In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Acquisition of Possessives

  • Introduction
  • Essential Readings
  • Journals
  • Cross-Linguistic Resources
  • The Role of Input Frequency
  • Child Language Datasets
  • First Language Acquisition of Possessives
  • Bilingual Acquisition of Possessives
  • Second Language Acquisition of Possessives

Linguistics Acquisition of Possessives
Elena Babatsouli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0292


The human capacity for language employs variable structures to denote possession. A single construct may implicate grammar on several linguistic levels: lexicon, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, phonology. Depicting possession in terms of grammatical entities entails discussions of morphemes, pronouns, genitives, the verb “have,” determiner and noun phrases, alienable/inalienable distinctions, and so on. Individual languages may express possession utilizing more than one grammatical construct, while combinations of patterns within and between languages render the concept of possession additionally intricate and multifaceted. The present entry focuses on the representation of possession in developing grammars outlining those major tenets, influences, and theoretical approaches that have traditionally driven scientific inquiry in applied linguistics. Describing and deciphering research in developing grammars implicates mental representations and production patterns across different age and learner type groups. Thus, research on the acquisition of possessives has evolved from the study of monolingual (first language) acquisition to include bilingual acquisition (child first and second language) and, more recently, adult interlanguage (second/foreign language acquisition) and atypical contexts. Developmental linguistics postulates in favor of both a diachronic and a synchronic approach to language evolution. Language(s) are thus subject to manifold dynamic processes, evidence of which can only be fully explained through the multidisciplinary lens that includes neurobiological (natural, genetic) and socio-communicational (social variables, input) considerations. Scientific inquiry on the acquisition of possessives has traditionally been framed in generative theory, assuming the naturalness and innateness of language with reference to a universal grammar. This was juxtaposed early on by the nature versus nurture debate that caused a concomitant nativist-empiricist dichotomy being reflected in both the theoretical and methodological line of language acquisition research. The ideological shift has led to more evidence-based qualitative and quantitative investigations that account for the role of input (quality and quantity of linguistic exposure), usage (quality and quantity present of linguistic practice), and the psychosocial communicative context at large. This entry on the acquisition of possessives comprises seven sections that are thematically advanced by first citing core works in the language acquisition literature at large, which is followed by sections with a more specific focus on the development possessives by different learner and age groups. Aiming at highlighting influential contributions, rather than being exhaustive, theoretical underpinnings and cross-linguistic resources are outlined in the following thematic categories: (1) Essential Readings, (2) Cross-Linguistic Resources, (3) The Role of Input Frequency, (4) Child Language Datasets, (5) First Language Acquisition of Possessives, (6) Bilingual Acquisition of Possessives, (7) Second Language Acquisition of Possessives.

Essential Readings

Early literature on possessives is traditionally encompassed within the general context of acquisition of grammatical systems. The study of language development in both childhood and adulthood begins with an understanding of fundamental tenets regarding universals, the role of form and function in emergent grammars, stages of cognitive and/or grammatical development, and individual learner variation. Greenberg 1966 is a historical volume that lays the groundwork in language universals in terms of typology (phonology, grammar, and semantics), on the one hand, and implicating the role of diachronic versus synchronic factors, on the other. This work’s thematic scope has revolutionized how the study of language has evolved from a primarily descriptive field to a scientific one by documenting an inventory of forty-five language universals founded on the study of thirty languages, among which are Basque, Hebrew, and Japanese. Universality in the order of syntactical development is systematically studied in Bowerman 1973, comparing progress across four language families, specifically Finno-Ugric, Indo-European, Malayo-Polynesian, and Nilotic. A shift in perspective is represented by Bloom 1970, which provides a psycholinguistic perspective on the cognitive representation of language and highlights the interrelation of linguistic and semantic functions of emerging grammatical structures. Brown 1973 is the first study that delineates clear stages in the development of grammatical constructs, including possessives, that are relatable across other languages. Significant tenets discussed include aspects of simple and complex sentence construction, semantic roles and grammatical relations, order of acquisition, case grammar, word order, sensorimotor intelligence, the role of parental input, and the problem of speaker variability. Utilizing Brown’s metric of mean length of utterance (MLU), de Villiers and de Villiers 1973 constitutes another pivotal exploration of the order of acquisition of morphemes that corroborates the patterns evidenced in Brown 1973. Crucial to deciphering the acquisition of possession, subsequent work is geared by psycholinguistic inquiry that focuses on the interface between morphosyntactic and semantic development. Radford 1990 comprehensively shows acquisition to be subject to the child’s cognitive maturation and life experiences, as variable aspects of grammar emerge across consecutive developmental stages. These postulations hold true for several grammatical constructs that include case, pronouns, possessives, inflection, determiners, missing arguments, and so on. Shifting our focus to a usage-based approach, early grammatical development is shown in Tomasello 2003 to start with pivot schemas and progress from linguistic construction to grammatical abstractness. Important implicating factors include the dynamic nature of development, the role of cognitive maturation, the significance of distribution properties in the linguistic input, and cue variation cross-linguistically. By rejecting traditional learnability inquiry, the study provides evidenced-based, data-driven inferences in psycholinguistic research. Lastly, syntactic theory has also influenced interpretations on the acquisition of possession in terms of the Minimalist Program. Galasso 2011 discusses the fundamental syntactic notion of movement linking the rate of grammatical development to production rates of morphosyntactic inflection.

  • Bloom, Lois. 1970. Language development: Form and function in emerging grammars. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    The study is foundational reading on the importance of differentiating between form and function when investigating the acquisition of grammar. The monograph makes a breakthrough by children examining the interpretation of semantic intentions between underlying and surface structures based on nonlinguistic information from situational and behavioral contexts. Children’s sentence derivation is subject to cognitive and linguistic constraints steered by semantic-syntactic relationships.

  • Bowerman, Melissa. 1973. Early syntactic development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This pivotal work employs known theoretical and methodological regimes traditionally used for the study of the English language to investigate child developmental speech cross-linguistically. The linguistic patterns of monolingual child participants speaking Finnish, English, Samoan, and Luo provide further evidence in support of language universals in the development of syntactical order.

  • Brown, Roger. 1973. A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674732469

    This is a scholarly landmark exploration of naturalistic longitudinal English child data that serves both as an introductory textbook in the qualitative and quantitative investigation of early grammatical and semantic development, and as a model of experimental work. Five main stages of grammatical development are established based on the measure of mean length of utterance (MLU), which gauges the developmental progress of grammatical morphemes, like pronouns, case markers, inflections, prepositions, and articles.

  • De Villiers, Jill G., and Peter A. De Villiers. 1973. A cross-sectional study of the acquisition of grammatical morphemes in child speech. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 2.3: 267–278.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01067106

    A pivotal exploration in the acquisition of grammatical morphemes in terms of order of acquisition is represented in this study examining MLU in twenty-one children aged 16–40 months. Findings are concomitant with universal patterns reported by Brown 1973. It is further inferred that while neither age nor frequency distribution in the parental input are predictive of morpheme accuracy, order of acquisition correlates highly with both grammatical and semantic complexity.

  • Galasso, Joseph. 2011. Children first start with a single processing model—“Merge,” then move to a dual processing model—“Move”. Unpublished paper.

    This study has been influential in capturing how the theoretical notion of syntactic movement influences child language development of possessives. The findings add to previous postulations that production rates of morphosyntactic inflection are optionally variable by further contending that children go through an initial stage characterized by complete lack of access to inflectional morphology.

  • Greenberg, Joseph H., ed. 1966. Universals of language. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Language universals constitute guiding principles in the acquisition of linguistic constructs. This collection comprises specific proposals on the nature, logical structure, substantive classes, and interrelations of universals, alongside empirical foundations and typological analyses that are needed to support the definition and categorization of universals in research. The discussion includes interdisciplinary perspectives across linguistics, psychology, and cultural anthropology. The appendix documents an inventory of forty-five language universals as documented in thirty languages that include Basque, Hebrew, and Japanese.

  • Radford, Andrew. 1990. Syntactic theory and the acquisition of English syntax: The nature of early child grammars of English. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

    Government and Binding is the theoretical framework of this investigation in English-speaking children’s early syntactical structures, a specialized monograph targeting experts in syntax, cognition, and language acquisition. Evidence comes from a corpus of 100,000 spontaneous utterances by children between one and a half to two years of age, indicating that early syntactical structures are characterized by absence of case, inflection, determiner, and complementizer systems. It is argued, instead, that early grammars are distinctively lexical and thematic in nature.

  • Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A radical shift in theoretical and methodological perspectives to language acquisition, the present monograph relinquishes innatism and adult language formalism in favor of a usage-based methodological stance. The new maxim views form-function acquisition as a social construct and is learner-friendly in that children are viewed as active learners of grammar. Rather than employing semantic associations to acquire words and morphemes, children are argued to identify linguistic constructions as communicative symbols by interpreting the semantic intention in the linguistic input.

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