic structures. In particular, I address the following questions: 1. Does early Italian allow referential null objects? 2. Is clitic omission affected by the phonological context in which a clitic occurs? 3. Are clitics omitted because they refer to information that is easily retrievable from the preceding discourse? Three experiments aim at shedding light on these issues. The first experiment targets children’s interpretation of null objects in a receptive task, to investigate whether early Italian, differently from the adult grammar, allows referential null objects in the absence of an overt clitic. The results of my study do not support the hypothesis that children’s representation of null objects deviates from the target grammar. The second experiment explores the hypothesis that clitic omission is an interface phenomenon resulting from difficulties in the integration of syntactic and phonological information. I show that clitic omission can be partially accounted for by children’s tendency to omit unstressed syllables (such as clitics) when they do not belong to a (strong-weak) trochaic foot (Demuth 1995; 2007, Gerken 1991; 1996). The third experiment investigates object clitic omission at the syntax-discourse interface. This approach predicts that object drop should be restricted to pragmatically acceptable contexts, i.e. contexts in which the referent at hand is easily retrievable from the preceding discourse/context (Serratrice, Sorace & Paoli 2004). Clitics fulfill this requirement, since they are used for highly accessible referents (Ariel 1990). I show that children are sensitive to discourse in their omission patterns: they omit the object if the referent is highly accessible in the preceding discourse (in clitic contexts) but not when a more informative referring expression (a lexical object) is required. I propose that children have problems in integrating the syntactic requirement of an overt clitic with the pragmatic principle of “informativeness” (Greenfield and Smith 1976), which allows highly accessible information to be dropped. I conclude that clitic omission is an interface phenomenon triggered by the non adult-like integration of different aspects of linguistic knowledge.
    Original languageUndefined/Unknown
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Utrecht University
    • Coopmans, Peter, Primary supervisor
    • Everaert, Martin, Supervisor
    • Gualmini, Andrea, Co-supervisor
    Award date11 Nov 2009
    Place of PublicationUtrecht
    Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2009

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