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LINGUIST List 21.24

Tue Jan 05 2010

Disc: Delayed emergence of a grammatical form

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        1.    Dom Watt, Delayed emergence of a grammatical form

Message 1: Delayed emergence of a grammatical form
Date: 05-Jan-2010
From: Dom Watt <dw539york.ac.uk>
Subject: Delayed emergence of a grammatical form
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My son was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and lived there until the age of three,
when we brought him to live in York, England. He is now five and a half years
old. His spoken English is pretty normal for a kid of his age, with an exception
that I describe below.

A grammatical feature of the Aberdeen(shire) dialect is constant polarity tags.
Rather than saying 'It's a nice day, isn't it?' Aberdonians say 'It's a nice
day, is it?'. This is unmarked; there's nothing sceptical or accusatory about
it. As far as I can gather there is absolutely no difference in meaning in
Aberdonian speech between a sentence in which a positive tag is paired with a
positive verb, and one where a positive verb co-occurs with a negative tag, as
in my own variety.

I don't use +verb/+tag constructions with a neutral reading, and neither does my
wife, or anyone my son has had regular contact with since we moved to England.
It's not a feature of York speech and I've never heard it being used anywhere
other than in Aberdeen(shire). Constructions like 'We like ice-cream, do we
Daddy?' are not found even in Scotland outside of the north-east, to my knowledge.

My daughter, who is a few years older than my son, _did_ use the forms when we
lived in Aberdeenshire, but she stopped almost immediately after we moved to
York in summer 2007, and that was that.

Can anyone explain why my son only started using constant polarity tags _after_
we moved to York? My wife and I are not aware of having heard him use one even
once before this point, although he had every opportunity to do so. As I say,
his childminder did it, and lots of his friends at nursery and in the
neighbourhood clearly had the forms as part of their normal grammatical
repertoire. I can identify nothing that might have started him using them only
after we came here; he knows nobody here from northeast Scotland, and hears only
+/- constructions at home and at school, and from other family members and
friends (except those examples with the sceptical/accusatory reading, for which
there might be a special name I don't know about).

He is still using the 'Aberdonian' form frequently now two and a half years on,
and it's so oddly persistent that I've been making a note of the date every time
he uses it. We had expected it to vanish within a few months of it appearing.
His latest one earlier today was 'We landed in the pond, did we?' (of a sledging
mishap). My wife tells me that she's even heard some of his friends at school
starting to follow suit, but I'd need this verified.

One reason I wanted to ask the question was that I can't help thinking that his
teachers at school may be starting to wonder whether my son has some sort of
grammatical problem, rather than some kind of benign
latent/delayed-reaction/emergent feature he brought south with him when we
moved. I'm pretty certain his teachers will never have encountered the +/+
pattern as a normal grammatical feature, and since he uses it more often than
the positive-negative pattern it must be quite noticeable to them if they
haven't heard the Aberdonian pattern before. I'm reasonably certain he doesn't
use the forms only when his parents are in earshot! (though maybe it's some sort
of clever linguistic experiment on his part, who knows).

He still sounds quite Scottish accent-wise, for what it's worth, but then he's
getting large daily doses of Scottish phonology. But I think the tags thing is
an entirely separate phenomenon.

Can anyone cite any parallel examples to this? Does anyone have a neat
explanation for why the positive tags popped up but then didn't go away quickly
again, as we had expected them to?

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
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