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Discussion Details

Title: Delayed emergence of a grammatical form
Submitter: Dom Watt
Description: 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?
Date Posted: 05-Jan-2010
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Language Acquisition
LL Issue: 21.24
Posted: 05-Jan-2010

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