Acquisition of Functional Categories in Early Spanish: Evidence for the Strong Continuity Hypothesis

J. César Félix-Brasdefer


This study examines empirical data from three monolingual Spanish-children and argues in favor of the strong continuity hypothesis and that the following functional categories are available in early Spanish grammar: agreement phrase (AgrP), tense phrase (TP), negation phrase (NegP), and complementizer phrase (CP). The distribution of the agreement paradigm suggests that the children in this study have knowledge of inflection very early in life, as they produce singular forms followed by plural forms. The data also reveal that children make present-past tense contrasts in early stages and pre-verbal negation is appropriately placed in early child utterances. Finally, the data provide empirical evidence that CP is available in early grammar, as seen in the movement of wh-elements and the production of true imperatives. The results from the Spanish data are discussed in light of other studies and support the view that functional structure is available throughout the course of first language acquisition.


syntax, language acquisition, Spanish

Full Text:



Babarczy, A. (1997). The order of acquisition of functional categories and movement in Hungarian. Acta Linguistica, 44, 151-174.

Bar-Shalom, E. (2002). Tense and aspect in early child Russian. Language Acquisition, 10, 321-337.

Behrens, H. (1993). Temporal reference in German child language. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Amsterdam.

Bel, A. (1996). Early negation in Catalan and Spanish. Catalan Working Papers in Linguistics, 5, 5-28.

Belletti, A. (1990). Generalized verb movement: Aspects of verb syntax. Turin, Italy: Rosenberg and Sellier.

Borer, H., & Wexler, K. (1987). The maturation of syntax. In T. Roeper & E. Williams (Eds.), Parameter setting (pp. 123-172). Dordrecht: Reidel Chomsky, N. (1982). Some concepts and consequences of the theory of government and binding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Clahsen, H. (1990). Constraints on parameter setting: A grammatical analysis of some acquisition stages in German child language. Language Acquisition, 1, 361-391.

Clahsen, H., Penke, M., & Parodi, T. (1993/1994). Functional categories in early child German. Language Acquisition, 3, 395-429.

Crain, S. (1994). Language acquisition in the absence of experience. In P. Bloom (Ed.), Language acquisition: Core readings (pp. 364-409). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Crain, S., & Lillo-Martin, D. (1999). An introduction to linguistic theory and language acquisition. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell.

Déprez, V., & Pierce, A. (1993). Negation and functional projections in early grammar. Linguistic Inquiry, 24, 25-67.

Durán, P. (2000). Verbal morphology in early Spanish. In R. Leow & C. Sanz (Eds.), Spanish applied linguistics at the turn of the millennium (pp. 36-49). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Ezeizabarrena, M. J. (1997). Morfemas de concordancia con el sujeto y con los objetos en el castellano infantil [Subject and object agreement morphemes in child Castillian]. In A.T. Pérez-Leroux & W.R. Glass (Dds.) Contemporary Perspectives on the Acquisition of Spanish, Vol. 1: Developing Grammars (pp. 21-36). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Fernández Lagunilla, M., & Anula Rebollo, A. (1995). Sintaxis y cognición: Introducción al conocimiento, el procesamiento y los déficits sintácticos [Syntax and cognition: Introduction to knowledge, processing, and syntactic deficits]. Madrid: Síntesis.

Friedemann, M. A., & Rizzi, L. (Eds.) (2000). The acquisition of syntax. Essex, England: Longman.

Gathercole, V.C.M., Sebastián, E., & Soto, P. (1999). The early acquisition of Spanish verbal morphology: Across-the-board or piecemeal knowledge?. International Journal of Bilingualism, 3, 133-182.

Gathercole, V.C.M., Sebastián, E., & Soto, P. (2002). Negative commands in Spanishspeaking children: No need for recourse to relativized minimality (A reply to Grinstead 2000). Journal of Child Language, 29, 393-401.

Goodall, G. (1991). Spec of IP and Spec of CP in Spanish Wh-questions. Paper presented at the LSRL XXI, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Grinstead, J. (1998). Subjects, sentential negation and imperatives in child Spanish and Catalan. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Grinstead, J. (2000a). Case, inflection and subject licensing in child Catalan and Spanish. Journal of Child Language, 27, 119-155.

Grinstead, J. (2000b). Constraints on the computational component vs. grammar in the lexicon: A discussion of Bates & Goodman. Journal of Child Language, 27, 737-743.

Guasti, M.T. (1993/1994). Verb syntax in Italian child grammar: Finite and nonfinite Verbs. Language Acquisition, 3, 1-40.

Guasti, M.T. (2002). Language acquisition: The growth of grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hawayek, A. (1995). Acquisition of functional categories and syntactic structure. Probus, 7, 147-165.

Hoekstra, T. (1994). The acquisition of functional structure. In Y. Levy (Ed.), Other children, other languages: Issues in the theory of language acquisition (pp. 113-135). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hoekstra, T., & Schwartz, B. (1994). Language acquisition studies in generative grammar. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Hyams, N. (1992a). The genesis of clausal structure. In J. Meisel (Ed.), The acquisition of verb placement (pp. 371-400). Dordrecht: Kluwer

Hyams, N. (1992b). Morphosyntactic development in Italian and its relevance to parameter-setting models: Comments on the paper by Pizzuto & Caselli. Journal of Child Language, 19, 695-709.

Labelle, M., Valois, D. (1996). The status of post-verbal subjects in French child language. Probus, 8, 53-80.

Lebeaux, D. (1988). Language acquisition and the form of the grammar. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Amherst, University of Massachusetts.

Lust, B. (1999). Universal grammar: The strong continuity hypothesis in first language acquisition. In W. Ritchie & T. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of child language acquisition

(pp. 111-155). London: Academic Press.

MacWhinney, B. (1997). The CHILDES database. CD-Rom.

Meisel, J. (1985). Les phases initiales de developpement des notions temporelles, aspectuelles et de modes d’action: Etude basee sur le langage d’enfants bilingues

Francais-Allemand [The initial developmental phases of temporal and aspectual notions and modes of action: Study based on the language of French-German bilingual children]. Lingua, 66, 321-374.

Meisel, J. (1990). INFL-ection: Subjects and subject-verb agreement. In J. Meisel (Ed), Two first languages: Early grammatical development in bilingual children (pp.

-298). Dordrecht: Foris.

Meisel, J. (1994). Getting FATT: Finiteness, agreement and tense in early grammar. In J. Meisel (Ed.), Bilingual language acquisition: French and German grammatical Development (pp.89-129). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Meisel, J., & Müller, N. (1992). Verb placement and the position of finiteness in early child grammar. In J. Meisel (Ed.), The acquisition of verb placement: Functional categories and V2 phenomena in language acquisition (pp.109-138). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Ojea, A. (1997). Categorías funcionales y adquisición de la primera lengua: Un análisis Contrastivo [Functional categories and first language acquisition: A contrastive análisis]. Revista Española de Lingüística, 27, 425-446.

Ouhalla, J. (1991). Functional categories and parametric variation. London: Routledge

Pizzuto, E., & Caselli, M. C. (1992). The acquisition of Italian morphology: Implications for models of language development. Journal of Child Language, 19, 491-557.

Pizzuto, E., & Caselli, M. C. (1994). The acquisition of Italian verb morphology in a cross-linguistic perspective. In Y. Levy (Ed.), Other children, other languages: Issues in the theory of language acquisition (pp. 137-187). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence

Erlbaum Associates.

Platzack, C. (1990). A grammar without functional categories: A syntactic study of early Swedish child language. Nordic Journal of Linguistics, 13, 107-126.

Platzack, C., & Holmberg, A. (1989). The role of AGR and finiteness. Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax, 43, 51-76.

Poeppel, D., & Wexler, K. (1993). The full competence hypothesis of clause structure in early German. Language, 68, 1-33.

Pollock, J. (1989). Verb movement, universal grammar, and the structure of IP. Linguistic Inquiry, 20, 365-424.

Pye, C. (1983). Mayan telegraphese. Language, 59, 583-604.

Radford, A. (1990). Syntactic theory and the acquisition of English syntax: The nature of early child grammars of English. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell.

Ritchie, W., & Bhatia, T. (1999). Handbook of child language acquisition. London: Academic Press.

Rivero, M. L. (1994). Negation, imperatives, and wackernagel effects. Rivista di Lingüística, 6, 91-118.

Rizzi, L. (1990). Relativized minimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Rizzi, L. (1991). Residual verb second and the wh-criterion. In A. Belleti & L. Rizzi (Eds.). Parameters and functional heads. Essays in comparative syntax (pp. 63-90). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Simões, M.C.P., & Stoel-Gammon, C. (1979). The acquisition of inflection in Portuguese: A study of the development of person markers on verbs. Journal of Child Language, 6, 53-67.

Stromswold, K. (1990). Learnability and the acquisition of auxiliaries. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Torrens, V. (1995). The acquisition of inflection in Spanish and Catalan. In C. T. Schütze, J. B. Ganger & K. Broihier (Eds.), Papers on language processing and acquisition. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, 26. Cambridge, MA: MIT, MITWPL.

Valian, V. (1990). Syntactic subjects in the early speech of American and Italian children. Cognition, 40, 21-81.

Varma, T. (1979). Stage one speech of a Hindi-speaking child. Journal of Child Language, 6, 167-174.

Zanuttini, R. (1991). Syntactic properties of sentential negation. A comparative study of romance languages. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Zanuttini, R. (1997). Negation and clausal structure. New York: Oxford University Press.


  • There are currently no refbacks.