LINGUIST List 7.1355

Sun Sep 29 1996

Disc: Ergatives in lang acq

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. oshita, Disc: Ergatives in lang acq

Message 1: Disc: Ergatives in lang acq

Date: Thu, 26 Sep 1996 01:48:40 PDT
From: oshita <>
Subject: Disc: Ergatives in lang acq
Dear Linguists,

David Wible of Tamkang University in Taiwan suggested that the L2
English error such as the following one is a strategy for
"raising to subject", which incorrectly involves the passive
morphosyntax of Be+Ven:

*A strange thing was happened before my eyes.

Joe Allen and I (both at USC) have looked at English compositions
written by native speakers of Italian, Spanish, Korean and
Japanese (included in Longman Learners Corpus) and found that
sentences like the one above is one of the most common errors
produced on unaccusative verbs by these L1 speakers. With the
data from Longman Corpus in mind, we have also considered the
plausability of half a dozen potential explanations for the error
suggested in the L2 literature. Our conclusion is exactly the
same as the one suggested by David Wible, i.e. the "passivized
unaccusatives" is the morphosyntactic signal of NP movement. As
for the significance of indefiniteness requirement, however, it
is not very clear to us yet because both definite and indefinite
NPs appear as subject of "passivized unaccusative" sentences in
L2 English.

What is interesting to me is that this kind of error in L2
English appears to be committed mostly by relatively advanced
learners (such as those using English for academic purposes, for
instance) than by lower-level learners. My hypothesis is that
all intransitive verbs, i.e. both unergatives and unaccusatives,
are acquired as unergatives by L2 English learners at early
stages of acquisition and the "passivized unaccusative" error is
committed mainly by relatively advanced learners when they come
to the correct argument structure representation of unaccusative
verbs. For lower-level learners, all intransitive verbs simply
have one external argument--hence, no room for an error of
"passive unaccusatives".

If this idea is on the right track, there seems to be an
interesting contrast between L1 and L2 acquisition of Split
Intransitivity. For example, Radford ("Syntactic Theory and the
Acquisition of Englsih Syntax" 1990: 246-247) argues that
children are aware of the distinction between the two classes of
intransitives at a very early stage of their L1 English
acquisition--at the stage in which he argues children's grammar
is basically lexical-thematic. Research by V. Deprez and
A. Pierce also show that the majority of postverbal arguments of
intransitve verbs in early child English/French are also
arguments of unaccusatives, not of unergatives. My original
query about (non)existence of "passivize unaccusatives" in L1
child English was intended to answer this question of relative
order of acquisition of the unaccusative argument structure and
the syntactic NP movement in L1 and L2 English. If my idea is
correct, as far as English unaccusative verbs are concerned, the
right argument structure is acquired before NP movement in L1 but
the order is reversed in L2, opening the door to the wrong
overgeneralization of "unaccusative passives".

Right now, I am continuing the research on this topic for my
dissertation. So, I would appreciate it very much if people
could share their insights on this and other related issues.

Hiro Oshita 
Linguistics, USC Los Angeles
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