Research Seminars

Research seminars

Middle Class Acquisition

Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield)

One of the most discussed puzzles in language acquisition is that children learning English (and a typologically diverse array of other languages) are delayed in acquiring adult comprehension of A(rgument)-movement structures like (1)-(2) until as late as 6 years old, but acquire others (3) early (cf. Orfitelli 2012 and references within). This discrepancy has inspired numerous explanations, including appeals to structural frequency (Demuth 1989), the non-canonical thematic alignment of passives (e.g. Fox and Grodzinsky 1998, Kirby 2009), and recently, intervention effects (Orfitelli 2012, Snyder and Hyams 2015), which suggest that structures like (1) violate locality restrictions on movement, making them impossible for young children to derive, while the sentences in (2) do not violate these restrictions.

(1) Amber was seen Amber by Graham. verbal passive

(2) Amber seems to Graham [to be Amber sleeping]. subject-to-subject raising

(3) Amber believes Graham [to be Graham lying]. subject-to-object raising

This paper presents data from three experimental studies on the acquisition of the Amovement involved in the middle voice (4), and a related structure with similar properties (5, cf Ahn and Sailor 2014). Both (4) and (5) are structurally ambiguous: the nominative subject may be interpreted as either the external argument (reading i) or internal argument (reading ii) of the predicate. The internal argument reading is of particular interest to an understanding of A-movement acquisition, as it presents a non-canonical thematic alignment, but does not violate locality restrictions on movement (Ackema and Schoorlemmer 2007, Ahn and Sailor 2014). Furthermore, the results of experiment 1, a CHILDES search of sentences like (4) and (5) in four British English corpora, reveals that the internal argument usage is even rarer in the input to children than verbal passives are.

(4) Kittens sell easily. middle

i. Kittens are excellent sales-cats

ii. Kittens are easy to sell.

(5) Mad scientists make great monsters. “make-middle”

i. Mad scientists create great monsters (a la Dr. Frankenstein).

ii. Mad scientists become great monsters (a la Dr. Jekyll).

10 linguistically naïve adults and 60 English-acquiring children (mean age 5.4 years) participated in two truth-value judgement tasks (Crain and McKee 1985) investigating comprehension of sentences similar to (4) and (5). In one scenario testing sentences like (5), a handsome prince enjoys sculpting, but has no talent (Picture 1). One day, he sculpted a horribly ugly frog (Picture 2). The wicked witch saw this, and turned him into a frog too, but the prince was so handsome he became a very handsome frog. Following the story, the TVJT puppet shows the child either Picture 2 or 3, and utters a test item. The condition of interest is “In this part of the story…the prince makes a handsome/ugly frog” which can be applied to either Picture 2 or 3 with different interpretations. The adjective ugly would be the adult-like adjective for Picture 2, in which the prince is the external argument of make, while handsome is the adult-like adjective for Picture 3, in which it is the internal argument.







Based on logistic regressions with accuracy as the dependent variable and age and condition as fixed effects, neither age nor condition was found to be a significant predictor for either study. These results indicate that both adults and children readily permit both interpretations of the sentence. Thus, children allow the nominative DP to begin as an internal argument, despite the non-canonical alignment of this interpretation, and its extreme rarity in child directed speech. Of the accounts considered here, only intervention – or the lack thereof – is consistent with the early comprehension of these structures, as compared to the late acquisition of verbal passives and subject-to-subject raising.


Ackema, P. & M. Schoorlemmer. 2007. 'Middles' In M. Everaert & H. van Riemsdijk (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Syntax.. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 131-203.

Ahn, B. & C. Sailor. 2014. The emerging middle class. In Proceedings from the 46th Annual Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.

Crain, S., & McKee, C. (1985, October). The acquisition of structural restrictions on anaphora. In Proceedings of NELS (Vol. 15, pp. 94-110).

Demuth, K. (1989). Maturation and the acquisition of the Sesotho passive. Language, 56-80.

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

Kirby, S. (2010). Passives in first language acquisition: What causes the delay?. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 16(1), 13.

Orfitelli, R. M. (2012). Argument intervention in the acquisition of A-movement. Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Snyder, W. & N. Hyams. 2015. Minimality Effects in Children's Passives In Elisa Di Domenico, Cornelia Hamann, and Simona Matteini (eds.) Structures, Strategies and Beyond. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Hazel Price