English Negative Constructions and Communicative Functions in Child Language
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Open Access Publications from the University of California

English Negative Constructions and Communicative Functions in Child Language


How does abstract linguistic negation develop in early child language? Previous research has suggested that abstract negation develops in stages and from more concrete communicative functions such as rejection, prohibition, or non-existence. The evidence for the emergence of these functions in stages is mixed, however, leaving the possibility that negation is an abstract concept from the beginning that can serve multiple specific functions depending on early communicative environment. Leveraging automatic annotations of large-scale child speech corpora in English, we examine the production trajectories of seven negative constructions that tend to convey communicative functions previously discussed in the literature. The results demonstrate the emergence and gradual increase of these constructions in child speech within the age range of 18-36 months. Production mostly remains stable, regular, and close to parents’ levels after this age range. These findings are consistent with two hypotheses: first, that negation starts as an abstract concept that can serve multiple functions from the beginning; and second, that negation develops in stages from specific communicative functions but this development is early and quick, leaving our corpus methods incapable of detecting them from the available corpus data.

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