Effects of discourse topic on global and local markings in Croatian ditransitives: a comparison of adults and children

This study examines how Croatian adults and monolingual children use global markings (object order) and local markings (referring expressions) to signal the discourse-pragmatic notion of discourse topic (DT) in ditransitive structures.

According to linguistic theory, the (discourse) topic precedes the rest of the sentence, which is referred to as comment (J. K. Gundel, 1988). The use of referring expressions (RE) is guided by the accessibility of the referent, making it so that the more accessible argument is more likely to be expressed with less descriptive terms such as pronouns, or be omitted altogether (Ariel, 1990).

It has been found that children signal givenness/newness first through local and then through global markers (Hickmann, Hendriks, Roland, & Liang, 1996). So, on the one hand, the studies conducted explicitly on the acquisition of the topic-comment order (Dimroth & Narasimhan, 2012; Hornby, 1971) revealed that children do not necessarily place the topic before the comment.  On the other hand, the discourse cues are reflected in children’s REs from early on (J. Gundel & Johnson, 2013; Matthews, Lieven, Theakston, & Tomasello, 2006; Tedeschi, 2008). 

We have tested preschool children (n=58, mean age=4;4) and adult controls (n=36, mean age=21) in three conditions with different arguments as the DT: the subject as a baseline, the direct object (DO), and the indirect object (IO). The task consisted in story-books in which one of the referents was the DT, but nevertheless, all the referents were visually available to the interlocutors. Children were expected to be more consistent with their REs than with word order, due to what has been found in the previous studies.

The results revealed that the DT has an effect on word order in adults (p.value<0.0001 pairwise comparison of all conditions) but not in children, as children produced more IO-DO constructions in all conditions. In both groups, the IO was most likely to be expressed with a pronominal form (p.value<0.0001 in both groups), but the children used more NPs than the adults for expressing the DO. Children used overall more full expressions than adults (ANOVA comparing the two groups: p.value=0.00063) which indicates that they tend to be over-specific rather than under-specific in their productions.

The study also found the relation of REs to grammatical function in both children and adults: subjects were more likely to be omitted, the IOs were very likely to be expressed with a clitic, while the DOs were mostly expressed with NPs. The two groups of speakers however differed in their DO reference, as the children never used the clitic, while the adults did 17% of the time, thus indicating that children are adult-like in the way they express the subject and IO, but not the DO quite yet.



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