Sketch Grammars of Child Language

Clifton Pye

Email: pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

I put together this bibliography of child language research to introduce anyone interested in this branch of linguistics to the spectrum of studies that have been done in some areas of acquisition research. I focus on studies that are either crosslinguistic by design or that could be copied based on limited recordings of one or two children. Linguists working in communities with under-documented languages should find some inspiration from these papers to report on the varieties of child language spoken in the communities. The papers are based on various theoretical frameworks in order to illustrate these theoretical disputes as well as showing how much these frameworks change or become abandoned over time.

Classic Child Language Sketches

These sketches are based on descriptions of a child’s language at one or over several periods of time.

Burling, Robbins. 1959. Language development of a Garo and English speaking child. Word 15: 45-68.

Casagrande, Joseph B. 1948. Comanche baby language. International Journal of American Linguistics 14: 11-14.

Chamberlain, Alexander F. 1890. Notes on Indian child-language. American Anthropologist 3: 237-241.

Chao, Yuen Ren. 1951. The Cantian idiolect: An analysis of the Chinese spoken by a twenty-eight-months-old child. University of California Publications in Semitic Philology 11: 27-44. [Reprinted in Aaron Bar-Adon & Werner F. Leopold (eds.). 1971. Child Language: A Book of Readings, 116-130. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.]

Darwin, Charles. 1877. A biographical sketch of an infant. Mind 2: 285-294. [Reprinted in Aaron Bar-Adon & Werner F. Leopold (eds.). 1971. Child Language: A Book of Readings, 26-28. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.]

Dennis, Wayne. 1940. The Hopi Child. New York: Appleton-Century.

Kroeber, A. L. 1916. The speech of a Zuñi child. The American Anthropologist XVIII.

Larsen, K. (1949). Huasteco baby talk. El México Antiguo 7: 295-298.

Sapir, Edward. 1929. Nootka baby words. International Journal of American Linguistics 5: 118-119.

Taine, Hippolyte. 1877. Acquisition of language by children. Mind 2: 252-259. [Reprinted in Aaron Bar-Adon & Werner F. Leopold (eds.). 1971. Child Language: A Book of Readings, 20-26. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.]

Core Child Language Textbooks

These books survey research on child language. The Ingram book provides a history of child language research over the past century as well as a thorough review of work on phonological development and his method for the analysis of child phonology. The Ambridge and Lieven book assesses more recent research from the perspective of generative and usage-based acquisition theories. It has better reviews of recent work on morphology and syntax than Ingram, but lacks the cross-linguistic coverage of Ingram. The multivolume series on crosslinguistic research on child language edited by Dan Slobin provides a collection of summary articles on the acquisition of many languages.

Ambridge, B. & E. V. M. Lieven. Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ingram, D. (1989). First language acquisition: Method, description and explanation. Cambridge University Press.

D. I. Slobin (ed.). The Crosslinguistic Study of Language Acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Articles on Child Language Fieldwork

These articles review various methods for recording children in the field and working with small numbers of children.

Demuth, K. 1996. Collecting spontaneous production data. In D. McDaniel, C. McKee & H. S. Cairns (Eds.), Methods for assessing children’s syntax (pp. 3-22). MIT Press.

Eisenbeiss, S. 2006. Documenting child language. In P. K. Austin (Ed.), Language documentation and description, Vol. 3 (pp. 106-140). London, England: SOAS.

Kelly, B. F. & Nordlinger, R. 2014. Fieldwork and first language acquisition. In L. Gawne & J. Vaughan (Eds.), Selected papers from the 44th Conference of the Australian linguistic society, 2013. Retrieved from

Pye, C. 2020. Documenting the acquisition of indigenous languages. Journal of Child Language 48(3): 454-479. [DOI:].

Stoll, S. 2016. Studying language acquisition in different linguistic and cultural settings. In N. Bonvillain (ed.), The Routledge handbook of linguistic anthropology (pp. 140-158). New York: Routledge.

Stoll, S. & Lieven, E. 2014. Studying language acquisition cross-linguistically. In H. Winskel & P. Pradakannaya (eds.), South and Southeast Asian psycholinguistics, pp. 19-35. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/cbo9781139084642.004.

Phonological Development

Cook, E.-D. (2006). The patterns of consonantal acquisition and change in Chipewyan (Dëne Suliné). International journal of American linguistics 72(2), 236-263.

Davis, B. L. & MacNeilage, P. F. 1995. The articulatory basis of babbling. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 38: 1199-1211.

Ingram, D. 2002. The measurement of whole-word productions. Journal of Child Language 29: 713-733.

Ferguson, C. A. & Farwell, C. B. 1975. Words and sounds in early language acquisition. Language 51: 419-439.

Gnanadesikan, A. E. 2004. Markedness and faithfulness constraints in child phonology. In Kager, R., Pater, J. & Zonneveld, W. (eds.), Constraints in Phonological Acquisition, pp. 1-53. Cambridge University Press.

Menn, L. 1983. Development of articulatory, phonetic, and phonological capabilities. In B. Butterworth (ed.), The Structure of Phonological Representations, part 1, pp. 190-223. Dordrecht: Foris.

Pye, C., Ingram, D. & List, H. 1987. A comparison of initial consonant acquisition in English and Quiché. In Keith Nelson and Anne van Kleeck (Eds.), Children’s language, vol. 6 (pp. 175-190). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Rice, K. & Avery, P. 1994. Variability in a deterministic model of language acquisition: A theory of segmental elaboration. In Archibald, J. (Ed.), Phonological acquisition and phonological theory (pp. 33-64). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stoel-Gammon, C. 1985. Phonetic inventories 15-24 months: a longitudinal study. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 28: 505-512.

Stokes, S. F. and Surendran, D. 2005. Articulatory complexity, ambient frequency, and functional load as predictors of consonant development in children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 48(3): 577-591.

Vihman, M. M. & Croft, W. Phonological development: Toward a “radical” templatic phonology. Linguistics 45: 683-725.

Prosodic Development

Demuth, K. 1996. The Prosodic Structure of Early Words. In J. L. Morgan & K. Demuth (eds.) Signal to Syntax: Bootstrapping from Speech to Grammar in Early Acquisition, pp. 171-84. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Fee, J. E. 1995. Segments and syllables in early language acquisition. In J. Archibald (ed.), Phonological Acquisition and Phonological Theory, pp. 43-61. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gerken, L. A. 1991. The metrical basis of children’s subjectless sentences. Journal of Memory and Language 30: 431-451.

Gerken, L. 1996. Prosodic structure in young children’s language production. Language 72: 683-712.

Gerken, L. & Wanner, E. 1982. The interplay of function morphemes and prosody in early language. Developmental Psychology 29: 448-457.

Lleó, C. 2003. Prosodic licensing of codas. Probus 15: 257-281.

Lleó, C. & Demuth, K. 1999. Prosodic constraints on the emergence of grammatical morphemes: Crosslinguistic evidence from Germanic and Romance languages. In A. Greenhill, H. Littlefield, and C. Tano (eds.), Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 407-418. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Peters, A. & Menn, L. 1993. False starts and filler syllables: Ways to learn grammatical morphemes. Language 69: 742-778.

Pye, C. 1983. Mayan telegraphese: Intonational determinants of inflectional development in Quiché Mayan. Language 59: 583-604.

Lexical Development

Brown, P. 1997. Isolating the CVC root in Tzeltal Mayan: A study of children’s first verbs. In E. V. Clark (ed.), The Proceedings of the 28th Annual Child Language Research Forum, pp. 41-52. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Brown, P. 1998. Children’s first verbs in Tseltal: Evidence for an early verb category. Linguistics 36: 715-753.

De León, L. 1999. Verbs in Tzotzil early syntactic development. International Journal of Bilingualism 3: 219-240.

De León, L. 2007. A preliminary view at Ch’ol (Mayan) early lexicon: The role of language and cultural context. In B. Pfeiler, (ed.), Learning Indigenous Languages: Child Language Acquisition in Mesoamerica, pp. 85-101. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Gentner, D. 1982. Why nouns are learned before verbs: Linguistic relativity versus natural partitioning. In S. A. Kuczaj II (ed.), Language Development, vol. 2: Language, Thought, and Culture, pp. 301-334. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rescorla, L. A. 1980. Overextension in early language development. Journal of Child Language 7: 321-335.

Tardif, T. 1996. Nouns are not always learned before verbs: Evidence from Mandarin speakers’ early vocabularies. Developmental Psychology 32: 492-504.

Morphological Development

Bybee, J. and D. Slobin 1982. Rules and schemas in the development and use of the English past tense. Language 58(2): 265-289.

Courtney, E. H. and M. Saville-Troike. 2002. Learning to construct verbs in Navajo and Quechua. Journal of Child Language 29: 623-634.

Demuth, K. 1994. On the ‘underspecification’ of functional categories in early grammars. In B. Lust, M. Suñer, and J. Whitman (eds.), Syntactic Theory and First Language Acquisition: Cross Linguistic Perspectives, 119-134. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dressler, W. 2005. Morphological typology and first language acquisition: some mutual challenges. In: G. Booij, E. Guevara, A. Ralli, S. Sgroi and S. Scalise. (eds.), Morphology and Linguistic Typology. On-line Proceedings of the Fourth Mediterranean Morphology Meeting (MMM4), Catania, 21-23.9.2003. University of Bologna.

Grinstead, J. 2000. Case, inflection and subject licensing in child Catalan and Spanish. Journal of Child Language 27: 119-55.

Mithun, M. 1989. The acquisition of polysynthesis. Journal of Child Language 16: 285-312.

Pye, C. 1990. The acquisition of ergative languages. Linguistics 28, 6 (310), 1291-1330.

Pye, C. and B. Pfeiler. 2014. The Comparative Method of Language Acquisition Research: A Mayan Case Study. Journal of Child Language 41: 382-415.

Pye, C., B. Pfeiler and P. Mateo Pedro. 2013.The acquisition of extended ergativity in Mam, Q’anjob’al and Yucatec. In E. Bavin and S. Stoll (eds.), The Acquisition of Ergativity, pp. 307-335. John Benjamins: Amsterdam.

Pye, C., B. Pfeiler, L. de León, P. Brown, and P. Mateo. 2007. Roots or edges?: A comparative study of Mayan children’s early verb forms. In B. Pfeiler (ed.), Learning indigenous languages: Child language acquisition in Mesoamerica, pp. 15-46. Hannover: Verlag für Ethnologie, Colección Americana X.

Syntactic Development

Bloom, P. 1990. Subjectless sentences in child language. Linguistic Inquiry 21: 491-504.

Braine, M. D. S. 1963. The ontogeny of English phrase structure: the first phase. Language 39: 1-14.

Brown, P. 2008.Verb specificity and argument realization in Tzeltal child language. In Crosslinguistic perspectives on argument structure: Implications for language acquisition, ed. by M. Bowerman and P. Brown, pp. 167-89. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cameron-Faulkner, T., E. Lieven & A. Theakston. 2007. What part of no do children not understand? A usage-based account of multiword negation. Journal of Child Language 33(2): 251-282.

Demuth, K. 1987. Discourse functions of word order in Sesotho acquisition. In R. Tomlin (Ed.), Coherence and Grounding in Discourse (pp. 91-108). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Demuth, K. 1989. Maturation, continuity, and the acquisition of Sesotho passive. Language 65: 56-80.

Demuth, K. 1990. Subject, topic and Sesotho passive. Journal of Child Language 17(1): 67-84.

Drozd, K. F. 2002. Negative DPs and elliptical negation in child English. Language Acquisition 10(2): 77-122.

Fox, D. & Grodzinsky, Y. 1998. Children’s passive: A view from the by-phrase. Linguistic Inquiry 29: 311-332.

Hamann, C. and K. Plunkett. 1998. Subjectless sentences in child Danish. Cognition 69: 35-72.

Hyams, N. 2011. Missing subjects in early child language, in J. de Villiers and T. Roeper (eds.), Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition. Dordrecht: Springer, 13-52.

Klima, E., & Bellugi, U. 1966. Syntactic regularities in the speech of children. In J. Lyons and R. Wales, (eds.), Psycholinguistic Papers, 183-208.

Pye, C. 1993. A Cross-Linguistic Approach to the Causative Alternation, in Yonata Levy (ed.), Other Children, Other Languages, pp. 243-263. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pye, C. 2001. The Acquisition of Finiteness in K’iche’ Maya. BUCLD 25: Proceedings of the 25th annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 645-656. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Pye, C. and Quixtan Poz, P. 1989. Why functionalism won’t function: The acquisition of passives and antipassives in K’iche’ Mayan. Working Papers in Language Development 4: 39-53. The Child Language Program, University of Kansas.

Pye, C., Pfeiler, B. & Pedro Mateo P. 2017. The acquisition of negation in three Mayan languages. Estudios de Cultura Maya 49: 227-246.

Rizzi, L. 1993/1994. Some notes on linguistic theory and language development: The case of root infinitives. Language Acquisition 3: 371-393.

Suzman, S. 1985. Learning the passive in Zulu. Papers & Reports on Child Language Development 24: 131-137.

Wexler, K. 1998. Very early parameter setting and the unique checking constraint: A new explanation of the optional infinitive stage. Lingua 106: 23-79.

Wexler, K. & M. R. Manzini. 1987. Parameters and learnability in binding theory. In T. Roeper & E. Williams (eds.), Parameter Setting, 41-76. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Semantic Development

Bowerman, M. 1978. The acquisition of word meaning: An investigation into some current conflicts. In Waterson, N. & Snow, C. (eds.), The Development of Communication, pp. 263-287. New York: Wiley.

Bowerman, M. & Soonja Choi. 2001. Shaping meanings for language: Universal and language-specific in the acquisition of spatial semantic categories. In M. Bowerman & S. C. Levinson (eds.), Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, pp. 475-511. Cambridge University Press.

Brown, P. 2001. Learning to talk about motion up and down in Tzeltal: Is there a language-specific bias for verb learning? In M. Bowerman & S. C. Levinson (eds.), Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, pp. 512-543. Cambridge University Press.

Gopnik, A. 2001. Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing. In M. Bowerman & S. C. Levinson (eds.), Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, pp. 45-69. Cambridge University Press.

Pye, C., Loeb, D. F., Pao, Y. Y. 1996. The Acquisition of Breaking and Cutting. In E. V. Clark (ed.), The Proceedings of the Twenty-seventh Annual Child Language Research Forum, 27.227-236. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Slobin, D. I., M. Bowerman, P. Brown, S. Eisenbeiss and B. Narasimhan. 2011. Putting things in places: developmental consequences of linguistic typology. In J. Bohnemeyer and E. Pederson (eds.), Event Representation in Language and Cognition, pp. 134-165. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Page last modified 9/4/21

© 2021 Clifton Pye