Why is syntax important

"On various utterances, through reinforcement and deletion, the child is brought to conform to the norms or reference limits that are recorded for him. By mastering the indicator words (e.g. this, there, now), he learns a technique of a higher level, namely how to change the reference of a term according to systematic context or environmental information. "
W. V. Quine 1959, word and object

Fig .: When the family's cat runs away from the child (age: 3; 0)

The development of the sentence structure (syntax) is next to the development of the inflection morphology the main condition for a grammatically understandable expression. Every language has certain rules for arranging words in a sentence or phrase. If these are not adhered to, what is being said becomes incomprehensible or ambiguous. These rules give the instruction, for example, that in the sentences "people eat chickens" and "mosquitoes bite people" the nouns (which here represent the subject and the object) must not be interchanged. The child learns these rules together with the rules for changing the shape (inflection) of the words in his language in the first 3-4 years.

At the beginning of the development of the grammatically structured language, an elementary category of expression is assumed: the original predicate (U). This could be seen as the very first grammatical category. It is represented by word-like sound connections or even conventional words. However, the child does not yet use this to denote something (i.e. to classify it), but rather uses these first word forms to draw attention to something, for example in the sense of "There is something!". This form represents a first linguistic form of a "world reference".

In a next development step, the original predicate is divided into the two basic categories of grammatical structure formation: Identifier (I) and modifier(M). The "Identifier" category enables a reference to the world in the form of "There it is!", That is, an identification of an object. The "Modifier" category enables a statement to be made about a certain section of the world in the form "That is .. (property) ..". If the child has these two categories, he is able to combine two autosemantic words with each other, e.g. in utterances like

"Dift putt" (broken pen), "Load all" (chocolate all) or "Papa car"

From around the age of 2; 4 years, both categories are further differentiated: The identifier becomes a grammatical one Subject (S) and the modifier contains the grammatical categories Predicate (P) and Predicate with information(PA). Typical statements that suggest this level of development are:

"Mama book fetches" (mom = subject, book fetches = predicate with information), "a blackbird sings" (blackbird = subject, sings = predicate), "Papa forgot tullover", papa = subject, forgot tullover = predicate with information)

At this stage of development, only words within an utterance that were often heard in their typical order in a sentence (e.g. SUBJECT-VERB-OBJEKT) are initially placed in the correct order.

Fig .: The child points to a dog (age: 2; 4)

A further differentiation has taken place around the third year of life up to approximately the age of 3; 6 years. The child now has draft plans for sentences that enable him to formulate his "meanings" in an understandable manner. If word order peculiarities also occur, it shows that the child has the categories of clauses typical of the German language in his grammatical rule system. It can then form sentences in utterances that are based on the following rule, for example:
In simple statements (communication) sentences, the conjugated verb is in the 2nd position. However, if another part of the sentence (adverb or object) comes first, the subject must follow the conjugated verb. If the conjugated verb is an auxiliary verb, the object is between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.

Examples are:

3; 0: "Anne said I was quietly aside!" 3; 2: "Look, the bed has already been planted!" 3; 2: "The mouse is very easy (cute)."

A detailed description of this development process can be found in The early language of children

The development of the language-specific arrangement of the words in an utterance obviously follows the same basic rules in all languages. First of all, the elementary categories shown in the organizational chart above are formed. With the further modification or refinement of the categories, the word order rules typical in the respective mother tongue are formed. Since not every language arranges words in the basic structure subject-verb-object, as is the case e.g. in German or English, the child has to filter out the arrangement rules typical for his language from the linguistic input. This is called "data-driven learning". AKHTAR (1999) demonstrated precisely this learning process using the example of artificial verbs in English-speaking children aged 2-4 years. These results confirm that children form core structures based on the daily hearing of their mother tongue, which are gradually expanded. If enough "data" has been collected, a rule is inductively formed (abstracted) on its basis and modified or retained depending on the type of further "data input".

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This page is part of the information on "The early language development of the child"
Author: Bernd Reimann © 1998-2021

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