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Review of  Dummy Auxiliaries in First and Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Eugenio Goria
Book Title: Dummy Auxiliaries in First and Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Elma Blom Josje Verhagen Ineke van de Craats
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 25.2292

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The aim of the book is to give a thorough account of the emergence of dummy auxiliaries in several situations of first (L1) and second (L2) language acquisition. This term has been chosen among several other almost-synonyms, such as 'light verbs', 'dummies', 'fillers', etc., and describes a construction in which the speakers spontaneously produce a semantically empty auxiliary, as in 'she does want eyes on her back' (p. 171). This construction is acceptable in standard English, only if the auxiliary has an emphatic or contrastive stress. However, both L1 and L2 learners resort to dummy auxiliaries far beyond such restrictions, and without treating the construction as a pragmatically or semantically marked alternative.

Part I focuses on monolingual L1 aquisition, and contains studies on native speakers of English (Schütze, Ch. 1), Dutch (Zukerman, Ch. 2; Hollebrandse, van Koert, A. van Hout, Ch. 3; Julien, van de Craats, van Hout, Ch. 4), and Cypriot Greek (Grohman and Leivada, Ch. 5).

Chapter 1 approaches dummy auxiliaries in the framework of Generative Grammar. Schütze observes that English children differ from adults with respect to the derivation called 'Tense to Verb (T-to-V) lowering'. This is obligatory, in Standard English, in all the cases where it is not blocked by elements such as negation or 'positive emphatic polarity'; however, it appears to be optional in child varieties, as a result of difficulties in the comparision with V-to-T raising. Dummy 'do' in child speech is considered by the author as an allomorph of a 0-morpheme occurring as a functional head of a Mood phrase. This feature is lost in adult speech due to an economy principle; T-to-V lowering becomes obligatory because ''the derivation using fewer overt morphemes bolcks the one using more morphemes'' (p. 28).

In Chapter 2, Zuckerman addresses Dutch dummy constructions with auxiliary 'doen' (''do'') and 'gaan' (''to go''). The author adopts a framework which combines a structure-based approach and an input-based approach. The first approach is grounded on the observation that dummy auxiliaries are used in V2 Dutch matrix clauses (i.e., clauses with a rigid word order, where the inflected verb always occupies the second position), but are absent in embedded verb-final clauses, and their use is thus related to the acquisition of V2; as no movement is involved in embedded clauses, the dummy construction is not motivated. The second approach draws on the hypothesis that children at pre-scholar age overextend ‘gaan’ + INF constructions present in adult speakers' input language. After summarising two past experiments (Zuckerman 2001), the author provides further evidence for his theory that dummy auxiliaries are both structure dependent and input-dependent, especially with respect to dialect variation.

Chapter 3 describes an experimental study with five-year-old Dutch children aimed at tense elicitation. Despite the relatively late age of the test subjects, who, according to other studies, should have already acquired the inflected V2 syntactic structure, the experiment provides good evidence that children at this age still produce constructions with 'gaan' as a dummy auxiliary. According to the authors, this construction is economical from different points of view: from a morphosyntactic point of view, (i) dummy constructions are ''easy to learn and quick to retrieve in processing'' (p. 93); (ii) they avoid inflection of the lexical verb; (iii) they provide a one-to-one correspondence between form and function, in that grammatical information, such as tense, is indexed on the auxiliary, while lexical information is indexed on the lexical verb. Moreover, such constructions perform an effect of existential closure over the event described by the lexical verb. Finally, the authors argue that this construction is left out in Standard Dutch because the synthetic form allows finer aspectual distinctions.

In Chapter 4, the authors provide evidence for the use of Dutch 'zijn' (''be'') as a dummy auxiliary. This construction, unlike the ones presented in the preceding chapters, is absent in the input, and represents an invention of L1 learners. Julien, van de Craats and van Hout present the results of a longitudinal study with five children from ages 1;6 to 3;6. The main outcome is the definition of three stages in the acquisition of finiteness: at stage 1, young speakers only display root infinitives in sentence-final position; at stage 2, they start to use finite, non-thematic verbs such as 'zijn' and 'gaan' in V1/V2 position; finally, at stage 3, more finite verbs are used in V2 position, and at the same time, dummy constructions start to show up. This demonstrates the crucial role of dummy auxiliaries in the acquisition of finiteness.

Chapter 5 contains a groundbreaking contribution, in that it represents the first study on light verbs in Cypriot Greek. The article focuses on the use of 'kamno' (''do''), 'ðio' (''give'') and 'pçano' (''take'') as dummy verbs in an elicitation task with a random sample of 100 children divided into five age-brackets and ranging in age from 4;0 to 8;11 years old. Using the five types of light verbs described in Kearns (1988) as a point of departure, the study shows that ''true'' light-verb constructions are found in the sample, and with higher frequency in Cypriot Greek when compared to Standard Modern Greek. Furthermore, the speakers appear to prime unexisting light verb constructions.

Part II is dedicated to child bilingualism, and contains a total of three studies on the following topics: L2 English (Bohnacker, Ch. 6), L2 German (Chilla, Haberzettl and Wulff, Ch. 7), and Turkish-German learners affected with specific language impairment (SLI) (de Jong, Blom, Orgassa, Ch. 8).

In Chapter 6, Bohnacker discusses data from her past work (Bohnacker 1999a,b) in light of new findings on dummy auxiliaries. She presents data from a longitudinal study on an Icelandic-English bilingual child living in England and exposed to both input languages. The author documents two steps in the acquisition of 'do' as an auxiliary: the child learns at 2;0 how to use it in negative sentences, and at 3;0 she acquires interrogative and emphatic affirmative sentences. At the same time, she starts to overextend the use of 'do' to non-emphatic affirmative sentences. This is interpreted by the author as an attempt by the bilingual child to regularise the Standard English system through the ''creation'' of an unstressed 'do' in complementary distribution with the other two.

Chapter 7 compares the acquisition of German as an L1 and L2 with respect to the use of dummy verbs such as 'sein' (''be''), and 'machen' (''do/make''). The data for monolingual acquisition come from an extract of Szagun’s (2006) German corpus, while the L2 data come from two groups of children with Turkish as their L1, which are part of the Hamburg corpus (Rothweiler 2006) and the Augsburg corpus (Haberzettl 2005; Wegener 1992). The first group has an age onset of 3-4 and the second one is formed by two young girls with an age onset of 6. The most relevant outcomes of the study are that the age onset is crucial in the emergence of dummy auxiliaries; while dummy verbs appear to be extremely rare in L1 acquisition and in the first group of L2 learners (age onset 3), older learners frequently use this construction as a link to V2 word order. In this case, the dummy auxiliary has the function of creating ''a mould'' (p. 237) for the production of German verbal brackets.

Chapter 8 is quite different from the others in that it contains an experimental study about dummy verbs in monolingual and bilingual children affected by SLI. The aim of the experiment is twofold: on one hand, it is meant to explore the differences in the use of dummy auxiliaries in mono- and bilinguals; on the other hand, it aims to observe differences in SLI speakers compared to speakers typical development (TD). The results show that the presence of SLI is clearly related to a higher frequency of dummy constructions, while the effects of bilingualism appear to be less pervasive. In the authors' view, dummy auxiliary constructions represent a less costly alternative in terms of processing for SLI speakers.

Part III focuses on adult learner varieties, and contains two studies: one on Morocccan learners of Dutch (Verhagen, Ch. 9), and one on Turkish learners of French and German (Schimke, Ch. 10).

Chapter 9 contains two studies. The first one is focused on the uses of the dummy 'is' construction by Moroccan learners of Dutch. It provides evidence that the dummy construction occurs at a stage where learners have not yet acquired the rules for subject-verb agreement and verb raising. The second study focuses on possible uses of 'is' as a marker of aspect. Results show that dummy 'is' is associated by the speakers with the present tense and ongoing actions. Verhagen strongly argues that 'is' is incompatible with the perfective aspect (contra Starren 2001) and that perhaps it could be related to the marking of durative aspect.

In Chapter 10, Schimke analyses the use of dummy verb constructions in the interlanguage of two groups of Turkish learners: one learning German and one learning French. First, the author shows that dummy verb constructions are spotted in both groups, but with an higher frequency in the French group. Secondly, she takes into account a possible relation with the acquisition of verb raising; dummy verbs are characteristic of ''an intermediate stage in the acquisition of verb raising in L2 German'' (p. 328), while no evidence for this correlation is found in the French data. These data are then compared with analogous studies on L2 Dutch. Schimke observes that, despite both being V2 languages, German and Dutch differ in several aspects: the latter is much more similar to French, in that dummy verbs are more frequent and more clearly related with the acquisition of finiteness; however, this construction appears to be associated with the acquisition of verb raising only in German and Dutch, but not in French.

The contributions in Part IV try to find generalisations on dummy auxiliaries, addressing the issue from different perspectives. This phenomenon is investigated by Jordens (Ch. 11) from a semantic-pragmatic point of view, followed by a comparison of learner varieties with monolingual adult varieties (Ch. 12- Cornips) and with Dutch dialects (Ch. 13- Barbiers).

In Chapter 11, Jorden discusses the results of a qualitative study conducted on both L1 and L2 learners of Dutch. First, he distinguishes between 'dummy auxiliary', that is, a verbal element used by speakers ''instead of a regular auxiliary verb form'' (p. 341), and full-fledged auxiliaries, which are ''elements of a functional category system'' (p. 341). In Jorden's view, the study demonstrates that at a first stage in the aquisition of Dutch, dummies are lexical elements which reflect a distinction,in the speakers' system between agentive and non-agentive utterances. Dummies at this stage simply mark the control of an agent on the action and occupy the same structural position of modal verbs. Only at a second stage, which he calls the 'functional stage', verbs such as 'gaat', 'komt', 'doet', etc., become the head of a functional projection, which corresponds with the acquisition of the auxiliary position. Learners may then use auxiliaries in order to avoid verb movement, only in this case, the term 'dummy auxiliary' is correct.

Chapter 12 challenges interpretations of dummy auxiliaries in Dutch as being exclusively related to the acquisition of V2. Cornips compares the production of dummies in various oral corpora, providing evidence that if spoken language is taken into account, adult Dutch constructions such as 'gaan' + INF and 'doen'+INF have a wider range of meanings than what is normally codified in Dutch grammars, especially concerning the expression of tense and aspect. This allows the author to opt for a partially input-based approach. Even though she does not deny the relation of such constructions with the acquisition of V2 position, she suggests that the features characterising the speech of L1 and L2 learners could as well mirror some features of the input language.

In Chapter 13, Barbiers provides an account of dummy auxiliary constructions with 'doen', 'habben', 'zijn', and 'gaan' in Dutch dialects. The author exhaustively reviews dummy constructions in dialects of Standard Dutch and learner varieties, showing that such constructions have a distinct syntactic status in the former. Barbiers then claims that interpretations based on an economy principle, where the dummy construction is seen as a device to reduce the complexity involved in verb movement, are in and of themselves problematic: ''a Principles and Parameters approach would predict a general preference for dummy auxiliaries, while Minimalist approaches would predict a free alternation between dummy auxiliaries and movement constructions'' (p. 413).


This volume is highly valuable in several respects. First, it goes very deep into the exploration of a single phenomenon which is analysable from a wide range of different perspectives. Not only does it contribute to theories of language acquisition, in general, and second language acquisition, in particular, but it also includes other perspectives such as contact linguistics and general linguistics.

All the thirteen studies are easily readable, even by non-specialists of language acquisition, and this is mostly due to the particular care that all of the authors take in forming clear discussions of the frameworks adopted in their studies. Furthermore, in the discussion of experimental studies, the authors are very scrupulous in the description of the aims and methodologies of data elicitation, and also, when needed, they supplement ideas with helpful pictures and summary tables. On the other hand, however, the high specificity of the topic makes this volume mostly usable by students and researchers at all levels who have done previous work on language acquisition, or who are at least acquainted with the aims and methodologies of the discipline. Potential readers are also those researchers who work on the morphosyntax of auxiliaries outside of the perspective of acquisition.

Perhaps, since many of the authors hold a personal, preferential view on dummy auxiliaries, and the notion itself is discussed rather than taken for granted, it could have been worth adding a final chapter at the end of the book in which the outcomes of the thirteen studies are compared and discussed. This would have been quite helpful to the reader, in order to provide a new and up-to-date ''status quaestionis'' on several interesting aspects such as the notion of economy and the role played by input.


Kearns, Kate. 1988. ''Light verbs in English''. Ms. MIT.

Rothweiler, Monika. 2006. ''The acquisition of V2 and subordinate clauses in early successive acquisition of German''. In: Conxita Lleó (ed.) ''Interfaces in multilingualism: Acquisition, representation and processing''. Amstedam, Benjamins: 91-113.

Starren, Marianne 2001. The second time: the acquisition of temporality in Dutch and French as a second language. Ph.D. dissertation, Tilburg University.

Szagun, Gisela. 2006. ''Sprachentwicklung beim Kind'' [Child language development]. Weinheim, Beltz.

Zuckerman, Shalom 2001. The acquisition of ''optional'' movement. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Groningen.
Eugenio Goria is a PhD student at Pavia University, Italy. His main interest is contact linguistics, and at present he is working on English-Spanish codeswitching in Gibraltar. Among his other interests are Latin linguistics and information structure.